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  • Indulge Staff

The heart of Oregon Wine Country

Keeler Estate Vineyard, Amity // By Rockne Roll

If the French were to describe the Yamhill Valley, they would undoubtedly call it "Le Coeur du vin de Orégon" — the heart of Oregon wine.

It is that, to be sure, but also much more.

Each heartbeat creates the pulse. Once you enter the valley, you begin to feel it. Of Oregon's 700-plus wineries, more than half are in the Yamhill Valley. The same ratio stands for the 1,000-plus vineyards within the state. And six of Oregon's 17 American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, are here.

It is an increasingly diverse industry. Our wineries are spread across the countryside and clustered in towns, particularly McMinnville, Carlton, Amity, Dundee and Newberg.

Despite the local wine industry's five decades of development, the valley has remained refreshingly unassuming. We are changing, however, as some of America's largest wine companies are investing in the local industry. There's now a broad range of wineries and tasting rooms — from expansive corporate ventures to humble mom-and-pop shops — all within miles of one another and offering a truly unique wine country experience.

Although the region has been agriculture-based for generations, this wasn't always a grape-growing area. It all started in the mid-1960s when the late David Lett arrived determined to produce wine from the finicky Pinot Noir grape, which likes nothing better than a struggle to eke out its existence in the chillier valleys compared to California's growing conditions.

Credit goes to a rare combination of mineral-rich volcanic subsoils nurtured by a cool climate. Add talented winegrowers and winemakers and you have complex, balanced Pinot Noir.

Lett's Eyrie Vineyards, as in many pioneering wine families, now claims a second generation keeping the tradition alive.

"We have a great community of winemakers here who really believe deeply in not just making product, but making wine and trying to achieve the greatest quality that we can," said David's son, Jason.

The Pinot Noir grape is king — representing about 70 percent of the production — but Oregon Pinot Gris, Chardonnays and Rieslings have made names for themselves at the international level, too. Local winemakers continue to challenge themselves to grow new varietals and expand the results to visitors.

When you step into a winery tasting room, don't hesitate to ask your server about the special atmosphere pervading the industry in such a positive way. And be sure to inquire about the origin of the wines they are pouring.

You'll be amazed at their eagerness to share their knowledge. Tasters, from avid oenophile to fanatic foodie to casual visitor, will enjoy the wine more for knowing its history. The wine community takes pride in a product they recognize as special, and their camaraderie defines the character of Oregon wine county.

While the valley's popularity increases each year, it's still a far cry from the crowded wine regions to Oregon's south. The more relaxed pace and exceptional dining scene of the Yamhill Valley has an appeal like no other.

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