Two summers after a visit to Burgundy, the Cincinnati Mondiale made another sojourn to wine country where Pinot Noir predominates. The Willamette Valley is considered by many to be the prime location in the USA and Chevalier Bill James made plans for an experience to see majestic landscapes, dine at exceptional restaurants, and meet winemakers who helped shape the local industry and culture.
After a stop at the notorious Oregon Wines On Broadway to sample flights of Pinot Noir, 25 confrères gathered together in Portland’s Heathman Restaurant for a welcome dinner. Selections included duck confit, petite filet, and grilled salmon, accompanied by flutes of José Michel & Fils Champagne and the highly rated “Les Dijonnais” from Brick House Vineyards. Touring the next morning took us to the placid International Rose Test Gardens, followed by a drive along the Historic Columbia River Highway with stops at several waterfalls. Our first winery stop in the shadow of Mt. Hood was at Wy’East Vineyards where we discovered that owner Christie Reed was originally from the Cincinnati area. Our dinner that night at Southpark Seafood Grill had a surprise visit from Portland Bailli Richard Ransome and his wife Mary.
Wine country beckoned on our next day’s journey to some of the best wineries in the state. We began at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, where its recently built hilltop winery showed unembellished class and finish while an elegant colorful garden fronted vistas of vineyards flowing down hillsides. Lynn Penner-Ash was typically busy sampling and blending in the lab, so staffer Kate Monroe led us through a tasting of six wines. Lunch at Dundee Bistro gave opportunity to sample some Domaine Drouhin “Arthur” Chardonnay with our meals, followed by a stroll across 99W to Argyle Winery where we sampled still and sparkling wines in the “Spirithouse” parlor. Then we arrived at our new home for the week, the Allison Inn and Spa. Mondiale members will be very happy when the 2011 National Meeting is based here! This resort is only a year old and has ample luxurious rooms, a pool and spa facility, excellent service, and fine dining options. But this night our dinner was back in Dundee at Tina’s, where they prepared special dishes for us and served many Oregon bottlings, finishing with a taste of the singular Clear Creek Douglas Fir Eau de Vie. As Tina Bergen greeted us we found she was another Cincinnati transplant who has made home and career in Oregon!
After an opulent breakfast with fresh, local ingredients, we departed from the Allison to spend the morning in Carlton with Ken Wright. After helping establish Talbott Vineyards in the Monterey foothills, Ken came to McMinnville and started Panther Creek Cellars before going solo with his eponymous winery in 1994. He was instrumental in organizing the six new American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) in the Northern Willamette Valley and is known for single vineyard bottlings. Ken and his wife Karen have been active in downtown improvements as well, from selecting the trees and vintage street lamps lining Main Street to purchasing and restoring historic buildings in keeping with the town’s rich, agricultural heritage.
Ken joined us on the bus to visit McCrone and adjacent Wall Vineyards. Here we got a lesson of the geologic structure of the area and its significance for vine health and fruit quality. This segued into biological dirt composition and its role in the process. He also spoke of the history of agriculture and families in the Willamette Valley along with wine politics. A phone call arranged an impromptu lunch from the Filling Station Deli served under the veranda of the restored 1921 Carlton Train Depot, now the tasting room for his Tyrus-Evans wines. Back at the winery, decorated with antique hand carved doors from India and original wax paintings for his new wine labels, we savored several Pinot Noir bottlings before our lunch. The cool cellar provided nice respite while Ken and Karen’s two young adopted Vietnamese daughters made an appearance and immediately found favor with all the ladies.
Our time with Ken Wright would be hard to top, but a visit to Bergström Wines in the Chehalem Mountains area proved worthy. The winery was fairly new and located at their de Lancellotti Vineyard rather than the original Dundee Hills estate location. Dinner this evening was a catered event on the grounds of Stoller Vineyards where we arrived in time for an overwhelmingly beautiful sunset. An elegant meal from Red Hills Provincial Dining with Stoller wines culminated with bottles of Cathy’s Reserve Pinot Noir, and Bill Stoller met us at evening’s end to say hello and make a few comments. A cognac by the fire pit at the Allison Inn gave a nice finale to the night.
Wednesday gave a break for some to tour the Pacific coast while others enjoyed a relaxing session at the Allison Spa. This night’s dinner was at the Inn’s restaurant, Jory. Vice Chancelier-Argentier George Elliott reserved the Chef’s Table for the officers and pairs of wines purchased on our visits accompanied a series of special courses created by Chef de Cuisine Sunny Jin, finally ending with a 5 Puttanyos Tokaji with our dessert course. Dinner was hedonistic, over the top, and a lot of fun.
Our next lesson in Oregon viticulture came from Mark Vlossak at the recently built St. Innocent Winery now located at Zenith Vineyards in the Eola Hills. The grand tour started with some Pinot Blanc in the tasting room before we went into the vineyards. Mark went into great detail explaining vine management, along with his history and the vineyards he uses. It is no coincidence that he was the winemaker for Panther Creek Cellars after Ken Wright left! Touring the winery showed that everything was laid out for efficiency, mobility, flexibility, and space utilization. A three course luncheon with seven wines brought a pleasurable conclusion to our time with Mark and his wife. Our other stop of the day took us north to Ribbon Ridge and the hallowed property of Beaux Frères. This winery is famous as winemaker Michael Etzel’s brother-in-law and partner is the renowned Robert Parker, Jr. Very rustic surroundings dominate here and we came across an old fire truck in the vineyard for hand irrigation before trying their much sought after wines.
Dinner that night was a private event at The Painted Lady in Newberg, one of the top restaurants in all of Oregon. The beautifully preserved Victorian house provided a setting for an outstanding meal with courses of Dungeness crab, wild salmon, and stuffed quail. Anderson Family Vineyards wines were featured with owners Cliff and Allison Anderson in attendance. The food and service were all brilliant and we once again were inundated with a culinary tsunami, literally an overdose of gustatory pleasures!
Our last day of touring would run the gamut on production methods and approaches to winemaking. We started with a trip up into the Dundee Hills above Sokol-Blosser, past Domaine Serene and White Rose, and finally arriving at the southeast facing slopes of Domaine Drouhin. This famous Burgundian dynasty created one of the largest estates in the Willamette Valley at 225 acres in 1987 and meticulously tended vines stretch far and wide around the multi-million dollar winery containing all the equipment needed to be fully self functional. They concentrate exclusively on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as is done in France. We sampled these along with a Rosé done saignée and then headed to the edge of the vineyard and the fabulous view. A trimmer hedged vines down the hill while our guide pointed out the close spaced vines that are four to five times the average acreage density, similar to techniques used in Burgundy.
During our lunch time in McMinnville a few aviation buffs made a side trip to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, home to many historic military and civilian planes and most famously the gigantic Hughes H-4 “Spruce Goose” Flying Boat. We regathered at the tasting room of R. Stuart & Co. where Rob Stuart hosted us. We had a Pinot Gris while he gave us some history of his experience as a winemaker at Panther Creek Cellars until having partners to establish the label. He took over an old granary by the railroad tracks, brought in equipment, and uses purchased grapes to make wine. He does some small production of vineyard designate bottlings but mostly has made reasonably priced “everyday” wine blended from sources to make a balanced wine, continuing now for about ten years. We walked to the winery and tried 2009 vintages from barrel, followed by a return to the tasting room for 2007 vintages of the same wines and a sparkling rosé available only locally.
Our final visit was at a producer at the opposite end of the spectrum from Drouhin. In the Chehalem Mountains is the tiny Laura Volkman Vineyards, comprised of rectangular plot with a house and pole barn centered between front and back yards completely planted in grapevines. Laura and her husband Jim do all the work with their two kids and an ever present winery dog. Wines are made at a nearby cooperative facility and cellared on the property. Thankfully, size had no factor on the quality of their Pinot Noirs! That night our final dinner was at the Joel Palmer House. This Dayton landmark was the historic home of an Oregon pioneer and statesman, later converted into a restaurant. The Chaîne has great favor here and some older vintages were pulled from the cellar to be included as we went through Chef Christopher Czarnecki’s “Mushroom Madness Menu” that has rightfully gained a cult status. The hedonistic pleasure and sensory overload of all the courses brought a climactic finale to a tour de force of Oregon wine country. A memorable adventure was completed with anticipation of new ones ahead!
J.T. Mayer, Chargé de Presse Provincial Midwest