Monday, April 04, 2016

Go West, Pinot Noir Lovers

The following appeared in the Yakima Magazine, a monthly publication of the Yakima Herald News.

In 1865, Horace Greeley, an American author was quoted in the New York Tribune encouraging America’s expansion westward, “Go West, Young Man, Go West…” Who knew that a little detour to the south of the Columbia River, to the now abundant Willamette Valley, would pay off? 

The Cayuse War of 1847, an armed conflict between the Cayuse people of the Walla Walla region and the United States Army, resulted in most of Eastern Washington being closed off to possible settlements in the Walla Walla and Yakima areas. 

In the mean time, before the Cayuse treaty was established in 1859, new settlements had been channeled around the area of conflict further west to the Puget Sound area, and especially to southern Oregon near the Willamette Valley. Among one of the settlers was Henderson Luelling, a horticulturist who traveled to the area and planted the first known grapes in the Oregon Territory in 1847. 

Similar to the regions of Washington Territory near the great Columbia River, the European and French-Canadian presence was also known among the “French Prairie” at Champoeg located in the Willamette Valley. The immigrants brought with them grape stock from their European homes and experimented with many wine grape varieties, until the Prohibition era banned all alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933. 

After the Prohibition era, there wasn’t much of a presence of wine grapes in the State of Oregon, especially not much wine, other than the occasional “country” wines made with the local Oregon fruit sources, such as Marionberry, pear, and other orchard fruit-style wines — or at least not until the 1960’s when the first Pinot Noir grape vines were planted in Oregon. 

Pinot Noir is a red grape variety with a reputation for being finicky in the vineyard and finicky in the vat. The thin-skinned grape in its tightly packed cluster and shaped like a pine cone, is grown all around the world yet takes comfort in cool regions, and particularly thrives in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. It’s a temperamental grape that viticulturist and winemakers alike, love to hate and hate to love, but the consumer has fallen in love with this historic grape with roots as deep as its vines, dating back to 100 AD in the Burgundy region of France. The grape is known to produce some of the finest wines in the world with its flavor notes and essences of cherries, strawberries, and herbs. 

Today in the Willamette Valley, and all through Oregon, there are a total of over 20,000 acres planted in Pinot Noir and over 500 wineries with many producing Pinot Noir. The Willamette Valley is designated as an American Viticultural Area (AVA), with a total of six sub-AVA’s. American Viticultural Areas are known as designated wine grape-growing regions in the United States. They are distinguishable by geographic features and their boundaries are defined by the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The following sub-AVA’s within the Willamette Valley are: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, and Yamhill-Carlton. 

The wine country of the Willamette Valley area is vibrant — and not just with wineries. There is great farm-to-table dining, lodging, shopping, tourist attractions, annual Pinot Noir celebrations, and a scenic jaunt of around 60 miles to the Pacific Ocean. Here are three, not to be missed wineries of the Willamette Valley… 

Domaine Drouhin

Domaine Drouhin - Oregon
Domaine Drouhin Oregon (DDO) in Dayton, may be a state-of-the art winery, but it brings with it deep historic roots from France. The DDO vineyards and wines are known for their “French soul” — produced with Oregon soil. The Drouhin Family has been making wine since its early days in France when it first established Joseph Drouhin wines back in 1880. 

Across the globe in 1961, the third generation of the Drouhin family “discovered” Oregon, and by 1987, Drouhin purchased land in the Willamette Valley. Two years later the Domaine Drouhin Oregon winery was opened with an emphasis on Pinot Noir. This was a perfect partnership as the Willamette Valley is at the same latitude as the Burgundy region of France, as well as a similar climate, making it the perfect home for the finicky Pinot Noir grapes to thrive. 

Today the fourth-generation Drouhin family is behind the beautiful French-inspired wines that come out of Oregon. Don’t just stop at tasting their Pinot Noir, but take a moment for a worthy sip of their Chardonnay as well. 

Stoller Family Estate 

Stoller Family Estate
It started as a turkey farm in the 1940’s by the Stoller family, located in the farm land of the Dundee Hills. Throughout the next five decades, the turkey farm would grow from a small family farm to one of Oregon’s largest poultry operations. When the farm closed in 1993, Bill Stoller, whose father and uncle originally started the farm, took the opportunity to purchase the land from a cousin. The old farm buildings and property would be alive once again keeping with its agriculture roots; however this time the only turkey to be found would be on the label of a bottle of wine. 

Staying true to Bill Stoller’s rural Oregon upbringing, Stoller’s quest for sustainability earned the vineyard the first-ever LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification in the world. At this time their vineyard is the largest contiguous vineyard in Oregon’s Dundee Hills. The property spans 373 acres, with approximately 190 acres dedicated to growing vines at elevations ranging from 220 to 640 feet, and over 120 acres dedicated to Pinot Noir. The winery grounds are peaceful with views of the vineyards from all around. Melissa Burr, head winemaker has been with Stoller since 2003. Once again, don’t stop at the Pinot Noir, but if in season, seek out their cool crisp and mouth watering Pinot Noir Rosé. It’s pretty and it’s pink. 

WillaKenzie Estate 

WillaKenzie Winery
If you are a fan of Pinot Noir then you have definitely struck gold when you reach the doors of WillaKenzie, with at least 10 different Pinot Noirs to sample from their variety of Pinot Noir clones, to the various elevations from which the vines are grown. There’s a French term used in agriculture known as “terroir,” meaning a “sense of place.” Indeed, WillaKenzie Estate Wines gives meaning to “sense of place” with the distinct elevations and various soils on the one parcel of land. Owner and winemaker of WillaKenzie, Bernard Lacroute grew up in a small village in the Burgundy region of France. Accepting a fellowship to study in America, he eventually found his way to Oregon. In 1991 Lacroute and his partner, Ronni Lacroute purchased the 420 acre cattle farm in the Yamhill area and began planting the vines. In 1995, the winery was ready for business. 

When visiting the WillaKenzie tasting room, a three or a five flight of Pinot Noir is encouraged. Discover the differences, especially to focus on the uniqueness and even the similarities that each distinguished Pinot Noir brings to the palate. 

This is just a short day or perhaps a long afternoon of the bounty of Pinot Noir to be found in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. No, you won’t make it to all of the wineries, but you can come back for another visit or two, right? 

Catie McIntyre Walker - Author

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