Willamette Wandering

It takes a while to reach the Willamette Valley in Oregon, but you’ll know it the moment you arrive. Out the interstate south of Portland, past King City and Sherwood, the strip malls and discount stores fall away and the fields open up to either side. Somewhere around Newberg – as the light grows golden and the air takes on a pleasantly farmy, smoky aroma – you feel yourself leaving the rest of the world and entering a rather special new one, where almost everything and everybody seems devoted to the pleasant, elemental rhythms of winemaking.

Protected by the Coast mountains to the west and the Cascades to the east, the Willamette Valley is a perfect vintner’s blend of cool nights and warm days. And most wine drinkers know that the pinot noirs from this area – first grown seriously by a handful of winemakers in the early 1980s – are now being turned into world class expressions of the heartbreak grape.
What’s less apparent about this rolling green fold in the Oregonian landscape, running from Portland about 100 miles south to Eugene, is just how necessary it is to come here to appreciate the most important ingredient in a Willamette Valley wine. Because while the bottles can be exported and sipped in any location, you really have to be here to experience the Willamette terroir.
It’s one of those high-foodie concepts people define in different ways. But in the Williamette Valley it’s a most approachable idea. That’s because terroir here is a product of the soil and the fruit, certainly, but also the characters and stories that live behind every vine and every bottle.
People in these parts love to talk about wine. There are over 200 wineries in the area, according to the map I pick up from the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. All of these are scattered in the hills and along the ridgelines of the six distinct “American Viticultural Areas” or AVAs that make up the region, from the green sloped Chehalem Mountains  at the north end of the valley nearest Portland, south past the red-volcanic soil of the Dundee Hills to the southernmost AVA of Eola-Amity just outside Salem.
But don’t over plan. You might as well just get in the car and start driving because not only will there be a winery around every corner in every one of those you’ll meet someone keen to talk up favorites. That’s how I end up with a recommendation to visit JK Carriere Winery within hours of arriving for dinner at Jory Restaurant in the Allison Inn, complete with Google map directions to the hill-top tasting room on Parrett Mountain.
But it’s the same way I pick up a dozen other recommendations along the way. A tip at Adelsheim Wineries – where I sip (and spit) the delicious pear and apricot hinted Caitlin’s Reserve Chardonnay – to try the Riesling over at Bergstrom Wineries. Another lead at Bergstrom to check out an interesting single vineyard pinot noir made at Penner-Ash. And after tasting that one – elegant black cherry flavors with a hint of Asian spice, made from the Dussin vineyard right outside the winery’s front door – I emerge into the sunshine to find a note tucked under my windshield wiper by someone who’d overheard my conversation with the winemakers inside.
“While doing your research,” the note urges with friendly insistence. “Do not miss a visit to Beaux Freres Winery.”
Slipped into place by someone from the Beaux Freres Winery, perhaps? Lynn Penner-Ash chuckles when I show her the note later. She says: “That certainly sounds like Kurt.” Referring to the Director of Sales and Marketing Kurt Johnson at Beaux Freres, one of the owners of which is the influential Wine Advocate publisher and the 500-pound gorilla of the wine world, Robert Parker Jr. But whether it was him or another winemaker, the moment speaks volumes about the collegial willingness of locals to share with visitors what they love about the area.
“We’re probably not as competitive amongst ourselves as they are in Napa,” Thomas Houseman, the winemaker at Anne Amie winemakers tells me. Although, displaying a typical easy-going humor, he also  squints across the valley at this point and deadpans: “I mean except for those guys over there, of course. You don’t want to be going to the Dundee Hills.”
That cooperative spirit might have to do with relative size and fame. The mansion vineyards of Napa would mostly look out of place here. The Beaux Frere tasting room is very spare and shares space with some extra barrels. Bergstrom likewise, where you sample the wines in a room just off the main winery, with pleasant views out over the vineyards. Anne Amie itself is in a hilltop house that, with a bit of reverse remodeling, might be a middle class home. And when Houseman and I walk the fields – a glass of their pinot noir rose to sip as we go – he’s almost as interested in talking about the composting system and the vegetable gardens as he is about the vines. I nod as we look out over a vineyard of 30 year old Muller Thurgau vines, which many a winemaker would have replanted long ago with pinot noir given the profitability of that grape and the prime south slope acres involved here, but which Houseman left in place because he knew they could make something good with those old vines. And he did, too. Cuvee A, a fantastic crisp dry white, alive with green apple and white blossom. One of the real surprises of the trip. An expression of the Willamette terroir in flavor and attitude if there ever was one.
“We’re out here in the vineyards all the freaking time,” says Rebekah Bellingham, the young Beaux Freres tour and tasting guide, as we stand in the dirt furrows of the upper terrace sifting Willakenzie sedimentary soil through our fingers and discussing the ripe red fruit character associated with it.
Although, that naturalism noted, we can’t overlook the final critical element of terroir in Willamette. The people involved. It’s their willingness to let the land express itself that has made these wines what they are. And they do so because being first generation and so early on the enthusiasm curve, nobody makes wine in the Willamette Valley because they have to or because it’s part of a master investment strategy.  People get involved because they love the work.
Years back Houseman was a modern dancer. He got tired of living in an apartment the size of a “small box” in Manhattan. Scott Paul Wright of Scott Paul Wineries was a famous disc jockey, called Shadow Stevens, and later a senior executive at Epic Records. He left because of the stress. Lindsay Woodard, whose award winning Retour is made at the cooperative facilities of the Carlton Winemakers Studio, had a background in brand development before she came home – having been raised in McMinnville, minutes from Carlton – to make pinot noir.
It’s a familiar type of story by the time I finally reach to top of Parrett Mountain on my last day in the valley and visit JK Carriere, recommended to me within a few hours of arriving in the area. JK Carriere is the brainchild of Jim Prosser, who’d worked for Xerox and the Peace Corps, sold Christmas trees and travelled the world before coming home – having been raised in Bend, in the Cascades – to make wines that will, in his own words: “astonish you, spark you, and give you every reason to share that experience with someone else.”
When Prosser says this, of course, he’s standing in his vineyard in rubber boots, holding a pitchfork.
I drive down Parrett Mountain with a bottle to take home. The first wine I tried, as luck would have it, also ended up being one of my favorites. And when I sip it at home – sometime in the next ten years, when the occasion seems right – I’ll taste it remembering the golden light, the smoky smell in the air, the personalities and the enthusiasm. The terroir of Willamette Valley.
To stay:
The choicest accommodation, in the heart of the valley. Tranquil setting among vineyards and filbert orchards and a 15,000-square-foot spa. The restaurant Jory is named for one of the Willamette Valley soil types and has a dynamite wine list and sommelier.
To visit:
(A slightly arbitrary list of my personal highlights. Everyone should really follow their own path and the suggestions they get. It lends to the enjoyment.)
Beautiful, large tasting room overlooking the Chehelam Mountain vineyards. Excellent chardonnay as well as reserve and single vineyard pinot noirs from vines in Boulder Bluff and Ribbon Springs.
The Riesling really is excellent. But there is a range of good pinots as well.
A nice rose, Riesling and vigonier, as well as a single orchard pinot noir from a vineyard just outside the tasting room, the Dussin Vineyard.
Eight excellent and sought after small scale winemakers share winemaking facilities in Carlton. Andrew Rich, Hammacher Wines, and Retour are notable examples. Very small batch sizes and meticulous care in harvesting and processing make these wine elegant and expressive.
Around the corner from Carlton Winemakers Studio, Scott Paul is both a maker of several pinot noirs, and an importer of often-good-value wines from the Rhone. His own wines tend to the elegant and silky end of the pinot spectrum, away from the intensity and jamminess, for example, of some pinots from California.
A fun place to spend an hour. Make sure to talk to winemaker Thomas Houseman if he’s around, and try the Muller Thurgau, which is excellent.
A small 20 acre all-estate winery with a fast rising following, Lenne is perched on top of a hill in Yamhill-Carlton. The soil is rocky and the wines are full of black fruit and rich textures. Lenne is the favorite wine of the wife of the President of Spain, apparently.
High end wines with a big reputation. Beaux Freres’ tasting room is only open on Fridays and by appointment, so call ahead. The Upper Terrace pinot is earthy, spicy and foresty.
Beautiful vineyard on the top of Parrett Mountain, just a few minutes drive northwest of Newberg. JK Carriere, named for Jim Prosser’s two grandfathers, makes wine from various Willamette vineyards and soon from its own Parrett Hill vineyard. The Gemini vineyard pinot noir is dark cherry, with brown spices and nuts, and a bit of sweet barnyard thrown in. Delicious.
To eat:
Go for “Whole Hog Wednesday”, when pork shoulders are on special. Slow cooked to a recipe Chef Jason Stoller Smith developed after an intense 10 day tour of Texas barbecue joints, it is served on toast with mustard sauce and sauerkraut, applewood bacon and onions. All you can eat.
Refined dining in a refined refurbished old house in Newberg, the tasting menu is inventive and light. Dishes reflect the region from Viridian farm asparagus salad with quail eggs and truffles, to the slow roasted Steelehead with Beet Chutney and Pinot Noir Gastrique.
Posted: Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 9:46am