Touring Oregon’s Willamette Valley Wine Country –A Wine Wanderings Premium-Subscriber Newsletter.
-Let’s visit three of my favorite wineries who are Valley Award-winners: Sokol Blosser Winery, Stoller Family Estate, and Domaine Drouhin Oregon.
If you live in the Pacific Northwest it is a great time to take a trip just 40 minutes south of Portland, to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Four counties have just opened up their outdoor patio tasting areas as Pandemic restrictions partially lift. If you wonder how to pronounce “Willamette?” It’s Willamette, dammit.
As you drive through the Valley, you might be surprised by the extraordinary vista of vineyards and pine trees with Mt. Hood hovering in the distance. The Willamette Valley countryside is home to some of the most celebrated wines in the world. But, up until the 1980’s, Christmas tree farms actually dominated the farmland.
On this tour we’ll meet with some of the Willamette Valley pioneers along with the “2nd Wave” vintners of Willamette. We’ll see what experiences these wineries offer to the curious wine country adventurer. It’s time to select our favorite Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay wines, special food-friendly wines for our spring menus. Let’s review three notable wineries: Sokol Blosser Winery, Stoller Family Estate, and Domaine Drouhin Oregon. Be sure to check with each one on Pandemic restrictions as you plan your visit.
How Oregon’s Willamette Valley Resembles France’s Burgundy Region
The midpoint of Oregon’s Willamette Valley lies at 45 degrees north latitude, the same latitude as France’s Burgundy region near Dijon. Oregon’s premier wine region, Willamette Valley, is sometimes nicknamed “The Burgundy of the West.” Both Willamette Valley and Burgundy have a terroir** that supports the growth of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. They both feature beautifully structured vineyards in picturesque settings. Many differences set them aside though. Oregon’s Willamette Valley caters to a visitor’s sense of adventure offering winery experiences and outdoor adventures you will only find in America. Burgundy exhibits majestic and historic vineyards many times not necessarily linked to one winery. Join me in meeting some of the first and second wave Willamette Valley pioneers, and let’s do some outdoor sampling of their award-winning wines.
Sokol Blosser – Bill and Susan Were Youthful Willamette Valle Early Pioneers
When Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol Blosser planted their first vines in 1971, they needed all the youthful, self-confidence they could muster to find their way in Oregon. At the time a wine industry did not exist in Oregon. There were no local suppliers or equipment and sometimes dairy tanks and pumps had to be utilized in a makeshift fashion for winemaking. Bill and Susan pulled up their ’68 VW Camper to an abandoned prune orchard 30 miles south of Portland to begin their vineyard adventure. They had little money and just basic winemaking knowledge, but they had loads of passion that has resulted in a world-class winemaking firm. Along with the Eyrie Vineyards, the Oregon wine industry was born. Oregon today has 725 wineries and 33,996 planted acres of vineyards, a totally different picture seen in 1971 by Bill and Susan Blosser. This marks their 50th anniversary of making world-class wines.
The Sokol Blosser operation now consists of 128 acres of 100% certified organic vineyards in Dundee, Oregon. Sokol Blosser produces 80,000 cases of wine distributed to all 50 states and exported to many countries. The Sokol Blosser wines include a range of wines: the black raspberry aromas of the Big Tree Single Vineyard Pinot Noir (one of my favorite food-pairing wines), the Dundee Hills Chardonnay, a Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir, among others. Don’t miss their value-priced and popular Evolution label wine series, too.
During current times enjoy a wine tasting selection on their outdoor tasting area, or drive up for curbside pickup. Sokol Blosser features virtual tastings with workshop “kits” and experiences like “Trials of Terroir” and “Sip and Paint” experiences.
“SB” lies on a picturesque property that offers a wine country adventurer several unique options for outdoor activities. The active adventurer should sign up for Equestrian Wine Tours. Enjoy trotting on Tennessee Walker horses through the vineyards and Red Hills of Dundee. Jake Price, owner of Equestrian Wine Tours in Carlton, and his team will guide you to Sokol Blosser, Adelsheim, and other nearby wineries to taste wine and enjoy the countryside on horseback or alternatively ride in a “Central Park-style” surrey to the tastings.
Stoller Family Estates: Voted USA Today’s “Top Tasting Room in America”
The Stoller family was a part of the 2nd Wave of early vintners in Willamette Valley. Bill Stoller, who co-founded Express Employment Professionals, one of the largest privately held staffing companies in the world, established the property in 1943, on the site of a turkey farm. Fifty years later, Stoller Family Estates has the largest contiguous vineyard in Oregon’s Dundee Hills. Their winery was the first in the world to receive the prestigious environmentally friendly LEED Gold Certification. Stoller was voted USA Today’s“#1 Tasting Room in America. 2018” and they consistently rank in the “Top 10 of America Tasting Rooms” including 2020.
During 2020 with the Pandemic raging, Stoller was a leader in Virtual Tastings. See Wine Wanderings newsletter, “4 Best Virtual Wine Tastings in 2020 Reviewed.” The Stoller team, including 17-year veteran winemaker, Melissa Burr, created a way to hold virtual wine tastings for their wine club. They also conducted some notable tastings with corporate partners like Google, Citrix, and the History Channel.
The large, active wine club and frequent visitor fans attest to the tasting room’s attraction emphasizing the family environment and warm hospitality. A couple or a small family group can even rent the on-site Guest House cottages in the vineyards for an up-close experience. I found the 3-bedroom cottage particularly charming and well-equipped.
“We sell hospitality, not just wine.” -Communications Director, Michelle Kaufmann, explains.
Kids, kites, and Frisbee’s are often spotted on the Stoller tasting room lawns in a normal spring. For now, it’s a good time to plan a tasting at the new Stoller Experience Center patio with its open tent and heaters. They offer a selection of gift sets, sandwich lunches, and take-home tasting kits.
Hospitality may draw you to Stoller Family Estates, but the highlights of our tour were the award-winning wines. I chose the 2014 Helen’s Pinot Noir for my 2018 Thanksgiving dinner menu. It was a 92-point Pinot Noir featuring flavors and aromas of baked cherry pie with rose petal and herb overtones. The current 2017 Reserve Pinot Noir is a 92-point Wine Spectator favorite. Clearly, Stoller Family Estate has made a huge success of both their wines and their customer experiences, whether virtual or on-site.
Domaine Drouhin: French Soul, Oregon Soil
Maison Joseph Drouhin was founded in 1880 in Beaune, France. His grandson Robert first “discovered” Oregon on a 1961 visit, but the 1979- and 1980-blind tastings in Paris and Burgundy (where The Eyrie Vineyards, another Oregon winery pioneer, won 2nd place, and caught his attention.) This event put Oregon wines on the world map according to the Drouhin family. They recognized the similar soils and climates of Oregon to Burgundy and invested in vineyard land in Willamette Valley creating Domaine Drouhin, Oregon. They were also part of the 2nd Wave of pioneer vintners to the Willamette Valley. Robert’s daughter Véronique came first to Oregon to work with several pioneer families including the Letts at Eyrie and she still serves as Domaine Drouhin, Oregon’s winemaker.
From the vista of the outdoor patio, a visitor can compare and contrast the Domaine Drouhin Oregon and the Drouhin French Burgundy wines. “The Burgundy Experience” outdoor tastings (including heaters and blankets) can be prescheduled for individual guests or a 4-person group of friends in your social bubble. My Drouhin favorite, the 2017 Laurène Pinot Noir, a 93-point Wine Spectator favorite, is an intensely aromatic wine with aromas of violets, blueberries, and spice. The 92-point Wine Enthusiast-rated 2018 Arthur Chardonnay is a complex wine featuring flavors of pear, lemon curd, and lychee… a wonderful accompaniment to crab cake appetizers I served at a recent dinner. From this patio tasting I realized how opportune the Drouhin family was investing in Oregon’s wine country.
The Drouhin wines have been served several times at the White House. The 2003 vintage Arthur Chardonnay was served at a 2006 White House state dinner honoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The chef paired the Chardonnay with Chestnut Soup and Stuffed Squab Legs. See an upcoming Wine Wanderings article: Wine and the Presidents.
While You Are There
As you make your pre-scheduled reservations for outdoor tastings, keep in mind that the Willamette Valley area is also recognized for its “foodie” culture. Grab a bottle from your favorite Willamette Valley winery and explore the McMinnville, Newburg, and Carlton food scene. The Willamette Valley wine pioneers love their local restaurants with most of them now having take-out menus. During normal years you will often find the winemakers sitting together in the back of Nick’s Italian Café discussing the day’s harvest. Try the take-out breakfast at Crescent Café and order their Chicken hash or the daily egg scramble mix. The Thistle, McMinnville, Winner of The Oregonian’s “Restaurant of the Year,” is a great place for great craft cocktails and farm-fresh meals which are available for take-out at this time. I look forward to the time when I can revisit the Willamette Valley, one of my favorite wine region excursions.
**”What is Terroir? Terroir is a French term representing the special combination of climate, soil, latitude, rain, sun, geography, elevation and aspect, and growing conditions that are unique to a vineyard or viticulture region. It evokes a “Sense of Place.” It only took 37 English words for me to describe terroir. That is why the French term terroir is such a useful term for winemakers, viticulturists, and wine writers! Ask yourself, does this wine express the aromas, body and flavor of its terroir? The great ones often do. – Tricia Conover, DipWSET®, CSS, AWE
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