It’s the holiday season… a great time for any wine lover to take a trip to Willamette Valley, a scenic wine region just 40 minutes south of Portland, Oregon. You might be surprised by the extraordinary vista of vineyards and pine trees with Mt. Hood hovering in the distance. The Willamette Valley countryside is home to some of the most celebrated wines in the world, but until the 1980’s, Christmas tree farms dominated the farmland.
But if you cannot make the trip yourself, travel with me now to meet with some of the first Valley pioneers and the “2nd Wave” vintners of Willamette. We’ll see what experiences these wineries offer to the curious wine country adventurer. And, we’ll take some time to select our favorite Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay wines, special food-friendly wines for our holiday party menus. There are now 730 wineries in Oregon, with over 500 in the Willamette Valley alone. Oregon wine has exploded over the past 10 years, and it’s just wild (and exciting) to watch the growth.
How Oregon’s Willamette Valley Resembles France’s Burgundy Region
Oregon’s Willamette Valley midpoint lies at 45 degrees north latitude, the same as France’s Burgundy region near Dijon. Oregon’s premier wine region, Willamette Valley, is sometimes nicknamed “The Burgundy of the West.” They both have a terroir that supports the growth of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. They both feature beautifully structured vineyards in picturesque settings.
Many differences set them aside. Oregon’s Willamette Valley caters to a visitor’s sense of adventure offering winery experiences you can only find in America. Join me in meeting some of the first and second wave Willamette Valley pioneers and let’s sample their award-winning wines.
Dave Lett of Eyrie Vineyards Takes a Chance
Early Willamette Valley pioneer Dave Lett took a chance on the Willamette Valley. Against the advice of his University of California at Davis viticulture professors, he planted the first Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris grapevines in the valley. He founded Eyrie Vineyards in 1965, and the first vintage produced was introduced in 1970. Today, you can visit the original Eyrie winery location in downtown McMinnville, taste the current vintages, and see original portraits of the Letts’ early efforts.
In 1980, wine judges in Beaune, France were surprised and caught off guard when Eyrie’s 1975 Pinot Noir took second place in a blind wine tasting against French wines. The Eyrie Pinot Noir ranked just behind the 1st place 1959 Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny Red Burgundy and ahead of the 3rd place Drouhin Chambertin Clos-de-Bèze, a Red Burgundy from a Grand Cru vineyard. This result put Oregon on the world’s wine map.
Today at Eyrie they are extremely proud of their White Burgundy-like Chardonnay grown in the Certified Organic vineyards on some of the old, original vines in nearby Dundee Hills AVA (American Viticultural Area). Son, Jason Lett, has taken over the reins and expanded the menu of unique wines Eyrie offers. Jason is fermenting new unique grape varietals like Chasselas Doré normally found in Switzerland and Trousseau originating from Jura, France. Success continues for this bold family.
Sokol Blosser – Bill and Susan Were Youthful Willamette Valle Early Pioneers
When Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol Blosser planted their first vines in 1971, they needed all the youthful, self-confidence they could muster to find their way in Oregon. At the time, the wine industry did not exist in Oregon. There were no local suppliers or equipment and sometimes dairy tanks and pumps had to be utilized in a makeshift fashion.
Bill and Susan pulled up their ’68 VW Camper to an abandoned prune orchard 30 miles south of Portland to begin their vineyard adventure. They had little money and just basic winemaking knowledge, but they had loads of passion that has resulted in a world-class winemaking firm. Oregon today has 500 wineries and 19,000 acres of vineyards, a totally different picture.
The Sokol Blosser operation now consists of 128 acres in Dundee, Oregon. Sokol Blosser produces 80,000 cases of wine distributed to all 50 states and exported to many countries. The Sokol Blosser wines include a range of wines: the black raspberry aromas of the Big Tree Single Vineyard Pinot Noir (I love this Pinot Noir with Chef Ina Garten’s Skillet-Roasted Lemon Chicken), Hills Chardonnay, and a Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir among others. Don’t miss their value-priced Evolution label series, too. Enjoy a wine tasting selection in the modern tasting room set in their pristine vineyards.
“S B” lies on a picturesque property that offers a wine country adventurer several unique options. Executive Chef Henry Kibit created the Farm & Forage event featuring 6 bites of food foraged from the estate matched with 6 Sokol Blosser wines. Sit at the kitchen table and enjoy ingredients for these bites, which can include Morel mushrooms, cattail fern, salad greens, and nettles.
The active adventurer should sign up for Equestrian Wine Tours. Enjoy trotting on Tennessee Walker horses through the vineyards and Red Hills of Dundee. Jake Price, owner of Equestrian Wine Tours in Carlton, and his team will guide you to Sokol Blosser, Adelsheim, and other nearby wineries to taste wine and enjoy the countryside on horseback or alternatively ride in a “Central Park-style” surrey to the tastings.
Stoller Family Estate: Voted USA Today’s #1 Tasting Room in America
The Stoller family was a part of the 2nd Wave of vintners in Willamette Valley. Bill Stoller co-founded Express Employment Professionals, one of the largest privately held staffing companies in the world.The Stoller family purchased the property in 1943. Bill purchased it from his family in 1993 and converted the family turkey farm to a vineyard in 1995. Over the last 25 years, the property has transformed into the largest contiguous vineyard in the Dundee Hills.
Its winery was the first in the world to receive the prestigious environmentally friendly LEED Gold Certification. Stoller was voted USA Today’s “#1 Tasting Room in America 2018.” The large, active wine club and frequent visitors attest to the tasting room’s attraction, which features family and dog-friendly surroundings and warm, welcoming hospitality.
A couple or a group of six friends or family members can even rent the on-site Guest House cottages in the vineyards for an up-close experience. Communications Director, Michelle Kaufmann, explains, “We sell hospitality, not just wine.” During my personal visit a large contingent of Vietnam-era military veterans enjoyed a specially prepared lunch and wine tasting.
Kids and dogs, kites and Frisbee’s are often spotted on the Stoller tasting room lawns. Visitors are invited to bring a picnic lunch to the site. This policy acknowledges the economic challenge of raising a young family in the new millennium.
Hospitality may draw you to Stoller Family Estates, but the highlights of my tour were the award-winning wines. I chose the 2014 Helen’s Pinot Noir for my Thanksgiving dinner menu. This is a 92-point Pinot Noir featuring flavors and aromas of baked cherry pie with rose petal and herb overtones. The 2016 Stoller Reserve Chardonnay exudes aromas of apple, lemon, and vanilla. Made of Dijon clones, this Chardonnay is aged in 30% new French oak barrels. The 2017 Dundee Hills Stoller Late Harvest Riesling dessert wine will be served at my desserts-only New Years Open House. It will be a great complement to my friend Laurie’s famous pumpkin pie.
Domaine Drouhin: French Soul, Oregon Soil
Maison Joseph Drouhin was founded in 1880 in Beaune, France. His grandson Robert first “discovered” Oregon on a 1961 visit, but the 1979 and 1980 blind tastings in Paris and Burgundy (where Eyrie won 2nd place) put Oregon wines on the world map according to the Drouhin family. They recognized the similar soils and climates of Oregon to Burgundy and invested in vineyard land in Willamette Valley, creating Domaine Drouhin, Oregon. They were part of the 2nd Wave of pioneer vintners to the Willamette Valley. Robert’s daughter Véronique came first to Oregon to work with several pioneer families, including the Letts at Eyrie, and she still serves as Domaine Drouhin, Oregon’s winemaker.
From the vista of the outdoor patio, a visitor can compare and contrast the Domaine Drouhin, Oregon and the Drouhin French Burgundy wines. “The Burgundy Experience” can be prescheduled for individual guests or a group of friends. Following a tour of the winery, you will be guided through a seated comparative tasting of five wines, including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Drouhin Oregon and France along with a selection of fine cheeses.
I’ll be doing my own Thanksgiving Day comparison of the fine wines of Willamette Valley, including my Drouhin favorite, the 2015 Laurène Pinot Noir, a 94-point, intensely aromatic wine with aromas of violets, blueberries, and spice. The 90-point 2016 Arthur Chardonnay is a complex wine featuring flavors of pear, lemon curd, and lychee, a wonderful pairing with the crab cake appetizers. The 2003 vintage of Drouhin Arthur Chardonnay, paired with Chestnut Soup and Stuffed Squab Legs, was served at the White House at a State Dinner honoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2006.
Lange Winery: a Family Affair Thrives at the Top of the Valley
Thirty years ago Don and Wendy Lange arrived in Willamette Valley with the 2nd wave of early vintners. 1987 marked their first Lange vintage of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay. Don Lange’s work as a winemaker was proclaimed by Wine Enthusiast to be “one of the great Pinot Noir producers in the United States.”
I met with Jesse Lange, Don’s son, who serves as General Manager and Winemaker, and with Wendy Lange, Proprietor, CEO. In addition to wine production, Jesse has been active in Oregon Pinot Camp–an immersion program held for the wine trade including top restaurant and off premise wine purchasers. Fifty of the top wineries help attendees learn about the wines and winemaking in the Willamette Valley. Jesse and Wendy were proud about how the Willamette Valley winemakers “pull together” in an effort to promote the valley.
The Lange winery has one of the most breathtaking views in the Valley with Mt. Hood often visible in the distance. The outside cliff-hanging patio welcomes the enthusiastic wine taster looking for the ultimate Willamette Valley view complemented by a menu of spectacular wines.
Lange’s 2016 Three Hills Cuvée Chardonnay, a 93-point Wine Enthusiast “Editor’s Choice” selection, will be prominently served on my Thanksgiving table accompanying the tuna and avocado tapas. The Lange 2015 Temperance Hill Pinot Noir was the impetus for Wine Enthusiast’s suggestion of Lange Winery as one of “Five Great Oregon Vineyards To Know.”
Don’t miss this year’s new wine addition, the 2015 Mia Mousseux Sparkling Brut Rosé. Wendy Lange loves bubbles and notes, “It’s your palate. It’s your party.” Bubbles will be the opening “pour” at my Christmas Eve event. Why not yours?
The Willamette Valley area is recognized for its foodie culture. Grab a bottle from your favorite Willamette Valley winery and explore the McMinnville, Newburg, and Carlton food scene. The Willamette Valley wine pioneers love their local restaurants. You will often find them sitting together in the back of Nick’s Italian Café discussing the day’s harvest. Try the breakfast at Crescent Café and order their Chicken Hash or the daily egg scramble mix. Book reservations in advance to enjoy The Painted Lady, a Luxe New American fine dining experience, and the Thistle for great craft cocktails and farm-fresh meals.
Happy Holiday Season to all PRiME women! Serve the finely crafted, food-friendly wines of the Willamette Valley. These wines will entice family and friends to visit one of America’s most celebrated wine regions.
Find these wines:
2016 Eyrie Pinot Gris, Wine Enthusiast 92 Points, $23
2015 Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, Wine Spectator 90 Points, $38
2015 Domaine Drouhin Arthur Chardonnay, Wine Enthusiast 92 Points, $36
2015 Stoller Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir, Wine Enthusiast 91 points, $40
2015 Lange Pinot Noir Reserve, Wine Enthusiast 91 points, $48