An Oregon wine country landmark just got a makeover, and the Willamette Valley a new star attraction.

The Carlton Grain Elevator dominates the skyline — well, no, it IS the skyline — of the sleepy agricultural crossroads town of Carlton. Several years ago, when I first visited the region, the grain elevator was the landmark for giving directions, as in, “Turn left when you see the grain elevator.” It was a dilapidated structure looming 84 feet over the intersection of Main and Pine streets, with a WPA-style mural extolling Carlton’s burgeoning wine industry.

With a fresh coat of paint and extensive renovations inside and out, the grain elevator opened in early September as the new tasting room and event space for Flâneur winery. As such, it stands to become a symbol not just of Carlton’s agricultural heritage, but of its transition from grain to grapes.

The renovated grain elevator is also the second new destination for visitors to Carlton, after Résonance winery, owned by the Louis Jadot Burgundy house, opened a spectacular tasting room and visitors center on the outskirts of town earlier this summer. Big Table Farm winery will soon be taking over the space adjacent to the elevator that Flâneur occupied during the renovations. These newcomers join the Carlton Winemakers Studio, a place to discover new winemakers, and Ken Wright Cellars, which took over an old train depot in 1994, as attractions for wine lovers visiting the Willamette Valley.

The grain elevator was home to the Madsen Grain Co. until 2003, when winemaker Ken Wright purchased it and used it for storage. He sold it in 2013 to Flâneur winery founder Martin Doerschlag, an architect who splits his time between Oregon and Washington, D.C. Doerschlag rented the structure out as the town haunted house for a few Halloweens while he planned its renovation.

That work included removing a century’s worth of grain dust and assorted debris, Doerschlag told me when I visited the construction site in late July. The grain elevator was built in the 1880s and expanded in phases in the 1920s and 1950s. Only the 1920s portion was renovated for the current opening. Bringing it up to modern codes, including a commercial kitchen to be used for cooking classes, was quite a project.

“The hardest part was the seismic upgrades,” Doerschlag said.

Carlton is the gateway to the Yamhill-Carlton District, arguably the most beautiful area of the Willamette Valley. It is just a 15 to 20 minute drive from McMinnville and state route 99W, the main tourist route from Portland, but it seems a world away. McMinnville has a college, a regional airport and a bypass route around town. Carlton has worked hard to maintain a bucolic, agricultural image.

“We decided back in 2003, don’t tear down, always refurbish,” Ken Wright told me. “We wanted to protect the look and feel of Carlton, before the franchises became interested and turned us into Anytown, USA.” In a half-joking aside, he added, “Like McMinnville.”

Upscale renovations and glamorous new facilities aside, it’s the wine that ultimately will draw oenophiles to Carlton. Grant Coulter, Flâneur’s winemaker, said he strives for “high touch, low input” wines, made with native fermentation (no added yeast), and without fining and filtration, techniques that help clarify and stabilize wine but may also strip away flavor.

“You have to follow a natural process as much as possible if you want to make something interesting,” Coulter said. “It’s not just about food. I want to make a wine that causes you to stop eating and look at what you’re drinking.”

Flâneur’s 2017 La Belle Promenade Chardonnay is edgy and energetic, with a lovely citrus note. Coulter also makes three pinot noirs, all showing dark berry fruit and a lush texture.

A short drive west of Carlton, at Résonance, winemaker Guillaume Large is crafting elegant pinot noirs with a Burgundy accent. That isn’t surprising, given that Résonance is the Oregon outpost of Maison Louis Jadot, a leading Burgundy producer. Jadot bought vineyards in the Yamhill-Carlton District in 2013, and recently opened a gleaming tasting facility overlooking its main vineyard. (The production facility is tucked away at the bottom of the hill in a more practical, less valuable spot, but you didn’t really need to see another barrel room, right?)

“In Oregon, the wine is much more expressive than in Burgundy,” Large said. “In Burgundy, young wine is not very expressive, but here — voilà!”

With Résonance and Flâneur, Carlton has two new attractions that should bring pinot noir lovers from far and wide.

Doerschlag exuded some of that optimism as he showed me around the unfinished renovations of the grain elevator in late July.

“I think Carlton will become the shining star of Oregon wine country,” he predicted.

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