Fall 2019

Exploring hidden gems of the Willamette Valley

With more than 2,000 wineries scattered across the Northwest, it’s all too easy for small wineries to fly under a wine lover’s radar, especially in areas where scores of wineries are scattered across the landscape.

And it’s also all too easy for big operations with extensive distribution networks to dominate the conversation. Meanwhile, small operations struggle to survive by word-of-mouth, social media and maybe innovative guerrilla marketing.

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, thanks to the urging of a friend, I recently visited three smaller wineries that he promised had promise. Indeed they do — and more, in the form of excellent wines in attractive, tidy settings, plus surprises that reach beyond the usual Willamette Valley fare of Pinot Noir, more clones of Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir Rosé and, of course, Pinot Gris.

There is plenty of fine Willamette Valley Pinot Noir at Lenné, Vidon and Alloro wineries. They make about 20 different Pinot Noirs from several clones planted in their vineyards. But together, they also offer Chardonnay, Viognier, Tempranillo, Syrah and a dessert wine made from Riesling and Muscat.

And the three of them are within an easy afternoon drive of one another, with leisurely stops for tasting and a take-along picnic or for lunch.

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Let’s start with Lenné Estate in Yamhill, home to nine Pinot Noirs, some single-clone, others clonal blends, and an oak-aged Chardonnay that’s undergone malolactic fermentation that debuted with the 2016 vintage. All the grapes come from estate vineyards, which occupy 15.5 acres of the 20.9-acre property and are planted with five Pinot clones — Pommard, 114, 115, 667 and 777.

Interestingly, though it’s not a large vineyard, Eric Bruce, the hospitality manager, says it’s easy to taste the difference among the blocks of vines in different parts of the property.

“We have blocks of Pommard planted about 100 vertical feet apart,” he said. “You can taste the difference in the grapes, not just in the wines.”

Owners Steve and Karen Lutz named their winery after her Dad, Lenny Hole, and added a little French accent to the end to create Lenné, which also sounds close to the French word for nose. A stylized line drawing of Lenny’s craggy face and prominent nose is the winery’s logo.

The winery was founded in 2000, its first vines planted in 2001, its first vintage 2004 and the tasting room opened in 2007. Current production runs about 1,800 cases and all but about 10-15 percent of the fruit goes into their wines, with a small amount sold under contract. Bruce estimated about 95 percent of the wines are sold in the tasting room or to wine club members, with a small amount sold to restaurants.

Bruce said they staff work hard to keep club members and regulars coming back. Steve Lutz, who formerly ran a well-known pizza restaurant in the Napa Valley, has built a wood-fired oven that’s fired up to feed everyone at club events.

Bruce said he operates by the “Platinum Rule,” learned from a hospitality training program, “Treat others even better than you want to be treated.”

Samantha Lau, direct sales and marketing manager at Vidon Vineyards, greets visitors to her tasting room and vineyards near Newberg with the same kind of warm welcome.

She talks enthusiastically about its bottlings of Pinot Noirs, Viognier, Chardonnay, Tempranillo and Syrah, all drawn from Vidon’s 12.5 acres of estate vineyards, which produce enough wine for about 1,500 cases annually.

The winery is named after its owners, Vicki Lewis and Don Hagge, who bought the property in 1999, planted grapes in 2000 and crushed their first vintage in 2003.

Like Lenné, almost all of their wine — about 95 percent — is sold on site, with most outside sales to restaurants, Lau said.

She’s been in wine marketing since soon after graduating from college and spent 6 ½ years with Rex Hill winery before moving to Vidon in 2018. Though planting such varieties as Viognier, Tempranillo and Syrah in the Chehalem Mountains AVA of the Willamette Valley might seem a gamble, Lau said Hagge never thought it was.

A former naval aviator during the Korean War who later graduated from UC-Berkeley and worked on the Apollo 7 through Apollo 13 missions for NASA, he told her that after sending astronauts to the moon, “planting Tempranillo and Syrah wasn’t much of a risk.”

Drawing on that background, Hagge has dubbed some of his wines the “Space Exploration Series,” with “Explorer Tempranillo,” “Saturn Syrah,” and “Apollo Chardonnay.”

Winemaker David Bellows has proved them a successful gamble, though Pinot Noir is the backbone of the winery’s production from Pommard, 115 and 777 clones. Bellows tends barrels of each, which end up in several forms: individual bottlings of each; a blend of the three clones and a “Melange,” which includes the three clones, plus a small amount of a “suitcase clone” reportedly brought from France by the late Gary Andrus of Archery Summit decades ago.

By request, and at an additional fee, Lau also offers tasters a chance to try to blend their ideal Pinot Noir. It includes three small pours from Pinots aged in different barrels, a graduated cylinder to track the percentage of each wine put into your blend and a tasting mat with helpful information. It’s a great way to see how different clones and growing sites affect a wine’s character. And you can compare your choices with the winemaker’s.

At Alloro Vineyard in Sherwood, Pinot Noir again is the focus of its 2,900-case production, with lesser amounts of Pinot Noir rosé and Chardonnay, plus a small amount of dessert wine made from two-thirds Riesling and one-third Muscat. All are made from its Chehalem Mountains AVA estate grapes.

Owner David Nemarnik, who also manages the 33 acres of vineyards on the 110-acre property, is planning to expand, said Eric Ploof, consumer sales and marketing manager.

“We’ll be breaking ground on a new tasting room this summer,” he said, “and we’ll be producing a sparkling wine in 2019.” So far, it’s undecided whether the sparkler will be made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or a blend of the two. That decision likely will come close to harvest.

Ploof said about seven more acres of vineyard will be added during the expansion, with a red Italian grape, Nebbiolo, a likely candidate, plus perhaps a white Austrian variety, Grüner Veltliner.

The vineyard may not be in the Chehalem AVA for long, since it is in the proposed Laurelwood AVA, and an application for the new AVA has been submitted to the federal government.

Whatever the AVA, Ploof said winemaker Tom Fitzpatrick sets a clear course. “Tom’s style is traditional and clean, true to the varietal and the estate. He tries to capture the purity of the fruit so the wine is the best rendition of itself.”

That’s an apt description of the course all three of these wineries are pursuing as they work to craft great examples of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, plus a handful of other varietals, that offer unique examples of what the soils, microclimates and elevation changes in their individual areas create.

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