Wine Dine and Play: A Taste Of Willamette Damn It

A Taste Of Willamette Damn It

Willamette County, Oregon, USA
Wine Style: Burgundy Styles
Average Price: $ - $$$
Average Rating:  89 - 96 points
By Sean Overpeck (CFE)
**A full article and index glossary of restaurants, wines, recipes and travel for 
Wine Dine and Play are in the pages section above, or by following these links:

The first mistake I made when learning about wines was how to correctly say the name Willamette. I would pronounce it “Wilamit” as did others. Then our Sommelier instructor would say no, it's “Wil-am-it” Damn it. Some of the most famous Pinot's and Chardonnay's around the world are considered from Old World Bourgogne with names like Domaine William Fevre, or Clos de Vougeot, and the most expensive in the world, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. However, take a look at a world map on paper - not a computer. Then using a ruler from Burgundy, draw a straight line west and when you reach the West coast of the USA you will run smack dab into Willamette Damn it. Though different from Bourgogne, I believe Oregon wines are just as good, if not better than the Old World styles.

In 2016, Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Willamette Valley the wine region of the year, and for good reason. The Willamette Valley is a 150-mile (240 km) long valley in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It contains 74% of all Oregon vineyards and 88% of its Pinot Noir encompassing 5,200 square miles.  The Willamette River flows the entire length of the valley, and it is surrounded by mountains on three separate sides; the Cascade Range to the East, the Oregon Coast Range to the West, and the Calapooya Mountains to the South. It is home to approximately 70 percent of Oregon's population including its three largest cities: Portland, Eugene, and Salem, the state capital.
Picture courtesy of Willamette Wines
The valley was widely publicized in the 1820s as a 'promised land of flowing milk and honey'. Throughout the 19th century, it was the destination of choice for the oxen-drawn wagon trains of emigrants who made the perilous journey along the Oregon Trail. Today the valley is often considered synonymous with "Oregon Wine Country," as it contains more than 19,000 acres (7,700 ha) of vineyards and 500+ wineries.

I first took an interest in Willamette wines when I worked at a restaurant in Atlanta back in 2005. There were several wines from Oregon on the list, and with any good restaurant, they allow the employees to taste the wines and learn about them through classes. Witness Tree and Erath Vineyards were my first introductions to Oregon Pinot, and later I was introduced to Chehalem and Bergström Wines. That same year the owners of Brandborg Vineyard and Winery came through and as part of a dinner, with their wine was used for each course, and it was fantastic. 

A decade later I met my wife, who at that time was still my girlfriend in Portland, and we did a two-day tour of the Willamette Valley and six vineyard tastings, a hard choice considering the valley has more than 500 wineries. But before I talk about our adventure, here is a little history of Willamette wine courtesy of the Willamette Valley Wines webpage, which is an excellent resource to learn about the region.

1965 - David Lett plants Pinot noir and related cool-climate varieties in the Willamette Valley.
Picture courtesy of Willamette Wines
1977 - Oregon’s strict wine labeling regulations, proposed by the industry, are adopted by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. They continue to be the strictest wine labeling standards in the United States.

Picture courtesy of Willamette Wines
1980 - A Robert Drouhin-sponsored French blind tasting reconfirms the high rating of The Eyrie Vineyards from a year earlier. International coverage brought widespread attention to Oregon Pinot noir. That same year, the volcanic eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s brings world focus to the region.

Picture courtesy of Willamette Wines
Picture courtesy of National Geographic

1983 - The Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area is approved.

1984 - Rachel Starr (founder of the Portland wine shop, Great Wine Buys) sends samples of Oregon wine to Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate. He toured, tasted, and discovered Oregon wine. Also, “Dijon clones” of Pinot and Chardonnay arrive at Oregon State University from an international collaboration.

1985 - Willamette Valley Pinot noir outshines French at the “Burgundy Challenge” at the International Wine Center in New York.

2004 - The release of the film Sideways sparks widespread interest in Pinot Noir. On a side note, massively increasing its price, but on a good note lowering the cost of merlot.

2005 - The first four sub-Willamette Valley American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are approved, and two more one year later.

2013 - Burgundy producer Maison Louis Jadot purchases the Resonance Vineyard in the Willamette Valley, marking only the second time a French negotiant has purchased land in Oregon (Maison Joseph Drouhin was first, in 1987).

The drive from Portland into the actual wine country was less than an hour south on the I-5 then cutting over to State Road 99 which takes you straight to the city of Newberg in Yamhill County. This entire area was also the backdrop for the Kevin Coster Movie The Postman in 1997. The city borders two AVA’s in Willamette, the Chehalem Mountains AVA and the Dundee Hills AVA, where most of our tastings would be as we traveled down State Road 99. There are five main wine regions in Oregon with Willamette being the biggest. The other four are the Columbia Valley, Snake River Valley near the border of Idaho, Umpqua Valley and the Southern Oregon region which Rogue Valley is the main wine producing area. There are a total of 16 specific wine-growing regions or AVAs in Oregon with Willamette having six of them, (Eola-Amity, McMinnville, Yamhill-Carlton District, Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills and Chehalem Mountains).

Our first stop in Dundee was in the tasting room of the Dobbes Family Estate which included five varietals from a white, a Rosé of Pinot Noir, two estate Pinot Noir, and a Syrah. They produce roughly 7000 cases of pinot and Syrah each year and sell it all over the world. The property was beautiful. I had first tried Dobbes wines when I lived in Atlanta and like the others mentioned above were just wonderful. I believe that the enjoyment of the pinot in Willamette in the early 2000s opened my palate for wines in Bourgogne. The pinot in California was okay, but nothing compared to Oregon and France. You can read the full article on Dobbes by clicking on their link above.

The second stop as we made our way through Newberg was the Argyle Winery which was probably the most unique wine visit of the trip from the tastings to the actual tasting room. Their focus is on the bubbly and since 1987, Argyle has produced world-class "methode champenoise" sparkling wine, barrel fermented Chardonnay and 'silky' textured Pinot Noir from low yielding vines on winery farmed hillside slopes. Their tasting room when we visited in 2015 had just opened. It was very bright from the windows to the light paint on the inside. Hanging from the ceiling they had a piece of artwork representing a champagne bottle cork being opened. We tasted three wines from their range before moving on. 

We were hungry and Argyle associates recommended a little place called Red Hills Market across the street, where we grabbed a few sandwiches and spent nearly a half an hour looking at all of their local products. I recommend you visit this spot as well, considering you don’t see many places like this anymore.

Stop number three was a namesake that is recognized most in the USA when advertising Oregon wines and that is Erath Vineyards just south and to the west of Newburg in the town of Dundee. They produce over 150,000 cases of wine each year. We tasted five wines from this estate including the Pinot Blanc, two Pinot Gris, a regular Pinot Noir, and their estate Pinot. This estate and namesake after Dick Erath are known as one of the original pioneers in Oregon Pinot.

Making our way back to State Road 99, moving south we stopped in for a tasting at our last vineyard of the day before making our way to McMinnville, and this tasting was at Archery Summit Winery, in the town of Dayton. Archery Summit is very unique as, like its counterparts in the Bourgogne, the property has natural caves like the Grottes de Bèze, in the Côte d’Or twenty miles from the city of Dijon. The property is situated high up on a hill with curvy roads and beautifully planted trees and vineyards sloping all around, with the caves beneath. We tasted five of their wines, one of which was a Rosé of Pinot, plus four other separate ridge pinots. 

Calling it quits for the day we continued our drive down to the city of McMinnville, called the city at the heart of Oregon Wine Country. A small and historic city from 1882 with main-street art boutiques, mom and pops, and great country feel. You can also attend the annual UFO Festival each May, or visit the small-batch breweries. We stayed the night at the Hotel Oregon part of the McMenamin’s group of local hotels in the area. The room was small, but as the hotel was extremely old, they did not have any individual bathrooms in the rooms. You had to share a communal bathroom and shower with everyone else on that floor. For the price we paid, I was not too impressed. I expected it living in a tent on a FOB in Afghanistan but not a $200+ per night hotel. 

The following morning my wife and I spent time downtown visiting the shops and having breakfast. We had to be back in Portland by the mid-afternoon so that only left room for two more wineries on our tour of Willamette. Our first stop of the day was to Penner-Ash Wine Cellars back up in Newberg but on the far west side taking State Road 47 instead of 99. This vineyard uses modern science and conservation with sustainable and organic farming and gravity flow or gravity feed which is natural versus using machinery.  The main grape like the rest of Willamette is either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, but Penner-Ash also produces Syrah, Viognier, Riesling, and Rosé. They produce 7,000 cases of pinot every year and roughly a thousand cases or under for each of the other grape varietals. For our tasting, we had five separate Pinots, their Viognier, and the Oregon Roséo. Their price range starts at $25 per bottle up to their prime Pas de Nom vineyard pinot which sells for over $100 per bottle. This was my highest rated winery of the entire trip, so I’m glad my wife picked this for us to visit.

The final stop before heading back to Portland was a vineyard from a wine I had a small taste of while working at the Aquaknox Restaurant in Buckhead, Atlanta in 2008.  They were right down the road from Penner-Ash, called Bergström Wines. The one wine I remember clearly from them was the De Lancellotti pinot now renamed to Silice, and it was one of the five wines that we tasted. Three were pinot and the other two were Chardonnay, and the way the vineyard was set up with stones and deep gravel, the taste honestly reminded me of Chablis wines like Domaine William Fevre

I look forward to returning with my wife and spending even more time in the Willamette staying at the world-renowned Allison Spa and Inn also on the outskirts of Newberg and visiting many more vineyards, some of which I’ve tasted, and others. With over 500 we can make several trips, not to mention the other wine regions, and their neighbor to the North in Washington State. 

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