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Beyond Expectations

"If you spend any time in Oregon -- more than five minutes -- you'll get in a discussion with a winemaker about clonal selection, soil types, slope location, all those things," said Andy Perdue, editor of Wine Press Northwest. "Oregon winemakers work as hard as anybody in the world to find the exact right grape for the exact right spot."

The results can be stunning or, to the uninitiated, confounding. "With pinot noir, you either love it, or you don't care about it," said Perdue. "But once you taste a great pinot noir, something clicks in your head. You get it."

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

The Willamette Valley is no place for pretense. Winemakers may race from field to tasting room to greet a visitor, wiping dirt from their hands, eager to talk and pour a favorite $40 reserve. During busy harvest seasons, some pick alongside field workers and -- sweaty and hungry -- sit down to devour a communal lunch, topped with a cool brew. "It takes a lot of beer to make a little wine," quips Ned Lumpkin, co-founder of the Carlton Winemakers Studio.

At the valley's small signature wineries, vines are typically hand-picked, grapes hand-sorted, wines hand-crafted. Lots are small, prices often premium. We found $20 the average starting price for a good bottle. The cellar $12 "specials" we tasted were mostly watery and flat. At $40, wines began to sing arias and inspire philosophical meditations.

One tasting-room pourer, sniffing and ahhing as she opened bottles, described pinot noir as a refined taste, "like dealing with the essence of the wine rather than the wine itself -- the soul and not the body." Another quoted a legendary line, attributed to French nuns, that pinot noir slides down the throat as smoothly as "baby Jesus in velvet pants."

Minimalist Vintners

We began our wanderings with lunch at Bistro Maison in McMinnville's historic downtown. The pretty little restaurant offered such homemade delicacies as fennel soup, sausage with local hazelnuts, cassoulet, quiche with shiitake mushrooms. This wedding of French and Northwest sensibilities would become old hat by trip's end.

After studying a map of wine country -- the guides are essential and available at most stores, restaurants and wineries in the Willamette -- we began our slow drive down winding two-lane country roads.

One of our first visits was to the Carlton Winemakers Studio, the two-year-old eco-friendly, passive-solar co-operative where small independent winemakers share space, equipment and devotion to the vine. "When they get big enough, they can set out on their own," said Kirsten Lumpkin, who opened the studio in the historic former mill town of Carlton with husband Ned and partners Eric Hamacher, of Hamacher Wines, and Louisa Ponzi, winemaker for Ponzi Vineyards.

Food and Wine magazine last year pronounced the co-op "just plain cool." Inside, visitors can taste winemakers' work in a light-filled tasting room with a by-the-glass charge. A sampling menu offers such pampered delicacies as leaf-wrapped, peppercorn-spiked goat's milk cheese soaked in pear brandy.

In late afternoon, morning rains gave way to what moss-backed Northwesterners call "partial sun" -- rays of light sneaking between peekaboo patches of blue in the sky. In the distance, lifting clouds drifted silky white fingers over hills ringing the valley. Below, the planted earth seemed to steam a warm, wet sigh of happiness.

Or was it just me? Wandering from winery to winery, we had sampled pinots that teased the mouth with hints of strawberry and black cherry, basil and pepper, oak and cedar, earth and anise as we talked with winemakers about their finicky little thin-skinned grape.

They described it in terms a psychologist might use to diagnose a troubled child: temperamental, inconsistent, fickle, unstable, volatile. "The masochist's grape," some called it -- for good reason.

Although the Willamette has a pinot-friendly climate, it comes with no guarantees. It is cool from winter to spring and warm in the late summer, which can keep a precocious ripener from peaking early. But with an annual average rainfall of 30 to 35 inches and erratic weather patterns, untimely deluges can break hearts. One week's extra rain, one day's overripening, one mistake in the harvest or cellar, and the wine can turn to junk -- raisiny and flabby.

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