I just returned from a week in Oregon’s Willamette Valley visiting many wineries and tasting the 2011 and 2012 pinot noirs. I timed my visit perfectly as it was sunny and warm all week, a freakish weather event in a region that is usually under a rain cloud this time of year.
The Willamette Valley wine country is truly a retro experience, with many wineries eager to receive you—though they may be tricky to find—and wines of uncommon excellence by people who are friendly, dedicated, and unpretentious. Beards, plaid shirts, and worn denims are de rigueur here, and the roads to the wineries are often paved with dirt or gravel and sparsely populated with muddy, jacked-up pickup trucks. It’s about as far from Orange County as Afghanistan is from Paris.
Oregon vintners are not into pinot for the money, as producing high-end pinot noir is not a particularly financially rewarding proposition. Yields are low, production is labor-intensive, and with well over 350 wineries, competition is fierce. Yet the Oregon vintners persevere, driven by a passion that only a pinotphile can appreciate.
If you’re looking for the glorious Napa chateau winery experience, you really have only four choices here: Domaine Serene, Sokol-Blosser, Domaine Drouhin, and Willamette Valley Vineyards. Most other wineries are in secluded mountainous sites reachable only by winding, rutted roads that challenge your GPS, and tastings that may be in the owner’s kitchen or on his back porch. Some require appointments, yet, the reception is warm and welcoming, and the wines glorious and genuine, offering those who spend the effort seeking them out an exceptional experience.
Why visit the Willamette Valley and seek out the local pinot noir? The wines are the closest thing to Burgundy in North America, offering low to modest alcohol, juicy fruit flavors, elegance, and vivid acidity. This is not surprising because the Willamette Valley is situated at the same longitude as Burgundy, and the growing season has many similarities.
A two-hour flight to Portland from Orange County on Alaska Airlines and a 45-minute drive will put you right smack in the Willamette Valley and close to hundreds of world-class pinot noir producers. The sunniest months are July, August, and September, but often the month of October and mid-to-late spring can be lovely and lacking in tourists. The Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg is centrally located in wine country and offers all the comforts of a world-class hotel. Also scattered throughout the valley are B&Bs that offer warm hospitality, particularly Le Puy A Wine Valley Inn, also in Newberg.
If you get the urge to visit, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll assist you in arranging private and attentive visits to the best wineries. I can also share lodging and dining options. Just remember, it’s pronounced Willamette, as in dammit!