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Oregon Willamette Valley – Three Noteworthy Wineries
Tooling around the countryside of the Willamette Valley, dedicated wine enthusiasts can easily visit four to six vineyards in a day. The scenery is lush and green, though surprisingly symmetrical with its variety of vineyards and groves – the Valley also grows walnuts. Fresh fruit stands offer the occasional snack.
With all that wine-tasting, you might think the wines and vineyards start to run together. Not so. Each tasting room, even all the ones "on a hill overlooking the vineyards" has a distinctive feel. I tasted wines in the elegant Domaine Serene chateau and the Lachini garage. Adelsheim felt first like a monastery then an art gallery, as did Penner-Ash, but with a more modern feel.
A large part of the reason the wineries stand out is due to the people manning (or, largely, womanning) the bar. With one exception – a coastal winery I didn't bother reviewing since I only tasted one sour wine before the sour puss of the owner chased me away – everyone loved talking wine. They talked Pinot. They talked wine business. They talked Colorado (my home state). They talked beer, weather, pets, family and, of course, wine.
During a trip during which I visited eighteen tasting rooms, three vineyards stood out. They did not necessarily pour the best-tasting wine, though all three poured beautiful tastings. They simply stood out in my mind enough to single themselves out.
Allow me to elaborate.
Penner-Ash Wine Cellars
Penner-Ash is dedicated to sustainability. Small producers by choice, their winery utilizes gravity for flow. The winery is built in three levels into the hillside overlooking the Chehalem Valley. 15 of the 80 acres on which the winery stands are planted with Pinot Noir.
The large tasting room overlooks the three production levels of the rest of the winery – in addition to the valley, of course. In the center level large steel tanks hold fermenting wine; the oak barrels are located in the lower level. Gravity moves the juice from one level to the other. Gravity also guides the grapes themselves to the crush pad.
The building utilizes its large windows for daylight, minimizing energy consumption. They also open to ventilate summer air. Because the fermentation and aging areas are built directly into the hillside, the temperature remains relatively constant. The hillside effectively acts like the caves in Europe.
I particularly noticed their artwork as well. They had several beautiful pieces hanging, abstract pieces that seemed to have little to do with wine. They also allow visitors to use their deck for picnics.
Penner-Ash hosts tastings daily 11 to 4 for $15, refundable with purchase. 15771 NE Ribbon Ridge Rd., Newberg, OR 97132
Schafer Vineyard Cellars
When I walked into the tasting room, it was empty of people. Miki Shafer called out from the back that she'd be right with me. Unconcerned, I wandered into one of the main reasons this winery stands out: Miki's Christmas Shop. Christmas in July indeed, with 88-degrees on my car's thermostat, I wandered around looking at German smokers, European glasses and Russian-style Santa Clauses. An old dog of indeterminate breed waddled by. I noticed a woman with a Dachshund in her arms scurry across the back of the winery talking on a phone. She entered the tasting room, so I followed.
Miki indicated her wine selection and guided me through a tasting of her wines. Meanwhile, she chatted with me about everything from her wine to her Christmas collection to the sour puss at the coastal vineyard to a loved one's suicide. When a group of five entered after me, she welcomed them jovially and continued pouring.
In addition to her own vineyard's estate-grown wines, Miki was pouring wines from a former protégée of hers who made wine without a winery. She remarked about "cart before the horse" but stated she sold the wines because they were that good. Naturally Miki makes a holiday-inspired wine. She also crafts port infused with brandy, a truly delicious offering.
Shafer Vineyards hosts tastings 11 to 5 daily for $5, refundable with purchase. 6200 N.W Gales Creek Road, Forest Grove, OR 97116
Left Coast Cellars
In addition to its wines, Left Coast Cellars is renowned for its grounds. Wrought-iron gates open to a landscaped entrance in front of a tranquil lake. A little further up the drive, you see a sign announcing that Latitude 45 runs through the property as well as through the great vineyards of France; in fact, one vineyard designate is dedicated to that truth. Left Coast takes their wines as seriously as their grounds.
In Oregon sustainability tradition, Left Coast runs solar power. The panels – located by Latitude 45 – run their guest cottage, front gate and irrigation; roof-mounted solar panels provide the rest of their electricity. The tranquil lake in fact collects rain water for gravity-fed irrigation.
Their tasting room is housed in a spacious locale that also features a café. The typical cheese plate is available, but a fellow patron raved about the carrot cake. One delight being crafted while I was tasting is the mushroom soup, a savory-smelling creamy offering. I, alas, already had dinner plans.
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Part of what makes Left Coast so memorable for me was the lovely long chat I had with owner Suzanne Larson. A former Coloradan herself, she chatted with me about her road trips between Colorado and Oregon with her family pets, her extensive travels as a former tour guide, her life as a student in France, a recent trip to Croatia (we agreed that Dubrovnik is beautiful but over-touristed and disagreed about the quality of Croatian wine – she is not as big a fan as I am.) Suzanne is a down-to-earth lady living a glamorous life – and working hard at it to boot. She didn't confirm, but it sounds like she works every single weekend promoting her wine after the workaday week at the vineyard. I don't know where she gets her energy: She had sat to chat with another table as I was driving away.
The other memorable aspect of Left Coast is their taking the expensive, finicky Pinot Noir grape and, name notwithstanding, turning it into small batches of white wine. And I do mean small batches – they don't sell the White Pinot Noir outside of their winery, and they sell out quickly. The Pinot Noir grape takes its complexity to the white wine with spice and citrus on the nose and Meyer lemon, peach and lychee on the palette. Somewhere between crisp, sweet and round, this White Pinot Noir may not carry the price tag of its red brother, but I hope Suzanne and Left Coast keep making it – nobody else is.
Left Coast offers tastings daily 11 to 5 for $10, $5 of which is refundable with purchase.4225 N Pacific Highway 99W | Rickreall, OR
One quality I noticed – and appreciated – at all the vineyards is the fact that, despite Oregon's having 400-odd wineries, they are all one big family. All the wineries know each other. They are happy to recommend each other. I even hear tales of one vineyard helping out another in emergencies. Though competitors, Oregon's winemakers carry the attitude that they are all in the wine-making business together, so they might as well support each other. Like the capitol-city of Oregon, they stand as a system of villages rather than an urban conglomeration.