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Beyond Expectations

On the Pinot Noir Trail in Oregon's Willamette Valley

By M.L. Lyke
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 21, 2004; Page G01

We drove into Oregon wine country with wipers on intermittent, stereo on low, expectations in check. A fine, soft rain blurred the outlines of things -- the filbert orchards and grazing sheep, the slumping red barns and old-timey storefronts, the rolling green pillows of land and the acres of vineyards that climbed them.

I had come to investigate the region's celebrated pinot noir -- the most elusive of wines, made from the fussiest of grapes, in this subtlest of Northwest landscapes, tucked beneath layered blankets of low gray clouds.

Where to Buy In Washington

A number of wine shops in the District carry impressive selections of Oregon pinot noirs, from the innovative cellars of Patricia Green to the gorgeous pourings of Ken Wright, Domaine Drouhin and Beaux Freres vineyards. Good places to start are the Wine Specialist (2115 M St. NW, 202-833-0707 or 800-832-0704, www.winespecialist.com), Circle Wine and Liquor (5501 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-966-0600, www.circlewinelist.com ) and Schneider's of Capitol Hill (300 Massachusetts Ave. NE, 202-543-9300, 800-377-1461, ww.cellar.com). Wine shoppers can also buy directly from Oregon cellars by phone or e-mail, although it's critical to check your state of residence for regulations on having wine shipped to you (see story, Page G2).

For a year's samplings of some of the region's finest reserve pinots, check out the Avalon Wine club, avalonwine.com/wineclubs_oregonreserve pinot.php.

-- M.L.Lyke

My traveling buddy was as clueless to the nuances of the grape as I was. But we had a long weekend ahead of us to immerse and explore. The plan: three days in the upper Willamette Valley wine region -- a mere 20 miles from the heart of downtown Portland -- to sip and sample local delicacies, and one day at the Oregon coast to walk off the damage.

Pinot noir was a wine I'd dismissed over the years in favor of big meaty cabs, deep-throated merlots, two-fisted syrahs. I wanted a riot of red to set my head spinning. I wanted full, fat, huge.

"Super-size me!" I might as well have demanded when I walked into the wine shop.

How vulgar that all seems now.

Big Is Not Beautiful

In the most modest of Oregon wineries -- converted warehouses, sheds, garages, little mom-and-pops set up in old dairy barns -- I learned that "big" does not necessarily mean "good."

"Papa Pinot," the man who put Oregon on the international wine map, practically spit out the "b" word when we visited his tasting room. "I don't even make big wines. I don't believe in big wines," said David Lett, a classical winemaker at odds with trends to power up pinot in the cellar.

Even the big reds' fruit earns the scorn of the wry man with the snowy white beard. "Pinot noir has small tight clusters. Cabernet is this big dangly thing," said Lett, as he poured his Eyrie Vineyards pinot noir inside the winery he and wife Diana created out of an old poultry processing plant in the valley town of McMinnville.

I held up my glass and saw pink, not ink. And what swirled across my tongue was something light and elegant -- a jazz pianist working a complicated right-hand riff, sans bass.

It demanded time, and attention.

"People don't understand pinot noir," said Lett, "because they have to think about it." It was a theme I would hear again and again during our stay in the lush, hushed farmscape of the upper Willamette, just west and southwest of Portland.

Once mocked as too wet, too cold and too muddy to grow a decent grape -- suspicions deepened by early production of unimpressive jug and dessert wines -- the valley now hosts an estimated 200 wineries. Land that sold for $5,000 an acre in the late '80s -- when there were still only a dozen wineries -- now sells for up to $13,000 an acre, and more than half the valley's vineyards are planted in those misunderstood pinot noir grapes, harvested by some of the most passionate winemakers in the business.

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