What's New in the Willamette
Editor at large Harvey Steiman just got back from the Willamette Valley, where he went to sample the '97s. In this installment of our occasional series of postcards from Wine Spectator's globe-trotting wine tasters, Harvey shares his observations from Oregon.
Mt. Hood gleams on the horizon like an inverted cone-shaped water cup, shining against the first sliver of blue sky I have seen in three days. Welcome to Oregon in the winter, where clouds and drizzle are the order of the day and the Pinot Noirs are bubbling merrily away in wine cellars scattered about the gentle rolling hills of the Willamette Valley. The gas from malolactic fermentations trapped inside the barrels makes not-quite-perfectly-sealed bungs squeak like mosquitoes.
"That is really eerie," says Ronni Lacroute, co-owner of WillaKenzie Estate, as we stand in the below-ground barrel cellar. We look up at the ceiling lights, which flicker. "I would hate to be trapped in here in the dark, hearing that."
Earlier, I had been following Gary Andrus through the tunnels under Archery Summit's hillside winery as he stopped at the occasional barrel, popped the bung cork and used a wine thief to extract a few ounces of purple-red liquid for me to sample. First impression: Color was not a problem for Archery Summit in 1997. Holding the glass to the light, I saw the wine looked opaque, almost black.
Around Willamette Valley, the sighs of relief over the 1997 vintage are loud enough to drown out those whistling bung corks. Rain repeatedly interrupted the harvest, and after the problems with rot that made so many 1995s feel underweaned and unbalanced, many feared a repeat in 1997. No evidence of that from what I tasted, at least from those barrels not temporarily stinky because of secondary fermentations.
In fact, I found the wines to be largely charming. I had taste flashbacks to my first visit to Burgundy, in 1980, when I was led from cellar to cellar by Rebecca Wasserman. The juicy structure of these Oregon wines and their raspberry, floral and mineral flavors took me back to that chilly early spring in Pommard, Volnay and Beaune. Then it was the 1979 Burgundies; those with long memories may recall them as wines of grace and charm, wonderful if short-lived.
Winter in the Willamette is supposed to be quiet, but no one seems to have told the waves of cars roaring down Highway 99W, which cuts through the main winegrowing region from Portland past McMinnville. Turning left from a side road can be an adventure. Most of the wineries are up in the clusters of hills that dot the sprawling valley. Visitors are few and, particularly in the smaller wineries, I find myself walking into deserted buildings, my "Hello!" echoing off stainless steel tanks or concrete walls until the winemaker emerges from an office or laboratory to greet me.
This time, I have decided to supplement my survey of the 1997 Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays with an extra focus on Pinot Gris. My tastings in San Francisco have convinced me that enough wineries are making worthy wines that it's time to find out what's behind them. So everywhere I stop, the first samples are from cold tanks of 1997 whites waiting to be bottled. At Willamette Valley Vineyards, near Salem, winemaker Joe Dobbs Jr. has two bottlings, one from local fruit and one from fruit grown in Rogue Valley, in the southern part of the state. They are very different wines, the Willamette bottling reminding me of a really good Friuli Pinot Grigio, the Rogue Valley more like a bigger, more muscular Alsace Tokay.
At Ken Wright Cellars, Wright explains that he hates the crisp lightness of Pinot Gris and makes Pinot Blanc in a richer style as his Chardonnay alternative. Mark Vlossak, who replaced Wright as the winemaker at Panther Creek Cellars, expounds over breakfast the next morning about how a Pinot Grigio of Friuli so dazzled him that, in his own winery, St. Innocent, he makes Pinot Gris (same grape, different language) with that taste of northeastern Italy in mind. He is also planning a Tocai Friulano and a Pinot Bianco. Er, better make that Pinot Blanc.
No one can say that Oregon vintners lack independence.
Until recently, dining options in Willamette Valley lagged well behind the winemaking. It's a long way from catching up, but I ate some seriously rewarding food at several restaurants.
Grilled salmon with truffled mashed potatoes was a real eye-opener at Third Street Grill, a year-old spot in McMinnville opened by Mark Pape, the former sommelier of the Grand Award-winning Little Nell in Aspen, Col. McMinnville is the largest town between Portland and Salem and home to several well-known wineries. Ken Wright's richly layered Pinot Blanc 1996 washed down the food with real flair.
Jack Czarnecki, whose mushroom restaurant in Pennsylvania made him the fungus guru of gastronomy, has set up shop in Dayton, a small town between McMinnville and Dundee. He refurbished the historic Joel Palmer House, and now has the most elegant restaurant in Oregon wine country. Jack's food wallows in Oregon mushrooms and truffles, which make a perfect foil for Pinot Noir.
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