Beyond Expectations

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

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.

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.

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