A Trip to Willamette Valley
First things first – let’s get right to the proper pronunciations (that were beaten into my brain by Oregonians after several mispronunciations.) The proper way to pronounce it is “will – AMMit” (or as I was told by locals as a rhyme to remember – “It’s Will – AMMit – DAMMIT!”.) By the way, it’s “ORRegg – in”, NOT “Oreg-gone”! There – I have just saved you countless humiliations should you ever go!
Now, I’ll confess the origin of this trip was largely influenced by my trying to weasel my way to a celebrated wine destination under the guise of a long-overdue family vacation. My wife Erin, two twenty-something sons (Wes and Cole), and I had been planning a trip to Portugal until COVID complications struck again, and again, and again. I was under the gun with our booked vacation week approaching in a matter of weeks and no destination! So, having been to Napa Valley several times, but never to the Pacific Northwest, I proposed a week in Oregon, starting in the Willamette Valley, followed by a few nights on the Oregon coast, and wrapping up with a stop in Portland. I decided to splurge and booked some luxury-type places to seal the deal (I’m not above bribery) – and lo and behold – we were headed to the Pinot Noir Napa of the Northwest!
Make it McMinnville
After spending several late nights researching the perfect place to stay in the Valley, all arrows seemed to point to McMinnville. There are virtually no direct flights from Boston to Portland, so we arrived in Oregon in the early afternoon, jet-lagged and somewhat cranky. We meandered from the airport through the other towns I had considered, Newberg and Dundee, and although they no doubt have their charms, I didn’t really see many from the car window. Then we pulled into McMinnville and I thought – this looks like the place! A funky, tree-lined main street bustling with tasting rooms, bars, restaurants and shops. We’d arrived!
Day #1 - A Tale of Two Tasting Rooms
Our first stop late that Saturday afternoon was a session at the well-known R.Stuart & Co.Tasting Room right in the heart of the main drag, NE 3rd Street in downtown McMinnville. I guess we were early-birds because there weren’t many other patrons there yet. The relaxed, somewhat rustic setting made me feel like I was in the den of someone’s great aunt’s house. Our server was pleasant enough and led us through four pours of Pinot Noir (of course). R. Stuart & Company produces all their own wines at their winery right down the street, with grapes sourced from different select growers in the valley. The wines were tasty, ranging from the somewhat fruit forward 2018 Dux Vineyard Pinot Noir to the other end of the spectrum -- a tighter 2018 Matteri Vineyard Pinot Noir. All-in-all, a nice time but it was a bit too quiet, so we finished our flights and decided to explore the town.
By chance, just about a block down the street, we sauntered into a modern, airy, sleek but inviting tasting room called the Troon Wine Bar – and boy am I glad we did! We were warmly greeted by the fabulous Lily, who was tending the wine bar. She welcomed us all with a big smile, asked where we had come in from and gave us a little background on Troon. To our surprise, she informed us that we wouldn’t be sipping any Pinot Noir at Troon. As it turns out, Troon’s vineyards are located in Southern Oregon near California, not in the Willamette Valley. Troon’s certified biodynamic wines focus on a variety of grapes and styles you’d find in the Rhone Valley and southwest France. We started with their red “Druid Fluid” – a blend which varieties from year-to-year based on the harvest. This year’s blend was Syrah, Tannat and Grenache – it was nice, full of black plum and blackberry, with just enough tannin to hold it up. Next up, another surprise – a single varietal Tannat. This grape which originally hails from southern France is not a wine that you see all too often, and I certainly didn’t expect to be sipping it in the Willamette Valley. While the dark, brooding Tannat has historically been known for its bold tannins, this one was tempered -- approachable with nice notes of black fruit, herbs, and a pleasant but firm finish. We ordered glasses of each and moved to a table outside to enjoy the beautiful 80-degree weather (yes, four straight days of blue skies and warm sun in October – in Oregon – who knew!). I snuck back in after a few sips and asked Lily what else I should try – she gave me a taste of a sassy Syrah, then a white “Druid Fluid” blend of Rousanne, Marsanne and Viognier - an interesting Rhone-inspired blend I surely didn’t expect to find in Oregon. And most memorably, a Vermentino! Now I am picky when it comes to Italian whites, but Troon’s take on Vermentino was fantastic! With citrus, peach, a slight tropical note and just the right body, acidity and freshness, it was a stunner! Finally, I asked what we could do to work-off the wine each morning, and Lily’s co-worker Mary Kate wrote up a list of quick trips to take for nice hikes in the area. The hospitality was so warm and the wines were so nice (and reasonably priced) that we snuck back a few days later to stock up on a half-dozen bottles to take with us to the coast later that week! Overall A++ for the Troon Tasting Room. Go there! Day #1 was in the books.
Day #2 – Head for the Hills (Sokol Blosser and Durant)
After a good night’s sleep, we took a nice hike in the morning in a nearby nature reserve, then headed out to a pair of well-known wineries for the afternoon. A friend who runs a local wine shop back home had booked us a complimentary tasting at Sokol Blosser (thanks, Tim!), which was just about 15 minutes out of town. We chose to sit outside in a stylish wood-planked, covered tasting area. As with almost all of the Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs we would taste over our stay, I found the wines to be more elegant than the often more fruit-forward, jammy Pinots many are familiar with from California. We sampled a trio of nice Pinots with marked herbal notes and minerality. Also up was a tasty 2020 Dundee Hills Estate Chardonnay. It was fresh but not overly fruity or oaky, with notes of golden apple, vanilla and lemon curd. Just up the road we ventured next into Durant Vineyards. Durant is beautifully situated on a peak in the valley, which I highly recommend for a magnificent view. Additionally, their grounds feature a short nature trail you can tour while there, as well as an extensive olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting bar. We were treated to some complimentary tastes by the affable Adam at the outside wine bar, including several Pinots, a pretty intense Rose’, and a lively Chardonnay. Generally, I found the Durant wines to be slightly fuller in body than those at Sokol Blosser, but in a good way. While the family all went for Pinot Noirs, I decided to mix it up and go with a glass of their 2020 Raven Chardonnay. It was very tasty with notes of apple, pear and some tropical hints of pineapple, with a round mouthfeel, due no doubt to the period of lees aging they noted. (“lees aging” means aging the wine for a period of time on the dead yeast which adds body, softness, and can even add hints of doughy or bready notes). Fantastic spot to enjoy some good wine, olive oils, a nature trail, and an incredible view!
As we made our way back down the hill, I noticed a small roadside sign for Remy Wines, a boutique winery I read about in United Airlines “Hemispheres” magazine on our flight the prior day, so I pulled in. Remy Wines is set back off the road in an old Farmhouse and is well-known in the area for its great array of wines. It looked like a place set back in time -- the only thing missing was a tire swing hanging from a tree branch in the well-shaded yard. Wish we had time to stay, but the fam was waiting in the car, so I quickly tasted a bright, zippy Pinot Noir Rose’ and grabbed a chilled bottle for a pre-game back at our place and before dinner back in town.
Day 3 – A little bit of France and “Brittan”
For our final day of tastings in Willamette, I had pre-booked a pair of tastings. The first was at Domaine Drouhin, located in the Dundee Hills near Durant, Sokol Blosser and Domaine Serene. The Drouhin Family has been producing top quality wines in Burgundy, France for over a century. The family became intrigued with the potential they saw in Oregon, which shares similarities in geography and weather with Burgundy, including the fact that like Burgundy, Willamette Valley sits at the same 45-degree latitude. Hence, Domaine Drouhin Oregon was “born” in 1988 and has been producing top quality wines, particularly Pinot Noirs, for almost four decades now.
We were greeted warmly by Victoria who welcomed us into the nicely appointed tasting room and told us a little about the winery before seating us at a perfect table on the outside deck overlooking the valley and their vineyards. Our server, Jaquil, greeted us with a customized “Kroninger Party” tasting menu – a nice little touch! Jaquil was absolutely terrific! I tend to ask a lot of questions to try and learn as much as I can, and she was a total sport and seemed to really enjoy talking about this fabulous winery, its wines and history. Our 5-wine flight started with the Domaine Drouhin 2020 Chardonnay, a fresh and racy Chard. Next up was 2020 Roserock Chardonnay, a somewhat more complex wine with a bolder tasting, fuller body that revealed some time in oak. We then sipped our way through 3 outstanding Pinot Noirs, all very different. Jaquil explained the differences were due to the distinct locations of the vineyard plots and some proprietary blending. We were having such a good time talking wine that she offered to pour us a taste of a special Pinot that wasn’t part of the usual menu – we of course agreed! Jacquil mentioned she commuted from Portland - I told her we had an open day/night at the end of our trip for a stay in Portland and she gave us some fantastic recommendations for a hotel (Kimpton Riverside) and things to do that worked out perfectly! A++ for Domaine Drouhin.
Sidenote: Right across the street from Domaine Drouhin is Domaine Serene. While their tasting room was not open the day we were there, we decided to pull in and take a look around. This was no doubt the most opulent setting we’d encountered, reminiscent of a posh estate, with gorgeous, manicured gardens and grounds. Would be no doubt a great stop for the next trip!
Our last “official” tasting was one I had booked at Brittan Vineyards tasting room back in downtown McMinnville. It was a tad hard to locate because their normal entrance access had been blocked off by harvesting equipment, but with a quick phone call, our host Miriam guided us into the small, modern looking, stylish tasting room (their vineyards are just outside of town). As Miriam’s last tasting of the day, we had her full attention, and she was terrific. Her youth belied her incredible breadth of wine experience - a native Oregonian who had lived all over the world working at wineries in New Zealand, France and Australia. I must say I was fascinated picking her brain and geeking out on her experience and travels - and she was engaged and gracious, sharing her knowledge and fielding all of my unending questions. For our tasting, we were treated to a pair of Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. What struck me about these wines was their marked acidity and elegance, reminiscent of the old-world styles. Tasty, zippy, and tight. Zesty Chardonnays and spicy restrained Pinots. We thanked Miriam and headed back to the house for our last night in McMinnville and packed up for our trip to the coast in the morning.
All-in-all the McMinnville leg of the Oregon trip and tastings got an A+ from the family. It’s a very different experience than Napa - definitely much more of a casual vibe (including no pressure to join any “wine clubs”). The wineries are certainly lovely and top notch! A wonderful time all around! Cheers!