Just returned from a week's travel in Portland, OR, and nearby Willamette Valley, home of my favorite North American Pinot Noirs.
If there is a Ground Zero for Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, it is the tiny hamlet of Carlton, at the intersection of two country roads that meet and then go off in divergent directions to never meet again.
It doesn't look like Ground Zero of anything... but it's really the epicenter of fine Oregon Pinot Noir, a converted 1910 bank, home of the Tasting Room, in Carlton, OR.
Here you will find the definitive Pinot Noir outpost, a former rural bank, now called the Tasting Room, which is owned and managed by renegade shopkeeper-turned-winemaker Jay McDonald. The bank’s vault, protected by a huge steel door, houses a different kind of treasure than it once held – verticals of some of the best Pinot Noir made in America.
On my last visit to the Portland area (the Willamette Valley is a 45-minute drive from town) I bought many mixed cases of killer Pinot Noir on Jay’s recommendations. And once I got them home, every one of the wines, opened over the past few years, has been a stellar drinking experience.
On my visit last week, Jay
was running out for a wine event, so he put me in the very capable hands of
Christie Shertzer, who poured a series of astounding 2005 and 2006 Willamette
Valley Pinots. A tasting flight here is $25.
Christie Shertzer pours EIEIO and other small production wines at The Tasting Room, in Carlton, OR.
Of all the wines Christie poured, the wine I repeatedly asked to retaste, thought about for days afterward, and of which I bought a case was the 2006 Arterberry Maresh, Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, White Rose Vineyard.
Don’t ask me how the locals get away with pronouncing Maresh as “Marsh,” but they do. Kind of like the way Newfoundlanders pronounce words with their own spin. On paper, in my tasting notes, I pronounced this mispronounced Pinot a serious 95-point wine.
Call it “Mar-esh” and they’ll know you’re a tourist! Ask Christie for Arteberry “Marsh” (as in harsh) and she’ll think you’re a local – might even give you a second sip!
My first tipple of Arteberry Maresh came from a bottle that had been opened 24 hours. This gave me an idea of how perfectly structured and balanced this wine is; it was a step-up from everything else I tasted that day, a wine of uncanny balance, elegance, power, and weight. The wine, poured from a different, just-opened bottle, exhibited aromas of Royal Anne and Bing cherries and offered a spectrum of classic, textbook Pinot flavors. You know the litany – cherries, dark ripe fruit, Oriental spices. All that jazz.
I also like Jay McDonald’s playfully named, but classically made, Pinot Noirs, which bear his EIEIO label. Get it? He’s a McDonald and lives on a farm.
Jay has acquired fruit from a number of regional grape growers and fashioned some memorably good own-label wines, available only at The Tasting Room, in Carlton, and to mail-list members.
I really liked Jay’s 2006 EIEIO Blackburn Reserve from the Dundee Hills, a gorgeous wine with a lovely, fruited nose, and a surprisingly huge, stuffed, full-bodied finish. 93 points.
If you can’t make it to Carlton, the least you can do to satisfy that gaping hole at the center of your cellar – slotted for near-perfect Pinot Noir – is to contact The Tasting Room and get on the mailing list, which you can reach through the website. The address says it all: www.pinot-noir.com.
Where else to stop for wine in the Willamette Valley
The Willamette Valley is Oregon’s coolest wine appellation, producing ethereal Pinot Noir. The Willamette River runs through the valley south to north and the center of the wine region is about 50 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, providing a subtle, but important, marine air influence.
In Willamette wine country, two of my all-time favorite winery pit stops are at Domaine Serene and Archery Summit, which happen to be near-neighbors and from whom I have been buying Members Only wines for close to a decade. To not be on these mailing lists is not only criminal, it may also be insane, especially if you think of yourself as a true Pinotphile.
For me, stopping at these nearly adjacent wineries is like going to Wine Mecca and I could not legitimately be within 300 miles of Portland without planning a detour to these wineries. But be forewarned: call the wineries in advance of your visit because tasting rooms here are NOT open seven days a week, 10-5 pm, as they are in Napa Valley. For one thing, they don’t have the same volume of tourists to support such commerce. This, in fact, is part of the charm of visiting the Willamette Valley – you won’t be fighting traffic, or hoards of other wine geeks.
At Domaine Serene, put yourself in the hands of tasting room manager Tara Shepersky and taste through a flight of wines. My top favorite was the 2005 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir, Two Barns Vineyard, which can only be purchased at the winery. This single-vineyard Pinot will leave your tongue clacking for a full minute after you swallow; this is liquid gold, an elixir to put a smile on your face no matter how dull the day (and they get many of them in the Pacific Northwest. I reckon that they had to invent a magic potion like this to help them cope with the rain...)
I scored Two Barns 95 points. It is worthy of being placed in a time capsule to tell future generations of wine-consumers how good we had it in the early 2000s!
Domaine Serene is at 6555 NE Hilltop Lane, Dayton, OR.
At Archery Summit, my other must-visit winery, A-list membership has its privileges. I love the many times a year that a special bottle is delivered, often not something that can be purchased in retail stores.
On this visit, I tasted two stunning 2005 Pinots – the Archery Summit Renegade Ridge Estate Pinot Noir and the Archery Summit Estate Pinot Noir and scored each of them 94 points.
These are compelling, seriously made, richly structured, classic Pinots that would drive a Burgundy lover insane. Call these two wines the catnip of Pinot Noir… because they are proof that you do not have to spend $350 a bottle for Premier Cru Burgundy to have a breath-taking, gasp-inducing Pinot Noir experience. These are awesome achievements at Archery Summit!
The winery is at 18599 NE Archery Summit Rd., Dayton, OR.
With respect to Portland
Portland is filled with a thriving coffee culture, lots of heavily tattoo’d young’uns, and one killer bookstore (Powell’s) with several locations.
Over six days, I ate in seven restaurants, sampled dozens of wines, and tried many local coffee houses. Here are my top-of-mind reflections:
+ Five days in Portland and the nearby Willamette Valley are enough to get an overview of the region on a first visit.
+ I have now stayed at two downtown hotels – the Heathman and the Westin – and can recommend both. At the Westin, on this recent visit, I really liked the accommodation, the helpful and knowledgeable concierge Adam Marland, and the efficient and amiable car valet staff. Would definitely stay here again.
+ It’s wonderful to be able to drink the tap water in this town! In most US cities, I feel forced to order bottled water in restaurants because the municipal tap water is so over-chlorinated you could develop black and white prints in it. But the water in Portland is clean, sweet and drinkable. Diners can save $6-12 a meal in this town by not having to buy bottled water. (Spend the savings on a better Pinot Noir – why you came here in the first place!)
+ You save even more at mealtime because there is no state sales tax, no pesky percentage, which creeps onto restaurant tabs, winery purchases, or anything, for that matter. How old-fashioned!
+ At the Peruvian restaurant Andina, in the tony Pearl district, do not miss appetizer dishes, served in a tapas-like format.; they can be ordered in small, medium, or large plates. I loved the Musciame de Atun, which is a plate of cured, thinly sliced tuna loin, served with a drizzle of garlic oil and a guacamole-like criolla, or dip. In fact, our small group ordered a second serving because the first was practically inhaled off the plate.
+ At Andina, also try Pescado “5 Elementos,” a traditional Peruvian seviche, presented with chunks of ono the day of our visit.
Andina is at 1314 NW Glisan Ave. Tel: 503-228-9535.
+ If I had only three restaurants to visit on my next trip to Portland they would be 1001, Le Pigeon and Blue Hour.
+ At 1001, the maitre d’, Damian, makes sure guests are comfortably seated, while sommelier, Erica Landon, walks guests through her thoughtful, large, and impressive wine list. She is as knowledgeable as she is free of attitude and will happily work with you to pick the best bottle, or two, to complement your food choices. (I keep raving about Oregon’s fabulous Pinot Noir, but while you are here, be sure to try the local Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Rieslings. The state produces marvelous whites. Ask Erica to pick her favorites off the wine list.)
+ The food at 1001 is memorable. Do not miss the house-made herbed pappardelle, tossed with fresh peas, threads of tasty pork, liased with Parmesan cheese and a dollop of foie gras. The serving is crowned with a gloriously fresh, sunny-side-up, quail egg.
Restaurant 1001 is located at 1001 NW Couch St., Portland. Tel. 503-226-DINE.
+ Equally as impressive was dinner at Le Pigeon, a quirky, small boite, where sommelier Andrew Fortgang has assembled a kickass wine list. Andrew and his wife said goodbye to New York, where he was THE Wine Guy at Craft restaurant, and moved lock, stock and wine barrel to Portland for a simpler way of life. Lucky are the locals who have this fine restaurant – and Andrew’s phenomenal wines -- in their neighborhood.
+ The best entrée at Le Pigeon was a richly sauced, beefy Bourguignon made with chunky beef cheeks. Desserts, too, can be worthy of Hall of Fame status. My favorite was the weird-sounding “Profiteroles, made with foie gras, served with a caramel sauce!” As weird as they sound – they were that awesome!
Le Pigeon, 738 East Burnside, Portland. Tel. 503-546-8796.
+ “Blue hour” in French literature refers to a time of day inwhich one is filled with heightened emotion. In Portland, the term refers to an 8-year-old restaurant, considered by many residents to be one of the top three dining rooms in their city.
+ As good as the food is here, the wine service is also to be commended. Ask sommelier Gaironn (rhymes with Erin) Poole to match your dining selection with her favorite regional wines. You will be pleasantly surprised that you can drink so well for so little.
Blue Hour is at 250 NW 13th Avenue, Portland. Tel. 503-226-3394.
Portland, like Seattle, has a rich, thriving, exhilarating coffee house culture. Several new kids on the block are trying to give Peet’s and Starbucks a run for their money. These include Caffe Umbria (which started in Seattle and now has a satellite location in Portland) and Stumptown, which makes serious espresso seriously good.
+ While in Portland, check out Caffe Umbria, in the Pearl district. It's as close to a real Italian cafe as
you're going to find in the Pacific Northwest.
I am still thinking about the
very thin grilled panini I enjoyed for breakfast with a double-shot cappuccino;
the heated sandwich was loaded with smoky ham and melted Mozzarella, and served with olives – at 9 in the morning! Just as they do in Italia.
One of the habits, which I
looked forward to daily, was to walk five blocks from the Westin to the
Stumptown location adjacent to the Ace Hotel. I’d buy a croissant, or other
morning pastry, order a double-shot cappuccino, or macchiato, and then walk my
morning fix into the lobby of the Ace, where there are papers, books and many
visitors with whom one can engage in conversation.
Portland, in general, is still one of those American cities where the locals are pleasant, easy to engage in conversation, and where they're truly concerned that you, as a visitor, are having a good time in their town.
Which makes a visit here as memorable as the wine and food.