Saturday, July 4, 2009

Willamette Valley Day Trip Report

Mrs. AGN and I took our girls on a visit to Portland and spent a day down in the wine country of Willamette Valley, an AVA that spreads from Portland down to Eugene. There are many sub-AVA’s in this area (and even talk of sub-sub AVA’s) and we visited two – Dundee Hills and McMinnville. The AVA system is somewhat designed to help consumers understand how terroir affects the wine. If a wine lists Willamette Valley on the label, then the grapes came from several different sub-AVA’s; if it lists just Dundee Hills, then you know all the grapes came from that AVA. These AVA’s are designated based on soil type, mainly, I believe. The WV region is primarily Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris and differences between the sub-AVA’s isn’t quite as pronounced, for me, as in other areas, such as Yakima Valley. However, it is still fun and interesting to know about these differences and look for what the location of the vineyard imparts into the wines.

One other general observation – the Oregon tasting rooms, at least the few we visited, seem to have higher tasting room fees than their Washington counterparts. I attributed some of this to Pinot Noir – it is generally a more expensive varietal. But, tasting fees were high and in some cases, took a large purchase to get them waived.

Argyle Winery ( – this is a relatively large-production winery. Nice wines, but nothing super distinctive about the tasting room staff or their wines. It always takes a stop or two to get warmed up, though.

Next was Daedalus Cellars ( which we really enjoyed. The wines are organic and quite good. They make an easy-drinking Pinot, called Jezebel, which I thought was terrific and instantly turned my mind to grilled Salmon. Their higher-end Pinots provided more structure and complexity, but the Jezebel took the prize for value of the day. The tasting room staff was the owner’s yoga instructor and had an energetic personality that filled the small, nondescript tasting room.

Next we headed up the hills a bit to Domaine Serene, known for their top-rated Pinots. On the way, we found Red Ridge Farms and were lured in by the sign for Olive Oil tastings. They have a gorgeous setting overlooking the hills, an excellent picnic area, wonderful planted herbs, and lots of olive and truffle oil tastings. Wine country isn’t just for wine tastings – there are many flavors and sensations to appreciate along the way.

Arriving at Domaine Serene (, we knew we were out of our element. The facility exudes formality and pretense; the cashier at the entrance collects your tasting fee and then you move through the different stations. They have a top rated Pinot and while it was very well balanced and elegant, the value wasn’t there compared to even the first two wineries we had hit. We ended up purchasing a bottle of their Syrah, sourced from Washington grapes, though.

And then something completely different, and more up our alley… Vista Hills ( They call this the treehouse tasting room because there is a porch overlooking the vineyard, nestled among trees providing a hideout feel to it. The tasting room staff is primarily young people who are very friendly and warm. The tasting fee is a nominal $5 and is waived with a purchase (only decent of them). They have some wonderful wines and, having found a nice place to sit on the deck, we ordered a cheese plate and decided to park it for a while. The cheese plate wasn’t a small sample tray – it provided a nice little light lunch for us and the girls. 4 different cheeses, grapes, dried fruit, crackers… all while sipping Pinot in the shade watching a coyote in the vines. This was the highlight of our day.

Right across the road from Vista Hills was Domaine Drouhin ( If you shop at Costco you may have seen their 2006 Pinot. A word to the wise – Costco sells it much cheaper than they do at the winery. And, the 2006 was an excellent vintage; the 2007 is ok, but doesn’t have the weight and fullness of 2006. At this point we were a little burned out on the formality of higher end tasting rooms and anything was a let-down after the treehouse. So, we tried a few of their wines and hit the road for McMinnville.

McMinnville had a sleepy, informal feel to it and I wish we could have spent a little more time there. We drove in, saw a sign pointing to a wine tasting, and decided to follow; we were on to the ad-hoc part of our day. The sign led us to Anthony Dell Cellars (, This tasting room was in a large warehouse featuring a simple bar, a nice sitting area, and an enjoyable ambiance for tasting honest wines. Walking across the street, we ended up in Panther Creek Cellars ( Similar to Anthony Dell, this was a tasting room located in their warehouse, but also was their wine making facility. The smells, sounds, and visual treat of walking in and enjoying the wine while looking at the living wine aging in barrels stacked to the ceiling is a multi-sensory experience that fills my memory of the place. I commented on this to the staff guy pouring our wine (who doubles as the cellar rat) and he didn’t share my sense of wonder. Apparently, making wine in a facility not designed for winemaking adds significant hardship. Regardless, the wines were good – polished and complete.

Our last stop was at Evergreen (, world famous home of the Spruce Goose. Not only do they have a great aviation museum, they own a vineyard and make some good Oregon wines. Their tasting room is located in the museum so you get to taste wine while admiring the hugeness of the Goose… boy, is it big. We unfortunately did not have enough time to go through the museum, but did taste the wines. They have a great marketing angle, with multiple labels for their Pinots as well as a nice light, dry rose. While stereotypically I’d expect these wines to be awkward, cheap, and looking solely to capitalize on the museum/wine country theme, these weren’t. They were enjoyable wines representing Oregon winemaking nicely. The museum is slated to get the next decommissioned space shuttles; it’ll definitely be on our list to visit again.

For a one day trip, we were able to pack a bit in and it was a great introduction to that part of the Willamette Valley. We have a few more Oregon Pinots to add to our cellar, and to enjoy with our next meal. For me, I used to not really care for or appreciate Pinot; I tried and I tried, but didn’t. However, over the last couple of years I have gained much more of an appreciation for it, especially its food-friendliness.

So, what do you like, or dislike, about Pinot? Any recommendations of some you really like?

Until next time… Drink and Discover.

1 comment:

osprey said...

Thanks for the rich, visual and taste descriptions. It reminded me of all my travels to wineries, particularly a recent tour of the Leelanau peninsula in Michigan Fun, beautiful, relaxing, spectacular beaches and dunes, some excellent white wines but good red wine was scarce, unless you like fruit wines, particularly cherry wines. A great place to visit if you're in the neighborhood (I have family in southeast Michigan so I'm nearby fairly often).