I’m spending the beginning of this week touring around Oregon’s Willamette
valley, specifically Yamhill country near McMinnville and Newberg. This area
specializes in Pinot Noir which is a grape that I’ve continued to have a hard
time “getting”. I’ve had some very good Burgundy wines but whenever I find one
that I like they always wind up costing more than $300/bottle. In any case I
thought it would be a great idea to check out the region in a bit more depth to
see if I can appreciate the wines a bit more plus I have heard that the area is
beautiful and not over-developed and over-crowded like Napa.
We flew in to the McMinnville airport and our first stop was across the
street at the Evergreen Aviation Museum, home of the “Spruce Goose”, Howard
Hughes’s famous airplane. The thing is just incredibly huge- basically bigger
than a 747 or 777, yet almost entirely made out of wood. The museum also has a
great collection of other airplanes including a Beech Constellation (first
production composite aircraft, a Burt Rutan design), a Titan II rocket, and
plenty of other stuff to put it into the world-class catagory along with the
Boeing Air Museum in Seattle and the Air & Space Smithsonian Museum in
From there it was pretty easy to hit a few wineries. There are tons of them
all around and they are pretty close together, but we did discover one issue
with visiting the area. Most of the area’s wineries and restaurants are closed
on Mondays and many on Tuesdays. For future trips I’d recommend going Wednesday
to Friday for easier availability of visits.
We stopped by Archery Summit where we tasted several wines. This was a pretty
good way to get started since I was familiar with them from their past
association with Pine Ridge in Napa (although that association appears to be no
more- the woman in the tasting room seemed slightly offended when I mentioned
Pine Ridge.) The setting was very nice, and the wines were pretty good, although
their most expensive one didn’t really impress me that much and the price tag
for the one I like best was pretty high. One interesting angle was the hard-sell
on their wine club. Basically they made a big point that their wine club is
almost full and at that point they aren’t going to bother selling any wine at
retail since the club will buy up the whole allocation.
From there we cruised around, found lots of places that were not open on
Monday and ended up at the Ponzi wine bar in downtown Dundee. This was a nice
place to sit down, have a snack and taste some wines from Ponzi and some of
their friends. We checked in to the hotel, rested a bit and had some nice
Spanish food at Las Ramblas on the main street of McMinnville.
On Tuesday we got up and made some calls for some appointments at some other
wineries. We started out at Sineann which was a great experience. The place is
tiny, sharing space with Medici and Russell Hodgkins, the assistant winemaker
started off pouring us tastes of 11 of their released wines, including three
Gewrztraminers, a bunch of Pinot Noirs and a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon.
Of the Pinot Noirs, I actually enjoyed their basic “Oregon” best- it had a rich
full nose with vanilla, tobacco, and a little touch of root-beer. The mouth-feel
was medium, but with really great balanced fruit. They make a bunch of single
vineyard Pinot Noirs, but to me, none were better than the blended one.
After tasting the release wines Russell took us to barrel taste. We probably
had another dozen or more tastes and these were a fascinating chance to compare
the different vineyards and even different blocks within the same vineyards.
Often it was amazing how distinct it could be even within the same vineyard.
Barrel tasting is difficult since I still have a very hard time translating to
what the finished wine will be, but opportunities like this are the sort of
thing that you need to experience to build that skill so I really appreciated
As we barrel tasted Russel mentioned that they make some Zinfandels. We had
been joking earlier about the concept of Oregon Zin, but I really enjoyed the
two they were making so I picked up a few bottles of the earlier vintage in
addition to some of that Oregon Pinot.
After Sineann we headed to the nearby Domaine Serene which appears to be one
of the more established estates. The buildings were gorgeous with way more space
than they needed for their production level, and some really cool architectural
elements like a triangle/spiral staircase that went up for 5 or 6 stories. Their
wines were nice, but again for me they were overpriced compared to how much I
loved them. My favorite was their 2003 Winery Hill Pinot Noir which was
apparently only planted in 1999. This was the first vintage, but while it had a
lighter nose (the bottle had just been opened) it had more finish and complexity
that some of the others.
For dinner we went to Joel Palmer, which is a place that we discovered
specializes in wild mushrooms. I’m not a big mushroom person (I usually avoid
them) but the food here was very good and I managed to both find some things
that were not mushroom-heavy and enjoy the mushrooms in the amuse bouche and the
tastes of my friend’s food. We had a GREAT bottle of wine with dinner- The 2003
Patricia Green Bonshaw Pinot Noir. This was just great, bold and yet with plenty
of complexity and elegance. It went great with the mushroom stuff, but also with
the spiciness of the crab bisque I had and showed a super-long finish. Patricia
Green is a definite stop next time I’m in the OR wine country.
My overall conclusion is that there are plenty of great Pinot Noirs coming
out of Oregon that I can really appreciate. You have to do some work to find the
great ones that are a good value, but that is true for almost any grape/region,
and the ratio in this area of worthwhile stuff seems much higher than in
Burgundy. I’m looking forward to checking it out again and seeing if I can turn
around my general prejudice against Pinot Noir.