Bend has its Ale Trail. Eugene has Pinot Bingo.
OK, so Eugene has an ale trail, too. But with twice the population and half the breweries, the Emerald Empire can’t compete with Central Oregon in the beer arena.
Not so with wineries. There are more than 20 wineries in the South Willamette Valley district of Lane County alone. On a recent three-day visit, accompanied by a “Pinot Bingo” game card from the Eugene, Cascades & Coast visitor center, I visited 12 of them — thanks also to the guidance of a designated driver, my friend Stephen Hoshaw, who makes his home in Eugene.
Pinot Bingo is Eugene’s version of a traditional bingo card. There are 25 squares on the card, five up and down, five left and right, with a free space in the middle. Most of the squares have numbers that represent the various wineries: Visit one, have your card stamped, and you’re one step closer to winning the game. A few miscellaneous squares carry letters paired with local restaurants, brewpubs or other businesses that support the wineries.
Winners — those who have filled lines, blocks or even the full card — may return to one of the area’s two visitor facilities to collect a prize, which could be an art print, a wine glass or something more precious.
Hoshaw and I spent a day on the south side of the valley (below state Route 126), a second day on the north side (between 126 and Junction City) and a third day in and around central Eugene.
More than pinot
With nine of my 25 squares unfilled, and in the knowledge that I’ll be returning to Eugene to visit the wineries I missed, I am holding off on cashing in my Pinot Bingo card.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a lot on my foray through South Willamette wineries. For certain, I discovered that although pinot noir remains the king of wines in Oregon, it doesn’t have an exclusive hold. At my dozen stops, I also sampled cuvées (sparkling wines in the méthode champagnoise) and rosés of pinot noir and malbec.
I tasted 11 different white wines — pinot gris and pinot blanc, of course, but also sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, semillon, riesling, gewurztraminer, viognier, roussanne, grenache blanc and muscat, all available in the South Willamette region.
I also sampled an equal number of reds — cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, not surprisingly, but also cabernet franc, petite sirah, malbec, grenache, the hybrid Marechal Foch grape, Spanish tempranillo, and a couple of Portuguese grapes I didn’t know at all: Tinto Çao and Touriga Nacional.
“We try to do some interesting stuff that not everybody does in Oregon,” I was told by Vicki Piva, marketing manager for J. Scott Cellars, which produces a greater variety than any other winery in the area. With no estate vineyards of its own, J. Scott sources grapes from throughout the Willamette, Rogue and Applegate valley regions.
I was especially impressed by J. Scott’s 2014 grenache blanc ($22) whose green-apple crispiness, combined with a smoky edge, made it the perfect choice to enjoy with a cheese such as Gouda or Edam as an evening appetizer or a game-time snack.
J. Scott has its winery on Eugene’s west side, in the same industrial zone as Noble Estate — another winery with a broad selection — and the quirky Viking Braggot Co., a brewery that sweetens its beers with honey in the style of ancient Norse mead.
In the heart of Eugene’s Whitaker District, Territorial Vineyards & Wine Co. has earned high respect for its wines made by New Zealander Ray Walsh, whose own private winery, Capitello, has won kudos for its Kiwi-style sauvignon blanc ($21). Territorial is best known for pinot noirs, but also produces petite sirah, pinot gris, chardonnay and riesling.
Also in downtown Eugene, Australian winemaker Mark Nicholl’s William Rose Wines are featured at his Oregon Wine Lab, which offers live music along with his and other wines.
Out Highway 126, Valhalla Winery is the new name for a Veneta company that previously was Domaine Meriwether and, before that, Secret House Winery. Located close to the grounds of the Oregon Country Fair, Valhalla makes outstanding sparkling wines, including a 2001 brut rosé cuvée ($45).
North of here, toward Monroe and Junction City, I visited three other wineries in the Prairie Mountain region. Bennett, Brigadoon and Benton-Lane all specialize in pinot noir. Bennett’s 2015 white pinot noir ($27) has a touch of sweetness not typical of related varietals, while Brigadoon’s estate-grown 2014 Taproot reserve ($40) is more complex, having aged in oak for 18 months. Benton-Lane’s 2014 Pinot Noir Estate wine ($27) isn’t as elegant and velvety as its 2014 First Class Pinot Noir ($65), but the price point makes it much more attractive.
On this visit, I didn’t make it into the King Estate winery, largest in the South Willamette region. But I found a worthy challenger at the Sarver Winery in the hills near Crow, south of Highway 126. Sarver wines are sourced for many locations — merlot and cabernet sauvignon from the Rogue Valley, syrah from the Yakima Valley, petite sirah from the Napa Valley — but its locally produced Elhanan Vineyard estate pinot noir stands out above them all. The 2012 vintage ($28) is exceptionally well priced.
Two favorite wineries facing each other on Briggs Hill Road continue to produce outstanding wines. Sweet Cheeks Winery, in fact, has just opened a new tasting room in downtown Eugene’s Fifth Street Public Market. The Silvan Ridge Winery is producing not only outstanding pinot noir (the 2012 Freedom Hill Vineyard pinot noir is priced at $36), but also a delicious 2015 viognier ($18) and a 2015 malbec rosé ($20).
As one who doesn’t normally care for sweet wines, I’m not sold on the white chocolate cherry chardonnay ($18), a dessert wine from the Saginaw Vineyard outside of Cottage Grove. The great thing about wines is this: There’s usually something for everyone.
— John Gottberg Anderson specializes in Northwest wines. His column appears in GO! every other week. He also writes for our food section.