“Good afternoon, sir. Will you be joining us for a wine tasting today?”
Never before had I been greeted by a restaurant-style maitre d’ when visiting a winery. But nothing about this shiny new tasting room at Sokol Blosser winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley is typical.
The wood-and-glass structure, opened to the public in early July, appears to emerge organically from the red volcanic soils of the Dundee Hills, hugging the earth while looking toward the sky. The building’s angles and skylights seem dramatic and subversive; designed to maximize natural light, they give an impression of creation in progress rather than a structure fully formed.
The host led me into an adjacent room and introduced me to Alison and Alex Sokol Blosser, the sister-brother team now managing the winery their parents established in the 1970s. A handful of visitors stood around a U-shaped bar sipping pinot noir or chardonnay. Through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows offering a panoramic view of the valley and the Cascade Range in the distance, I saw three couples seated on a narrow patio enjoying flights of wines.
“We think of this facility as the last piece of the puzzle for us,” said Alison, who handles marketing for the winery, while Alex is the winemaker. The siblings took over operation of the family-owned winery in 2008 and plan to “take winery hospitality to a new level, not just for Sokol Blosser, but for Oregon,” she said.
“You can have a social experience standing at the bar, a flight of wines with some local charcuterie and cheese on the porch, or you can really geek out in the library with a vertical flight of older pinot noirs,” Alison explained. There’s also a kitchen and a farm table for catered luncheons, a terrace reserved for winery club members and a multimedia conference room for corporate retreats — with wine, of course.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all experience anymore,” Alison said. “In our old tasting room, you came in and took what we offered. Now you have a choice.”
The facility, modestly called the Tasting Room, was designed by Portland architect Brad Cloepfil. It aims to reinvent the winery experience for oenophile tourists who make the hour’s drive south from Portland.
It also represents a new coming of age for Oregon’s booming wine industry, centered in the Willamette Valley. Many of the wineries that pioneered this region in the 1970s, like Sokol Blosser, are well into their second generation, and new winery openings pushed the valley’s total to 316 as of the end of July. Business is booming in Asia, and Japanese and Chinese tourists have discovered Oregon’s wine country.
They’ve noticed in California and France, too. Earlier this year, Jackson Family Wines, one of California’s biggest wine companies, purchased several hundred acres of vineyard land in Oregon. The company, most famous for its Kendall-Jackson line of wines, later bought the facility and land operated by Soléna Estate in Willamette’s Yamhill-Carlton district. Soléna is building a new facility nearby. Within days came news that renowned Burgundy house Maison Louis Jadot had bought another winery nearby. The Willamette Valley — and Oregon in general — has gained new confidence and prominence as a world-class wine region.
Sokol Blosser’s is the newest of several striking tasting rooms that have opened in the past year in the Willamette Valley. Stoller Family Estate, a short drive away at the foot of the Dundee Hills, opened its new facility in time for last year’s harvest. Near the summit of the Chehalem Mountains, a 30-minute drive north and west over winding roads through ancient fir forests, Ponzi Vineyards unveiled its new tasting facility in June. Sokol Blosser, Stoller and Ponzi are all Oregon wine pioneers; newcomer Saffron Fields plans to welcome visitors to its new facility in Yamhill-Carlton this autumn.
These are not faux chateaux or imitation Tuscan villas, but a new eco-modernist style of winery. Look for green roofs, solar arrays and reclaimed natural materials. LEED certification for energy efficiency takes the Oregon wine industry’s emphasis on sustainability and environmental awareness from the vineyard into the tasting room.
Pretty sophisticated for a region whose unofficial slogan used to be, “Willamette: Rhymes with Dammit.”
The Willamette Valley extends from Portland to just south of Eugene, but most of the wineries are clustered along the stretch of Route 99W between Portland and Salem. The towns of Newberg, Dundee and McMinnville are convenient bases for anyone staying overnight in the valley. Lodging ranges from the luxurious Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg to a shiny new Comfort Inn in McMinnville, with several bed-and-breakfast options throughout the valley.
Less wine-obsessed visitors can enjoy a horseback ride through the Dundee Hills or tour the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, home of Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose, the largest aircraft ever built.
I was there for the wine, however, so I mapped out a three-day visit to experience the valley’s different expressions of pinot noir: a day in the Yamhill-Carlton district with a side trip to the Chehalem Mountains (the part of the valley closest to Portland), a second day for the Eola-Amity Hills and a third for the Dundee Hills.
These are the valley’s three main American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, the U.S. version of the European appellation system. If you’re limited to a day trip from Portland, try concentrating on one of these areas. Most wineries produce wines from around the valley, so you’ll be able to get a sense of each.
The Carlton Winemakers Studio was my starting point. Nestled off a side street in the tiny crossroads town of Carlton, about a 20-minute drive and a world away from the tourist corridor of 99W, the studio was created in 2002 as Oregon’s first multi-winery facility.
Wine director Jeff Woodard can often be found behind the counter in the airy tasting room, offering visitors samples of wines by celebrated winemakers Andrew Rich, Eric Hamacher and others. (Eleven wineries currently call the studio home.) Woodard will tell you about the building’s LEED certification, too.
The wines here offer a tasting tour of the entire valley, as the winemakers purchase grapes from throughout the Willamette region. I was particularly impressed with pinot noir from Brittan Vineyards and Dukes Family Vineyards, and a delicious sauvignon blanc from Andrew Rich.
Carlton is also home to Ken Wright Cellars, with a tasting room in the town’s refurbished train depot, and Scott Paul Wines, open for tasting on Saturdays, for some sought-after boutique wines and imports from Burgundy.
Even hunger couldn’t distract me from my main business — at the Horse Radish wine and cheese bar, I was able to sample wines from small wineries I’d never heard of while enjoying one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten, local ham with fig sauce on focaccia. My server and his brother had made one of the wines.
They do take their sandwiches seriously in Willamette. The next day I stopped by Red Hills Market in Dundee to grab one for later before turning my car south toward the Eola-Amity Hills. The drive toward Salem along the SE Lafayette Highway and Route 221 leads to several notable wineries, including Brooks, Cristom and St. Innocent, with delicious wines for a vineyard picnic.
The Willamette’s best views, however, are from the Dundee Hills. This is also the most compact sector of the valley for touring. The hills are easily spotted from Route 99W as they rise above the valley floor, their slopes striped with vine rows. Driving up and down these slopes was tricky, for any turn or curve could reveal a spectacular vista to draw my eyes off the road.
My final stop was Domaine Drouhin Oregon, the U.S. outpost of Domaine Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy. The Drouhins were quick to recognize Oregon’s potential for world-class pinot noir and chardonnay and founded DDO, as the winery is known, in the late 1980s.As I crested a small rise, Mount Hood suddenly appeared straight in front of me, hovering in the distance over the Burgundy-chalet style winery. I pulled over and reached for my camera. The wine could wait for this.
The vista embraced the Old World and the New, reflecting pinot noir’s Burgundian roots and the frontier spirit of the American West. Below me, I knew, was the futuristic Sokol Blosser winery, heralding Oregon wine’s next exciting phase.
McIntyre writes a weekly wine column for The Post’s Food section.
Clarification: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Jackson Family Wines bought the Soléna Estate winery. Jackson purchased Soléna’s current land and facility but not the brand. Soléna is building a new facility nearby.
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