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Beyond Expectations

Hungry and happy, we decided to dine at a highly recommended, no-frills little restaurant perched above a nearby river. It was called, simply, the River House Restaurant. Fare was simple, too: off-the-boat fish, prawns, buckets of fresh-dug steamer clams, served with a downhome, oven-hot loaf of white bread.

We ordered halibut and paid a $7 corking fee to open our bottle of 2000 Freja Winemaker's Reserve. The halibut steak that arrived was huge -- a platter filler -- and done with lemon, butter, dill. Period. This was nothing to be messed with.

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

Each white bite was exquisite: moist, delicate, cooked to the exact millisecond of doneness. I swirled the Freja in my glass, saw garnet down below, and breathed in heady aromas of fresh berry and tea and toast.

I took a sip, closed my eyes and gave thanks to "minimalist interventionist" chefs and winemakers everywhere who believe less is more.

The pinot noir moved around on my tongue like a toe dancer in a complex bit of choreography: raspberry here, currant there, a sprinkling of white pepper. The finish was long, a rippling silk ribbon of pleasure.

It was sensual and lovely. I felt bathed in lightness.

I opened my eyes, smiled and nodded. I realized I had finally arrived.

Something had clicked. I finally got it.

M.L. Lyke writes frequently for The Post's Travel section.

Details: Pinot Noir Trail

GETTING THERE: The heart of Willamette Valley wine country is less than an hour's drive from Portland, Ore. United flies nonstop to Portland from Washington Dulles for $478 round trip. From BWI, American, Delta and Continental offer connecting flights, and Southwest has one direct flight per day; all are charging about $235 round trip. Frontier, Continental, America West, Alaska and American fly from Reagan National.

If you don't want to rent a car, a number of tour operators will pick you up in Portland, or at your hotel in the valley. Tour providers include Grape Escape Winery Tours (503-283-3380, www.winesnw.com/GrapeEscapeTours.htm) and EcoTours of Oregon (888-868-7733, www.ecotours-of-oregon.com). Tours can get you into small boutique wineries you might not otherwise see.

WINE COUNTRY: Pick up a winery guide, available at most stores, tasting rooms and visitor centers, including the Portland Visitors Information Center, 701 SW Sixth Ave. in downtown Portland (877-678-5263). A downloadable version is available from the Oregon Wine Board (www.oregonwine.org, 800-242-2363). Wineries are typically open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., although some open to the public only on Thanksgiving and Memorial Day weekends, or by appointment. Calling ahead is always a good idea. Take cash: Some wineries now charge tasting fees, especially for premium pourings.

WHERE TO STAY: We went for fanciful Oregon funk, and stayed at the Grand Lodge in Forest Grove (3505 Pacific Ave., Forest Grove, 877- 992-9533, www.mcmenamins.com), a former Masonic and Eastern Star Home renovated by the state's famed McMenamin brothers, who've transformed schoolhouses and poorhouses into artsy getaways with home breweries, quirky shops and playthings. Accommodations for two people range from $45 per night in a bunk bed to $185 for a king suite, with lodging packages available. I loved the disc golf course and our room's homage to the inventor of the Erector Set, but not the shared bathrooms and rattly radiator. The McMenamins also own the Hotel Oregon in downtown McMinnville (310 NE Evans St., 888-472-8427, www.mcmenamins.com), where doubles start at $50 per night.

For luxuriating in the pastoral beauty of the valley, many visitors eschew hotels for the goose-down, homey, country pleasures of the area's many bed-and-breakfasts and inns (for a good list, log onto www.yamhillwine.com/bnb.html). A favorite in centrally located McMinnville is the Youngberg Hill Vineyards and Inn (10660 SW Youngberg Hill Road, 888-657-8668, www.youngberghill.com), a spacious, romantic getaway that sits 700 feet above the valley, with decks to take in the sweeping views. Rates are $139 to $169 double per night. Of course, visitors can also stay in Portland, and take day trips to the wineries.

WHERE TO EAT: Chefs in the valley tend to be as passionate and imaginative as winemakers, and restaurant wine lists are long on local bottlings. Institutions in the valley include Nick's Italian Cafe (521 NE Third St., McMinnville), where the five-course prix-fixe is a must; entrees run about $19 to $24, prix fixe $42. At Red Hills Provincial Dining (276 N Highway 99W, Dundee), diners like to preface sumptuous feasts with seasonal sesame-coated oysters with ginger aoli (entrees $20 to $26). The Joel Palmer House restaurant (600 Ferry St., Dayton) offers a culinary hallelujah to the edible mushroom, fresh-picked by the owners (entrees $17.50 to $29.50). Tina's (760 Highway 99W, Dundee) turns fresh seasonal ingredients from the valley into elegant French-Northwest inspired creations; entrees $21 to $30.

INFORMATION: Oregon Tourism Commission, 503-986-0000, www.traveloregon.com.

-- M.L. Lyke

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