Pinot’s Progress

What to drink at Thanksgiving? An Oregon pinot noir.

Willamette Valley

Oregon is known as a trailblazing state, and its pioneering spirit extends to wine. Long before most Americans had ever heard of pinot noir, winemakers in Oregon were staking their futures on this ornery but immensely rewarding grape. The gamble paid off: Pinot noir has flourished in Oregon, particularly in the Willamette Valley, just southwest of Portland. Despite this success, Oregon wine country hasn’t lost that frontier feeling; it’s still long on pluck and blessedly short on flash, attributes that some might consider cardinal American virtues. If you are planning to go native with the wine this Thanksgiving, I suggest making it an Oregon pinot noir, and not only for the patriotic symbolism—a good Oregon pinot will pair beautifully with the bird.

Under the best of circumstances, trying to cultivate pinot noir outside of Burgundy, where the grape seems most at home and yields wines of astonishing subtlety and grace (some, anyway), requires a certain quixotism; to have planted pinot noir in Oregon in the 1960s, a time when the state was a viticultural desert (a lingering consequence of Prohibition) and America was still a wine backwater, arguably met the definition of insanity. But two University of California, Davis, enology trainees, David Lett and Dick Erath, were convinced the Willamette Valley possessed the climate and soil to produce great pinot, and their hunch turned out to be a good one: Lett’s The Eyrie Vineyards and Erath’s eponymous winery, both established in the mid-1960s, survived the early tribulations and became beacons that lured other pinot aspirants to Oregon—lots of them. At latest count, there are 350 bonded wineries in Oregon, around 220 of which are in the Willamette Valley.

Lett and Erath are the Lewis and Clark of Oregon winemaking, although Lett is usually referred to as Papa Pinot. In 1979, one of his pinots, the 1975 South Block Reserve, finished third in a blind tasting in Paris that included a number of red Burgundies. The event wasn’t quite as seismic as the Judgment of Paris three years earlier, when a couple of Napa upstarts outpolled several heavyweight Bordeauxs and Burgundies in a blind tasting, but it earned Oregon winemaking some needed recognition. When the same Lett wine finished second to a 1959 Maison Joseph Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny (a red Burgundy from a great vintage) in a blind tasting the following year, it was enough to persuade Robert Drouhin, who had groomed the winner, to later buy a vineyard in the Willamette Valley, which has proved to be a boon for the Drouhin family and an even better advertisement for Oregon wines. In 1987, McMinnville, Ore., hosted the first International Pinot Noir Celebration, which gathered pinot producers and aficionados from around the world for a weekend of talking and drinking. It’s been held every year since and has become for pinot buffs what Woodstock was for potheads.

Oregon’s status as America’s pinot noir capital appeared to suffer a blow several years ago, thanks to Hollywood. Sideways, released in 2004, ignited a pinot noir mania in the United States, but because the film was set on California’s Central Coast and the lead character, Miles, spoke so rapturously of the local wines, it naturally created the impression that this region, rather than Oregon, was the finest source of domestic pinot. Sure enough, Central Coast wineries saw a huge increase in visitors and sales as a result of Sideways. But the Sideways effect also redounded to Oregon’s benefit; by all accounts, demand for the wines surged and so did the number of wine tourists.

While the movie industry did Oregon no harm, global warming yet may. The initial attraction of the Willamette Valley was its cool climate—it was a place with Burgundian weather that from time to time was capable of producing Burgundian pinot noirs. With growing seasons in Oregon getting hotter, there is fear that the character of the wines could change, and not for the better. For now, though, the concerns seem overblown. Most Oregon pinots still put elegance above power, and even some of the richer ones come in under 14 percent alcohol—flavored water compared to many California pinot noirs. Tony Soter, an Oregon native who moved to California in the 1970s and became a celebrated winemaker there, has now returned to Oregon to raise his family and produce pinot noir. He says that global warming poses a long-term threat but that the recent spate of warmer years has proved to be an asset. Indeed, he says the increasingly benign conditions in the Willamette Valley influenced his decision to come back to Oregon. Twenty years ago, he would never have considered making wine in Oregon—there were just too many washed-out vintages. “The weather is a little more forgiving now,” says Soter. He is not as sanguine about California pinot noir: He thinks warmer temperatures, combined with misguided viticultural practices, are hurting the quality of many California pinots.

As cellar practices go, Oregon also seems to have the edge over California: Oregon pinots generally exhibit a much more judicious use of new oak than their California brethren. And while Oregon may have missed out on a major motion picture, it has something that the Central Coast can’t claim: Riedel is now offering an Oregon pinot noir glass, produced in collaboration with the International Pinot Noir Celebration. It’s not entirely clear why Oregon pinot noir requires its own stemware, but the glass is certainly attractive. Finally, insofar as Thanksgiving is concerned, the Beaver State also boasts an advantage: Oregon pinot noirs often emit a whiff of cranberry.

With cranberries, turkeys, and imbibing relatives in mind, I tasted a number of 2004 and 2005 Oregon pinots, along with several 2006s. I enjoyed almost all the wines I tried, and some were terrific. The 2004 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir Laurène ($65) is a ripe, elegant, beautifully proportioned pinot that would be a lethal ringer in a blind tasting of premier cru Burgundies. Ditto the 2004 Hamacher Wines Pinot Noir ($45), a medium-bodied offering with rich, briary red fruits, great freshness and verve, and superb structure. The 2005s from Cristom Vineyards were really impressive: It was one toothsome pinot after another. I especially liked the 2005 Cristom Jessie Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50) and the 2005 Cristom Eileen Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50), both of which are succulent, impeccably balanced wines that could be happily consumed now or laid away for even more fun later. The 2005 Soter Vineyards Mineral Springs Pinot Noir ($60) is another winner—a satiny pinot with fine aromatics, gracefully opulent fruit, and a good tannic spine.

Rather than choosing between California and Oregon, Adam Lee of Siduri Wines is making pinots in both places. I was particularly impressed by his entry-level Oregon pinot, the 2006 Siduri Wines Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($19), which serves up a classic cherries ‘n’ dirt nose and a seamless blend of fruit, tannins, and acidity; good pinot seldom comes cheap, and this wine offers excellent quality for the price. Beaux Frères is one of Oregon’s best-known producers. Having a famous proprietor helps: Critic Robert Parker is a part-owner (and no, he doesn’t issue ratings for Beaux Frères). The 2005 Beaux Frères Vineyard Pinot Noir ($75) is a well-crafted, robust wine, with abundant fruit and tannins to match. Ken Wright is considered by some to be Oregon’s finest winemaker. The 2005 Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir Angela ($52.50) is made in a richer, darker vein that will appeal to those whose taste in pinot runs more New World than Old; still, for all its lushness, the wine weighs in at less than 14 percent alcohol.

Penner-Ash Wine Cellars and Domaine Serene are two other well-regarded producers. The 2006 Penner-Ash Dussin Vineyard Pinot Noir ($60) is a laid-back, supremely poised wine, with sappy red fruit, good minerality, and a caressing texture. In addition to having a fitting name for Thanksgiving, the 2005 Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvée Pinot Noir ($40) sports one of those utterly seductive bouquets that instantly brings a peculiar but evocative image to mind—in this case, wild strawberries on a bed of rose petals. The berries carry over to the palate, which is also marked by good acidity and sturdy tannins. Lastly, from one of the granddaddies of Oregon winemaking: the 2005 Erath Vineyards Pinot Noir ($19). This is an earthy, subtle wine with notes of black raspberries, black pepper, and violets, made in an endearingly rustic style. It’s also a terrific value.