This post continues my ongoing coverage of wine country travel.
In the 18 months that I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon has emerged as one of my favorite states. It’s not just the food trucks of Portland, or the brewpub culture, or the beauty of the Columbia Gorge. It just seems that every time that Don and I cross the state line, we end up having a great time. It’s become our go-to weekend getaway.
I learned about the Willamette Valley back in New Orleans, when I took classes and belonged to a wine club with several oenophile friends. None of us knew much about wine, but we sure enjoyed the tastings that morphed into impromptu parties as more bottles were opened (on one club night, we put our liner notes in haiku form; what can I say, that’s what happens when journalists geek out together).
I’m not sure what class I was in when I first tasted a Pinot Noir from Oregon. I do remember that it was from Torii Mor, a small producer in Willamette. So when I saw the winery name as we checked out our Dundee map, I knew we had to stop by, even if the winery did seem out of the way among the area’s rolling hills.
Willamette Valley Vineyards
The Willamette Valley has two-thirds of the state’s wineries and vineyards and is home to more than 200 wineries within six appellations (Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge & Yamhill Carlton). We zeroed in on Dundee Hills, simply because it was centrally located to the hotels and restaurants of Dundee.
It’s no secret that Oregon can be a little soggy. Smack in the middle of the coast and the Cascades, the Willamette Valley has cool, wet winters (which was well proven on our visit, as you can see from these photos), and warmish summers. That’s a perfect climate for pinot noir grapes, which require a damper climate to survive. Other crops that flourish in the Dundee red clay soil include hops and hazelnuts.
Our first stop was Lange, based on a suggestion I had read. Getting there required a drive through muddy unmarked back roads, with a few false turns. Unlike Napa, you’re not going to run into many others out here, particularly on a spring afternoon before the grapes have even emerged.
Pinots don’t always show well at tastings; a delicate varietal, the wines often need time to warm up and show their potential. You can still tell a great finish, however, and we noticed it with the Lange pinots, particularly the 2009 vintage. We bought a bottle to take home.
Wineries in the Willamette Valley close at 5 p.m. on weekends; we saw several people turned away. If you’re heading there for the weekend from Portland, make sure you plot your route ahead of time
We arrived at Torii Mor with barely enough time for a tasting. Either my palate has changed since those New Orleans days or the wine really needed time to breathe; I found myself less impressed than I remembered. We did find a Syrah port that tasted unusually delicious, so we bought a bottle of that too (you can see where we try to limit these wine country trips – too costly!)
As we headed to our inn for the night, I could have kicked myself for not arriving to Dundee sooner. Names of wines I had enjoyed flew by the car window: Erath, Domaine Drouhin, Stoller, Ponzi. While we had to be in Eugene the next day (also a great destination for wine lovers), I resolved at the very least to make it to Argyle the next morning.
And so we did. While wine tasting at 11 a.m. isn’t for everyone, we managed – and we weren’t the only ones. Argyle is Oregon’s third largest winery in terms of planted acreage, and in addition to its pinot noirs, it’s particularly known for its sparkling wine, which he had sampled the night before at dinner.
I loved the 2009 Nuthouse pinot, as I knew I would. It’s a little more fruity than your typical pinot. But with several wines already in the car, I didn’t want to drop $50 for a bottle. On the advice of a woman exclaiming next to us, we tried the sparkling Black Brut instead. Made with 100 percent pinot noir grapes, the wine tasted like fizzy black cherries, in a good way. So we went home with that instead.
Most Willamette wineries charge tasting fees between $5 to $20, which can add up (although the fee is often waived if you buy wine or join their wine club). Look for “passport events,” when appellations offer reduced or bundled admission.
Another tip for insiders: In November, many small production Willamette wineries open their doors for holiday tastings. While the bulk of the tastings are held over Thanksgiving, several will also open their doors the weekend before or after. If you’re a true wino set on visiting a particular vineyard, call ahead and see what the policies are.
Black Walnut Inn
Our lodging for the night was at the Black Walnut Inn, a luxury bed and breakfast just down the road from Erath. The approach to the inn, modeled after a Tuscan villa, is stunning. The inn has been open for 9 years; I wondered aloud to Don why I hadn’t heard of it before (the Allison Inn & Spa, in nearby Newberg, is the local hotel that regularly makes the Conde Nast Hot Lists).
The Black Walnut Inn is the brainchild of Neal and Karen Utz, who worked with family members to make their dream of an inn come true. Both Neal and Karen were on site during our visit, manning both the front desk and the vineyards out front.
The inn owns 13 acres of pinot noir vines, and started releasing its own wine under the Black Walnut Vineyard a few years ago. What they are both really excited about, however, is the wine that they’ll be releasing soon under their the Utz label, as the vintages will not only come from grapes grown on the property, they will be made by Neal and his son Kris, a chef, at the inn’s on-site winery
I found myself very impressed with the Inn. It combined the wine geekiness of Napa – copies of Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate were placed in several locations – with the friendliness that Don and I have come to expect in Oregon. Neal and Karen did not cut corners with the furnishings or linens; I actually turned a pillow case over to see where it came from (Peacock Alley). I also appreciated the huge amenity basket that Karen puts in every room, containing hair and feminine products. It’s a nice touch that not everyone thinks of.
The Black Walnut Inn has nine suites: six in the main house and a few in a carriage house. When the weather is clear, Karen said, you can see Mt. Hood in the distance (not a chance on our foggy visit). While it seems like the Inn would be perfect for a destination wedding, Karen told me that they’ve decided not to pursue that market – brides and the vendors they require are too much trouble. The inn also doesn’t accept children under 12, which makes it a true adult getaway. I can respect that.
The Painted Lady, Newberg
For dinner, Karen recommended the Painted Lady in nearby Newberg. Although we were tempted by mushroom-centric menu at the Joel Palmer House, I knew we had made a good choice as we walked up; patrons were emerging from the restaurant speaking in superlatives.
Probably because we made a reservation so late, we were swept upstairs, away from the convivial buzz of the main room. It made the whole experience a little more solemn, less fun. Lesson learned: Make a reservation.
The Painted Lady serves a 5-course, $65 tasting menu Wednesday through Sunday. You can add wine pairings for an extra $45. We decided to go this route, primarily so we could taste a wide variety of Willamette wines.
The tasting menu offered between three to four choices for each course, and there’s also a vegetarian option. Owned by chef Allen Routt and his wife, it’s the only AAA 4-diamond restaurant in Oregon.
While we loved the food (standouts included venison carpaccio, braised veal cheek and a celeriac puree that kept me licking my spoon), I think we were more impressed with the wine pairings than anything else. I took pictures of each bottle so I could expand my Oregon wine repertoire; besides the outstanding pinot shown above, we sampled a “Pierre Leon” pinot from WillaKenzie Estate, a JRG red from Pamplin, a and a chardonnay from Lange which we had visited earlier in the day.
We thought the meal ended with our goat cheese cheesecake topped with blueberry compote and a glass of 2008 “Sydney” Semillon from Klipsun Vineyards. But then our server brought out a multi-level tray of chocolates and tarts. Yeah, we were done.
We left the Willamette Valley with full bellies, several bottles of wine in our car and a continuation of our belief that it’s hard to beat Oregon as far as awesomeness. We have yet to have a bad time in our neighbor to the south – and every time we leave, we can’t wait to return.
This trip to Oregon was sponsored by various properties, but my opinions remain my own.