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Beyond Expectations

Even in benign conditions, the genetically unstable grapes can undergo dramatic mutations, bearing fruit of varying size, shape and color, even transforming from red grape to white, pinot noir to pinot gris.

It's a grape that demands attention, but hates heavy handling -- which is why some hands-off winemakers in the valley term themselves "minimal interventionists."

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

"It's a gift of nature. Our job is to learn how not to get in the way," said Ken Wright, one of the valley's most respected winemakers, based in Carlton. His vineyard-designated Ken Wright Cellars pinots sell out a year in advance and earn top reviews.

Wright got hooked on pinot noir as a young waiter in Kentucky, sampling the great French Burgundies on his restaurant's wine list. "I went from drinking Lancer's and Mateus to that -- I was blown away."

He headed off to study viticulture at the University of California at Davis. "I decided I wanted to make wine my life -- to quit my pretend attempt to become a law student, do what I really cared about, and not care how it came out."

It came out well. Wright, a big-thinker with a firm set to his jaw, is praised for helping bring consistency to pinot noir production in the valley. It began in the '80s, after three or four bad seasons of diluted grapes and watery wine hit the market. Wright decided something had to change. "If one person in New York tastes one glass of Oregon swill, we all suffer," said Wright.

At the time, the standard contract with growers was three tons of grapes per acre. Wright suggested winemakers cut back to two, still paying the full contract price. It was expensive, but fruit that remained on the vine was better quality, with higher concentrations of minerals and sugar. "The greater the load of fruit, the longer it takes to ripen," said Wright.

Fun and Funky

After a day of sipping, it was time for a good night's sleep, and choices were plentiful. As wineries in the valley have multiplied, so have bed-and-breakfasts. Visitors can stay in turn-of-the-century Victorians or colonials with orchards and vineyards, go rustic in log lodges, or stay at friendly working family farms.

We opted to forgo fancy in favor of fun and funk. The Grand Lodge in Forest Grove has its own movie theater, tavern, wine tasting cellar, soaking tub and a 10-hole disc golf course that humbled any illusions I had about turning Frisbee pro. Musicians' fiddling filled the halls, hung with historic photos and offbeat portraits -- some life-size -- of former residents. Our little corner room paid homage to the Oregon inventor of the Erector Set. That was good. The shared bathroom with cold-to-lukewarm showers and the rattly radiator were not. But rooms were only $85, and came with a hot breakfast.

We signed up for an official wine tour, a good move on two fronts: It eliminated the dangers of what tour leaders called "drifting and driving" on the country roads, and it allowed for tours of small boutique wineries we couldn't get into on our own.

One of our favorites was Freja Cellars, an estate boutique winery named for the Norse goddess of love and fertility. It produces only 1,000 cases a year. Tastings are in an outbuilding, with Oriental rugs thrown down on concrete floor and plywood sheeting on walls. The wine itself was a study in uptown elegance. We bought a bottle of 2000 Winemakers Reserve, to save for the final leg of our journey: the Oregon coast.

Before we headed off, we made a final visit to Eyrie Vineyards, and heard firsthand the famed tale of David Lett and the infuriated Frenchmen.

For centuries, the people deemed most adept at handling the high-maintenance pinot noir grape have been winegrowers in the Burgundy region of France, which has the same sloping hills and cool climate as the Willamette Valley. Legend is that invading Romans began cultivating the grape there in A.D. 1st century. Today, a French pinot from Burgundy can fetch thousands on auction.

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