Road Trip: Searching the Willamette Valley for the Perfect Pinot
The Argyle Winery boasts some excellent sparkling wine for summer. (Courtesy: Argyle Winery)
The plan: To explore as many of the wineries — and as many of the quirky small-town spots that make this region unique — as possible in a four-day trip.
The route: Portland to Eugene, avoiding the highway (in this case, I-5) in favor of picturesque byways.
The car: My usually trusty 2000 Mazda Protege. Downside: Broke down in the middle of my trip. Upside: Broke down in the middle of a wine district that had tasting rooms and a mechanic within walking distance.
In this part of the world, one grape rules: Pinot Noir. This is the wine that Miles couldn’t stop talking about in the movie “Sideways,” and it is indeed the perfect grape for a wine snob. Compared with less-persnickety varietals, Pinot Noir is like a boy king: unpredictable and requiring careful attention but handing out handsome rewards to its friends.
The mild climate, volcanic soils, and gentle hillsides of Oregon’s Willamette Valley — centered around the 45th parallel, just like Burgundy, France — are perfect for growing this most temperamental grape.
You don’t have to be a snob to love the wine that Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon calls “sex in a glass.” And as I discover, the valley is anything but snobby — it’s overflowing with unassuming folks, welcoming towns, and roadside quirks.
Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams are visible in the distance from a hill near Salem. (Photo: Christy Karras)
'Burbs to Country
Before I leave Portland, I stop in at Southeast Wine Collective, which carries a carefully curated selection of wines from the Willamette Valley and beyond. It’s a yummy taste of things to come.
I navigate the ’burbs west of Portland to Forest Grove, at the northern end of Willamette wine country. This little town is home to not only a handful of wineries but also Saké One, one of only six saké distilleries in the United States. (The founders chose this location based on the water quality, which is indeed seriously delicious.) The abundance of nonwine booze will be a running theme along my journey. I’m not complaining.
Highway 47 winds southward, past the tiny hamlet of Gaston, home of Big Table Farm. Napa refugees Brian Marcy and Clare Carver built this tiny winery (open for tastings by appointment) on their farm, inspired, as their website says, “by our desire to grow grapes, make wine, and to have the space for all of Clare’s animals and Brian’s wacky projects.”