The Willamette Valley, a premier wine growing region with over 20,000 acres of planted grape vineyards, starts less than an hour south of Portland, Oregon. The valley’s topography is over 100 miles long, spanning 60 miles at its widest point, sitting between the state’s breathtaking Cascade Mountains to the east, with outstanding views of Mount Hood and the Central Coast Range to the west.
Hot sunny summers and wet winters make for a long, temperate growing season. The rich valley-floor soils came from Montana by the Missoula Floods at the end of the last ice age 15,000 years ago, and are ideal for pinot noir, which makes up 80 percent of Oregon’s wine production.
The wine region is the sixth largest American Viticultural Area (AVA), consisting of six sub-appellations, covering more than two-thirds of Oregon’s wineries and vineyards. Although grapes were planted here in the 1800s, the Willamette Valley was not a noteworthy winemaking region until the 1960s.
A young pioneer, David Lett, studied at the University of California at Davis, a top enology school. He visited Burgundy, France, fell in love with pinot noir, and looked for areas out west where he felt the grape would flourish. He picked the Willamette Valley, particularly around the Dundee Hills, as the soil and weather conditions there resembled those of Burgundy. After Lett established The Eyrie Vineyards in 1965, other pioneers began planting grapes throughout the region, including Charles Coury, David Adelsheim, Dick Erath, and Dick and Nancy Ponzi, later followed by Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol Blosser, then by Ken Wright. Today there are well over 500 wineries in the region.
The Willamette Valley earned its reputation as a world-class wine region for producing some of the finest pinot noir available. It is often referred to as “the sensual wine,” with a soft, silky, and velvety texture. A popular second favorite, pinot gris, has recently been replaced by the resurgence of chardonnay due to the quality and character in the last decade.
Other cool-climate grape varieties such as pinot blanc, riesling, and gewürztraminer excel in the Valley, along with grüner veltliner, viognier, syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and tempranillo. They also produce delicious rosé, sparkling, and sweet wines.
Wineries are mainly family owned and most producers have a long lineage attached to the land. The region is primarily known for agriculture, with grape vineyards just part of the business; cherries, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, and other produce also grow well here. The Willamette Valley is also the third largest producer of hazelnuts in the world.
Wine producers in the Willamette Valley have an organic approach to all things agriculture. Many have lived in Oregon all their lives, with a deep love and respect for the land. The landscape reminds you of how farms may have looked in pioneering days, yet winemakers are very progressive in sustainable winemaking practices.
Owner David Nemarnik leads numerous projects at the winery while running one of the largest produce businesses in the Northwest. The winery and estate are reminiscent of a Tuscan farmhouse overlooking 70 acres and the Chehalem Mountains. The vineyards are dry-farmed, and lightly tended. LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) and certified Salmon-Safe agricultural practices help promote the vineyard’s natural biodiversity. Alloro produces award-winning pinot noir, chardonnay, and an amazing aromatic dessert wine. Vino Nettare is made of one part riesling and two parts muscat, vinified like an ice wine, which preserves the fruit’s natural voluptuousness and crisp acidity.
In 1998 Jimi Brooks founded Brooks Winery out of his passion for riesling and biodynamic farming. Brooks died suddenly at the young age of 36, just before the 2004 harvest. His friends stepped in to produce what would be his last vintage. They donated their time, harvesting, pressing, making, and bottling that 2004 vintage. Brooks’s son Pascal now owns the winery, and his aunt, Brooks’s sister Janie Brooks Heuck, helps run the operations. Winemaker Chris Williams continues the focus on riesling and pinot noir, while also making pinot gris, muscat, pinot meunier, Melon de Bourgogne, and gewürztraminer.
The Carlton Winemakers Studio
Created in 2002 in the quaint town of Carlton by winemakers Eric Hamacher, Luisa Ponzi, and Ned and Kristen Lumpkin, The Carlton Winemakers Studio is a select winemaking facility that serves as a home and springboard for some of the Willamette Valley’s most sought-after wines under one innovative roof. The area’s first cooperative winery built to LEED standards, the Studio provides a beautiful setting with top-of-the-line winemaking equipment and a full-time staff that allows artisan winemakers to focus solely on their craft.
Ghost Hill Cellars
Mike Bayliss and his wife Drenda live in the 100-year-old farmhouse where Mike grew up. Their focus is pinot noir made from 100 percent estate-grown fruit, including a pinot noir rosé, a pinot noir blanc, an estate Bayless-Bower single vineyard designate, and Prospector’s Reserve pinot noir. The wines are produced by famed Willamette winemaker, Eric Hamacher. The tasting room was built by Bayliss with his son Michael to look like a prospector’s shack, and is made of sections from the family’s barn and reclaimed windows from the Trappist Abbey Church up the road. The legend of Ghost Hill goes back to the late 1800s, when a gold miner took refuge and was robbed and murdered for his gold. His searching spirit inspired the winery’s name.
Located in Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Owner and winemaker Steve Lutz crafts his wines with a minimalist’s restraint, looking to showcase the vineyard’s specific terroir. Lenné’s predominate soil type is peavine, a nutrient-poor soil which produces small clusters and berries but results in interesting wines. The wines have a concentrated mid-palate and long finish, with black cherry and mineral components in the nose. The vineyard produces about 1,500 to 2,000 cases of pinot noir. Lenné Cinq Élus is a blend of the best barrel from each of the five clones, and Lenné Estate is a barrel selection of the best wine from the estate. Clone-specific bottlings include Karen Pommard, named for Steve’s wife.
Stoller Family Estate
Bill Stoller bought the family turkey farm in 1993, and transformed the land into vineyards two years later. Located in the Dundee Hills, Stoller Family Estate was the country’s first winery to receive LEED Gold certified and just achieved B Corp Certification (meeting the highest standard of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.) The tasting room is a zero-energy building with large roll-up glass walls that face the 193-acre vineyard. Winemaker Melissa Burr started in 2003, making 1,000 cases, and now makes upwards of 50,000 annually. Rosé of pinot noir, pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, syrah, and an inaugural LaRue’s Brut Rosé are in the lineup.
Vidon is an innovative boutique-style winery owned by Don and Vicki Hagge. Hagge, a retired NASA physicist and inventor with degrees from UC Berkeley and Stanford, worked with the Apollo Mission at NASA. At 69, he founded Vidon Vineyards, and today at 85 he continues inventing and designing while producing out-of-this-world estate pinot noir, as well as pinot gris, pinot blanc, and viognier. The winery is Certified Sustainable both in the vineyard and the winery under the LIVE program, and the label bears the Certified Sustainable and Salmon Safe logos. Vidon recently released three new wines named for Hagge’s work with several of NASA’s most famous space programs. The wines, 2015 APOLLO Chardonnay, 2015 SATURN Syrah, and 2015 EXPLORER Tempranillo, are made from estate-grown grapes that were carefully selected for the project.
In 2003, Wayne and Nicolette Bailey purchased Youngberg Hill (named after a Swedish farmer who farmed the land). The 50-acre estate now grows 20 acres of grapes in the McMinnville AVA, an area closer to the ocean than many Willamette Valley wineries. The tasting room is located within the estate’s nine-room inn and has a large deck overlooking the Cascade Mountains. An event center offers stunning views. Wines are named after the couple’s three daughters and have characteristics as unique as their namesakes. They also produce pinot gris, pinot blanc, and chardonnay.
TRAVEL WILLAMETTE VALLEY
The Willamette Valley landscape is lush, filled with rolling hills and farmland, where wineries have become a popular destination. The wine region celebrated 50 years in 2015, and in 2016 Wine Enthusiast awarded it Wine Region of the Year. There are some luxury resorts, and many inns and B&Bs for lodging. You can easily learn about grapes and winemaking while tasting wine in a laid-back environment. The Valley also offers a long menu of dining options. A big advantage for wine lovers is the proximity to downtown Portland, a mecca for the Northwest’s rising chefs. oregonwinecountry.org, willamettewines.com, travelportland.com
Tour Devine by Heli offers a unique wine tasting adventure, wine tours by helicopter. Start the day with a spread of local fresh foods and bubbly before soaring over the incredible terrain of the Valley, stopping at wineries where favorite wines will be poured. A custom-made picnic lunch is provided by Red Hills Market. tourdevinebyheli.com
The International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) is an annual event held the last full weekend of July in McMinnville, located in the heart of the Willamette Valley wine country. The festival offers a supreme selection of pinot noir from around the globe, with a full schedule of seminars, walk-around tastings, winery tours, and delicious meals prepared by notable Northwest chefs. ipnc.org