Wine, Dine in the Willamette
Published: June 17, 2006
By JOSEPH BLAKE
The Vancouver Sun
The main character in the hit movie Sideways headed north from L.A. to the California vineyards in the hills above Santa Barbara in search of a perfect Pinor Noir, but he didn’t drive far enough. Up the coast in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, he would have discovered arguably the world’s finest Pinot Noir wines and a verdant landscape rich with other cultural amenities.
The fertile valley tucked between the Cascade Mountains to the east and Coastal Range to the west follows the Willamette River 250 kilometres from Portland south to Eugene. The valley’s gentle slopes are home to more than 250 wineries, and many tiny, boutique cellars open their doors to the public only a few weekends each year. Last month, I took the opportunity to spend the Memorial Day long weekend in the Willamette Valley, tasting the subtle complexities of the small-scale vintner’s craft.
Enthusiasts from all over North America flew in for the weekend to barrel-taste this year’s small lot releases and buy futures and library wines that will never see store shelves or leave the state. A handful of stretch limousines laboured over cramped farm roads joining busloads of Portland wine tourists and hundreds of drivers sporting out-of-state plates, all searching the valley for the perfect Pinot Noir.
I managed to book three nights at the Abbey Road Farm Bed & Breakfast in the heart of Oregon wine country about 50 kilometres southwest of Portland. Built on a 33-hectare working farm that includes five hectares of Royal Anne cherries and a goat herd that produces goat’s milk cheese and the inn’s goat milk soaps and lotions, Abbey Road is a superb, bucolic retreat. Lamas, alpacas, sheep, donkeys, a couple of friendly dogs, and a flock of free-range chickens round out the farm’s animal life. They use the hens’ bright orange-yoked eggs in delicious breakfasts that also feature sausage, ham and bacon from nearby Carlton Farms, an Oregon institution shipping wood-smoked specialty meats around the world since 1956.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is a neighbouring Trappist Monastery, and their grounds and forested trails add another dimension to the inn’s serenity; but what I loved most about Abbey Road Bed & Breakfast was the inn’s unique architecture. John Stewart’s last project was the 2,500-room Rio Casino Hotel in Las Vegas, a business that he and his partners sold to Harrah’s before he moved to the Willamette Valley to become a gentleman farmer.
Stewart has built five modern suites inside three conical, aluminum farm silos. All have wonderful views of the valley, and none have phones or televisions. Digital controls monitor the rooms’ radiant floor heat, and each room has a Jacuzzi-jetted tub and separate shower. My room’s Ralph Lauren-like, masculine design included a comfy wrought iron bed and end tables, straw rugs, a wicker couch, and signed, limited edition prints of farm life and duck hunting. The cream-coloured stucco walls had wide windows that opened to the animal’s morning calls. It was elegantly spare and luxurious, and I loved my stay.
On my first night, I ate at The Painted Lady, an intimate restaurant in Newberg, a neighbouring town of about 20,000. Housed in a restored 1894-built Victorian house, The Painted Lady offered impeccable service (five front of house staff plus the owner/hostess for the 35-seat restaurant), an extensive wine list, (I chose a $10 glass of Sokol Blosser’s 2001 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir), and an exciting menu of regional-inspired cuisine. After the chef’s complimentary amuse bouche mushroom shooter, I chose chevre and ricotta raviolis with spring pea coulis and crispy bacon followed by Carlton Farms’ prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin with creamy polenta and olive tapenade. After the chef’s trademark chocolate lava torte with chocolate chip ice cream completed a very memorable meal, I drove back to Abbey Road and slept blissfully until the donkeys began braying for breakfast.
Several acclaimed wineries were within 16 kilometres of my bed and breakfast, and I got started early Saturday morning visiting Penner-Ash’s recently opened, three-level, gravity-driven, sustainable winery with its heartbreakingly beautiful views of the valley’s Tuscany-like terrain. Less than two kilometres down the road I navigated the mid-morning crowds of wine fans at Beaux Freres and the neighbouring Patricia Green Cellars, two of the valley’s smallest and best wineries.
With a couple of bottles in tow, I drove a couple of kilometres back to Carlton for an afternoon visiting Cuneo Cellars, where I sampled not only a range of $35-$75 Pinots, but feasted on the winery’s offering of Italian meats, cheeses, breads, and vegetables. Cuneo’s Italian, feast-like Dinner Series on the estate’s patio runs weekends through August. Highly recommended.
On tiny Carlton’s downtown main street I sampled a range of fabulous $75 E-I-E-I-O Pinot Noirs at The Tasting Room, a wine store with a summer series of regional showcases. A few blocks away, I visited the Carlton Winemakers Studio, the nation’s first sustainably-constructed, gravity-driven winery designed and built for small, artisan wine producers. Nine independently owned wineries share the production space, and they were offering a chance to taste 30 of their wines while visiting the communal, green technology-inspired facility.
I finished a fantastic day in wine country on Carlton’s quiet main street with dinner at Cuvee, a surprisingly urbane and very French bistro. After a plate of fresh, raw oysters on the half shell, I tucked into a perfectly prepared, medium rare rib eye buffalo steak from a herd of domesticated Willamette Valley buffalo. A side of pomme frites and mixed vegetables completed the dish and set me up for chef Henry Gilbert’s house dessert, a decadent chocolate torte with raspberry and espresso sauce.
That chocolate high sailed me back to my high thread-count sheets and sweet air at Abbey Road, and I dreamed of the French countryside until the rooster crowed and the donkey brayed, and I walked down to the farm house for another big breakfast of fresh fruit and homemade granola and fluffy, potato and ham-stuffed frittatas. After trading recommendations over coffee with the other wine-loving guests, I drove to McMinnville, about 16 kilometres down old Highway 99. McMinnville is a charming town of 20,000 with a nostalgia-inducing historic district built around the beautifully restored, 1905-built Hotel Oregon, the Evergreen Aviation Museum housing Howard Hughes’ fabled flying boat, the Spruce Goose and 75 other aircraft exhibits, and a handful of superb wineries in the town’s industrial area including David Lett’s famous Eyrie Vineyards. David and Diana Lett planted their Burgundy and Alsace-inspired vineyard in 1966, birthing the Willamette Valley’s acclaimed wine-growing region.
After tasting the winery’s new releases and a few current favourites from their limited library of earlier bottlings, I bought a 2004 Pinot Noir for my chef son and drove a couple of blocks to sample the offerings at Stone Wolf Vineyards before moving on to Panther Creek and nine more examples of the valley’s fabled Pinot Noir and a 2003 Melon, a pear-like white wine from the winery’s 29-year old vines. It was another delicious discovery.
By the end of that round of tastings, it was time for a slow walk up McMinnville’s Third Street main stroll past Bistro Maison and La Rambla’s Spanish-inspired cuisine to Nick’s Italian Cafe and their special, five-course meal. With its 50′s-style counter and booths and hearty, unpretentious, north Italian food, Nick’s has been a fixture in McMinnville for decades.
The menu still features Nick’s Genoa family recipe for minestrone, and after a glass of Yamhill Valley Vineyards 2001 Pinot Noir and an appetizer of three Yaquina Bay oysters on the half shell, I had a big, steaming bowl of minestrone mixed with basil, garlic, and grated parmesan added to my taste at the table. Pasta was a roasted tomato and goat cheese lasagna with lots of roasted pine nuts on top followed by Carlton Farms pork loin medallions with porcini mushroom cream sauce, green beans, and garlic risotto. After that and all the wine I’d tasted all day, I couldn’t face Nick’s list of nine desserts, though I’ll try his Marsala hazelnut fudge on my next visit.
And I’ll definitely return to McMinnville for it’s small town charm, excellent farmer’s market in the historic district’s side streets on Thursday mornings, and another meal at Nick’s. I’ll return to Abbey Road Farm too, and The Painted Lady, Cuvee, and the world famous wineries and Pinot Noir of the Willamette Valley.
In fact, there is a 20th anniversary of McMinnville’s annual International Pinot Noir Celebration scheduled for July 28-30. The Wine Advocate’s Pierre Rovani recently called that celebration “unquestionably the finest in the world”, and with more than 60 of the valley’s wineries featured and many of the smaller cellars once again opening their doors for another round of public tastings, it would be a good time for a drive down to the Willamette Valley. If you can’t make it to Oregon that weekend, there’s always the even bigger Wine Country Thanksgiving tastings November 24-26. There’s probably not a bad weekend for a visit to the Willamette Valley.