In August of 2015, we visited Oregon’s Willamette wine country for the first time. It was a great trip and certainly a contrast from a place like Napa. Driving through the towns that make up this region you get the impression that the wine boom hasn’t yet fully manifested. These are still relatively sleepy towns.
One of the first places we stopped was a wine shop called Valley Wine Merchants. Andrew helped us find us find some great Oregon Pinot Noirs to try that we couldn’t get back in Hawaii. The selection was mostly focused on Oregon (as one would expect) and did a great job balancing the better known producers with some that are mostly just sold through the wineries. There were also a few very hard to find Old World selections. I was very tempted by a few but in the name of research I limited myself to wines from the area. If you are looking to bring home some gems, I would recommend making this small shop a stop in addition to the wineries. I put myself in Andrew’s hands and one of the best wines I had during the trip was acquired here.
We picked up essentials while in Dundee at the Red Hills Market. If you are a foodie this is where you need to stop for coffee, quick food, or ingredients for your own epic picnic. I think we were here each day and that says a lot about the place.
I had really wanted to go to the Painted Lady Restaurant in Newberg since I have heard really great things about the place. Unfortunately, they were closed the only two nights we had open for dinner. It will have to wait until our next visit. Instead our main dinner outing was to the Joel Palmer House. This establishment values fungi above all else. It’s their schtick and thankfully we love mushrooms. If mushrooms aren’t your thing, then this is not the place for you. I was bummed that it wasn’t truffle season but we had a great dinner. The place had lots of charm going for it. The weather was nice so we had requested an outside table and I would recommend the same(weather permitting). The service was efficient but the effect of every service job being distributed among almost every staff member (it felt like 7 different people took care of us) meant that there was no room for making a connection. I would eat here again and if I do I hope it coincides with truffle availability. Can you tell I had been daydreaming about Oregon truffles for days ahead of time?
Having a successful wine store has some big perks. My wife and I got to stay at Domaine Serene Winery while we were in town.
It may be corny to say this but it really was serene.
Domaine Serene has always been one of my favorite Oregon Wine producers. Since they have focused so much on out of state markets since the beginning, there are many people like myself who were first introduced to high quality Oregon wine through their Evenstad Reserve. Yes, there are others that were doing it before them. But, as an out of state sommelier, Domaine Serene was a benchmark for me early on.
As good as the Pinot Noirs are here, I actually think that their Chardonnays are the ones that are under appreciated and perhaps even more Burgundian than their Pinots. All of the wines at Domaine Serene were great. None of them changed my life but that is ok. All of them were very good. Through elaborate blending of parcels and barrels they have achieved one of the most consistent wines from vintage to vintage in the Willamette. The best wine we tasted and one that we brought with us to the Joel Palmer house was the 2004 Domaine Serene Mark Bradford. Yes folks, Oregon Pinot Noir can age. This is a stunning winery and I highly recommend that you visit.
Following our appointment with Domaine Serene was one at Ken Wright Wine Cellars. We joined them in time for their daily employee lunch which we all ate right outside the winery in plastic chairs under a veranda. We all just hung out and talked for a while. I wasn’t really sure what to think at this point as time continued to pass and we hadn’t talked about wine. All I remember from this time is that I said something slightly inappropriate. I don’t recall exactly what I said but I know that I was being a little mischievous as I can do when I am not working and other people technically are. Thankfully, I was able to open dialogue with Ken and I wished I had got him talking sooner. I could have talked to him for an hour about yeast (a sommeliers idea of a good time). He has been working on a scientific study regarding “wild yeast” fermentations. I really look forward to seeing the study as he says that it will change the whole industry.
Ken Wright’s right hand man, Asa Sarver, took us up the road a short drive to Abbot Claim vineyard. We got an awesome explanation of their farming philosophy and an in depth explanation of the area’s terroir. They are serious about the health of the land and vines. Their wine starts in the soil.
We then went down to the tasting room to power through a wine line up as our next appointment was approaching. This was the one of the less frills appointments of our visit, but by far the best for a wine geek like myself. I wish we could have hung out with Asa all day. And, the wines were all awesome. I feel that Ken Wright’s wines are the most terroir expressive of the places we visited. They treat the land the way we would hope that all farmers do. They make their vines as healthy as possible using organic methods and careful analysis of what the soil needs to make the vines as healthy as possible. We talked about this visit for many days afterwards. We really appreciated the true education and philosophy. This was the only visit we had were we were given what I feel was an appropriate tour for someone who is a buyer in the industry. In fact, it was above and beyond. If you are in the industry you will want to stop here and get some time with Asa. I hope to revisit here on my next trip.
Our next stop was Beaux Freres Winery. As we drove up to the modest building (modest is a relative term when talking about wineries) we were greeted by their pet pig. Our visit was rather underwhelming at first as it was merely a sales person tasting us through a few wines. I had to explain that I could taste the wines in Hawaii and that I didn’t need an appointment to just taste the wines. I finally got the sales person to reluctantly walk us through the vineyard. I quickly realized why she was so reluctant.
This vineyard is steep! This was a workout and our poor sales person was huffing and puffing. I no longer held it against her. We got to taste the grapes on the vines as we did at most of the stops and I was surprised just how much riper the grapes tasted at this site than everywhere else at that point in the growing season. The vineyard was very dusty and the dust immediately covered our shoes. I was glad for the experience in understanding just how the different soils and aspects create unique wines. As far the wines go they are among the best. Some would say the these are the best wines in Oregon. It is no secret that Robert Parker is part owner of this winery, which is also why the Wine Advocate does not score the wines. The Wine Spectator frequently gives Beaux Freres 95+ points. Here they farm somewhat bio-dynamically with small yields and the effort shows in the finished product.
Next, across the way and close by we visited Penner-Ash Winery. Lynn Penner-Ash is one of the top names in wine making in Oregon and her wines to me always show a delicate transparency. This was a beautiful winery to visit and our visit coincided with many tourists tasting away. My favorite wine here was the “Esate” Pinot Noir. Lynn purchased her estate simply because it was next door to Shea vineyard which produces some of the best Pinot Noirs in Oregon made under multiple producers. It was a beautiful spot.
Before leaving we stopped in for a visit at Domaine Drouhin. Making my appointment here didn’t seem to do much good as I got the same experience as if I had just wandered in. I was really craving technical information at my stops, but I realize that my ideal experience is different from the majority. It was still a good experience and at least we were given permission to walk into the vineyard. The wines here were the most Burgundian to me. These are the only ones that I think I may have guessed Burgundy in a blind tasting. Not that it is any surprise since Veronique Drouhin hails from the Domaine Drouhin in Burgundy, France.
The vineyards at Domaine Drouhin were beautiful and also the most unique visually of any of the vineyards that we visited. The vines are trained much lower to the ground to enhance ripening. Incidentally, all of the vineyards we visited had commenced dropping large amounts of fruit that had been sunburned by the Summer heat.
I was already a fan of all of these wineries and I would recommend all of them for a visit. This trip really deepened my understanding of the unique climates and soils of the area. If you find yourself in Oregon, I recommend a wine excursion in the Willamette wine country.