Pinot Noir Pilgrimage in Willamette Valley, Oregon
A desire for a wine holiday was the reason I found myself driving along country roads surrounded by vineyards and rural farmlands in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I recently discovered the joy of combining wine tasting with travel as a wonderful way to experience a place. This flourishing wine region exists because visionary growers didn’t heed critics who claimed that wine grapes would not grow here (happily those critics were wrong). Today, the area is synonymous with Pinot Noir and boasts more than 300 wineries. I had heard the wine industry here is dominated by family-owned wineries where a warm welcome awaits, likened to Napa in the 1980s. Having been away for 30 years, I couldn’t wait to see for myself.
I was thrilled to find accommodations in wine country that would make Napa proud: the Allison Inn & Spa, nestled on 35 acres surrounded by trees, vineyards, and trails. I appreciated the luxury offering while being eco-friendly and LEED (Gold) certified with solar panels and a living roof. The bellman escorted me to my room, not because I carried so much luggage, but to explain the high-tech features: fireplace controls, window shades, and the beautiful floor lamp you twist to turn on.
Welcoming touches included a plate of cookies, a complimentary snack basket, and chilled filtered water in the mini fridge (bottled water isn’t sustainable). The window seat was perfect to enjoy a glass of wine while gazing out over the spacious grounds. The mini shelf for my glass, pulled out from the dresser, was a thoughtful touch. Knowing I would be sampling wine at dinner, I set off to visit the seven acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards before the meal.
Meals at Jory are legendary. It seemed fitting to begin the evening with a glass of Argyle Brut, a preview of my visit the following day. Seated at the counter overlooking the open kitchen allowed me the added pleasure of watching the culinary team in action. It felt like a Food Network show without the drama.
The English pea soup arrived as a sculpture of flowers and greens, around which the chilled soup was poured, creating an island and tasting freshly harvested. Many of the restaurant’s ingredients are grown in the Chef Garden. A tasting menu seemed a good way to sample more dishes. Each course was served with innovative seasonal sides and paired with a different Oregon Pinot to complement the flavors. The grilled salmon was paired with a 2012 J Christopher, light to medium body. Crispy pork belly was served with a 2012 Shea Estate, tasting of bright red fruit. And the Muscovy duck was enhanced by the 2012 Austin Knoll, full bodied and produced from the estate grapes.
Although I was too full for dessert, the warm dark chocolate Pinot cake was impossible to resist, especially with Port from Willamette Valley Vineyards. It was a truly amazing meal complemented by the expert wine pairings. After having eaten so well, it was reassuring I had only to walk a short distance to my room. Falling asleep in the soft bed was like sleeping on a cloud.
Most tasting rooms open at 11, which gave me ample time for a leisurely breakfast and a visit to the beautiful indoor pool before heading out for the day. Not sure of my itinerary, I decided to visit the Valley Wine Merchants to sort it out. The store and wine bar reminded me of an old fashioned mercantile, brimming with Oregon wine including some rare early vintages. They were happy to provide winery recommendations. After tasting the 2002 Adelsheim Elizabeth’s Reserve Pinot Noir, purchasing a bottle for later, and clutching the trusty wine map, I was ready to explore.
Adelsheim, one of the original pioneers of Oregon wine, provided an informative tasting of five of its wines: one Chardonnay and four Pinot Noirs. The bright tasting room contained an outdoor terrace surrounded by vineyards. Comparing the 2012 Elizabeth’s Reserve Pinot with the 2002 I had tasted earlier provided hints as to how well it would age. It was an education in the subtle nuances of flavors ranging from bright red fruit (strawberries and raspberries) to dark fruit.
Argyle Winery makes Oregon sparkling wine, three of which are available for tasting. I enjoyed the bubbles, tasting refreshingly dry while expressing complexity. The historic facilities are being expanded to accommodate more guests and provide VIP tasting experiences.
Needing a lunch break but not wanting a lengthy sit-down affair, I stopped at nearby Red Hills Market to choose from a selection of sandwiches, salads, and baked delights to eat in or enjoy as a gourmet feast at one of the wineries. After enjoying a sandwich fit for a gourmand, I was ready to resume my wine exploration.
Driving in the Dundee hills and admiring dramatic views on the way to Domaine Drouhin was a treat. The winery was started by a French wine family and overlooks some of the earliest Pinot vineyards from their terrace. The Chardonnay is approachable, tasting of fruit rather than oak, Rosé (of Pinot) was dry and refreshing, while the Pinot Noirs were rich and full bodied with hints of luscious red fruit. The customized tasting experience (with advance reservation) includes a comparison of the winery’s Oregon wine with Maison Joseph Drouhin produced in Burgundy.
White Rose Estate had an “Alice in Wonderland”-like quality to the grounds, grand lawns, and sweeping vistas. The tasting room was intimate and welcoming with an Old World feel. Each of the four artisanal Pinot Noirs varied in their flavor profiles, ranging from red fruit to darker fruit depending on the vineyard and sun exposure.
Sokol Blosser provided an amazing tasting experience with stunning architecture and the choice of indoor or outdoor tasting. I chose an outdoor table overlooking the vineyards with a butcher’s block of charcuterie and cheese (request with an advance tasting reservation) and the winery’s Evolution sparkling wine, a surprising blend of white grapes giving it a floral aroma. The real fun was comparing the differences of the 2011 and 2012 Pinot Noir vintages from several of the vineyards.
I couldn’t help but be impressed by my visit to the Willamette Valley. The passion for wine was justified, matched by its quality and hospitality. World-class wines, wonderful tasting experiences, and a fantastic hotel left me wanting to return soon.
Details: The Willamette Valley is located less than an hour’s drive from the Portland International Airport. Alaska Airlines’ Wine Flies Free program allows one case of Oregon wine checked for free. During the summer months, making an advance tasting reservation can ensure you have an optimal tasting experience. Allison Inn & Spa is located in Newburg. The 85-room property can accommodate individuals and groups flawlessly. Plan to eat at Jory Restaurant and enjoy the spa during your visit.