Willamette Valley Recap: Finding Excellence in a Sea of Pedestrian Pinot

A friend and former student of mine, who happens to be a winemaker that works primarily with Pinot noir, said something a couple months back that stuck with me.

“Oregon Pinot has some of the best PR out there.”

Before the Willamette, it was Manzanita, damn it

Before the Willamette, it was Manzanita, damn it

I was intrigued. Oregon’s Willamette Valley has garnered a pretty lofty reputation, particularly for its Pinot noirs, and I’d been working under the assumption that that praise was well-earned. To be sure, I’d only had a few examples, and those I did taste seemed up to the task — but as I discovered last month during my trip to Oregon, my friend’s assessment turned out to be more accurate than I’d fathomed.

This is not to say that there isn’t good Pinot to be found there. Of course there are stellar examples, and I’ll get into some of those here shortly. But I was, however, somewhat surprised by just how pedestrian so many Pinots turned out to be, particularly for the price paid. Many of the wines displayed similar problems: simple fruit that was often overripe, elevated alcohol levels that threw the wines out of balance, and obtrusive use of oak. It was, as Lana Del Rey put it a couple years ago, a summer bummer. And that’s not a phrase anyone should want to use, much less with respect to Pinot.

Thankfully we had the good fortune to visit some remarkable producers, some of which were recommended by a sommelier and fellow competitor in the Wines of South Africa Sommelier Cup (thanks, Dustin!), and it’s those producers that I’d like to briefly highlight here. Don’t overpay for just-alright juice, my friends; instead, seek these folks out so that you know your money will be well-spent.

Atop the Eola-Amity Hills at Cristom

Atop the Eola-Amity Hills at Cristom

Cristom Vineyards

The first producer we visited during our trip (we’d first done Bend and Manzanita on the coast) turned out to be, in my estimation, the best. And I don’t say that because the original owners hail from Pittsburgh, either.

I’d tasted the Cristom Mt. Jefferson Cuvée before, and I found it to be quite enjoyable — an example, as I state above, that seemed perfectly deserving of its reputation. But on this visit, Mike and I were treated to several other bottlings that showcased different vineyard parcels and expressions of their sites while enjoying one of the best overall visits I’ve had at any winery — period. This property in the Eola-Amity Hills should be on your radar if you’re ever in the area — just make sure to book one of their private tasting options ahead of time to get the full experience.

Gaironn Poole, Director of Education and Membership at Cristom, did a remarkable job of setting the scene with soil samples, maps, and other materials before taking us up into the vineyards where we sipped each wine in the vineyards responsible for the fruit. Rarely do you get to try a wine standing among the vines from which it was produced, and it was a nice touch that I would love to see more of out in this wide world of wine. She was even kind enough to indulge my nerdiness and show us plots being dug up to allow us to touch and see the unique soils.

Across the board, Cristom’s wines were consistently good, but my favorite of the bunch would probably have to be the Pinot noir from the Eileen Vineyard, which happens to be their highest-elevation Pinot plot. It’s full of dark raspberry fruit, but there’s a gorgeous complexity that recalls bergamot, tea, and spices that elevates it to another level. I appreciate their use of whole cluster fermentation — it’s a personal preference, I suppose, but I tend to especially enjoy Pinot noirs that incorporate this technique. Also, don’t sleep on their Syrah; there’s not a ton of it planted, but I suspect that as summers get warmer with climate change, that grape is going to creep farther up the valley.

Winderlea: where the views and the wine are equally delightful

Winderlea: where the views and the wine are equally delightful

Winderlea Vineyard and Winery

This was my second-favorite producer from the trip, although these folks are located a bit farther north in the Dundee Hills. After a lunch in Dundee, we popped into this lovely tasting room to see what they had to offer — and the view alone was worth the trip.

But as we all know, that vista ain’t worth all that much if the wines can’t stack up. Fortunately that isn’t the case here, and we were really impressed by, yet again, the consistent high level of quality throughout the tasting. DeAnna Ornelas (who is great at her job, by the way) kicked off our tasting with a Pinot blanc, and although this isn’t necessarily a descriptor often used for the variety, the wine was actually characterful. Perhaps that interesting character owes something to the combination of aging vessels: about half the wine sees clay amphorae, while the next-largest heap goes into neutral oak (stainless rounds it all out).

While that genetic mutation was certainly enjoyable, we were really here for the original material: Pinot noir. There were two in particular that really stood out to me: the Imprint and the Legacy. The former is 100% whole cluster fermented (boy, do I have a type) and beautifully restrained with tart red fruit to accompany the spice. Alcohol is a mere 12%, keeping the wine refined on the palate. The latter is Winderlea’'s “most precious” Pinot (hey, their words, not mine!), and the wine comes from own-rooted vines planted in the 1970s. It’s simultaneously soft and spicy with a decidedly savory, earthy edge. Just…whew, this is a chef’s kiss wine right here.

There were, however, other Pinots in the lineup that I personally found less alluring, but I can absolutely understand their place in the market. Take, for example, the Murto Vineyard Pinot noir: it’s much more concentrated, powerful, and plush with dark fruit and even a little chocolate. The alcohol is a little over 14%, and, as I said, while it isn’t my style, there are a lot of folks out there who’d much prefer this to, say, the Imprint (take my damn husband, for example).

Oh, and they also happened to have a delightful rosé of Pinot noir sourced from their certified biodynamic vineyard. Went swimmingly with the view, in fact.

The Chardonnay at Brick House made me dance just like the Commodores would have wanted

The Chardonnay at Brick House made me dance just like the Commodores would have wanted

Brick House Vineyards

I’ll be honest: the tasting experience here wasn’t as great as I’d hoped it might be, but the wines are absolutely worth discussing. Yes, it felt rushed, and, yes, it felt like the host would probably have rather done anything other than this tasting on Saturday morning. Call it another summer bummer, if you will.

That being said, there were some top-notch wines poured that morning, perhaps the best of which was the Cascadia Chardonnay. This Ribbon Ridge producer has quite a deft touch with this grape, and the Cascadia Chardonnay is decidedly Burgundian in character: citrusy freshness with a bright acidity and slightly creamy, leesy texture. She real pretty, folks, and I highly encourage you to snatch it up if you can find it.

As for their Pinot noirs, there was one that stood out to me: their Cuvée de Tonnelier (“cooper’s blend,” for yinz that don’t speak French). Gorgeously perfumed with top notes of spicy cinnamon, it’s got an earthy and savory depth that all comes together masterfully en bouche (“in yer mouth,” in Pittsburghese). Do you think there’s a bunch of whole-cluster fruit that goes into this wine?

This was a delicious evening, y’all

This was a delicious evening, y’all

Also Worth Noting…

While we absolutely enjoyed our time with Tim Kane (no, not the former VP candidate — note spelling) of The Eyrie Vineyards, I’ll say that their Pinot noirs were not favorites of mine, often feeling too vegetal and thin. But where they did impress were in their other wines: Pinot gris (they did pioneer the grape here, after all), of course, but most of all the unique Pinot meunier. A rare treat to find a varietal one, and it definitely hit the spot.

It was also great to have a break from French varieties while enjoying the Black Radish Kitchen Fire Dinner hosted by Remy Wines. Remy Drabkin offers up wines from a variety of Italian varieties, which is music to my Alto Adige-loving ears. They paired masterfully with the dishes cranked out by Kate Romane, superstar chef with whom I have the distinct pleasure of working on occasion here in Pittsburgh (seriously, get on their email list, go to their dinners, and let her team cater your events!). Special tip of the hat to Sarah Tafel for keeping the event organized and ensuring all diners were taken care of. Remy’s Jubilee Dolcetto is a crowd-pleaser, but don’t sleep on the Lone Madrone Lagrein, which is simultaneously blacker than my soul while managing alcohol of just over 10%.

I want to make one final note of the excellent Pinot noirs from Walter Scott Wines I got to try while dining at various establishments. Although I didn’t get to visit this time around, they’re my top pick for a spot to check out the next time I make my way to that side of the Cascades. Same for Bergström, makers of perhaps my favorite domestic Chardonnay, as well.

In the presence of pioneers

In the presence of pioneers

There are other quality producers in the valley that I’d like to visit and taste, and by no means am I suggesting these are the only folks doing quality work. My hope, though, is that the above guide can point you in the right direction to avoid the pitfalls of pedestrian Pinot.

Who are you favorite producers of Oregon Pinot? Who misses the mark for you?