The Williamette Valley
A taste of Burgundy in the Pacific Northwest
Nestled in the foothills of the Coast Range Mountains, between Portland and the Pacific Ocean, is the Willamette Valley. More than 200 wineries inhabit this 242-kilometre-long fertile stretch where the climate is cool and moist, with the right amount of sunshine to grow tempermental pinot noir grapes, the red grapes for which Burgundy, France, is renowned.
But while Burgundy has been doing it for 900 years, the history of winemaking in the Willamette Valley dates back only as far as the late-1960s, when David Lett bought a hillside acreage near the city of Dundee and planted a vineyard, against the advice of his California cohorts who said it was impossible to grow grapes in Oregon. He would prove them wrong when he entered his pinot noir in the 1979 Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades and placed third among pinot noirs against France’s best labels.
By that time, a small, committed group of wine producers had made their way to the valley, all working together toward a common goal of producing superior cool-climate, terroir-driven wines.
That spirit of community and shared optimism remains today. As a winery visitor, you feel welcomed, not just as a paying customer doing the circuit (à la Napa), but as a guest invited to join a conversation about terroir, farming, winemaking, food and, of course, wine.
Touring the Willamette Valley is not as straightforward as touring other wine regions, partially because residents have shied away from tourism in favour of preserving their bucolic paradise and maintaining their agricultural heritage. However, it’s well worth the effort to sample not only world-class pinot noirs, but also splendid pinot gris, chardonnay and riesling.
The Oregon Wine Board and its website is of some use for planning a self-guided tour, but a better bet is going with a driver/guide. Grape Escape Tours (grapeescapetours.com) offers private, custom tours with guides who have experience in hospitality, history, food and wine. The tours provide food to complement various tastings, and recommend no more than three wineries in a day so the experience is unhurried. Visitors can’t go wrong visiting J.K. Carriere, Domaine Drouhin or WillaKenzie Estate, but these are just three in an ever-growing list of splendid wineries.