Travel, Etc. --> Willamette Valley - Pinot Land
Oregon Spring Break Tour 2007, Part III
Willamette Valley - Pinot Land
The most unexpected thing about the Willamette Valley is its sheer size. The entire Napa Valley is only 26 miles long and there is almost nowhere you can't get to in under 30 minutes. The Willamette Valley is on a whole different scale. Over 100 miles long and 60 miles wide, it encompasses over 5,200 square miles, and that's a lot of dirt. And, it's not just grapes they grow there... the valley produces 99 percent of all the hazelnuts grown the United States along with very substantial cherry and pear crops.
We based ourselves in a quirky little town called McMinnville, one of the larger, centrally located towns in the valley. And larger is a relative term since the population is only about 29,000. With a quaint downtown, some great restaurants and some interesting roadside attractions, it made a perfect base of operations. Since this was a working trip we stayed at the local Red Lion Suites that proved to be comfortable, inexpensive and convenient.
You can tell that this is a young wine growing region. Only established as an AVA (American Viticultural Area) in 1984, you can see the effects that the wine industry has had on what must have been a very rural, agricultural area 25 years ago. Downtown McMinnville boasted French Bistros and Tapas Bars, alongside old-fashioned fabric stores and secondhand shops. And, while we found some excellent restaurants, and noticed several nice bed and breakfasts, there are none of the high-end spas, inns or restaurants with celebrity chefs that blanket California wine country.
We spent four days in the valley, visiting wineries, tasting wine and eating way too well. This week and next, we will try to share some of the high points with you.
Cherry Hill Winery
Our first stop was a must-see. The Cherry hill Winery is yet another Indiana connection in Oregon, since it is owned by Indianapolis natives, Mike and Jan Sweeney. The Sweeneys had traveled the world tasting Pinot Noir and finally purchased 150 undeveloped acres in Eola Hills just west of Salem. Since then, they have constructed a 12,000 square foot winery, planted 90 acres and are now producing about 7,000 cases of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris a year.
Their first release was the 2003 vintage, and the Estate Pinot Noir received a 91 point score from Wine Spectator, propelling them into the ranks of sought-after Oregon Pinot houses overnight. The man behind the early success is winemaker Chris Luby. We met Chris on a wet Tuesday morning after driving up the long gravel road through the vineyards that leads to the winery.
Working with fruit from such young vines leads Chris to a delicate lighter-styled Pinot Noir that he feels expresses the terroir of the rolling hillsides. Contributing to that style is his use of only neutral oak, which he achieves by purchasing two to three year old barrels from some of the heavy new oak users in the valley, like Domaine Serene. As their vines continue to mature, I am sure that we will continue to see nothing but improvement in their wines for years to come.
If you want to sample some of Chris' work, we currently have the Cherry Hill Estate Pinot 2004 ($29) and the Cherry Hill Papillion Pinot Noir 2004 ($22) in stock.
Cherry Hill Winery
7867 Crowley Road
Rickreall, OR 97374
One of the most interesting stops on our tour was the winery belonging to the famous French wine making family of Masion Joseph Drouhin. It seems that Robert Drouhin's interest in Oregon was piqued when an Oregon Pinot Noir from the Eyrie vineyards won a major wine competition in Paris against France's finest Burgundies in 1979. The next year Robert held a blind tasting of his own at Maison Drouhin. It pitted the 1975 Eyrie against his finest Grand Crus. One of the Drouhin Grand Crus took first, but the Eyrie was a solid second.
Robert Drouhin was hooked. He began visiting Oregon regularly and in 1985, when his daughter Veronique graduated from the University of Dijon, she went to intern in Oregon with Adelsheim, Bethel Heights and Eyrie. By 1987, Drouhin had purchased 225 acres of farm land perfectly situated on south facing slopes. Construction soon began on a state of the art winery and 90 acres are now planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir using high density techniques. Vines are planted at one meter spacing and only one shoot per vine is utilized as opposed to the traditional seven-foot, two-shoot cultivation. This is a technique that produces low yields and higher concentration and is now being widely copied throughout the valley.
The winery itself is certainly worth a stop. Appearing modest in size from the front, this ultra modern facility actually extends the equivalent of seven stories down the side of the hill it is built into. There are three working floors beneath the tasting room above, each designed so well for complete gravity flow that the only time the wine sees a pump is on its way to the bottling line.
The first floor is filled with stainless steel fermentation tanks and something I certainly was not expecting to see - rotary fermenters. Rotary fermenters slowly turn as the grapes ferment to keep the skins in constant contact with the juice. They are something I usually associate with Australian wine makers who use them to get maximum extraction and depth of color from their grapes. But, if you think about it, it certainly makes sense for Pinot Noir where color and extraction are tough to come by. The wine flows from the fermentation room through hose openings in the floor to the aging floor below, where the custom made French oak barrels await. There they are racked and aged finally moving to the lowest floor where the wines are bottled and cases are stored for shipment.
Domaine Drouhin pays attention to the details. You can see it everywhere. All of their French oak barrels are custom made by Francois Freres and come from oak forests that the family actually owns. And you can see that Veronique's focus here is the same as it is back in France because the entire winery is neat as a pin with everything seemingly in its place. I dare say you could have a picnic on the fermentation room floor. Their current capacity is about fifteen thousand cases and they project growth to twenty five thousand cases over the next ten to fifteen years.
After the tour we tasted through a number of their excellent Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays but like most Oregon producers, their current vintages are almost completely sold out. We will be looking for new vintages soon.
6750 Breyman Orchard Road
Dayton, OR 97114
Nick's Italian Café
The first words out of the mouth of almost anyone in the wine business when we told them we were staying in McMinnville was "you have to eat at Nick's." So... our first night there, we ventured back to Main Street to find this Oregon bastion of Northern Italian cuisine. This may have been the best meal of the trip, but I must admit that when we saw the '50s-era, tavernesque store front, it was hard to imagine that anything lurked within that wasn't red sauce Italian and checkered tablecloths.
We took the leap though, and what we found inside was anything but - it seems that Nick's has been around for about 30 years. The restaurant matured right alongside the wine business, with many winemakers and vineyard owners using it a second office. And, just as with many of the wineries that were founded in the '70s, the torch is passing to a second generation. Nick's daughter, a recent San Francisco Culinary School graduate, and her chef boyfriend just took over the kitchen in February. The night we were there they were both in the kitchen and Nick was having dinner with friends a few tables away.
The menu was a $45 five-course prix-fixe with multiple choices for everything but the soup. And, it was just about as creative an Italian menu as I have ever seen. Our antipasti choices ranged from house made Mortadella sausage, to Bresaola, thinly sliced air-dried beef, with Arugula lightly drizzled with olive oil... all served with some serious Italian bread and all of it delicious.
A wonderful Minestrone followed and then pasta dishes to die for. Linda's Dungeness Crab Lasagna was creamy perfection filled with tender crab meat and the Fettuccini with Lamb Ragu had Tom and I contemplating Oregon citizenship. Seriously, I cannot remember Italian food this good at twice the price in Chicago or New York. The Radicchio Salad with crisp Pancetta and a Balsamic vinaigrette only reinforced my opinion.
And, if the salad reinforced it the Secondi cemented it... a Veal Involtini served white Tuscan beans...thinly sliced veal layered with a cheese stuffing, then rolled into tubes, baked and served with a delicate au jus. Fabulous!
We paired this up with some great wines from the very reasonably priced wine list... glasses of Adelsheim Vineyards Pinot Gris and a bottle of Peter Rosback's Sineann Pinot Noir. Great food, great wine and the total for dinner for four including tip was less than $300! I'm not sure if Nick's would be worth the plane ticket, but if you get to Oregon, it's certainly worth a visit.
Nick's Italian Café
523 NE Third Street
McMinnville, OR 97128
Nicks Italian Café
Next: Oregon A to Z and Roadside Attractions
May 9, 2007