Taste Oregon: Why the state deserves cred for its wine

Among my guilty pleasures, people-watching tops the list — especially at parties where I can squeeze grape-like characteristics from different personalities. It’s kinda wine-geeky, but fun nonetheless.

“Napa cab” — he’s that Porsche-driving stockbroker who can’t quit talking about his football glory days. “Aussie shiraz,” the life-of-the-party chick magnet (it’s the accent, I guess) — and even the guys think he’s cool. But who’s that demure girl relaxing in the corner, silently putting together a following? She’s the unassuming pinot noir from Oregon.

In the 1960s, when California was breaking into the wine biz, Oregon was barely a speck on the pinot noir screen. Many trailblazing Californians slipped up to Oregon in the early ’70s, attracted to the romantic wine fantasy. After years of trial and error, they discovered that pinot noir and chardonnay flourished in the cool climate and volcanic soil. But it wasn’t until 1979 that Oregon crashed the world wine game. Eyrie Vineyards entered a 1975 Pinot Noir at an international competition in France, and against some of the most famous wines in the world, it placed third. A star was born.

But success hasn’t gone to its head. To this day, even after the movie Sideways chummed the demand for pinot, Oregon’s wildly successful wineries haven’t changed. Many remain family owned and operated, continuing to focus on high quality and value wines. Corporate ownership, unlike northern California’s wine country, only recently butted into this pastoral scene. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates from Washington bought Erath Vineyards last year, making Dick Erath, one of the godfathers of Oregon wine, a happy man. The majority of the Oregon wineries I spoke with warmly applauded his success. I felt like they were congratulating their grandfather, and in many ways, they were.

Willamette (rhymes with “dammit”) Valley is the main grape-growing area and one of the first wine regions (AVA) established in Oregon. It’s about an hour south of Portland, straddling the mountainous coastline. A major reason for Willamette’s success is the vast temperature fluctuation during the spring and summer growing season, allowing the fruit to develop acids — a crucial element in creating complexity in wine. Although the region is now broken up into six sub-AVAs, few wineries label their bottles with them, preferring simply Willamette Valley. Many prefer to focus on branding quality Willamette fruit now, adding the sub-AVAs later.

Progressive without the fanfare, they put screwtops on many of their wines, and most vineyards in Oregon subscribe to the “organic” or “sustainable” farming model. By not using pesticides and herbicides, they can maintain the natural nutrients in the soil, preserving its health for generations to come.

And this great soil isn’t just for pinot noir and chardonnay. Other popular grapes that thrive are pinot gris, pinot blanc, Riesling and syrah. You’ll find the best prices on these lesser-known grapes, and I must admit Oregon’s prices can get obnoxiously high. But with their quality standards and attention to detail, you definitely get what you pay for. Hang with this chick and you won’t be disappointed.

Wine Recommendations

Bethel Heights 2004 Chardonnay Willamette Valley Lush and lovely, with smooth buttery citrus, tinged with ripe tropical fruit and melon. Deliciously long finish of vanilla. Mmm. Sw = 2. $25. 4.5 stars.

Ponzi 2005 Pinot Gris Willamette Fragrant with flowery honeysuckle and tastes like lemony wet slate. Easy drinking. Sw = 1. $17. 4 stars.

Elk Cove 2005 Pinot Noir Willamette Bold cherry, leather and coffee. Throw in some raspberry, and you’ve got a fine pinot. Sw = 1. $25. 4 stars.

Witness Tree 2005 Pinot Noir Willamette A robust pinot with balls. Earthy with black cherry and perfectly balanced acidity to drink alone or with food. Sw = 1. $25. 3.5 stars

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. 1(star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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