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Oregon’s Willamette Evolves But Stays True to Its Roots

by Liza B. Zimmerman

I always ask winemakers if their children like wine. When queried Remy Drabkin, owner and winemaker of the McMinnville-based producer that bears her name, said her nine-her-old was making her second vintage—no kidding. She followed up with pictures of her daughter hand-selecting grape clusters and stomping them down by foot in her own mini barrels. Two years ago she did rosé and this harvest she's focused on Pinot Gris, said her proud mama. She even makes her own labels!

This is the beauty of Oregon wine country, in that much of it is still full of big personalities trying to introduce the world to new wines at fair prices. Remy’s tasting room is ironically on the same little street where David Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards set up shop and planted the region’s first Pinot Noir in 1966, earning the moniker “Papa Pinot.” While more corporate players from contiguous states are a greater interest in this Burgundian-influenced slice of land, some of the area’s Indie producers are still holding strong.

Understanding the Willamette

Wine is produced all over the state of Oregon, with wineries in the southern part of the state focusing on unfairly much-maligned hotter-climate varietals. Iberian varietal–focused producer Abacela has long been one of the state’s best known. Other producers in the south of the state make wines as varied as Malbec and Barbera, while the Willamette has long been the land of ephemeral Pinot Noirs, non-oaky Chardonnays and esoteric whites.  

Unlike Walla Walla, which has a small and charming downtown, the various towns of the Willamette Valley are spread out over several, slow-moving local roads. A handful of the Valley’s key urban centers are developing small downtown areas, such as Newberg and McMinnville, complete with small hotels like the McMenamins’ Hotel Oregon in McMinnville. Lucky guests staying in these small downtowns can walk to great restaurants like Thistle, to feast on local greens and esoteric cocktails. However most of the major winery destinations are fairly spread out.

Some of the greatest wines for me were those that I stumbled upon accidentally on this trip. A lunch at the low-key Newberg restaurant Subterra afforded a chance to taste the GC, or Grochau Cellars, Gamay Noir from Amity in Yamhill County, south of McMinnville. CG also makes a delicious Tempranillo and a Tinto red blend, all retail priced below $20.

The staff at Subterra led us to the Valley Wine Merchants shop in Newberg. Andrew Turner used to work at the Ponzi tasting room before he opened his store last year. Requests for new value finds were met with a suggestion for the Ransom Albariño, probably my favorite wine of the entire trip. Crisp acidity and a beautiful fruit structure combine divinely in this bottle: it was like drinking high-acid candy. I look forward to trying the rest of the line. When Oregon gets the Iberian varietals right, they really hit the high notes.

Remy’s Italian varietal-focused wines, particularly the fruit-forward Sangiovese were delicious. She also gets points for mineral-focused and high-acidity Lagrein. It’s one of my favorite grapes in the world and is rarely seen outside of Alto Adige.


New World Style

White wines have been more appealing to me lately. Part of the attraction is the moderate year-round climate at my home base in San Francisco. The other, more important, piece of the picture is that many reds are getting more and more manipulated, extracted and loaded up with spoonfuls of “fresh, new oak flavor.” And yes they are silky, high-alcohol and go down easy after a long day of tasting.

It’s a pity that some of those soft, more feminine, lower-alcohol styles of Oregon reds, particularly the big guns of Pinot Noir, are beginning to emulate California wines. In the end, the big guns command higher prices, and often higher ratings, and land is not cheap around here these days (so say goodbye to the hazelnut industry).

Another surprising trend is tasting rooms charging up to $20 a person, only refundable against a purchase or $75 or more. You rarely see this outside some of the toniest tasting rooms in California.

One Oregon tasting room manager using this fee structure said she uses “discretion” and if they spend only $65 she will let them use their fees toward a purchase. Another trend I could do without is unmarked tasting rooms, ironically trying to simulate Napa ’s French Laundry, which actually has a sign outside. This approach to the market seems to run counter what was always so real and accessible about the Willamette Valley.

   

Should you not have blown out your budget on tasting room fees, grab a glass of wine at the beautiful bar at The Allison, the area’s first luxury hotel. The list is extensive, the burgers are great and you can chat with the powerhouse chefs if you sit at the counter. Their vegetable garden is magnificent and they will even let you eat warm tomatoes off the vine and take home some flowers.

Stop by Our Table Cooperative in Sherwood on the way back to buy some delicious honey and maybe a few bottles of those lovely GC wines. That and a little beet salad will help the flavors of the Willamette linger with you wherever you go. 

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