Lay of the Land
When the pioneering David Lett moved from California to Oregon in 1965 to plant vines, he looked to France for inspiration, choosing Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Muscat Ottonel, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay for his newly purchased property, The Eyrie Vineyards. Of course, the entire world now has Papa Pinot to thank for proving that this meandering pastoral valley, known for orchards, hazelnuts and grains, is also prime for vines. The valley runs 100 miles between the Cascade and Coast mountain ranges, reaching 60 miles at its widest point. Of the 23,500 acres under vine, nearly 16,000 acres are Pinot Noir. Pinot Gris has always been second in the running and spotlight, though Chardonnay has proven itself a great success in recent years, with many focusing attention and plantings here. The diversity of cool-climate vineyards is the result of the protection afforded by the twin mountain ranges and a series of lower hill chains to the extreme north of the valley. The majority of vineyards are planted on lower hillsides, avoiding deeply fertile alluvial soils and cooler hilltop mesoclimates. There are seven American Viticultural Areas (or AVAs) nestled within the Willamette, the most recent of which, Van Duzer Corridor, came into effect in January 2019. This AVA was seen by many as recognizing the importance of the cool Pacific air that funnels into the valley through a gap in the Coast Range.
Start in the Heart = PDX
Even though you may have to fly north from Canada to reach Portland (since Portland sits at 45.5 degrees N, while Toronto lies at 43.6 degrees N), the city of 650,000 lucky inhabitants is easy to reach. Portland International Airport (PDX) is an airy, accessible hub connected to downtown Portland via MAX light rail, and its status as a dual civilian/military airport means exciting sightings of F-15s. From Vancouver, it’s a straight shot south on Interstate 5, taking roughly 5 hours by car. A gentle climate at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, and an abundance of greenspace makes it clear why the 25th largest city in the USA is known as The City of Roses. No sales tax, a booming economy, safe and clean streets and a thriving culture (Portlandia is pretty much spot on) make it appealing and easy for visitors.
An easy hour drive west of Portland and you’re in the middle of the Willamette’s rich food and wine culture. Having Portland, America’s culinary incubator and curator of cool, so close by has certainly influenced the Willamette, and vice versa. There’s a shared community of winemakers, growers, farmers and producers that is sacrosanct in their willingness to promote and support each other. Like any mature wine culture, however, it’s not only inward looking.
Portland is a mecca for food and drink, drawing influence from cultures far beyond Oregon state borders. I always start my visit at Bollywood Theater, a colourful cafeteria serving up Indian street food. Chef Troy MacLarty visits India annually, bringing the flavours, spices and excitement of the vast country to the steel plates and refreshing cocktails of his eastside locations. The Bhel Puri is dream-worthy. Pok Pok is my other can’t-miss spot, with Andy Ricker introducing Thai small plates and snappy exotic cocktails into modern America’s dining lexicon.
Portland is also a hotbed for Champagne, and especially grower Champagne, with the independently driven city drawn to Champagne’s small producers. Ambonnay is a tiny bar that is strictly fizz only, with an extensive by-the-glass selection, and 100 or so others by the bottle. If you’re feeling more peckish, Pix Pâtisserie has been named World’s Best Champagne and Sparkling Wine List from 2014 straight through to 2018 by World of Fine Wine Magazine. With over 400 bottles, many vintage and large format, chef/owner Cheryl Wakerhauser’s patisserie/Champagne bar is a must hit. No small aside, the flip side of her building houses Bar Vivant, an authentic Spanish tapas and sherry bar, where pintxos and conservas pony up to porrons of Spanish wine and cidra.
You’d be remiss not to hit a few of Portland’s cocktail spots since the city’s bar scene has been on fire long before bartenders called themselves mixologists. The Multnomah Whiskey Library is a classy, reservation-only booze homage of biblical proportions and thousands of bottles, cementing the city as one of the world’s greats. Satisfy your amaro amour at Solo Club, a tidy, jewel box of a bar that makes bitter better. Until you’ve had a volcano-erupting flaming tiki head of Jet Pilot at Hale Pele, you really haven’t done tiki bars in life. All that said, you can’t go to the city without sitting at the bar at Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Clyde Common, or downstairs in his hidden basement bar, Pépé le Moko. With Morgenthaler being one of the world’s top bartenders, and founder of the barrel-aged cocktail boom, these are must-stop stools.
West to Willamette
It’s good to have a home base in the valley, and mine is Red Hills Market. At any point of the day or eve, you can park yourself at this buzzy eatery, soon to be one of your very happy places. Wood-fired breakfast and pizzas, freshly plucked salads, a take-away counter of locally cured meats and cheeses, rotating taps of local microbrews and bottles from the valley, a full espresso bar and platters of roasted hazelnuts will keep you satiated and satisfied. Oh yeah, and you can grab many of Oregon’s top bottles from the shelf for your future picnic. Conveniently located in Dundee, mid-valley, plan on stopping here numerous times during your visit.
A quick 15 minutes farther down the road and you’ll be in the town of McMinnville, home of the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration. Book into Thistle, a tiny, unassuming 24-seat resto tucked just off the town’s main strip. Food and wine lovers have been flocking to Eric Bechard’s restaurant since it opened in 2009. A strong, unyielding commitment to local farmers and producers won them many fans from the start, and an authentic, ever-changing menu plus a deep, eclectic wine list have kept it fresh.
While Portland is stacked with trendy boutique hotels (I highly recommend booking into any in the Provenance Hotels group), the valley is thankfully much sleepier. Book ahead for one of the private and spacious vineyard suites at Dundee Hills’ Red Ridge Farms. One of the first family pioneers of grape growing in the area, they produce their own line of Durant Vineyards wines, while continuing to supply fruit to other vintners. Their property also is home to Oregon Olive Mill, one of the largest olive groves in Oregon. If you’re looking for a luxurious getaway, check into the Allison Inn & Spa, with 35 manicured acres and 85 sumptuous guest rooms with balconies and fireplaces. Jory, the resort’s restaurant, showcases hundreds of local labels.
Wineries to Watch For
With more than 560 wineries spread across the Willamette, there is no shortage of wines to taste. Here are some recommended wineries to watch for, along with a tasting note from each (and, yes, going beyond Pinot Noir).
The Eyrie Vineyards Oregon Pinot Blanc 2016, AVA Dundee Hills ($35)
This limited-edition bottling is of pinot blanc from Dundee’s iconic Eyrie Vineyards and Alsatian clones planted over 25 years ago, plus 1990 plantings, and fruit from the neighbouring Tukwila vineyard. Destemming and long, cool aging in stainless (11 months) gives a purity and depth of fruit rarely seen in oft-neglected pinot blanc. Yellow apple, orange blossom, white florals, melon and grapefruit pith are padded with fine lees work, textural and very complete. Acidity is finely threaded and nervy, and there’s a steady lick of anise on the finish, which is welcome and inviting.
Goodfellow Family Cellars Whistling Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016, AVA Ribbon Ridge ($60)
From Marcus Goodfellow’s renamed winery (née Matello Cellars) and reflective of his young children / future cellar rats. I’ve been tasting with Marcus for many years, and still firmly believe that he is one of America’s top winemakers. This 2016 pinot noir, from Ribbon Ridge AVA’s exceptional marine-sedimentary-soiled Whistling Ridge Vineyard is proof positive. According to Marcus, his “least favourite flavour in wine is dogma.” He seeks out special vineyards around the Willamette, forging strong bonds with the owners, and oversees all the growing for his 4,000-annual case production. This is dry-farmed, 20–30-year-old vine massal selection pinot (6+ clones), 50 percent whole cluster and with 20 months in French oak (30 percent new). Black raspberry, streamlined and narrow, leads the finessed palate, baked with iris, white pepper, dried herbs and white pepper. Structural, but so finely so, with bamboo tannins suggesting, rather than shouting, framework. Acidity is lofty and tight, creating an energetic flow through the lingering finish. Drinking beautifully now, but Marcus’ wines age incredibly, so I recommend using patience.
Minimus Grüner Veltliner 2017, AVA Willamette Valley ($45)
Minimus was created in 2011 by Chad Stock as a series of one-off experiments, and the line continues to be an incubator for and innovator of Oregon winemaking. They source from sustainable (and stricter) vineyards, and practice low-intervention, native fermentation, utilizing various vessels and working with numerous grapes and clones (many unique to this project). Opening with a bright, flinty flick, this GV was planted in 1977 in Vitae Springs Vineyard, high in the south Salem hills’ volcanic Jory soils, on own roots. It’s believed to be the oldest planting of GV in America. The wine was fermented and aged for nine months in stainless, preserving the purity and crisp fruit. Lemon and meadow herbs are scented with elderflower and kissed with flake salts that run the long, slender palate to a bright finish. Acidity is shining, well balancing the gentle lees. Lovely poise and balance in this 12.4-degree wine.
Lingua Franca Bunker Hill Estate Chardonnay 2016, AVA Willamette Valley ($55)
Though the spacious, simple Lingua Franca winemaking facility may be brand new, the men behind the project — Larry Stone, David Honig and Dominique Lafon — need little introduction in wine circles. Young Burgundian winemaker Thomas Savre is turning out masterful wines, making this new winery one to watch. The BHV Chardonnay is made with more than 20-year-old Clone 76 fruit grown on Nekia soils at an altitude of 700 feet in Salem, exposed to the cooling winds of the Van Duzer corridor. After a native ferment and natural settling, this wine went into 70 percent new oak puncheons for a year before light filtration and bottling. Flint lined and licked with wet stone, this structural wine amazes with its lightness of touch, and darting lemon, pear skin and verbena notes. Very impressive.
If you’re in the Willamette, you absolutely must add on a night or two on the Oregon Coast. Unlike BC’s rocky, pine- and cedar-spired Pacific coastline, Oregon has wide expanses of vast, sandy beaches and a great culture of tiny seaside towns dotting the length of the state. A quick 90-minute, mountainous and forested drive will land you in Pacific City, home to Headlands Coastal Lodge. Neighbouring Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area, the eco-chic lodge offers full ocean views and patios from all suites, numerous recreational activities and boat-to-plate-driven dining at Meridian Restaurant. The shoreside lodge neighbours a giant sand dune, which is well worth the hike.