“Behind the Vines” Wine Trip: Willamette Valley, Oregon
Our sixth annual Cordillera Ranch Cellar Club trip ventured away from the wineries of California as we explored the wines of The Willamette Valley — better known as “Pinot Noir Country” — or as an editorial in Wine Spectator more aptly quotes, “A taste of Burgundy in rural Oregon.” Although in previous years we focused our tours in Napa Valley, Sonoma and one trip to central California in Santa Barbara, this year we decided to step out of the box and explore a different, more Burgundian style of pinot noir with a change of pace in the beautiful, rural countryside of Willamette Valley.
By Debbie Pepper
Wine lovers who visit today will find northern Willamette is expanding in culinary breadth, as well as approaching its inspiration, France’s Burgundy, in wine focus, and the region is coming into its own as a fine-wine destination. Willamette Valley covers a lot of ground at 5,200 square miles and it’s the sixth-largest AVA (American Viticulture Area). However, the hotbed for pinot noir is the relatively compact north valley area where we were fortunate to visit and experience the best of the best!
This year’s trip was led and organized by Debbie Pepper, Membership Director and “Unofficial Wine Tour Operator,” along with the Club’s Wine Specialist, Jeff Cohen, who shared his expertise, made wine selections and pairings as needed and assisted as co-host for our members. This year’s attendees included 18 “wine trip veterans” who have been on multiple wine trips with the Club: Warren and Lettie Goehringer, Chuck and Keitha Schofield, David and Gail Sanders, Chris and Cathy Cheatwood, Tim and Jennefer Reardon, Kurt and Amy Pennington, Benjamin and Selina Pena, Todd Dunn, Gary and Jeanie Lynd and guest, Teri Wenglein. First time attendees were Bruce and Joni Sloan, Constance Barone and Thom Saunders, and Ron and Martha Doornink.
Although our official group trip started on early Saturday morning, everyone flew in a day or two before to explore Portland on their own. Since our wine experience would be centered on Willamette Valley wineries, we changed the focus on Saturday to explore other area highlights, starting with a visit to the beautiful Columbia River Gorge. We enjoyed a bountiful breakfast at The Multnomah Falls Lodge with spectacular views of the falls behind the lodge, followed by a short hike to the bridge beneath the falls. Unfortunately, views from Vista House along the river gorge were a bit hazy from fires far away in the south, but still beautiful and expansive.
Afterwards, we headed back to Portland for a “Beer Before Wine Tour” on the funky Brewvana Beer Bus and had fun stopping at three different brew pubs. We had Beer 101 education, plentiful beer and cider tastings, a delicious lunch and a final Beer 101 quiz where our sweet Lettie Goehringer scored a perfect 100 and is now known as the “Beer Queen!” Especially fun and unique were the pretzel necklaces we had to wear, which are designed to nibble on between beer tastings to cleanse our palette. Dinner that night was at Jake’s Grill at the Sentinel Hotel where we were staying. We celebrated and toasted Tim Reardon’s special big birthday…..I think it was #39!
We had another early start as we packed our bags and loaded our bus to McMinnville in Willamette Valley for a very, very special day! Once on the bus, everyone was given their select Voodoo donut (known in Portland for their quirky and unusual donuts). Before the trip, everyone had to check out their website to choose a special donut and provide a “secret fact” and favorite song. Our hour-long trip to McMinnville went by quickly as everyone participated in the song/secret fact trivia game, which was very amusing, interesting and helped everyone get quickly acquainted. We arrived at 9:00am to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum where we toured the renowned Spruce Goose, and many in our group enjoyed a private cockpit tour. The museum docents were extremely knowledgeable and, besides the Hughes H-4 Hercules Spruce Goose, the museum displays a number of military and civilian aircraft and spacecraft which were very interesting.
The second highlight, and possibly the most talked about lunch, was at the quaint French “Bistro Maison” where we enjoyed a 12-course family-style meal with numerous wine pairings selected by Jeff. Owners Chef Jean-Jacques and his wife Deborah delighted us with personalized attention and a full description of how each course was prepared. It was a true culinary experience!
Just five minutes away, we went to the International Pinot Noir Celebration taking place in the beautiful Oak Grove of Linfield College. This was the last day of the festival and it featured a relaxed outdoor tasting with over 70 wineries and 15 local Northwest chefs preparing culinary treats to pair with pinot. The pinot showcase was wonderful but, unfortunately, after enjoying a long, leisurely lunch with several courses and wine prior to arriving, our visit to the festival was shorter than expected. We had a great day but it was time to head to the luxurious Allison Inn and Spa in Newburg to check in for the remainder of the trip. Our day ended later that evening with a lovely reception dinner at The Allison.
Our first tasting of the day began at Soter at their North Valley Vineyards, followed by a delicious family-style Provisions Tasting (lunch & wine) at Soter’s Mineral Springs Ranch in a beautiful “deconstructed contemporary barn style” space overlooking the valley. Next, we headed to Evening Land Vineyards for a vineyard tour. We learned about the different vineyard terroir while tasting their fabulous wines and nibbling on charcuterie on our hillside perch overlooking the valley floor. Our day ended in downtown Newburg at Chehalem’s tasting room, housed in a restored historic building. We enjoyed a seated library flight and a great catered pizza dinner prepared by Red Hills Market with their vintage wood-fired oven pizza truck. We loved watching them make pizzas outdoors while playing country music and some Texas favorites — a treat for all of us Texans!
Off again to the rural countryside of Newburg, we enjoyed our first morning tasting at the rustic Beaux Freres where we toured the barrel room and had a seated tasting while learning about their biodynamic farming methods used in the vineyard for creating their fabulous wines. We enjoyed hearing the story about the vineyard’s rustic beginnings as an 88-acre pig farm and how it was purchased by owner Michael Etzel and his brother-in-law, Robert Parker, Jr. — thus the name “beaux freres” (meaning brother-in-law) came to be. Winemaker Mike Etzel, Jr. also stopped by for a brief chat and to welcome us.
Our next stop at Sokol Blosser featured a sit down “Farm & Forage” pairing lunch with farm-to-table selections from the vineyard and local purveyors. Another fabulous lunch pairing with a lovely sparkling rosé, chardonnay and pinot noir!
At Domaine Drouhin, we enjoyed our favorite outdoor tasting under a shady grove of gigantic evergreens on the beautiful hillside overlooking the vineyards. Domaine Drouhin’s unique story begins with the history of the Drouhin family from France who came to Oregon to create wines with a French soul on Oregon soil. Our comparative tasting focused on what makes pinot noir and chardonnay from Oregon and Burgundy similar, yet so distinctly different. Winemaker Veronique Drouhin-Boss is a fourth-generation winemaker from the Drouhin family and also oversees the winemaking at Maison Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy, producing some of the world’s finest pinot noir and chardonnay wines on both sides of the Atlantic. Her brother, Philippe Drouhin, is responsible for the management and care of the Drouhin vineyards in Burgundy, Chablis and Oregon. A unique story with lovely wines and a truly spectacular, leisurely setting…. we hated to leave!
After a long day, we headed back to The Allison for a brief change before heading to our dinner and wine tasting at Ponzi Vineyards — another beautiful setting at the top of the valley. We enjoyed a relaxing end to another great day.
Our final day began at Bergstrom Vineyards with charcuterie and tasting in the barrel room followed by a vineyard tour and tasting featuring their artisanal winemaking biodynamic methods used in creating their world-class pinot noir and chardonnay.
Our final trip luncheon, and another group favorite, featured an elegant lunch pairing at Dusky Goose tasting their limited production pinot noirs in their beautiful hilltop open-air dining room. These special pinot noirs are velvety soft and vibrant, yet have a complexity and depth found only in the Dundee Hills. Ahh …. a truly memorable experience for our last day in Willamette Valley!
A “Prestige Tasting” at Domaine Serene featured their single vineyard chardonnays and pinot noirs and ended our official wine touring before heading back to The Allison to rest before dinner. We celebrated our farewell dinner at The Joel Palmer House in Dayton, dining al fresco on their terrace with a five-course dinner revolving around wild mushrooms and truffles, which are gathered locally and are the mainstay of their cuisine. We celebrated the end of our Willamette
Valley and Oregon wine experience, making new friends and lasting memories.
I hope you will join us in the future on our next wine adventure!
Debbie Pepper is the Director of Membership for The Clubs of Cordillera Ranch. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 830.336.3544.