Wine Country at its finest
For 50-plus years, the Yamhill Valley has taken steps both small and large to prominence in the wine world.
It began with some adventurous vintners who believed the region was superb for growing Pinot Noir grapes. That conviction was validated by a historic showing against the world’s best during a 1979 French competition.
Today, new generations of winemakers, tasting room managers, farmers and entrepreneurs are writing the story of the next 50 years, one vine at a time.
The Yamhill Valley is home to six distinct American Viticultural Areas (See page 16) representing the majority of the larger Willamette AVA that encapsulates them.
A list of new accolades and praise are bestowed upon the region. In 2016, the region earned a top honor by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, when it was named Wine Region of the Year. Editors noted, “the outstanding quality of its wines, the resulting international recognition and the tectonic shifts in wine investments these have engendered.”
While Pinot is ingrained in the history of Oregon wine country, the modern landscape is far more diverse, both in grape variety and in experience.
“The climate creates the opportunity,” says Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards. Jason’s dad, David, made headlines in that 1979 competition with a top 10 finish for his 1975 South Block Pinot Noir. Jason is among several next generation vintners who carry on the tradition of their parents and forge new roads in the local industry. That includes adapting demands of a now-famous wine region, and learning what other varietals can flourish in the soils of the Yamhill Valley.
Jesse Lange is another second generation winemaker continuing the tradition. The winery just celebrated its 30th vintage. Having watched his parents build a wine business out of their basement, Lange said it’s amazing to witness the evolution of Oregon wine country, to where he’s flying around the world to present his product.
He said the spirit of those pioneering wine families continues even though the local industry continues to grow.
“It’s important to understand where you have been and where you are going,” he said.
Eryie is a great place to start exploring the heart of Oregon Wine County, said Brianne Day of Day Wines.
“It gives you a good backdrop for setting the stage of what the industry was built upon,” she said.
From there, she suggests people let their own style and philosophy guide their wine tasting experiences.
Those can include the awesome views of hilltop vineyards, or a row of downtown tasting rooms, where wines made from grapes far and wide line up for an accessible journey through the greater Northwest.
The latter describes Day’s new operation, DayCamp, located on Highway 99W on the west end of Dundee. The cooperative winery is home to ten winemakers working side-by-side. The incubator model became prominent in the area in 2002 when The Carlton Winemaker’s Studio opened, and has been replicated by the likes of Walnut City Wineworks in McMinnville, August Cellars in the Chehalem Mountains and many more.
Cooperative winemaking has grown out of necessity as more winemakers flocked to the Yamhill Valley to craft small scale production labels. Day said sales from smaller productions often cannot cover the costs of winery equipment.
“We use a lot of equipment just once a year, so you might as well get the most out of it,” said Day, who previously worked out of the SE Wine Collective in Portland and knew she wanted her new venture to be a co-op.
For visitors, Day recommends visiting places that have a fitting personality for the wine drinker, which includes the menu, the setting, the mission and more.
“I’ve found that when we find someone that matches with us philosophically, the palates also click,” she said. “Find those places that resonate with your personal beliefs.”
Looking for even more of an intimate and secluded wine country experience? Search for wineries open by appointment only. These operations are often a labors of love, a mom-and-pop shop living the winemaking dream.
David Polite of Carlton Hill Vineyards said a great way to explore the lesser known wines is through tour guides. They know the different styles of wines and winemakers in the area, and can cater a trip for guests depending on their intentions and style. Polite said he generally receives requests from more serious connoisseurs, especially those who like to discover wines not sold in stores, like his.
On the other end of the experience spectrum lie the destination tasting rooms.
This year, Oregon Business released its first Top 100 Fan-Favorite Destinations in Oregon, based on 22,000 online reviews from multiple travel sites. Five of the ranked spots belong to Yamhill Valley wineries: Brooks Winery (30), Youngberg Hill (48), Domaine Serene Vineyards (52), Sokol Blosser Winery (59) and Domaine Drouhin Oregon (62).
For these locations, block out more time than going to an in-and-out tasting room, says Dayson Tiogangco of Brooks Winery. Brooks welcomes with a living room atmosphere plus lots of couches inside and great views from the deck.
Like many larger tasting rooms, it also offers non-wine options like espresso, beer and craft soda, along with an expanded food menu. Brooks is part of a growing trend in Oregon Wine Country for employing its own culinary director. (Restaurants are not allowed in rural Oregon except under certain, rare situations, but wineriess can and often do offer a small food menu.)
You’ll discover more staff at larger wineries so that even when busy, visitors can have a one-on-one experience with a pourer.
Tiogangco encourages visitors to ask any questions, even if it’s to be left alone.
“Some people have a lot of questions. Some people really just want to enjoy the company of their own party,” he said. “We really try to feel out the guests that are coming in. We do want to be able to educate those people with a lot of questions. And we really like to share the history of Brooks.”
Of course, people don’t need to select just one wine tasting event, and shouldn’t try to experience too much in one day. Many options compete for your attention, so it is worthwhile to take a little time to decide what would be most interesting to you.
Despite the local wine industry’s five decades of development and maturation, the Valley remains surprisingly unassuming. Whether meandering between downtown tasting rooms or kicking back with a view of the fertile Valley, your winetasting experience can be what you make of it.