As part of Friday’s festivities at the 5th Annual Wine Bloggers Conference in Portland, Oregon, we had to board unmarked buses that would take us into Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine country. Our destination: Willamette Valley Vineyards and an incredible visit filled with Oregon’s specialty, the Pinot grape.

Willamette Valley Vineyards was named 2011 Winery of the Year by Wine & Spirits Magazine. As Editor Joshua Greene said, “Willamette Valley Vineyards’ performance makes it a great ambassador for the wines of Oregon.” It all started with founder Jim Bernau in 1983. They now have fifteen different Pinot Noir lots, make 30,000 cases of wine and are the leading producer of Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine.

We were met at the tasting room on top of the hilly property with sweeping views of the vineyards and the famous Riedel Oregon Pinot glass (we got to know it well on this trip…more on that later). Our group headed off with assistant winemaker Daniel Shepherd for a tour of the vineyards.

One of my favorite things to do at a winery is walk the vineyards with the winemaker. It’s so interesting and gives you fabulous insights. Daniel was no exception. He filled our glasses with their 2009 Pinot Noir, velvety strawberry cherry, as we looked out onto their rows of equipment and learned about the winery and Daniel’s history. Only in his mid-twenties, he’s worked at the winery since he was young. His father, Forrest Klaffke, was former head winemaker.  Some of the things he shared…

  • “Barrel is the most interesting thing a winemaker can do.” That is a very important element to him and Don Crank, head winemaker. They have a very aggressive wine barrel program to ensure their wine is smooth and velvety.
  • The Willamette Valley’s terroir is very unique thanks to the Missoula Floods of the ice age. It created ancient, volcanic glacial and sedimentary flood soils perfect for growing Pinot Noir. (Similar to the soil seen in Burgundy, France.)
  • On the 2012 growing season, as we stood in what had been a 100 degree day, he said they got a bit too ambitious with leaf pulling prior to the heat wave. Many grapes were now getting sunburn. The vineyard workers were making ‘sombreros’ out of the grape leaves to protect the grapes. But it’s looking like a very good vintage, similar to 2008’s complex wines with lots of tannins.

Environment, terrior and barrel work are very important to Willamette Valley Vineyards. Their sustainable practices are producing lovely wines! On the tour we also tasted the 2011 Tualatin Estate Pinot Noir from the tank and the 2009 Tualatin Estate Pinot Noir from the bottle…the contrast shows the beauty of their aging process.

My favorite wine of all tasted on our visit, which is also Daniel’s favorite, is the…

2009 Willamette Valley Vineyards Elton Pinot Noir

  • Variety: 100% Pinot Noir from their Elton Vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills Sub-Appelation
  • Aroma: Dark fruit and spice
  • Taste: Burnt sugar, caramel and berries
  • Price: $45
  • My thoughts: Wow, this wine was good!! And at $45 you must order some! It’s a perfect example of Oregon Pinot Noir!

After the tour, we had a delicious dinner prepared by their new chef in The Founders Room looking out onto the wrap around deck and full vineyards. We also enjoyed several more wines, including:

  • 2010 Pinot Gris: Pear and key lime notes make this a very refreshing wine.
  • 2010 Whole Cluster Pinot Noir: Called ‘whole cluster’ as the grape clusters are chucked directly into the tank. This wine is full of strawberry, vanilla and spice. Same fermentation as the French Beaujolais Nouveau.
  • 2010 Tualatin Estate Semi-Sparkling Muscat-Frizzante: Sweet peach and citrus notes, make this a great after dinner wine. Very fun and different!

It was a lovely afternoon and evening…definitely worth a visit on your Willamette Valley wine touring. And don’t forget to pick up their t-shirt, “It’s Willamette Dammit!”, helpful as most people mispronounce the name. :)

Cheers & many thanks to the team at Willamette Valley Vineyards!