A two-day visit to the wineries and vineyards of the lower Willamette Valley doesn't have to be all about drinking. It can also be an education, especially during the annual autumn harvest of pinot noir grapes.
Just as I enjoy my food more when I know where it comes from — whether the source is a greenhouse or a cattle ranch, an herb garden or a fishing boat — so do I welcome an understanding of the process by which my beverages are produced. And as my favorite beverage is wine, I can think of few better classrooms than those afforded me in the Dundee Hills.
Any winery that invites public visits has a tasting room. These facilities may range in scope from a closet-size studio to an expansive suite stocked with casual clothing, books and wine drinkers' paraphernalia such as corkscrews and decanters.
A few also advertise winery tours for visitors with particular interest. Even if these are not announced, they may often be arranged by special request, generally beginning from the tasting room. Such tours are a worthwhile way to explore a wine region.
Pinot noir heaven
Of Oregon's estimated 500 wineries, about 350 are in the Willamette Valley, where more than 20,000 acres are committed to growing grapes. The first of those vines were planted in the Dundee Hills in 1965.
There were only 200 acres in grapes in 1972, after the Sokol Blosser family planted its initial vines. But after pinot noir from The Eyrie Winery placed among the top three wines in the world in a French “Olympiad" in 1979, the Dundee Hills gained an international reputation.
Pinot noir is a temperamental, thin-skinned grape varietal that requires a particular geography to grow successfully. France's Burgundy, its native region, fills the bill. So, too, does the Willamette Valley, which happens to lie in the same latitude with a similar seasonal climate. The Dundee Hills terroir, characterized by volcanic-ash soil and generally southeast-facing slopes, arguably produces its best wines.
Robert Drouhin suspected that might be the case when he purchased acreage in 1987 and, two years later, established Domaine Drouhin Oregon.
The scion of a longtime family of grape growers in Beaune, France, Drouhin had sent his daughter, Véronique, to study winemaking in Oregon the previous year. In 1988, father and daughter planted eight acres with clones of the pinot grape; the following year, they built Oregon's first state-of-the-art, gravity-flow winery. Their first pinot noir, released in 1991, was immediately acclaimed for its silky elegance.
As dawn broke on a recent Wednesday morning, I stood amid the 126 acres of vineyards at Domaine Drouhin Oregon with assistant winemaker Arron Bell, who eyed a crew of about 20 laborers as they raced through the vines as a paid-by-the-bucket brigade.
The French Drouhins spend most of the year in their Burgundy home, so Bell serves as their eyes and ears at the Oregon estate. “I just implement what (Véronique) wants done," he said. “But that's not too hard: Domaine Drouhin's philosophy is to do as little as possible, to keep our wines as natural as we can."
But the Oregon State University graduate is far more than a placeholder. He has been at Domaine Drouhin for 12 of its 25 years in Oregon, and he speaks of wine like the veteran he is.
“This is our driest vintage since 1999," Bell told me. “The rain shut off around June 25, and we've had only a quarter-inch since. We had 15 days over 90 degrees, and the average here is 12 days. But our clusters seem normal size, around 100 grams. The alcohol content is good at 13.6 percent, and the pH is 3.1, which is also good.
“Still, it's too early to tell what the wine's characteristics are going to be. Will it be dark and spicy? We'll have to fill a few tanks to see. When we have 10 of our 37 tanks full, we'll have a better picture of how the 2012 vintage is going to be."
The decision of when to harvest the grapes, Bell told me, is made on a day-to-day basis. “Last week," said Bell, “the stems and seeds were still green. We looked at them yesterday, and called the crews in today."
Although many different styles of grapes are grown in the Willamette Valley, pinot is king. Domaine Drouhin Oregon produces only two wine varietals: pinot noir (about 15,000 cases a year) and chardonnay (about 3,000 cases). While Drouhin's chardonnay is aged 50 percent in French oak, 50 percent in stainless steel, Bell said, pinot spends 14 months in an oaken barrel and another year and a half in the bottle before it is released for public consumption.
“Our 2011 Willamette Valley pinot will be bottled in December," Bell said. “It will be released next summer."
At Sokol Blosser, I met Michael Kelly Brown, the insightful director of consumer sales and marketing. Named for its founders, Bill and Susan Sokol Blosser, this winery was one of Oregon's first when it opened in 1971. Its winery building and tasting room were the first in the state built for those specific purposes in 1978, Brown said.
But now a new tasting room is under construction, scheduled to open next summer. Ground has already been broken and concrete laid on a spacious site near the existing building. And the Sokol Blosser team is already anxious for the finished product. Its architect is Brad Cloepfil of the Portland firm Allied Work, well known for the adaptive reuse of Portland's Wieden+Kennedy building and for subsequent major art museums around the country.
By Oregon standards, Sokol Blosser's annual production of 85,000 cases is moderate, Brown said. Ten thousand cases of estate pinot noir, its specialty, come entirely from grapes grown on its own 90 acres of vineyards. But its numerous blends — notably Evolution, a combination of several white grapes, and Evolution Red — are made with grapes purchased from other growers.
For me, the most impressive current structure at Sokol Blosser is its barrel room, which was the first LEED-certified winery building in the world when it was completed in 2002. Humidity misted above hundreds of oak barrels as Brown and I walked beneath the sod roof.
“Every barrel in this cellar has a different chart, so to speak," Brown said. “Each one is designated by individual block, age, terroir and cooperage.
“This is where the art of a winemaker comes in. The barrel room is a winemaker's palate. He can take a little from this barrel, a little from that, a little from the next, in blending the grapes and clones that he wants."
In the same general neighborhood is the Stoller Family Estate, whose 180 planted acres comprise the largest contiguous vineyards in the Dundee Hills. And Stoller has its own brand-new tasting room. Opened Sept. 9, its cathedral-like windows frame a west-facing view of the grapevines.
“This was originally Oregon's largest turkey farm," winemaker Melissa Burr told me. “Bill Stoller bought it from his uncle in the late 1980s and planted a 10-acre vineyard. Now we produce between 12,000 and 14,000 cases of wine annually."
Most of the production, as with other Dundee Hills wineries, is pinot noir and chardonnay, along with a small amount of Riesling, said Burr. But she has planted experimental tempranillo and syrah for her own wines, she said, and a small amount of pinot gris and pinot blanc are produced for sale to other producers.
“The 15 tons of grapes we picked last Friday are now ripening in the tank," Burr said. “Our pinot noir is cold-soaked for three to seven days, allowing color to be pulled from the stems before it is sorted and de-stemmed. Only then do we start fermenting. After the grapes settle, we age the juice in barrels for 10½ months."
Pinot noir, she said, is an unusually fickle grape. “There's not a lot of room for error," she said. “It doesn't like extreme heat, and it's so delicate that if there's a heavy rain, its thin skin can split. What's more, it's financially challenging."
Burr was studying to become a naturopathic physician when life took a meander and she wound up making a different kind of medicine, the kind sold in 750-milliliter bottles. In 2012, she is celebrating her 10th vintage.
“I'm excited about this year," she said “It's been so dry, but I think that is working in our favor."
In the barrel room, Burr described the number coding system that identifies separate pinot clones that may be blended or used by themselves. Then we visited the bottling operation, which is performed by a private contractor in the adapted trailer of a semi truck.
Pinot noir, she said, will remain in the bottle for two years before its release.
Carlton Winemakers Studio
Quite different from the region's large- and moderate-production wineries is the Carlton Winemakers Studio. Co-owned by Napa-born Eric Hamacher, his wife Luisa Ponzi, and Ned and Kirsten Lumpkin, the building — shared by 12 individual winemakers — celebrated its 10th anniversary on Sept. 29.
“The idea was to help everyone get up and get going," said Hamacher, who produces his own pinot noirs and chardonnays under the Hamacher label. “We offer everything but the fruit and the capital. We have the space and the equipment as well as three wine cellars. Everyone has keys and 24-hour access.
“We're like college roommates, in many ways, with different funding sources, different aspirations and different abilities. There are a lot of smart people who ask great questions. And all together, we produce over 20,000 cases of wine a year."
Member winemakers began harvesting in mid-September, Hamacher said, and as long as sunny conditions held they might still be bringing grapes in through late October.
Among the wineries lodged here since the studio opened are Lazy River, owned by the Lumpkins, and Andrew Rich, who trucks Rhone grapes from Washington's Columbia Valley to produce 5,000 cases of self-named red and white blends each year. “But more than 30 wineries have floated through," Hamacher said. They produce about 18 different varietals, he said.
A winter ski patrolman at Mt. Bachelor, Hamacher is also a veteran rock climber who included a climbing wall in the original design of the Winemakers Studio. The building, he said, was built to LEED standards, constructed of fly-ash concrete with recycled wood and aluminum.
Its continuous-flow design lends itself to efficient production. “Two years ago, we were able to hand-sort 83 tons of grapes in 10 hours," Hamacher recalled. “The industry standard is 20 to 25. That's efficiency."
For Dundee Hills visitors, there's no better place to stay than the Allison Inn & Spa. Recently named the “No. 1 Wine Country Hotel in the United States" by Travel+Leisure magazine, the 3-year-old resort spreads along a hillside flanked by its own vineyard, with east-facing views across the little college town of Newberg.
Part of the Allison's charm is that it is equal parts luxury and intimacy. There are only 85 rooms here, 20 of them suites. Even the everyday rooms are very spacious; their 490 square feet are more than twice the hotel-industry standard.
Built with LEED Gold certification by GGLO of Seattle, an integrated design firm that couples architecture with interior design and landscape architecture, the hotel seems to flow from one section of the property to the next. A circular staircase carries guests from their rooms through the registration area and into a “living room" and adjoining patio, where Thursday-night wine tastings and weekend jazz performances are regularly scheduled.
One floor down, beneath 12,000 square feet of meeting space, the top-rated Allison Spa & Fitness Studio offers 12 treatment rooms for massages, facials and other services. The fitness facility, which features all state-of-the-art equipment, is open to hotel guests only, as are the property's indoor swimming pool, whirlpool, steam room and dry sauna.
My attention was particularly drawn to the hotel's restaurant, Jory, named for a regional soil type that in turn took its name from a pioneer family of the 1850s. My dinner included an heirloom tomato salad and smoked duck breast served with butternut squash, figs and pecans. I had not expected such an outstanding meal.
Had I known beforehand that Jory's executive chef, 35-year-old Sunny Jin, had cooked for three years in the Napa Valley's renowned French Laundry after graduating top of his class at Portland's Western Culinary Institute, I might not have been so surprised.
Born in Korea but raised in Minnesota, Jin credits his time at “the Laundry" with helping him in his evolution as a chef. “They really teach you what you're capable of," he said. “The kitchen there is a collaboration of eight cooks. The freedom to create exists, but there's a strict science to locking in the subtlety of flavors. The right creation is their key to success."
Jory has its own, functioning half-acre vegetable-and-herb garden which, by next year, will be expanded to 1½ acres including a greenhouse, Jin said. As well, the restaurant raises its own hogs for charcuterie, and maintains close personal connections with all producers.
That connection extends to local winemakers. The extensive wine list, 38 pages long, includes choices from Domaine Drouhin, Sokol Blosser and Stoller, along with several vintages produced in the Carlton Winemakers Studio. Sunny Jin and I have this in common: We know where our grapes come from.