Posted by: David Stewart | February 21, 2011

Oregon wine country displays their mighty 2008s

It seems like humans as a species have perfected the technology behind agriculture of most kinds. Sure, corn or soy bean farming is still subject to the weather, but it seems rare to have some year’s cotton crop identified as making really fine socks. But growing fine wine grapes seems totally resistant to consistency.

Take the year 2008 in northwest Oregon’s wine country. Everyone including the New York Times is raving about it as the vintage of the decade for pinot noir. And this was after 2007 was panned by the press. Just put a glass of any 2007 Oregon pinot next to a 2008 release from the same label and there is an obvious difference in color and density – the 2008 is much denser and darker.

The irony of the NY Times article of course is that it raved about Oregon’s value priced pinots, even though these wines could not be found on any shelf. For example, their number 1 pick, the $23 Belle Pente 2008 Willamette Valley pinot noir was indeed a value at under $19 where it could be found at stores like Vinopolis in Portland. But when the article was published, the only place you could find bottles of this winner is in the cellars of lucky collectors. (I actually have a few bottles left in my cellar).

But the higher priced 2008s are only now becoming available, after their longer aging time.  Here are a few places Deb and I visited over the weekend of Feb 5th to sample these, mostly from the winemakers themselves.

Belle Pente – the 2008 Murto and Estate Reserve pinot noir are a little more expensive than the Willamette Valley release that the NY Times raved over. And their value-priced 2009s are just now becoming available. The winery uses organic methods like having flocks of animals wander the vine rows, nibbling away at the weeds instead of using herbicide. The winery is hidden away down a dirt road outside Carleton, Oregon. If you visit Belle Pente, you will need to make an appointment to taste their wine, but a little advanced planning makes it worth it.

Lemelson Vineyards – just down the road from Belle Pente, Lemelson is both more accessible by road and doesn’t require an appointment. When we visited, they had a number of nice 2008s available, and their Thea’s Selection Pinot noir was on a $25 special price. Most of their wines were a bit out of my price range, so I didn’t buy much there. I did however like the conversation with the tasting room hostess who was a fairly new runner and was considering her first marathon. If you can’t talk to the winemaker themselves, it’s nice to have a personal connection with the person pouring. (Which made the Ken Wright experience such a stark contrast. More on this later).

Ayres – another appointment-only winery, this one harkens directly back to 1984 when we moved to Oregon and used to taste wine in the winemakers’ garage. In this case, we had an engaging visit with Brad, the owner/winemaker. The Ayers 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot noir was an outstanding value from this vintage of the decade; I have one bottle left in my collection, and I wish I had gotten a lot more when it was available. So no more 2008s but the 2009 is quite good. The best thing about meeting the winemaker in person is to hear their story, understand their winemaking philosophy and appreciate more about their art and passion. Ayers has a broad selection of 2009 Pinots; while perhaps not as astounding as the 2008s are still wonderful wines.

Twelve – speaking of stories, these guys have some great ones. If you can trek into downtown McMinnville, perhaps to dine at the iconic Nick’s Italian Cafe or the McMenamins Hotel Oregon, just walk another half block to the Twelve tasting room. When we visited on a Friday evening, we had a great time hearing about the difficulty they had picking a name for the winery and the happy coincidences of their chosen moniker. The wine is also good as well; the $25 2008 Pinot Noir is respectable though a bit tight still and might benefit from aging more. For a higher end treat, their 2008 Pinot Noir Uh-Huh is terrific.

Cliff Creek Cellars – this southern Oregon winery has a tasting room in Carleton, and I’m glad they do. The south’s warmer climate is more consistent with California’s varietals, and is a nice alternative to pinot noir. I particularly like Cliff Creek’s clarets, which are a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot which changes every year. The result is a big wine with depth and complexity. The 2004 Claret is available now, and the 2006 Syrah is surprisingly good as well. Both are available for $25, making these exceptional values. If you go to Carleton, check them out; they recently moved into a larger tasting room next to Troon, another southern Oregon winery which is a little quirkier.

Ken Wright Cellars – the absolute antithesis of the personal touch greeted us at the Tyrus Evan tasting room in Carleton, home of Ken Wright’s tastings. On arrival, we were told that the charge for tasting would be $20 (higher than anyone else’s) and that we could only buy wine in packs of 6 bottles. We were so put off by the snooty tasting room person that we were disinclined to pay the high price for these wines. I’m still amazed that Ken Wright can get by with such “attitude”, but it rubs us the wrong way. Stay away, is my advice.

Argyle Winery – in September of 1989 1988, on the hottest day of the year, my wife gave birth to our first child. To celebrate the moment, I brought into the hospital a bottle of Argyle sparkling wine to toast the birth. If there were any justice, this would be called “champagne”, but such is the power of branding and the courts that it must be called something else. Argyle still makes fantastic Oregon Champagne in several varieties along with some still wines such as pinot noir and chardonnay, the usual components of champagne. Their tasting room is on the main highway of Oregon 99W in Dundee, and is a pleasure to visit. The champagne is not cheap, of course, in part because of the production cost. But it’s nice to have a bottle or two around for a special occasion. We liked the 2007 Brut and the 2006 Blanc de Blancs for a very special occasion.

If you want to sample any of these, you owe it to yourself to visit the northern Willamette Valley. Just be prepared that today’s wineries like to charge a tasting fee from $5 up to $20 for a flight of tastes. (Unlike the old days when tasts were free). Don’t be embarrassed to share the cost of a taste with your significant other; the tasting fee is usually waved with the purchase of wine.

Or hey, just let me know, and maybe we can arrange a tasting at our house!



  1. Actually for this wife, your first child was born in September of 1988, not ’89….

  2. Aw snap! I thought I had the math worked out. Apparently this wasn’t the only thing I messed up on.

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