oregon travel, part I

wine Features
A visit to Willamette Valley's Wineries, Part II
By Jim Clarke

Willamette Valley's Wineries

Map of North Willamette Valley

When to Visit the Valley

Joel Palmer House

Truffle hunting

The menu at the Joel Palmer House

Ken Wright Cellars

Oregon’s geology

Panther Creek Cellars

Domaine Drouhin Oregon



Patricia Green Cellars

Community of winemakers


Related Links:
  • Alsace Wines
  • Rogue Ales

    Resources and Links:
  • Joel Palmer House
  • Patricia Green Cellars
    15225 NE North Valley Road
    Newberg, OR 97132
    503-554-0821 Fax: 503-538-3681


    (This is Part II of my trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley; click here to read Part I, which includes visits to a number of wineries including Ponzi Vineyards and Archery Summit)

    Working for my Supper: Truffles

    After leaving Josh Bergström to continue his work around the winery I was off to the Joel Palmer House, a historical building in the small town of Dayton. Joel Palmer (1810-1881) was one of Oregon’s original pioneers, discovering the Barlow Pass in 1845 and settling in the area in 1849 after a slight digression caused by the California Gold rush. He served the Oregon Territory and later the State in many capacities, most notably as a supervisor of Indian Affairs and in the State Legislature (He was actually removed from the former position for being too sympathetic to the Native Americans.). His Victorian house remains a historical landmark, which Jack and Heidi Czarnecki bought in 1996.

    They came to Oregon driven by a love for two things: wild mushrooms and fine wine. Jack had built up his reputation as a chef over many years in Reading, Pennsylvania; together with Heidi they had made the family restaurant Joe’s into a nationally recognized destination for fine-dining, especially noted for their use of wild mushrooms. After multiple honors from the James Beard Foundation and appearances on TV and in print, the Czarneckis decided it was time for a change and headed west.

    Jack and I had arranged to meet at the restaurant so he could take me out truffle hunting. Oregon white truffles are a less-familiar cousin to the white truffles found in Tuscany; available in spring and autumn, they are sometimes looked down on, but if they seem of lower quality, this is often because they are mistreated. I changed into my boots and piled into the car with Jack and some friends, and we drove out…well, I’m not allowed to say where, exactly (They even discussed blindfolding me.). I am only permitted to say that the Oregon truffle favors groves of Douglas Firs (the State Tree).

    We parked by our selected grove, put the leashes on the pigs, and…okay, so we were pig-less. And dog-less, for that matter. Neither animal has been trained for truffle-hunting in Oregon, so what I imagine to be a more labor-intensive approach is used. The truffles grow a few inches under the loose, decomposing topsoil and pine needles, near the root-systems of the trees. Armed with a rake, we scraped at the ground, keeping our eyes out for glimpses of white. I put my beginner’s luck to good use and found a sizeable truffle quite quickly; it was almost the size of a racquetball. I threw it into a decapitated milk jug tied to my hip and raked on. Over the course of an hour-and-a-half we uncovered quite a few of the smelly things, ranging in size from a marble to my early surprise. There were many false-calls; supposed truffles turned out to be merely the husk of a filbert or some-such. I got the impression that it was a fairly successful expedition overall.

    Did we head back to the restaurant to prepare some dishes with our new-found delicacies? Not exactly. Because they are found by digging them up, rather than by odor (i.e. via the sensitive schnozz of a dog or pig), Oregon truffles are rarely ripe when discovered. The sale of and immediate use of these unripe truffles actually damaged the reputation of Oregon truffles for a while, but now most people know better. They are easy to ripen: wrap the truffles in a plastic bag and let them sit in the fridge for a few days. The truffles will darken from their off-white color, eventually attaining a medium brown. At the same time the truffle softens, and the odor deepens into a very pronounced musty, earthy aroma. The inside of the truffle darkens as well, except for a network of spidery veins. Then the truffle is ready to eat.

    Jack and his sous chef Shawn Snyder prepared a number of dishes for me which featured truffles and other wild mushrooms that they had gathered, ranging from the traditional – truffles shaved over rissotto – to “fusion” to odd-but-wonderful. A three-mushroom tart, mushroom soup, and a “faux gras” paté of mushrooms are standard features of the menu at the Joel Palmer House. The standout item for me was a timbal of Asian greens and lump crabmeat, topped with shaved truffles. I was also astounded by a candy cap mushroom ice cream. Candy cap mushrooms have a strong maple syrup aroma; Jack opened a bag of dried candy caps under my nose, and I felt like I was back in upstate New York, helping my grandfather boil down maple sap. The ice cream was a delicious, unlikely cousin to maple pecan. The restaurant’s menu isn’t all mushrooms, and includes a variety of other Oregonian products, changing often to accommodate the seasons. They also feature a prix-fixe Mushroom Madness menu, wherein you choose your entrée and Jack develops a series of wild mushroom courses around it.

    But it wasn’t just the mushrooms that brought Jack to Oregon, it was the right wines to accompany them. He’s become very knowledgeable about Oregon’s wines, and friendly with many of the region’s producers. In fact, his house wines – Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir – are made for him by Amity Vineyards, Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Peter Rosback, respectively. Near the end of our meal he opened a wonderful bottle of Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir 1994, which demonstrated that Oregon’s best wines are capable of aging as profoundly and gracefully as those of Burgundy. Jack also advised me to talk to the folks at Ken Wright Cellars if I really wanted to get the lowdown on what was happening in the soils of Oregon’s vineyards. Fortunately, they were my first stop the following day.

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    Ken Wright Cellars

    Ken Wright Cellars On StarChefsHowever, a sub-standard map, faulty aid from a gas station attendant, and a poor sense of direction all conspired to make me miss my appointment in Carlton. I did enjoy the ride northwest, up into the hills and pine forest, but only until I developed a nagging doubt that the logging road ahead of me was a likely location for a winery. Eventually I turned around and decided to hightail it back into civilization, finally finding my way to Ken Wright Cellars in the center of Carlton. Despite my extreme tardiness, I got a friendly welcome from Dale West, who handles in-state wine and marketing for the winery. As Jack Czarnecki had promised, Dale was ready to take apart the Willamette Valley’s geology for me.

    There are three primary events that have provided the building blocks of Oregon’s geology. The meeting of the Juan de Fuca plate and the continental plate brought up large amounts of sedimentary soil from the ocean floor; through time these sediments have become compressed into siltstone and sandstone, and this is the basic layer of material over which future changes would be wrought. Then – 20 million years ago – volcanic activity in Central Oregon deposited a mantel of basalt, much of which has since eroded, leaving behind the hills of the region. Finally, 12 to 15 thousand years ago, the Great Missoula Floods drastically change the landscape of what is now the Pacific Northwest, carving out the Columbia Gorge and scattering assorted debris from Montana and Canada across the Willamette Valley.

    Today this has left two main soil types for Willamette Valley winegrowers to consider, each with assorted subtypes. The older soil is the Willakenzie; this sedimentary soil still shows traces of its oceanic origin, with sea fossils and sandstone scattered through its composition. Willakenzie soils are not typically very nutrient-rich; this, combined with good drainage, puts tough demands on the grapevine. But less-fertile soils generally make for better, more concentrated wines. Wines made from Willakenzie-grown grapes tend to exhibit darker fruit aromas and an earthy character, often with more pronounced tannins.

    The Dundee Hills stand as the most famous example of the Valley’s other main soil type, Jory, often called Red Jory Clay. This mix of volcanic basalt and clay, which reaches fairly deep into the soil before reaching bedrock, strikes a balance in water-retention: the clay tends to hold on to it, whereas the slopes and basalt encourage drainage. The resulting wines lean more toward red fruits and a smooth, rich mouthfeel. The Eola Hills to the south feature a variant of Jory called Nekia, which is shallower and has less clay. As the soils tend to dry out sooner, the grapes ripen earlier and with higher acidity levels that elsewhere in the valley.

    Ken Wright Cellars has contracts with about a dozen different vineyards, scattered through four regions of the Willamette Valley: Dundee Hills, Eola Hills, Yamhill-Carlton District, and the Coastal Range. The former two have primarily volcanic soils, the latter sedimentary. In the late ‘80s the winery pioneered a new way of working together with their winegrowers. Previously vineyards were contracted by the total tonnage of fruit they supplied; the unfortunate side effect was to encourage growers to grow grapes as prolifically as possible, diffusing the concentration of flavor that Ken knew was essential for producing quality wine. Ken offered to buy the output of a specific amount of acreage, regardless of volume. By introducing contracts based on acreage rather than output, winemaker and winegrower were both free to concentrate on growing high-quality, ripe fruit, instead of being locked in a quality-versus-quantity battle.

    With this new cooperation the winery was able to experiment more in the vineyard and developed some new approaches in canopy management that further enhanced their grapes’ ripeness and flavors. Dale West spoke casually about how much a difference it made for a leaf to be directly exposed to sunlight versus being shaded by one of its brothers, which bunch of grapes on a vine would ripen first, or what spacing of spurs of the main vine would allow maximum exposure to Oregon’s long summer sun. I felt like I was taking a crash course in advanced vine pruning.

    Dale backed up all his explanations with extensive barrel tastings of the 2003 vintage. I’ll refrain from providing tasting notes as these wines were not ready for the market, but they already showed what a difference all these attentions in the vineyard made in the wine. In addition to the 12 Single-Vineyard Pinot Noirs, be sure to keep an eye out for their Freedom Hill Pinot Blanc and their two Chardonnays from Celilo and Carabella Vineyard.

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    Panther Creek Cellars

    Panther Creek Cellars On StarChefsBack on schedule, my next stop was Panther Creek Cellars in McMinnville. Jack Rovics Jr. showed me around the winery while winemaker Michael Stevenson sat talking with Dick Shea of Shea Vineyards. Wines from this vineyard were a recurring theme of my trip; it’s a 200-acre site, and a great many winemakers are keen to work with Dick Shea because of his great understanding of what winemakers are looking for.

    Like Ken Wright, Panther Creek doesn’t own its own vineyards, but contracts acreage in several different sites around the Willamette Valley; each taste was accompanied by a look at a map to pinpoint the source of the grapes (again these were barrel tastings, so I will omit my tasting notes). The single-vineyard wines demonstrate again Pinot Noir’s capacity to reflect its terroir in great detail. Panther Creek also makes a Chardonnay, a Pinot Gris, and a Winemaker’ Cuvée Pinot Noir, which blends grapes from the Willamette and Umpqua Valleys; the latter is farther south in Oregon and provides brighter fruit flavors to match the richness and structure of the Willamette Valley fruit. Panther Creek Melon On StarChefs

    The joker in their deck is a white wine made from the Melón grape. This varietal is not only unusual for Oregon, but for the U.S. in general. While there are a few plantings in California, its home is the mouth of the Loire, where it is used to make France’s classic seafood wine, Muscadet. The DePonte Vineyard in the Red Hills grows the grapes for this wine; it’s a fruitier manifestation than one typically finds in Muscadet, but still makes a great match with white fish, oysters, or other shellfish.

    When to Visit the Valley

    Many of the smaller Willamette Valley wineries – Panther Creek, for example, which only releases about 7,500 cases of wine annually – are not well set up for receiving visitors. Panther Creek mostly accepts visitors by appointment, with the exception of open tastings the second Saturday of each month. A great way to experience a wider range of producers is to visit over Memorial Day Weekend or Thanksgiving Weekend. These have become the traditional open house days for Willamette Valley wineries, and many wineries that don’t normally receive visitors open to introduce new releases and unusual library wines. The town of McMinnville is also home to the International Pinot Noir Celebration, held each July at Linfield College. Originally conceived of as a competition, the decision to instead opt for a festive, inclusive atmosphere reflects the cooperative, sharing character of the Valley’s winemakers. Wines and chefs converge on the town from all around the world to share in Pinot Noir’s diversity. The Celebration is truly international, and a great opportunity to see experience the variety of ways Pinot Noir can grow in different locations around the world.

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    Domaine Drouhin Oregon

    Drouhin Estate On StarChefsDomaine Drouhin Oregon, my next stop, represents international Pinot Noir coming home to roost. In 1988 Robert Drouhin, of Maison Joseph Drouhin, decided to set up shop in Oregon with his daughter Veronique Drouhin-Boss as winemaker. Maison Joseph Drouinh was and is a well-established producer based in Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy. He had been keeping an eye on the area for two decades before investing, building relationships with the Valley’s wine pioneers like David Lett and David Adelsheim. It was the latter who recommended a 225-acre site in the Red Hills of Dundee to Robert and Veronique in 1987; the two didn’t wait long before making a go of it.

    Even when plantings had just begun on the property, Veronique began making wine, using grapes bought from local growers and renting space at the Veritas winery. However, it was the plantings – both the what and the how of the plantings – that made people sit up and pay attention.

    Until that time, two clones of Pinot Noir had dominated Oregon’s vineyards, Pommard and Wädenswil. Veronique quickly introduced several newer, Dijon clones which she obtained from Oregon State University. Clonal variety aids winemaking in a number of ways. Different clones suit different sites – some favor cooler sites, some wetter sites, some denser soils. Additionally, by blending wine from a variety of clones, a winemaker can play one off the other to create a more complex, multifaceted end-product. Rethinking clones is an ongoing part of planting and replanting in Oregon; most winegrowers seem interested in Pommard and a mix of Dijon clones, while Wädenswil seems to be losing its fan base.

    Clonal research goes far beyond Pinot Noir; one of the most obvious clone-related improvements to my taste buds has been in Oregon Chardonnay. Many of the earlier plantings used clones from California that didn’t take to the cooler climate, whereas newer clones introduced from France have proven able to ripen more fully, thereby producing richer, more complex wines. Meanwhile the introduction of more appropriate clones has been a boon to winegrowers in even cooler climates like New York and Rhode Island.

    Oregon in the late ‘80s was one of the few winemaking regions of the world that remained untouched by phylloxera, a louse which destroys vines by eating away their roots; the cool climate and the distance between individual vineyards slowed the pest’s progress enough that winegrowers didn’t feel a need to protect themselves against it. Robert Drouhin realized that the louse was a very real threat and grafted their new clones onto resistant rootstocks. When phylloxera materialized as a very real presence in the 1990s, neighboring vineyards realized why Drouhin had gone to the extra effort, and many vineyards in the area are gradually replanting with grafted vines.

    Arron Bell, the winery’s hospitality director, led myself and a pair of other visitors on a tour through the state-of-the-art, gravity-flow winery (No pumps are used; the grapes and must are moved purely by the more gentle force of gravity). The winery has a small staff, most of whom seem intent on making their own wine someday. Most of the winery’s production goes into the Willamette Valley Classique Pinot Noir, with individual barrels set aside for the more exclusive Lauréne and Louise bottlings (named for Veronique’s daughters). The 2000 Classique was ready to drink, with notes of mushroom, earth, and raspberry topped by aromas of rose petal. Some cherry also emerged on the palate, and the tannins were light and silky. The 2001 I tasted would profit from more time in the bottle; raspberry and beet aromas dominated, with some earth and a spicy finish. It was still quite enjoyable, but I’m certain that when the tannins settle down greater complexities will emerge.

    Drouhin Laurene Label On StarChefsThe 2002 Arthur Chardonnay was a revelation; a rich blend of peach, mineral, citrus, and vanilla aromas were complemented on the palate by great acidity and a touch of smoke. The wine was medium-bodied and very food friendly. Given the ubiquity of the grape, many people are reluctant to get excited about new Chardonnay producers or regions, but quite a few of the Chardonnay’s I tasted on my trip were remarkable, most notably those of Drouhin, Ponzi, and Rex Hill. They offer a sense of identity that is neither Californian nor Burgundian, and stand well beside Oregon’s signature white, Pinot Gris.

    (for more information on Domaine Drouhin Oregon, please see our StarVintner feature on the winery)

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    Patricia Green Cellars

    I raced off to my last stop before catching my flight back to New York. Patricia Green Cellars is another small, plain operation like her nearby neighbors Bergström and Sineann. Patty herself, however, was the most exuberant, enthusiastic, and funny winemaker I met on my trip; no one could ever doubt that she was having a great time making wine.

    Patty led me through the winery, tasting from different barrels; each barrel had an accompanying anecdote or joke, sometimes relevant to the wine and sometimes not. Her summary of the 2003 vintage was memorable and telling: “A big, voluptuous Mardi Gras broad, decked out to party and letting it all hang out.” She laughed as she described the wide-eyed, beaming face of a visiting representative from the Cadus cooperage; while most wineries use barrels from a number of different cooperages, Patty decided that she liked what Cadus’ barrels did for her wine, so why mess with anything else?

    In addition to the barrel tastings we opened a few of her current releases as well. The 2003 Sauvignon Blanc had the cleansing, racy acidity one expects from the grape, with aromas of mineral and peach. The 2002 Estate Pinot Noir was one of the fruitier wines I had tasted on my trip, with lots of blackberry and cherry backed by a light touch of earth and spice as well as some white pepper on the finish. I especially liked the 2002 Quail Hill Pinot Noir. The dark fruit flavors here were wrapped in rich smoke and earth, and the wine had a rich, luscious roundness.

    Patty had a sinister grin on her face as she opened our last wine, a 2002 Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir. Just to see what she could do with it, Patty arranged to buy some grapes from the well-known Sonoma Coast vineyard; it is clearly a California wine. She grinned as she recalled serving it blind at a tasting of her wines; everyone knew it was somehow different from the rest of her portfolio, but the brave soul who came out and mentioned the state south of Oregon was booed down by their companions. Despite the joke, it’s certainly a serious wine, lighter-bodied than her Oregon wines with gamy aromas and notes of birch, black cherry, and grilled sausage. I enjoyed it very much, although it did seem strange to end my trip to Oregon with a Californian wine.

    Patty seemed to personally know everyone I had met on my trip, and talking with her brought home what a tight community of winemakers this is. I realized I had been very lucky to meet such a cross-section of winemakers during my trip. I had visited Ponzi Vineyards, which stands alongside Adelsheim and Eyrie Vineyards as one of the pioneers of the valley. These were the first to show to the world how well suited the Willamette Valley was for growing Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and especially the notoriously difficult Pinot Noir. Then, in the late 1980s, Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Ken Wright Cellars arrived as part of the next generation. These two, along with several other producers, shook up and rethought the approach and techniques of the region’s wineries and especially the vineyards.

    Drouhin’s arrival in particular seems to have been the catalyst for great improvements in quality and consistency as winemakers gained a renewed insight into ripeness and concentration of flavors. Finally a new wave of winemakers like Patty Green, Josh Bergström, and Peter Rosback have taken advantage of Oregon’s recent string of good vintages (’98 – ’03) to strike out on their own. With them comes another change in the vineyards; winemakers throughout the valley are looking at the big picture and trying to ensure that not only will they be able to produce great wines, but their children will be able to do so as well. What’s more, it’s a beautiful countryside, and the growing interest in sustainable viticulture definitely goes beyond preserving the vines to preserving the environment as well.

    I look forward to seeing the Willamette Valley’s 2003s in the bottle; its big bones and high alcohol stretch the typicity of Oregon Pinot Noir, but will certainly offer an enjoyable side-trip. We can also look forward to an even deeper understanding of the areas’s terroir; already in motion are plans to subdivide the valley into several sub-appellations that take into account the subtleties of the area’s soils and growing conditions in more detail. The wines are already showing these differences, so the time is ripe for more appellations to become official as a useful guide for consumers. And if all that activity starts to overwhelm, you can still take a break from it all with a pair of Oregon’s famed microbrews and some roasted filberts, just as I did to ease myself to sleep on my red-eye flight back home.

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    Map of North Willamette Valley

    Map of North Willamette Valley On StarChefs

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       Published: March 2005