American Road Trips: Pinot Noir Pilgrimage

Sarah Karnasiewicz

Oregon's cool, green Willamette Valley lies at roughly the same latitude as France's Burgundy region and has a similar climate, which happens to be ideal for growing pinot noir grapes. Over the past couple of decades, a burgeoning community of local boutique winemakers has introduced sophisticated wines reflecting the best of old-world technique while drawing inspiration from Oregon's unique terroir. The catch? Because many of these producers release fewer than 3,500 cases per vintage, distribution is extremely limited. To sample them all, intrepid oenophiles must take to the region's picturesque, two-lane highways.

Time your trip to early May, and with a ticket to the annual Portland Indie Wine Festival (www.indiewinefestival.com), you can cram a week's worth of sipping into a single city weekend. Founder Lisa Donoughe likens the popular two-day event—juried by a passionate panel of expert sommeliers, vintners, and journalists—to the Sundance Film Festival because it shines a spotlight on superlative small producers while allowing distributors, collectors, and curious quaffers to schmooze with winemakers, buy bottles, and attend dozens of tastings. (For tasting notes from the 2008 Portland Indie Wine Festival, click here.)

During the rest of the year, though, it's easy enough to devise an "indie" itinerary of your own. I launched my own, one-woman tour in Newburg, at the whitewashed, hundred-year-old barn that houses J. K. Carriere Wines (30295 Highway 99 West, Newburg; 503/554-0721). Since 1999, winemaker Jim Prosser has crafted small releases of an unconventional rose called Glass and an impressive roster of classically built, high-acid, ageworthy pinot noirs, with grapes sourced from some of the valley's most renowned vineyards.

Nearby, in the town of Dundee, where the red soil is the stuff of local grape-growing legend, I met one of the region's most ardent advocates for artisanally made pinot noir: John Paul Cameron of Cameron Winery (8200 Worden Hill Road, Dundee; 503/538-0336). His single-vineyard pinots deliver a powerful sense of place, as do his chardonnay and his two proprietary blends of Italian varieties. I couldn't drive away without stocking up on a couple bottles of the Giuliano, a lush, lovable Friulian-style white that's a steal at $20 and perfectly suited for a summer picnic.

Up an oak- and fern-fringed road above the nearby town of Dayton, DePonte Cellars (17545 Archery Summit Road, Dayton; 503/864-3698) produces a line of traditional pinot noirs and also a range of tart and mineral-laced wines from old-vine melon de bourgogne, a Loire Valley grape often known as muscadet. "Every year they get better," winemaker Isabelle Dutarte said of her pinots. "In 20 years I shall be an old woman, but these wines will be something great."

In Carlton, an unassuming mill town that's now home to an emerging wine and dining scene, I found Scott Paul Wines (128 South Pine Street, Carlton; 503/852-7300) inside a converted creamery alongside the railroad tracks. "People are going to like what they like, but wine works best when you stay focused on the things you love," says winemaker Kelley Fox, and thanks to her emphasis on small-yield vineyards, sustainable practices, and delicately structured pinots, her affection for Burgundy is apparent in every bottle. I settled into the stunning tasting room and sipped my way through the cuvees, including the luscious, approachable La Paulee and the refined Audrey, redolent of rose petals, before heading out to explore the rest of Carlton.

Down the street, at the Carlton Winemaker's Studio (801 North Scott Street, Carlton; 503/852-6100), Oregon's first cooperative winemaking facility, which houses ten different independent local labels, I came away with a couple of bottles from Stewart Boedecker and Athena Pappas, the husband-and-wife team behind Boedecker Cellars. "We're not mass-produced," Pappas said, "and we don't want to be mass-sold." Instead, they craft pinot noirs that express their individual palates. I found the soft raspberry aromas and zingy acidity of their Stewart a great match for cheese and later uncorked the well-rounded but powerful Athena with a supper of grilled lamb.

Finally, I looped back toward Portland to arrive at Brick House Vineyards (18200 Lewis Rogers Lane, Newburg; 503/538-5136). There, in 1992, Oregon native and former CBS news correspondent Doug Tunnell bought 40 acres of land and set about building a world-class vineyard, rooted in a sense of place and marked by careful attention to detail. In all of Tunnell's estate grown, biodynamic wines, including a pear-tinged chardonnay and an unusually earthy pinot noir sourced from a basalt-strewn stretch of vineyard known as the Boulder Block, the sense of terroir really comes through. Now, after visiting the Willamette Valley for myself, I have an entirely new appreciation of what that concept means.

Where to sleep:

The Brookside Inn
8243 Northeast Abbey Road
Carlton, Oregon
503/852-4433

Tucked alongside a quiet stream, just minutes from the wineries and restaurants of Carlton, the Brookside Inn makes a fine base for exploring the valley. Spend a peaceful night in one of its airy, elegant rooms, and in the morning sit down for a bountiful home-cooked breakfast prepared by the inn's charming keepers, Bruce and Susan Bandstra. The couple are passionate about Oregon and its cuisine; recently they launched a series of winemaker dinners that pair the talents of the area's chefs and its vintners. It doesn't get any more local than this: on June 15, in collaboration with Lange Vineyards and the acclaimed Oregonian chef Paul Bachand, the Bandstras will hold their first "Catch and Cook" evening, featuring trout hooked in the nearby brook.

Abbey Road Farm
10501 Northeast Abbey Road
Carlton, Oregon
503/852-6278

At this unique bed-and-breakfast (which is also a functioning 82-acre family farm), guests sleep inside luxuriously converted grain silos and wake to the sight of sheep grazing on rolling green fields and the sounds of songbirds. But innkeepers John and Judi Stuart know about a lot more than just hay and tractors; in May, they unveiled a new wing of the property: the AgriVino Wine Center, a state-of-the-art tasting room housed in a restored horse stable. Open daily from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., it features 56 wines from both Oregon's pioneering vineyard and its up-and-coming small producers.