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Oregon, Home of Fine Wines…Especially Pinots
By Ed McCarthy
Jun 23, 2015
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It has occurred to me that Oregon really specializes in fine wines.  Oregon is not the place to look for under $12 wines, readily found in the other big-production wine states, such as California, Washington, and New York.  But neither is Oregon the place to look for prestigious “status” wines costing well over $100, such as you can easily find in Napa Valley.

Oregon’s most famous and highest-production wine, Pinot Noir, primarily ranges in price from $25 to $55, with many falling in the $35 to $45 price tier, and with a few Reserve Pinot Noirs over $55.

Even though California makes more Pinot Noir wines than Oregon, nowhere in the world--with the exception of Burgundy--will you find such a concentration of fine Pinot Noirs as you’ll find in Oregon’s Willamette (“wil LAM ette”) Valley, just south of Portland.  Oregon has almost 500 wineries at present, and two-thirds of them, over 300 wineries, are in the Willamette Valley.  Pinot Noir reigns here, with Pinot Gris and Chardonnay leading the white varieties in production (but each making less than 25 percent of the total wines of Pinot Noir).

Oregon differs from its bordering states also, in that almost the entire state is made up of small, family wineries, many of which make about 5,000 to 10,000 cases of wine each year.  Oregon’s one large winery, King Estate, makes about 175,000 cases a year.  Compare that to E&J Gallo’s 75 million cases! 

Although Oregon produces some very good wines other than Pinot Noir in the southern part of the state, across three AVAs--Umpqua Valley, Rogue River Valley, and Southern Oregon--and shares three AVA regions along its northern border with Washington (Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla Valley, and Snake River Valley), the Willamette Valley is the state’s signature wine region, and it is the focus of this column.

The Willamette Valley’s wine history is quite recent.  David Lett, studying at the University of California at Davis, decided to go to Oregon in 1965 to try planting Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris--against his professors’ advice.  They told him Oregon was too cold and rainy for wine grapes, especially Willamette Valley.  Conversely, Lett thought California was too warm for Pinot Noir.  Lett believed that Pinot Noir could excel only in marginal, cool climates.

Time has proven the late David Lett to be right.  He died in 2008 at age 69, and deserves credit for establishing Oregon’s first commercial winery dedicated to Pinot Noir.  In 1970, Lett produced his first Pinot Noir and the country’s first Pinot Gris.  Other winemakers soon followed, including Dick Erath, Dick Ponzi, David Adelsheim, and Susan and Bill Sokol Blosser.

Willamette Valley now has six sub-AVAs (Dundee Hills, and so forth), but I believe we don’t have enough information yet on how each of the sub-AVAs differ and influence the wines to talk about them at this time.

The shortcomings of many U.S. Pinot Noirs is that they are too ripe, too jammy, and too powerful--and do not pair well with food because of these characteristics. In my book, Wine for Dummies (co-authored with Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW), I list about 50 Willamette Valley wineries in the Oregon section that I believe are producing very good Pinot Noirs, and most are also making Pinot Gris wines.

Here, I have chosen eight Oregon Pinot Noir wineries that are among my favorite Pinot Noir producers--not only in Oregon, but also in the entire country. They possess the nuance, the delicacy, and balance I look for in Pinot Noirs.  They are not blockbusters. The wineries and at least one Pinot Noir for each are listed in alphabetical order:

Adelsheim Vineyards:  David Adelsheim is one of the pioneers, planting vineyards of Oregon Pinot Noir in 1971, releasing his first Pinot Noir in 1978.  I recently tasted his gem, the current release 2012 Adelsheim Elizabeth’s Reserve, (named for his daughter).  It is a gorgeous wine, and so perfectly balanced (13.5° alcohol).  For me, it was one of the two Pinot Noirs that stood out far above the other Oregon Pinots in a recent tasting; I tasted it again on the second day, and it was even better (for me, always the sign of a superior wine).  Fabulous aromas and flavors of raspberries and wild strawberries.  You can drink it now, but it will hold for at least10 years.  A flawless wine.  $60.

Bethel Heights Vineyard:  You’ve got to love this family. Twin brothers Ted and Terry Casteel fled the academic (Ted) and medical (Terry) worlds, and planted their first vineyards in the Willamette Valley in 1977, with Ted becoming the viticulturist and Terry the winemaker.  Meanwhile, the whole family got into the act, including the brothers’ two wives, a sister-in-law, cousins, nephews, and so forth.  They give new meaning to the term, “family-run winery.”  Today, Terry’s son, Ben, is the winemaker, and Ted’s daughter, Mimi, is the viticulturist.  Bethel Heights makes many different wines, but they specialize in Pinot Noir, making small lots of nine different Pinots.  I have not had the opportunity to try all nine at one sitting, and so I’ll just mention one, the 2012 Aeolian Pinot Noir, with its classic black fruit and berry aromas and flavors, a trademark of Oregon Pinots.  It has lively acidity balanced with tannins, and is delicious right now.  $40 to $45.

Domaine Drouhin Oregon:  When Burgundy’s Maison Joseph Drouhin bought property in Oregon in 1987 to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the wine world took notice. And when Robert Drouhin sent his winemaker daughter, Veronique Drouhin, to make the wine, everybody knew they were serious.  Veronique Drouhin shuffles back and forth between Burgundy and Oregon, making wine in both places.  In a short time, Domaine Drouhin Oregon made everybody’s list as clearly one of Willamette Valley’s great wineries.  As further proof, their wines sell out rapidly; their 2012 Pinot Noir is already sold out at their winery.  I am recommending Drouhin’s 2013 Pinot Noir, somewhat lighter than the 2012, but also very fine, a good buy at $41.  For a splurge, try Drouhin’s premium Pinot Noir, the 2011 “Laurene.”  Both wines exhibit the classiness and smoothness you expect from Joseph Drouhin.  DDO’s Laurene is one of Oregon’s greatest wines. 2011 Laurene, $60.

Elk Cove Vineyards:  Elk Cove has been one of my favorite vineyards in Oregon since its first vintage in 1977.  It was founded in 1974 by Pat and Joe Campbell.  Joe Campbell, a local Oregon boy who graduated from Harvard and Stanford Medical School, used all that education to teach himself winemaking.

Son Adam Campbell is now the winemaker.  What I like about Elk Cove is that all of their wines are so good, not only their single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, but also all of three of their white wines, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Riesling.  I am featuring their fabulous 2014 Pinot Gris here, because it is definitely one of Oregon’s best.
Very delicious, with notes of lemon, spice, and melon.  It is aged in stainless steel, unoaked.  And it’s a terrific bargain.  $17-$19.

The Eyrie Vineyards:  For many of us who enjoy Eyrie’s delicate style of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, this is Oregon’s premium winery (and its 50th Anniversary).  When wine critic Robert Parker reviewed Eyrie’s Pinot Noirs, he gave them very low ratings; he did not appreciate Eyrie’s subtle, delicate style.  I have followed Eyrie Vineyards from the beginning, and thanks to the generosity of late winemaker-owner David Lett, I have enjoyed a few vertical tastings of both Eyrie’s Pinot Noirs and Pinot Gris wines.  They both age amazing well (even more surprising to me for the Pinot Gris).  I have been drinking a 1985 Eyrie Pinot Noir for the last two days; it is in great shape, delicate, but delicious.  Lett (and now his winemaker son (since 2005), Jason Lett, have great vineyards, and they pick the grapes slightly earlier than others, before they ripen fully.  It obviously works with the delicate Pinot grapes.  David Lett was just about the only one who recognized Pinot Gris’ potential in Oregon.  It took other winemakers ten years to get on the Pinot Gris bandwagon after Eyrie’s first Pinot Gris in 1970.  I recommend both Eyrie’s 2012 Pinot Noir ($35) and its 2013 Pinot Gris ($19).

Lange Estate Winery:  Don and Wendy Lange founded their winery in 1988, and made the 1987 Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay their first vintage.  In a relatively short time, they have established themselves as one of Willamette Valley’s elite wineries.  Their son, Jesse Lange, is now winemaker.  In a recent tasting of Oregon Pinot Noirs I conducted, Lange Estate stood out as the best made and most complete Pinot Noir.  It avoided all the sins--too fruity, too jammy, too exuberant.  The perfectly balanced  2012 Pinot Noir Reserve, with grapes from both Dundee Hils and Freedom Hill Vineyard, is an awesome wine, with a great future.  $35.

Ponzi Vineyards:  The irrepressible Dick Ponzi, always laughing, or at least with a big smile, has been one of Oregon’s most popular winemaker owners.  Dick and his wife Nancy are true Willamette Valley pioneers, founding their winery in 1970.  Ponzi Vineyards, along with Eyrie, were among the first to gain national (and international) recognition, and put Oregon wines, especially its Pinot Noirs, on the world wine map.  Dick Ponzi was intelligent enough to realize that he had a gifted winemaker daughter on his hands, retired early (in 1993), and made Luisa Ponzi the winemaker, a position she still retains.  Her older sister, Maria, is President and Director of Sales and Marketing.  The Ponzis remain close to their Italian heritage, and make two Italian varietal wines, Arneis and Dolcetto, both very good.  But the wine I must recommend is Ponzi’s 2012 Reserve Pinot Noir. It is stunning, a world-class wine that takes your breath away. The Ponzi family has made many great wines over the years--the 2012 Reserve Pinot Noir is one of their finest.  $60-$65.

Sokol Blosser Winery:  In 1971, Susan Sokol Blosser and Bill Blosser planted their first vineyard in the Dundee Hills, and in 1977, issued their first vintage.  The second generation is now carrying the ball; son Alex is winemaker; daughter Alison is the CEO.  As of 2013, all of Sokol Blosser’s wines will be made from estate-grown, organic grapes.  Sokol Blosser has a deft hand with Pinot Noir; their 2012 manages to be powerful without being overwhelming.  It has great fruit, and a long, persistent finish.  $38.

I was extremely impressed with the Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs.  I tasted them slightly chilled, at about 58° to 60° F.  I think Pinot Noirs taste best slightly chilled.

My feeling, at the end of this column, is one of nostalgia.  I want to return to the beautiful hillsides of the Willamette Valley, and visit old friends. I have been away for far too long….