I would be visiting a number of wineries for this visit. Some were planned appointments, many would be casual spontaneous visits to the open tasting rooms.
I had reached out to Brian O’Donnell at Belle Pente because we carried his pinot noir on our shelves while I worked at the Boulder Wine Merchant. He asked me how dirty I wanted my hands to get, I said very dirty, so he invited me to spend the day working the harvest. As a student of wine this would be my very first experience at the production stage. The amount of sheer labor involved was awakening. I knew what to expect, and I know how wine is made, but didn’t realize how lost I’d feel in the actual process. There were vats of different wines in various stages. Working the sorting line, there are bees and insects everywhere. And I mean everywhere – in the evening I had mysterious insects crawling out of my sleeves and pant legs, having found a home on my person unbeknownst to me.
Brian was very kind and welcoming, as was the whole staff. Their wines were bright and lovely. They invited me to stay for dinner with the group, but unfortunately I had a previous commitment and could not stay. Thank you Brian for your hospitality!
Even for a boutique wine store such as where I worked, I had noticed that few people have already caught on to the power of Oregon pinot noir. Certainly at any warehouse size liquor/wine store, few people seem to scope out Oregon. In recent years however, the Oregon wine industry has really started to bloom and gain momentum.
A fundamental comparison exists in the wine world between the pinots of Oregon and those of Burgundy, France. While this presents an interesting and stimulating cause for exploration, discovery and popularity of the Oregon wine industry, California still remains the most popular New World pinot noir. And another comparison can come between the pinots of California and those of Oregon.
So why is Oregon often compared to Burgundy? For a variety of reasons, and for different reasons to different people. In a sense, all new world pinots are a tribute to Burgundy and it’s centuries old traditions of winemaking. The first fact to notice is that Oregon and Burgundy France lie around the same 45° latitude. This implies a similar “cool climate” profile, and similar growing conditions for the fruit. This is not so effective a comparison however, as there can be many microclimates that have a more direct impact on the fruit from vineyard to vineyard.
Generally though, Oregon pinots present a complexity in style and minerality (hints of chalk, slate, or wet stone) that compares favorably with Burgundy. An Oregon pinot will still have an obviously brighter fruit structure than a Burgundy, yet the balance of fruit to acid, and a layer of minerality and uniqueness of place is what is compared to Burgundy.
And what are the differences between California and Oregon pinot? Again – it’s that structure and balance that sets Oregon apart from California. You may notice California pinots to be very fruity – and they are, but without any added complexity that we look for. Look for the fruit and acid balance.
But hey, this isn’t a pinot lesson, so let’s move on.
The wineries I visited all offered very elegant, high quality pinots that would certainly delight your senses. In addition to my tasting appointments, I also visited Sokol Blosser, Chehalem Wines, Bergstrom Vineyards, Beaux Freres, Anne Amie Vineyards, Bethel Heights, Domain Drouhin, Rex Hill, and Cristom Vineyards.
All these places have tasting room hours until about 5 pm. Beware however for the tasting fees – wine tourism is a true industry here, whereas in Europe it is less common. You’ll fork out $15-20 per flight at these places, which in my opinion is a bit high, though it’s sensible business for the winery.
My friend Julie was working at North Valley Vineyards at the time, and she joined me on some of my visits (that’s her on the left). We had such a delightful time driving around the countryside, tasting wines, taking in the sun. It’s an inside joke of the area about just how cushy it is to work at a winery in Oregon. Overall it’s a very pleasant way to spend your time.
What I started to notice between the different wines was the unique profile you would consistently find between the various sub-regions of the Willamette Valley. First you have Willamette Valley, meaning the grapes can come from any combination of plots around the whole valley. But then you have Dundee Hills, Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton, Chehalem Mountains, Eola-Amity Hills, and McMinnville.
The most interesting distinction I could find was as consistency in the wines of Dundee Hills, a subregion south of Ribbon Ridge and southeast of Hamill-Carlton (if you have any idea where they are). Regardless of producer, I found the wines of Dundee Hills to have high fruit notes that stood out, a stronger sense of aromatics on the nose, a fuller, plush mouthfeel. There was a richness in the profile that was not simply fruity, it was fruity yet with depth and wonder. Some pinots are more earthy and restrained, with a less powerful aromatic profile. Dundee Hills jumped out at me. For everywhere else, who the hell knows. Most of the wines I tried were excellent.
I had an exceptional visit to Rex Hill on my last day. Carrie Kalscheuer met me in the tasting room and gave me a very thorough and exciting tour of the facilities. Thank you Carrie for such a gracious experience!
I then visited the Portland area for a couple days. Portland is a great city – I would considering living here for sure. A hip and sophisticated metropolis with an amazing food and wine scene, vibrant arts culture, all nestled in a pristine forest and mountain landscape, what more could you want?
A bit more of the Portland fun:
My route back to Colorado started along the very scenic Columbia River Gorge. What a great way to end the trip. Head to Oregon everybody!