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Beyond Expectations

French Burgundy pours proud. So its makers were not pleased when a young upstart from Oregon arrived at a taste test in the '70s with a bottle of some sort of stuff made by a bunch of down-on-their-luck hippies under the weird label "Eyrie" in some wet corner of the United States seemingly more acclimated to magic mushrooms than grapes.

The winemaker was Lett, who'd fallen under the spell of French pinot noirs. Convinced Oregon could bring out the best in the grape, he arrived in the Willamette in the mid-'60s and started planting pinot noir vines, to the amusement of practical-minded farmers selling sloped farmland cheap. "I was 24 years old with 3,000 sticks of wood and degrees in philosophy and viticulture. How could I lose?" said Papa Pinot.

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

How could he not lose? Bankers refused to give David and Diana Lett a loan for their pioneering winery. So the couple camped out at the vineyard, sold textbooks to scrape by, found the old derelict poultry plant, and went to work, naming their label after the nest, or "eyrie," of a red-tailed hawk in their vineyard. "We were kids. We had this idea. There was no reason to think it would work," said Diana.

It did, and David knew it. In 1979, he flew to the blind taste test in France with bottles of their finest 1975 pinot noir. In that first blind-taste test, he took third, outraging French contest organizers who challenged him to do it again.

In the rematch of Old World and New, he came in second.

The Burgundian giant who put forth the challenge, Robert Drouhin, led the rush to the north Willamette Valley that followed over the next decades. His daughter Veronique arrived stateside in 1986, apprenticing under Papa Pinot and others. She now oversees one of the valley's premier wineries on a 225-acre estate, producing under the Domaine Drouhin label.

We had a bottle of 2000 Domaine Drouhin pinot noir ("French soul, Oregon soil") with a meal still etched in my senses at Tina's, a French/Northwestern restaurant in Dundee that is a favorite of local winemakers, who are represented in a 100-bottle-plus list of labels.

Poured in large crystal wineglasses that served as their own decanters, the Domaine Drouhin was a swirl of suggestion: black cherry and spice, leather and earth. It played beautifully with salads of fresh field greens, local hazelnuts and shallot vinaigrette, and a rack of lamb in a port-garlic sauce. Also recommended as pinot pairings were Tina's duck breast with green peppercorn sauce and the braised rabbit legs, served with locally harvested chanterelles.

Coasting Along

With heads and bellies full of new tastes, we turned the car toward the Oregon coast late Sunday afternoon. The coast is a pretty hour-plus drive from the heart of wine country, and often a wet one. Rain on the Pacific is measured in feet, not inches -- think six-feet-tall -- and heavens oozed down on earth as we drove past dense forests of alders and firs, their branches padded with soft, hanging moss.

The Oregon coast stretches for miles with massive wave-sculpted rocks called "haystacks" towering just offshore. It's an unspoiled, access-friendly coast that invites walking, and strolling into its veils of gray mist, you feel as if you are wandering into a dream.

In the little beach town of Pacific City, we checked into a motel across the street from the main beach. From our balcony, we watched early-morning fleets of flat-bottomed dories launch into the surf, headed out to fish for halibut and ling cod on another afternoon of partial sun. Surfers and ocean kayakers muscled into wet suits next to the fishermen. Dogs chased Frisbees, kids built sand castles, teens scrambled up a massive sand dune to slide down -- one daredevil on a snowboard.

We hit the beach, took off our shoes, put on sunscreen and hiked away from the crowds, beachcombing for agates, sand dollars, shells, washed-up bones of fish and seals and whales. Soon enough, we were all alone. The rolling lines of surf broke into white froth, sending bubbly foam over our toes. After two miles, I slumped against a log and let the warm sun and cool marine fog hopscotch across my face.

My mind drifted back over the last few days, and my slow awakening to an ethereal wine that defies ideas of big, fat, full. I remembered a line from a Rumi poem: "Let the beauty we love, be what we do." Surely it was beauty that drove Oregon's pinot noir artisans to risk everything for their maddening little grape.


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