Between Oregon's Cascade Mountains and it's Coast Range sits an unlikely rival to one of France's preeminent wine districts.
Despite rumors to the contrary, the six-letter name of the wine-growing state between Washington and California is not "France." True enough, Oregon also straddles the planet’s 45th northern parallel and is similarly characterized by long, dreary, rainy winters. And like the French countryside, Yamhill County’s gently rolling hills and lush green valleys are dotted with quaint villages and covered by undulant vineyards. But baseball caps still outnumber berets, and local horizons are more likely to be dominated by 50-year-old grain elevators than 500-year-old bell towers. Which is merely to note that, despite the cultural values that have lately been flooding into the area from Europe, Oregon remains as reassuringly American as apple pie.
If you’re talking about chardonnay, that is. If the subject is pinot noir, the pie tastes more like cherry.
The recent confusion between northeastern France and northwestern Oregon is, indeed, traceable to the pinot grape family—and to a man named David Lett, who in 1961 stopped by still-sleepy Napa Valley on his way home to Utah from dental college in California. Before he knew it, Lett had enrolled in the viticulture and enology program at the University of California at Davis. There he gained his first exposure to great French wine—specifically red burgundy, made from pinot noir grapes.
Knowing from that moment on what he wanted to grow—and considering that vineyard land in Burgundy proper is unavailable even to heirs of Louis XIV—Lett began analyzing the climates of similarly cool regions around the world. "I studied New Zealand and northern Portugal, but I kept coming back to the Willamette Valley," Lett says. "The climate was a ringer for Burgundy."
The Willamette Valley begins near Portland at Oregon’s northern border, where its namesake river empties into the Columbia. The valley runs south more than 100 miles to the river’s source below Eugene, flanked on the east by the Cascade Mountains and on the west by the Coast Range, which blocks some of the rain that blows in from the Pacific. French Canadians from the Hudson’s Bay Company had planted grapes here in the 1850s, and in 1904 an Oregon Riesling won a medal at the St. Louis World’s Fair; in the 1880s a German immigrant named Frank Reuter predicted that the area would eventually be known as the "Rhineland of America."
To Lett, however, the Red Hills of Dundee—a series of iron-rich, southeast-facing slopes in Yamhill County—suggested nothing so much as Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. His idea was borne out in 1979 when his ’75 reserve from the Eyrie Vineyards placed third in a 300-wine worldwide "Olympics." From then on, the Willamette Valley has been building an unlikely reputation as Burgundy West. The state now boasts more than 100 wineries, with two-thirds of them in the Willamette Valley and 42 of those in Yamhill County, less than an hour’s drive from Portland. With this cultural revolution, the Willamette Valley’s quiet farm towns have sprouted the inevitable crops that spring up in wine country everywhere: fine restaurants and hip cafés, art galleries and bed-and-breakfast inns catering to tourists.
I finally paid the valley a visit this summer. My first stop, was in Dundee where I turned off Highway 99 West—Oregon’s official "Wine Road"—at a sign for the Ponzi Wine Bar. Dick Ponzi’s famous vineyards (in 1987 he was named one of the world’s outstanding vintners by the prestigious Wine Advocate) are actually located in Beaverton. But he and his wife Nancy have created a culinary nexus in the heart of the new wine country, including a bistro, produce market, bakery, and tasting bar. It was a perfect refuge, spacious and light with blond wood furnishings and a selection of appetizers including a cheese-and-olive plate and Illy espresso. Oh, there were also some pretty good wines—Ponzi's pinot gris, his barrel-fermented arneis (made from an Italian white grape), and a deeply layered ’96 pinot noir reserve.
Ponzi himself was on the premises, so we chatted for a few minutes. He told me he was "trying to create a center here for Willamette Valley cuisine—things like berries, mushrooms, hazelnuts, and lamb. Our strawberries are absolutely beautiful, but we only get one crop, so they’re risky. Climatically, Oregon is marginal—which is great. When any fruit product ripens slowly but still has time to ripen completely, you get the best flavors."
The next day I met Dick Erath, who has grown grapes in the valley since 1968. He briefed me on the viticultural demands of the Oregon climate. "A ‘California year’ here is when it gets too damn hot," Erath said. He extolled the characteristic "brightness" of Oregon wines—how they tend, because of the cool weather, to be low in alcohol and high in acidity, enabling them to harmonize with a wide range of foods. Like many local vintners, Erath described his wines as "fruit-driven," a quality that most encourage through very gentle handling and light treatment with oak. "To me, acid in wine is like the skeleton in your body," Erath said. "Fruit is like flesh—a good, strong skeleton can carry a lot of it." The big and bearish Erath was himself a convincing demonstration of this theory.
Erath’s winery, on Worden Valley Road, has a sweeping view of Mts. Hood and Jefferson to the east, beyond the agricultural patchwork of the Willamette Valley. These snowcapped mountains hinted at the nature of the dirt beneath our feet, as the "Jory" loam of the Red Hills is volcanic in origin. The other major soil, "WillaKenzie," composed of basalt and sedimentary sandstone, is predominant in Yamhill County’s other viticultural subregion, the Chehalem Ridge.
I got a spectacular view of this area when I drove northwest from Dundee and crested the Red Hills. I was confronted by a 120-degree panorama of the Yamhill Valley, backed by the lush Coast Range foothills. In the local native Kalapuyan language, "chehalem" means "gentle" or "peaceful." I idly wondered what the French term would be, as the scene was indeed reminiscent of rural Europe—quietly composed, deeply pastoral, and profusely overgrown.
"Even the weeds and grasses remind me of Burgundy," Bernard Lacroute said when I arrived at WillaKenzie Estate, one of the area’s newest and most impressive wineries. Lacroute was born and raised in Burgundy, but has lived since the 1960s in the United States, where he helped found Sun Microsystems. He now divides his time between the Silicon Valley and Willamette Valley, where he’s pursuing his dream of producing wine from pinot grapes—not just noir but gris, blanc, and meunier, the latter a red variety traditionally used in champagne. Vinified as still wine by Lacroute’s personable winemaker, Laurent Montalieu (who grew up on the island of Guadeloupe and was educated in Bordeaux), it was a revelation: earthy, fruity, and delicious.
Not surprisingly for the dream project of a high-tech trailblazer, WillaKenzie Estate is state-of-the-art, a term that translates in Oregon as "gravity-flow." The building consists of several levels, allowing wine to work its way downward from press to fermenter to barrel without being subjected to the pressure of a pump—yet another nod to the fragility of pinot grapes. A similar example is nearby Domaine Drouhin Oregon, a Burgundian operation that set up shop here after being humbled by Lett in the ’79 Wine Olympics.
DDO, as it’s called, was hard to find without directions. When I mentioned this to Bill Hatcher, the winery’s American manager, he said: "So the system is working." DDO is closed to visitors even on Thanksgiving and Memorial Day weekends, during which most wineries offer special events, tastings, and tours. (Many of the larger operations, including Ponzi, Erath, and WillaKenzie have pleasant tasting rooms with daily hours, as do the popular Rex Hill Vineyards, Sokol Blosser Winery, and Australian-backed Argyle, which produces fine sparkling wine—the Willamette Valley’s up-and-coming hope.)
A Seattle native, Hatcher abandoned the corporate life for the Willamette Valley in 1985. His arrival just preceded that of the Drouhins, who had four family members hoping to enter the wine business in France. "In Burgundy you’re limited by fief," Hatcher explained. "The Drouhins own land in Chablis, but they couldn’t expand by more than 25 hectares." On the advice of David Lett and another Willamette Valley pathfinder, David Adelsheim, Robert Drouhin bought 100 acres in the Red Hills in 1987.
With Drouhin’s daughter Véronique as wine maker, DDO has been winning accolades from its first vintage. Sampling its graceful chardonnay and fragrant pinot noir, I could easily see why: Both had the balance and finesse classically associated with great French wine. "We already think Oregon can equal Burgundy," Hatcher declared. "The weather is actually easier on us here—from July 1 to October 1, Oregon is usually dry, and we don’t get hail like they do in France. On the other hand, Burgundy has 400 soil types. Here there are only a couple, so we don’t get all those wonderful differences."
This didn’t faze Jay MacDonald, with whom I was touring Hatcher’s operation. MacDonald runs The Tasting Room in the tiny crossroads community of Carlton, where he’s carved out a niche selling wines from places that are closed to the public. These include such sought-after producers as Domaine Drouhin, Beaux Frères, Cameron, Domaine Serene, and Ken Wright.
MacDonald said that, because of its range of winemaking approaches (not to mention the annual variability of its vintages), the Willamette Valley produces a pinot noir to suit every palate. "Even if people think red wine gives them headaches, you can find a light pinot noir that makes them say, ‘Now I like red wine!’" Mac Donald said. "Wines from younger vines suit zinfandel drinkers, whereas Beaux Frères, Panther Creek, and Archery Summit appeal to cabernet-merlot people."
Archery Summit is one of the valley’s most lavish new operations. Owned by Gary Andrus of Pine Ridge in Napa Valley, it’s housed in a grand chateau on a hill and underlain by a network of newly bored caves. The price tag of the facility was $10 million, and its big, rich, oaky Pinot Noirs cost $35 to $75 per bottle. Everything about the place bespeaks its California origins. Still, Archery Summit’s energetic young winemaker, 30-year-old Sam Tanahill, claims more of a connection to France.
"I worked in Burgundy in ’93 and ’94," he told me in the spotlit tunnels as we sampled his amazingly concentrated ’98 vintage. "Oregon is almost an exact duplicate of that atmosphere. When you go tasting in Bordeaux, you wear a coat and tie and don’t taste with the winemaker because the owner is probably a banker. But in Burgundy, you wear jeans and a T-shirt because the winemaker is probably a farmer. In Napa Valley you’ll taste with a nine-to-fiver who’s never touched a hose. But here you’ll probably meet and taste with the winemaker. There’s still a sense of excitement here that ‘Wow, people want to come here and taste our wines!’"
Tanahill’s comments were corroborated the next day when I made the rounds of some minuscule wineries in the Yamhill Valley. I started at the Cheha lem Winery with its owner Harry Peterson-Nedry, whose pinot gris is considered the most Alsatian in Oregon (i.e., the richest and most "unctuous"). Later, I cooled off at Brick House Vine yards, run by big, soft-spoken Doug Tunnell, former CBS broadcast journalist, organic grapegrower, and the only Oregon native that I’d met all week.
"I grew up near Willamette Falls," Tunnell told me in the barn that serves as his winery. "That used to be one of the great salmon-spawning grounds—people claim you could walk across the river on the fish. By the time I came along, though, it was the site of two pulp mills. I played in their effluent as a kid, which probably inuenced my decision to go organic."
When Tunnell was working in Europe as a foreign correspondent, he discovered that wine was "a way of life. On every vacation, I found myself going to Burgundy or Alsace or Languedoc," he said. "Eventually, though, I heard there was a wine industry in my own hometown. When I was growing up here it was all apples, pears, hay, prunes, and hazelnuts. The towns were wide spots in the road filled with nut dryers."
Tunnell eventually "dropped out" and came home to be a winegrower. "When I told my mother I was moving back here, she asked who my friends would be. I said, ‘Mom, you don’t understand—there’s a whole new society here now.’ It’s cosmopolitan, with lots of languages and an annual influx of people from Europe and Australia and New Zealand. Véronique at Drouhin and Laurent at WillaKenzie have French civilization behind them. When you taste wine with those people, you absorb knowledge."
After offering me tastes of his chardonnay and gamay noir—the French Beaujolais Cru grape—Tunnell left to pour wine at a local school benefit. I made my way back to Youngberg Hill, a spectacular hilltop inn surrounded by quiet pinot noir vineyards. I relaxed for a while on the porch and then repaired to my room, ultimately rousing myself for dinner at Red Hills Provincial Dining in Dundee—one of the best restaurants in the rural Northwest.
"Americans think good places to eat are where the cities are," the bushily mustachioed chef, Richard Gehrts, told me on his balmy outdoor deck. "Europeans think good places to eat are where the ingredients are." I wasn’t arguing. The sauteed oysters with black and white sesame seeds were divine with an Erath riesling; I alternated between glasses of Cameron and Eyrie pinot noir with Gehrts’s dusky, demiglazed roast venison. At one point I got the wines mixed up, so Richard’s wife Nancy brought a couple of more tastes in order to reidentify them. We agreed that the Cameron was more forthright and fruity, the Eyrie less forward but more deeply textured. Something for everybody!
Right then, who should saunter out of the restaurant but Doug Tunnell, accompanied by a fellow winemaker, Mike Etzel of the exclusive Beaux Frères. The two vintners recommended an Alsatian pinot blanc from the restaurant’s list of 800-plus wines, but I’d already committed myself to pinot noir.
And besides, I felt compelled to remind them, this wasn’t France.