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.
Once mocked as too wet, too cold and too muddy to grow a decent grape -- suspicions deepened by early production of unimpressive jug and dessert wines -- the valley now hosts an estimated 200 wineries. Land that sold for $5,000 an acre in the late '80s -- when there were still only a dozen wineries -- now sells for up to $13,000 an acre, and more than half the valley's vineyards are planted in those misunderstood pinot noir grapes, harvested by some of the most passionate winemakers in the business.
"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."
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."
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.
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."
"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.
He works alongside crews, pruning young vine shoots, fastening them to trellises, thinning the leaves to maximize photosynthesis. His goal is to get perfectly ripened fruit into the barn, dry and ripe, before the rainy season sets in. "You keep one eye on the vines, one eye on the jet stream."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.