Posted by: David Stewart | April 6, 2011

What’s new and big in Willamette Valley wineries?

Rolling hills, wooly sheep, and nearly every shade of green imaginable. Spring in the northwest corner of Oregon brings change and growth. And this goes for Oregon wineries as well.

My sister and her husband were visiting us last weekend from southeast Asia, so we decided to take them around to some of the local wineries. Susan used to live in Oregon when we moved here in 1984, and then soon after relocated to Bolivia. I was sure that the transformation of wineries in Oregon would be just as stunning for her as it has been for me.

We met them in the little town of Carlton, the epicenter of the emerging wine country. You simply can’t walk ten feet down main street without running into a tasting room. Susan pointed out various buildings in town and what their function had been when she lived here. Now they are mostly converted to the sipping of wine.

I didn’t plan things well enough for the group to get into any of the small by-appointment-only wineries which are focused a lot more on excellent wine than a showy tasting room. So we stuck with the publically open tasting rooms with our over 21 daughter who was visiting over the weekend.

Cliff Creek – we had limited time to touch a few places, so we started at our favorite southern Oregon tasting room in Carlton. Emphasizing warm weather varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, Cliff Creek usually has a nice Claret which is softened by a Cabernet Franc in the mix. Their 2006 Syrah keeps scoring home runs, like a Platinum at the recent San Diego International Wine Competition.

Outside of Carlton and McMinnville, the tasting rooms were all jammed with tasters. I have never seen such big crowds outside the traditional tasting weekends of Thanksgiving and Memorial Day/Labor Day. I suppose people got lured out by the appearance of the sun.

Lemulsen – These guys are in a fantastic location near their vines, flaunting their solar panels and artistic metal work fences. The wine is good, but it is pretty expensive – around $42 for a pinot noir. The wine, well, it’s hard for me to get excited at that price.

WillaKenzie – We liked the wines here, but they are a little expensive too, though marginally less than the Lemulsen pinots. But since our last visit, they have opened a brand new tasting room building. The old tasting room seemed very nice, in the same building as the winemaking operation. They have been in the new building for only 3 months. The new building is splendiferous: amazing floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the hills where their vines grow. WillaKenzie does have some interesting varietals that you don’t often find elsewhere. In spite of the big new building, the place was jammed with tasters and the poor pourers were overwhelmed.

Penner-Ash – Another big and beautiful tasting room with a big crowd, but the pourers seemed to be keeping up a bit better with the crowd. The cheapest available pinot noir (their 2008 Willamette Valley) is still available at $50 per bottle. Their most expensive tasting was a 2008 "Pas de Nom" pinot noir selling at – wait for it – $100! This is supposedly the choicest grapes from any vintage. It seemed good, but we couldn’t imagine paying that much for a bottle of Oregon wine.  Or any wine for that matter.

Twelve – I really like these guys. A small 12 acre winery with a great story about choosing their name and always a fun time chatting with Linda, the winemaker’s wife. The other feature here is artisan chocolate to taste with your wine. These prices are more in line with what I like to pay. And they have a nice 2nd label called "Second Floor" which sells for $15. All that said, I can’t really say they have terrific Oregon pinot noir yet. I’m sure they will get there in time, and by then the prices will probably be astronomical.

Nick’s Italian Cafe – we finished the day with a dinner at Nick’s, just down the block from Twelve’s tasting room. This place is the standard wine country destination restaurant. I remember fondly walking here with my wife from our McMinnville Bed and Breakfast on an anniversary trip. I chose the Belle Pente 2006 Estate Reserve pinot noir for dinner from Nick’s wine list. Improbably, the table agreed that this was absolutely the best wine they had tasted all day. But this really is a terrific wine, and fortunately we have three bottles salted away at home.

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