Originally published at www.oregonwinecountry.org
The Willamette Valley is a heavenly place in the Northwest with majestic mountain ranges that frame a valley of rolling green hills and vineyards scattered in all directions. With more than 500 wineries in this AVA (American Viticultural Area), the Valley offers more than enough variety for wine lovers.
Take a wine trail in the northern portion of the Valley and you will be hard pressed to find a winery that does not have at least one Pinot Noir on its tasting menu. In fact, it may be the only varietal they produce. Still, other grapes are also grown, but to a smaller volume.
With favorable climate and unique soil types, it is no wonder that Oregon Pinot Noir has reached world-class status. Another grape that does well in this naturally cool climate is Chardonnay. Expressing flavors such as apple, pear, and citrus, and with only a modicum of oak aging, the Willamette Valley is on a good trajectory for making respected and sought-after Chardonnays, as well.
Like the variety of wines available in the Willamette Valley, where Pinot Noir is considered king, it’s the variety of stories behind the wineries themselves that might be most surprising.
As co-owners of The Vineyard Trail, a company focused on bringing wine lovers and wineries together in the tasting room, we were lucky enough to be invited to visit this special wine growing region, and to have the opportunity to sit and talk with the owners, winemakers and staff at a number of Willamette Valley vineyards and wineries; these are some of their stories.
If you happen to be traveling through the Yamhill-Carlton AVA and you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, it is possible that you may have some unexpected company. It just might be that you have been joined by the long-time legend of Ghost Hill, a ghostly gold miner from the late 1800’s who, along with his horse, was killed, leaving only their carcasses and an empty bag of gold. Some folks say that he continues to wander the hill searching for his stolen fortune and the men who took his life so long ago.
Sharing the land are Michael and Drenda Bayliss, owners of Ghost Hill Cellars. Their 234 rolling acres have been in Michael’s family since 1906 and have been farmed throughout the years with wheat, hay, clover, peas, sheep, cattle, and yes, now grapes. Michael and Drenda now focus on Pinot Noir and produce four different offerings, two red Pinot Noirs (different clones), a Pinot Rosé, and a not commonly produced, Pinot Noir Blanc.
Keeping with the ghostly legend, they have built a charming and fun open-air tasting room modeled to resemble a miner’s shack. While we didn’t see any ghosts ourselves, we can only imagine that Michael and Drenda are expecting company – company of the ghost-like fashion.
From well-known Portland produce suppliers, the Nemarnik’s, comes Alloro Vineyards. Established in 1999, with 33 acres of vines comprising Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Noir, the vines are tended to in an Old World style, employing a holistic approach to farming.
David Nemarnik, owner, follows the long-time heritage of sustainability and biodiversity by raising chicken, cattle, sheep, and very soon to be added, pigs. He grows hay for the livestock and uses their manure for fertilizing the vines. The sheep help manage the growth of the cover crop, and the multiple kinds of produce farmed on the land are used as sustenance on a daily basis.
The commitment to this farming philosophy is not completely surprising seeing as David spent much of his youth visiting his relatives in Italy and Croatia surrounded by their old-world style of living, which has continued from generation to generation. David also spent many years working with his family to grow a successful produce company and was taught to enjoy each meal at a respectful pace, and always indulge in a glass of wine and good conversation.
But David is not completely entrenched in the Old World. He employs New World technology such as electricity-generating solar panels that produce 100% of the estate’s energy needs and enough surplus to supply the rest of the grid.
And, each September, David and Alloro bring his family’s values to the people with their Whole Farm Dinner, for which they use produce and meat directly from the farm, prepared by a local chef to celebrate the success of the harvest. This event is highly awaited and sells out quickly each year.
Now that is a community! And all of this in the name of family and great wine!
Have you ever known a good thing immediately when you saw it? Well, Steve Lutz sure did when he first saw the property that is now home to Lenné Estate. Steve, the proprietor and vintner, stumbled across the land – which wasn’t even for sale at the time – and within an hour was drawing up a contract for the sale. Steve claims that it is the “worst soil ever” in which to grow grapes and says that, even still, he is the luckiest grape grower in the world. The hill is steep and the soil is nutrient-poor, yet somehow his Pinot Noir vines seem to thrive in their new home, producing small clusters and berries that showcase a hint of mocha flavor.
In reality, their home is not all that new as the vines were actually planted in 2001. During our sit-down with Steve, he happily retold his story of the vineyard’s trials, tribulations and successes over the past 16 years. With a smile and a chuckle, he started off by saying that you have to be either stupid or have a lot of guts to get into the winery business, and in his case, which one was questionable.
He recalled, that year after year they were “burning through money” because the soil was so difficult to get the vines to grow in. In fact, in year four, they lost an entire block of newly planted vines and were very close to calling it quits. But once again, whether stupidity or guts prevailed, Steve replanted and tried again.
Holding their breath seemed to be an everyday occurrence for the Lutzes. It wasn’t until Steve tasted his 2004 vintage, the first fruit of his labor, for the first time that he felt comfortable breathing normally again. He recalled going home to his wife and happily telling her that she need no longer worry because he had just tasted their first vintage and they were going to be just fine.
“I knew what we had in the site, but when I tasted that first sip and it tasted like a chocolate covered black cherry, I just knew what we had,” Steve told us.
Since that time, Steve has come into his own in the Oregon Pinot Noir market. The Lenné Estate tasting menu includes five different examples of this finicky grape, including varying clones and blends, all of which have scored 91 or better from either Wine Enthusiast or Wine Spectator.
Just as in Charles Dickens’ novel, The Christmas Carol, with the fictitious characters of The Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, David Adelsheim, founder and co-owner of Adelsheim Vineyard, could easily be called “The Father of Wineries Past, Present, and Future”. When it comes to the Oregon wine industry, David is one of the original pioneers. And we were lucky enough to sit and talk with him, over a glass of his own wine, about the Oregon wine industry, how it was started and where he sees it in the future.
With advice from Dick Erath, who was also a rebel of the times having just planted his vines 3 years earlier, they began looking for land with a southerly slope and Jory soil. Once found, in the ground the grape vines went.
David reflected, saying that they would collaborate with these other pioneers (there were a total of ten of them at the time) about making “great wine”.
“We talked very idealistically at the time and yet we had no idea what we were talking about!” he said. “We couldn’t possibly have known what would come out 30, 40, 50 years later.” And boy, was he ever right!
The year 1978 saw the first release of Adelsheim wines, and David, Ginny and the crew have been going strong ever since, as has the Oregon wine market which they helped to create.
Engineer and NASA physicist Don Hagge began his journey into the world of vineyards 16 years ago, when, at the ripe young age of 69, he purchased his land in the Chehalem Mountains. That land has become Vidon Vineyard, but Don’s legacy is as much built as it is grown.
Don, an engineer and physicist turned vineyard owner and inventor, cleared the land and planted 12.5 acres of vines including varietals of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Syrah, Tempranillo, and of course, several clones of Pinot Noir. But he didn’t stop there.
As he saw the need, Don went on to improve the processes by which he creates his vino masterpieces.
Don employs only glass stoppers for his bottles, saying that it makes no sense to use a closure (cork) that has the opportunity to allow spoilage of the wine. With the decision to use only glass stoppers, Don saw the need to improve the inefficient method by which they must be inserted – by hand. Determined, Don designed and manufactured a bottling line specific for his production space that allows for machine insertion, a much quicker method, by far.
And, in an effort to improve wine preservation and dispensing, Don designed and built one such machine that utilizes argon gas to keep the wine fresh for up to two weeks.
Engineer, physicist and now vintner, Don exclaimed, “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to make good wine, but it doesn’t hurt if you are!”
Getting back to nature and simplicity, we introduce you to Wayne Bailey, owner and vintner of Youngberg Hill, whose philosophy and practice is simple – to stay out of Mother Nature’s way and allow her to nurture the grapes naturally so they reflect where they were grown and the weather of the season.
Wayne takes this philosophy even further, implementing the same simplistic attitude into Youngberg Hill’s on-site bed and breakfast and event center. The property offers breathtaking views of the coastal range and the Willamette Valley, spacious and inviting rooms, and freshly hand-crafted breakfasts that are organic in every fashion.
But the true embodiment of the spirit of Youngberg Hills is Wayne and his wife, Nicolette. They are some of the most down to earth folks we have ever met. They exude this “Welcome to our family” feeling which, of course, made us feel right at home. We learned during our visit that this is very intentional.
Wayne and Nicolette are all about family. Wayne, having grown up on a farm in Iowa, was raised with strong family values and a love of the land. Now he and Nicolette are doing the same for their children and strive to leave them the same legacy. They do this by applying organic and biodynamic farming to every aspect of their farm, from the vineyards to the livestock to the landscape, so that their daughters can enjoy the land for years to come. And their dedication to a “hands-off” approach definitely shines through in their wines.
With a particular focus on Pinot Noir, and now with the addition of Chardonnay added to their vineyards and tasting room, along with one selection of Pinot Gris, Wayne brings the flavors of the different soils of Youngberg Hill to the bottle and the glass. At this tasting room, make sure to take your glass out on the veranda and enjoy the 360-degree scenery that surrounds you.
As you can see, whatever your tastes, you’ll be sure to find something that you fall in love with in the Willamette Valley. When you visit, be sure to take your time, and to be inquisitive of the wine, the processes, and the passionate stories of the people who make it all come to life. We promise you’ll be glad you did.
Thanks to CARL GIAVANTI for organizing this wine trail. Carl is Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 8th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25-years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).