(Mirror) Located just an hour south of Portland, Oregon’s quaint Willamette Valley is undergoing a rapid transformation. Not only have tourists and wine enthusiasts discovered the winding valley dotted with orchards and hazelnut groves, so have the corporate behemoths.
This became apparent on a weekday excursion courtesy of LGBTQ-friendly A Great Oregon Wine Tour and colorful owner Wayne Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer, who jokes about his first experiences with Manischewitz as a boy, is not only knowledgeable, but also a master storyteller, dubbing himself an “edu-tainer.” We lucked out on this trip because Openheimer’s wife, Camille, also an experienced guide and industry professional, was on hand with twice the commentary.
Wayne’s first tip was the proper pronunciation of “Willamette.” If you don’t want to sound like a lowbrow tourist, always remember it rhymes with “damn it,” Oppenheimer told us.
We made a pitstop at a local country store, Red Berry Barn in Sherwood, that makes the most wonderful pies from juicy local berries and roasts their own hazelnuts. Their hot apple cider doughnuts made a great snack for the rest of the trip into the valley.
Our first winery is Hyland Estates in Dundee. The stylish new tasting room is surrounded by old hazelnut groves and newer vineyards. Tasting flights are $20 (waived with purchase) and our favorites were the 2016 “Pommard” ($60) and 2017 “Wadenswil” pinot noirs. Early in the adventure, it was still not apparent just how much variation would be detected among the nearly dozen pinots sampled, but these still rated high at the end of the day.
Wayne and Camille then took us into the hamlet of Carlton. There may have been one flashing traffic light, but the town was tiny, with 1920s era brick stores lining the main street. As we passed through, Camille commented on the seemingly daily change coming not only to Carlton, but the valley. Obviously, during the height of the tourist season, the region is bustling, but even in the off months, businesses seem to come and go with little notice. (Since this visit, the town’s grain elevator was repurposed as a unique tasting room for Flâneur Wines.)
The six guests on the minibus were then treated to a quick lesson in winemaking at Carlton Cellars, just a block off Main Street. With the assistance of his four-legged assistant, Otis, Brandon Harlacher, the winery’s director of sales and marketing, took us through the facility and even treated everyone to a barrel tasting.
One standout on the tasting menu: the 2015 Yamhill-Carlton, a limited-edition white blend of 40% pinot blanc, 40% auxerrois and 20% pinot gris. You’ll have to make a trip to Oregon add this gem to your wine collection.
Our lunchtime stop was Tresori Vineyard, perched high on a hill with nearly 360 degree views of the valley below. Tresori has been a family affair for more than 20 years and the tasting room is in the amiable care of Dave Walker, a Willamette industry veteran.
As we tasted the winery’s subtle pinots ($35-55) — along with a few sips from the last bottles of an unusually high alcohol 2013 vintage ($75) — Camille pulled out a delicious wine country picnic with assorted charcuterie, cheeses and crumbly homemade almond cookies.
The final stop was Vidon Vineyard. The unpretentious boutique winery and tasting room is located on a hillside in Newberg. Winemaker Don Hagge is a retired physicist who did post-graduate research in France, but his approach is minimalist, utilizing indigenous yeasts, and almost all stages from picking and sorting to bottling are done by hand.
Vidon’s signature pinot noirs are named after Hagge’s grandchildren. (Even the winery is named by combining wife Vicki and Don’s names.) We tasted the very different, but each fine pinots, but after a day of enjoying great pinot noirs, it was Hagge’s 2015 Saturn Syrah ($30) and 2015 Explorer Tempranillo ($30) that really dazzled. Hagge is one of the few winemakers in the valley to invest in these traditionally European varietals.
As Coppolla and the other big boys eye footholds in the Willamette Valley, there’s never been a better time to experience Oregon wines — and they’re not all pinot noirs!
Oppenheimer also owns the Potlandia Experience, a cannabis and brewery excursion around Portland. The tours run Fridays through Sundays and are $75. Private rentals are also available. For more information, go to PotlandiaExperience.
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