Willamette Valley attracts wine-tasting travelers

Posted: Sunday, October 13, 2002

DUNDEE, Ore. -- After sampling wines at a vineyard's tasting room atop a hill overlooking Dundee, a traveler heads for her car in the parking lot. She stops in her tracks, drinking in another Oregon specialty: the scenery.

Snowy Mount Hood and the rest of the Cascade Range loom about 60 miles to the east. Lying between the Cascades and this hilltop vineyard is the 110-mile-long Wil-lamette Valley, with orchards, golden fields and plantations of hazelnut trees winding south from Portland.

''You have to see this view,'' the traveler said to her friend, who was coming out of the Erath Vineyard's tasting room.

Back in the 1840s, tales about the richness of the Willamette Valley lured legions of pioneers onto the Oregon Trail in ox-drawn covered wagons.

These days, that same soil is producing some of the best Pinot noir in the world. Visitors travel from vineyard to vineyard to sample it -- in private cars, luxury vans, limos run by guided tours, even on bicycles.

They are drawn not just to the wines, but also to the easy pace and enduring rural nature of Oregon's wine country. Dundee still looks like a little farm town. But within a 12-mile radius are about two dozen wineries.

In Dundee alone are Erath, Argyle Winery, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Duck Pond Cellars, Dundee Springs, Lange Estate Winery and Sokol Blosser Winery. Nearby are Rex Hill, Adelsheim, Chehalem, Bergstroem and Lawton wineries in Newberg; Chateau Benoit, Cuneo Cellars, Domaine Meriwether, Hamacher and Laurel Ridge wineries in Carlton; Archery Summit and Domaine Serene in Dayton; Champoeg Wine Cellars in Aurora; Yamhill Valley Vineyards in McMinnville; and Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner.

The area also has some prize-winning restaurants, all of which feature Oregon wines.

Twenty-five or so travelers were inside Erath's tasting room on a recent day. Most were from the Pacific Northwest. Some were from California. A South African man had just left with a few bottles tucked under his arm.

Even visitors from France admit to liking Oregon's Pinot wines, although some do so grudgingly.

''They say 'eez not bad,''' said Liz DeMuch, as she poured a taste of a 2000 Pinot noir into a visitor's glass.

One of Dundee's vineyards -- Domaine Drouhin Oregon -- was founded by Maison Joseph Drouhin, a well-known wine producer based in Burgundy.

Some people who tour tasting rooms in the Willamette Valley know their way around fine wines. They are the ones who know what they are doing when they sniff a glass of wine, swirl it around in their mouths and then spit it out, ready to try the next vintage.

Among them on a recent day were John and Barbara Calabrese of Mission Viejo, Calif. They had visited about half-a-dozen Oregon vineyards so far that day, and after Erath they were off to another.

''We've been to many wineries'' in California's wine-growing regions, Calabrese said. But he and his wife enjoy ''the unpretentious nature'' of Willamette Valley vineyards, the friendliness of people who operate them and the fact there are no tasting charges, Calabrese said.

There are also neophytes, people dropping in out of curiosity. They needn't be self-conscious; the people who work in the tasting rooms are just as friendly to folks who are accustomed to boxed wine as to those with fussy palates.

Some people grumble that a good Oregon Pinot noir can be pricey. But you don't have too look too far to find a drinkable Pinot for $15 or so.

Oregon boasts about 200 wineries, second only to California. There were only five wineries in the state in 1975. Oregon ranks fourth in wine production, behind California, Washington state and New York. Oregon wine sales were about $195 million in 2001.

''It's huge. It's a thriving industry,'' said Betty O'Brien, executive director of the Oregon Wine Advisory Board.

Although there are no official figures, O'Brien calculates that more than a half-million people visit the Willamette Valley's wineries each year, many of them inspired by gushing reviews by national and international wine publications about Oregon's Pinot noir and Pinot gris.

Other grapes are grown here as well -- Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewuerztraminer among them.

Western Oregon's climate and geographical location make it nearly ideal for growing wine. Grapes thrive here because of the valley's northern latitude, clay-loam soils, long hours of sun during the summer months and slowly cooling autumns.

The valley has much more to offer than fine wines.

At the mouth of the Willamette, where the river empties into the Columbia River, is Portland -- a place so livable and green that it has been named one of the country's best cities by so many publications that it's hard to keep track of them all. Many visitors will spend a few nights in Portland and then head down the Willamette Valley.

Throngs of them visit the End Of The Oregon Trail Interpretative Center in Oregon City, just south of Portland. Exhibits there document more than two centuries of history of the Pacific Northwest.

From Oregon City, back roads meander through undulating farmland and trim little towns founded in the mid-1800s by settlers who followed the Oregon Trail. Also scattered through the region are more than 50 covered bridges -- the largest collection west of the Mississippi.

One of the newest attractions in the valley is the Evergreen Aviation Museum, a cavernous structure that is home to the ''Spruce Goose,'' the legendary flying boat built by Howard Hughes.

McMinnville itself is worth a stop. Founded by Oregon pioneers, the city of 27,500 has a charming downtown with well-preserved buildings that date to the late 1800s. The Willamette Valley also offers hot-air balloon rides, boating and camping.



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