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A Surprising Tour of Oregon Wineries

With the Oregon Wine Board

by Mike Cranmer

I’ll start by stating that I don’t know a Pinot from my elbow. I don’t know much about wine. I don’t understand ‘battonage’, ‘bricking’, or ‘bud burst’. So, when I got the call from my esteemed editor that she was sending me halfway across the world on a wine tour of Oregon, I was puzzled, flattered, and excited in equal measure. Puzzled because she is an expert on wine, flattered to be asked, and excited to jet off somewhere new.

I didn’t associate wine with Oregon; Burgundy, Douro Valley, Alsace, Napa Valley yes, but Oregon? I hadn’t even an accurate idea of where it was. Picture an outline of the U.S.A., go west to the Pacific coast and you’ll find it above California, and below Washington State, about the same size as the UK but with a population density of 39 per square mile compared to ours of 729 per square mile. It ranks fourth in the U.S. for wine production.

Pinot Grigio grapes

A fine bird’s-eye view was supplied by British Airways as our flight made its final approach over the mighty Columbia River to land in Portland, our base for the wine tour. Inside my hotel, The Benson, calm, quiet luxury, and history prevailed. Built in 1912, now beautifully restored, the ghost of its founder, teetotaller Simon Benson, is said to play pranks on drinkers in the bar. After checking-in and steadfastly refusing to recognise jetlag, we headed to the nearby Canard Restaurant for restoratives, mine being a Viper (gin, vodka, cap corse, caper brine, olive bitters) and a dozen Baines Sound oysters from neighbouring Washington State. It’s worth noting that the Viper was as close as I’ve ever got to my ultimate Dirty Dry Vodka Martini. And so to bed, as Pepys would have it.

Benson Hotel Portland e1687448741310
Oysters and a Viper at Canard restuarant

Day one of the tour promised an ‘urban winery crawl’ starting at the wonderfully named ‘Love & Squalor’ aka Portland Wine Co. presided over by Matt Berson. Looking, from the outside like a local launderette on the corner of a residential street, inside the magic began. The heady aroma of wine in oak barrels pervaded the air, in the corner a period Wurlitzer juke box loaded with original 45’s…Elvis, Muddy Waters, Stax. I tasted my first Oregon wine. It was 11.00 and I vowed to keep a clear head, making notes of each glass. Matt poured a Pinot Noir 2019 first, then a Gamay Noir 2021. Both delicious, but perhaps too complex for my palette. I remembered to spit not swallow. The third bottle was a 2018 Dry Riesling and I noted this with three-stars. Right then all I wanted was to put some music on the jukebox and wallow not swallow. But we needed to move on to the next tasting: The Division Wine Co.

Matt Berson Portland Wine Co. Love and SqualorAnother urban street, unassuming warehousing, but opening up like the Tardis, the interior was a wonder of racked barrels, concrete wine tanks, and Kate Norris welcoming us with was what she called a ‘sidewalk’ wine; easy drinking, not too fussy, a Chenin Blanc 2019 Crémant de Portland, the kind to sit in the sun with chums and just enjoy. Kate settled in Portland twelve years ago, via the Loire, the Auvergne, and Clapham, and is one of the strong females shaping Oregon wine production. She and business partner Thomas Monroe are passionate about responsibly farmed vineyards, many of which are organic and/or biodynamic. More bottles followed, with three stars in my notebook (thank goodness I kept it!) going to a 2021 Chardonnay “Quatre”, Royer Vineyard, Eola-Amity Hills. Perched in front of a barrel with a glass of wine and her beloved pup ‘Pocket’, Kate was a picture of hard-earned contentment.

Kate Norris with Pocket Division Wine Co

By now it was 2.30 and we’d tasted eight wines, mostly remembering to spit. Time for something to mop up the alcohol in the shape of some food and Oregon cheese at Olympia Provisions. Founded by a Greek-American family in 2009, they now run a multi-award-winning company producing artisan charcuterie. The vibe was ultra-hip, housed in an old warehouse (the urban winery theme running through and through) the food looked scrumptious. I’m a vegetarian and don’t eat cheese, so I had to rely on the ‘oos’ and ‘aahs’ of my fellow crawlers. By those standards the outright winner with them, and the World Cheese Board (yes, there is one) was…drum roll…Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Blue with house-made raisin and cranberry chutney. Never let it be said that Americans cannot produce fine cheese.

Anne Hubatch Helioterra winesThe clock read 16.15, proper wine drinking time, so off to the last of the day, the splendidly named Helioterra Wines and Anne Hubatch, another strong and determined female, who spent ten years training with some of Oregon’s top winemakers, then made her first vintage in 2009. “Women can make their dreams come true here” she told me. “My wines reflect my feminine sensibilities. They’re sensuous and evocative.” She poured me 2017 Pinot Noir Williamette Valley and I began to understand how a wine gets its character. Her vigor, passion, and deep feeling for her craft had somehow infused itself into the glass.

Rogue River Blue cheese

Next morning we left the city for sightseeing at the magnificent Multnomah Falls which cascade 620 ft into the Columbia River. We got there early ahead of the rush. As the most visited natural recreation site in the Pacific Northwest, it has more than 2 million visitors a year. Not to be diverted too much from our quest we now headed down (or was it up?) the Willamette River Valley the cultural and political heart of Oregon and home to approximately 70 percent of its population. Why? Because it is achingly beautiful and the fertile soil is massively productive. Throughout the 19th century it was a magnet for the oxen-drawn wagon trains of emigrants who made the perilous journey along the Oregon Trail, publicized as a “promised land of flowing milk and honey.” This is truly Oregon Wine Country, and, at its epicentre sits Phelps Creek Vineyard and the Falstaffian Bob Morus.

Bob Morus PhelpsA retired senior airline pilot, ‘Captain Bob’ had a dream: “Have yourself five acres and make wine”. He searched, and eventually found Phelps Creek, named after the 1850s homestead built by settlers there, with rolling slopes for vines and a view of 3,429 metre high Mount Hood. He later added expertise from Burgundy in the shape of Alexandrine Roy, fourth generation winemaker, and 25 Acres of Pinot Noir, 4.5 acres of Chardonnay and 1/2 acre of Pinot Gris. As I sat sipping one of his peerless 2019 ‘Lynette’ Chardonnays (named for his wife) under the shade of an ancient oak, sun beating down, the snow atop Mount Hood glistening in the distance, I understood what wine is about…dreams, passion, friends and family, and the moment. And, dear reader, I didn’t spit.

Guillaume Large Resonance Winery

The wineries on our final day were very different to the preceding ones, where I was able to unpick some of the ‘hidden’ language of wine.  The 45th parallel (45 degrees north of the Equator) crosses the Burgundy region of France and…wait for it Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In these two regions lie some of the most glorious and highly regarded wineries in the world – turning out mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We’re talking terrior; the climate, the soil, the elevation.

Back in 2013 leading French winemaker Thibault Gagey of the celebrated Maison Louis Jadot was looking to start a bold new project outside of Burgundy, where all the terrior was being brought up at crazy prices. He realized that “Resonance Vineyard in the Willamette Valley is to the New World what Burgundy is to the Old World”. They bought it and added the tiny but all-important ‘é’ accent to represent this small but special connection between Oregon and France. Winemaker Guillaume Large poured me a glass of their 2019 Résonance Single Vineyard Pinot Noir which Wine Spectator magazine awarded 96/100 points. I understood why!

Multnomah Falls

Off next to the immaculate Stoller Winery, a big operation of 400 acres where they control every step of the growing and winemaking process, from pruning to bottling and everything in between. I met Melissa Burr, yet another significant woman in Oregon winemaking.  Twenty harvests ago she joined the Stoller Family Estate as their first dedicated winemaker helping to grow annual production from 1,000 cases to 190,000. We started our tasting with a 2021 Estate Chardonnay, dry fermented in concrete. Jolly fresh and light after the heavy reds earlier in the day. Looking at my notes I see my three stars went to a 2021 Winemaker Series Whole Cluster Pinot Noir, or was it the 2021 Pinot Noir Dundee Hills Family Estate Reserve? Things seem to have become a little confused after this.

Mellisa Burr Stoller winesFinal note to the Editor: I did my best. I really did.

Michael was hosted in the destination on behalf of the Oregon Wine Board: www.oregonwine.org.
Michael stayed at The Benson Portland.
Flights were direct with British Airways.

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