Look north of California for another West Coast wine option

The vineyards at Domaine Drouhin in Dayton, Ore. The Drouhin family, famed French winemakers, began operating the vineyard in 1989.
The vineyards at Domaine Drouhin in Dayton, Ore. The Drouhin family, famed French winemakers, began operating the vineyard in 1989.

On the outskirts of downtown McMinnville, a picture-postcard community in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, you come to a dusty street with a few parked pickup trucks. In front yards, dandelions spring from sidewalks, and random artifacts — a worn plastic rocking horse, a lopsided charcoal grill — frame the landscape. A little farther down is a at a dark wooden barn with a sign pointing to The Eyrie Vineyards.

Eyrie is as unassuming as the street leading up to it. You walk into a long, narrow room with a concrete floor and dozens of wine barrels. A few steps to the right, and you’re in the tasting room: one small counter, two employees, and a lot of very good wine that was produced in Eyrie’s nearby winery. There, at Eyrie, the Willamette Valley was invented as a modern wine region.

First, let’s back up. It might be known by some people (Oregonians, wine connoisseurs) as a mecca for pinot noir, but the Willamette Valley is a relatively new wine region building a reputation. The valley, more than 100 miles long and 60 miles wide, stretches across the heart of western Oregon, from Portland in the north to Eugene in the south. It is the Oregon that non-Oregonians hear about: extremely green and extremely rainy, with acres of beautiful farmland and myriad opportunities to hike, bike or boat. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, it is home to 70 percent of the state’s population.

But there is something else increasingly tied to Willamette’s name. And that, for the past 50 years or so, has been wine. More specifically, pinot noir.

Which brings us back to Eyrie. The winery was founded by David Lett, a Chicago native who had studied viticulture at the University of California Davis. Lett was convinced that the climate and soil of the Willamette Valley were perfect for growing pinot noir, the grape from which the great red burgundies from France’s Cote d’Or are made. He planted 13 acres of pinot noir in 1966 in what had been an old prune orchard in the valley’s Dundee Hills region. (Lett died in 2008, and his son Jason is now Eyrie’s winemaker.)

In contrast to Napa Valley in California, where conditions are especially suited to the cabernet sauvignon grape, the Willamette Valley is ideal for pinot noir. Its summers are cool, cloudy and dry, and its volcanic and other soils have good drainage — especially important when the almost constant autumn and winter rains arrive. Most of the Willamette’s older vineyards don’t use irrigation, although some newer ones are designed with irrigation systems.

David Lett’s belief in the Willamette Valley as a wine region was validated in 1979, when his 1975 Eyrie Vineyards pinot noir finished second in a blind tasting of red Burgundies in Paris. That brought worldwide attention to Oregon pinot noir, and before long, French producers began, literally, putting down roots in the Willamette Valley.

The most notable of these producers is the Drouhin family, famed French winemakers who began operating in Burgundy in 1880. After a series of visits to Oregon, the family determined that the Willamette Valley was the optimal place for pinot noir in the United States, and it opened Domaine Drouhin in the Dundee Hills in 1989 (the Willamette Valley is the exact same latitude as Burgundy). Drouhin’s tasting room is perhaps the most upscale in the valley, less barn and more well-manicured “chateau.” Its slogan says it all: “French soul, Oregon soil.”

More than noir

Despite its standing at the top of the Willamette Valley wine chain, pinot noir isn’t the only grape from which critically acclaimed wine is made here. The region also is known for two white grapes: pinot gris and, more recently, chardonnay (the grape of the great white French burgundies). Most tasting rooms in the Willamette Valley will offer a flight made up of some combination of these two white wines, followed by a sampling of pinot noirs.

A central part of Willamette’s wine culture is a focus on environmentally friendly farming practices. The industry here is known for LIVE certification, an internationally recognized set of research-based standards for sustainable wine growers that was developed in the Pacific Northwest. LIVE certification requires vineyards to complete a set of sustainability measurements including farm management biodiversity and ecological infrastructures, harvesting, and food safety. Oregon vineyards account for 285 of the 313 LIVE-certified members including Domaine Drouhin. Certified organic vineyards also are common here, Eyrie among them.

In five decades, the Willamette Valley has grown from one 13-acre vineyard to more than 700 vineyards covering almost 20,000 acres. Most producers are small-scale, especially compared to their California counterparts. Aside from the Burgundy region in east-central France, Willamette arguably has become the world’s top region for pinot noir, both in wine quality and in total production volume.

The type of tourism the Willamette Valley’s wine industry has given rise to is not unlike what bourbon has done for Kentucky — turns out people like to drink and look at beautiful views.

In the world of wine tourism, though, the Willamette differs from what you might find one state down or across the ocean. First, you should probably like pinot noir; second, you can probably afford it; third, you can wear hiking boots (and bring your outdoorsy and adventurous dog) into the tasting room. For those looking for a relaxed, sustainably minded trip with gorgeous views and excellent wines, you can’t go wrong.

The Willamette Valley is overflowing with wineries — 531, to be exact. Drive down any highway in the area and you’ll pass sign after sign pointing to vineyards just a few miles off the road. It’s easy to make a day, or a weekend, of it. Some wineries serve food, some let you bring your own picnic, and many are just a 10-minute drive from picturesque wine towns with great restaurants.

So to experience a truly Oregonian wine tasting day, find a beautiful hike to do in the morning, follow that with a visit to a winery, have a nice lunch in a nearby town, and then sample a few more wineries in the afternoon. Follow my itinerary or create your own; either way, you’ll be greeted by friendly faces and great wine.

Emma Guida is a Lexington native now based in Dallas, Oregon:

If you go

Oregon Wine

On a recent Sunday, a friend and I went to Domaine Drouhin in the morning, got lunch in McMinnville, walked 15 minutes to The Eyrie Vineyards, and after a windy and beautiful 20-minute drive ended up at Bethel Heights Vineyard (another LIVE-certified operation, in a stunning location, serving one of the best chardonnays I’ve had). There are countless variations on this schedule — other wine towns to explore in the area are Dayton, Newberg, Dundee, Dallas and Amity — all within a 10-minute drive of many excellent vineyards and wineries.

Domaine Drouhin

6750 N.E. Breyman Orchards Road, Dayton

Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily

Tasting fee: $15

The Eyrie Vineyards

935 N.E. 10th Ave., McMinville

Hours: noon-5 p.m. daily

Tasting fee: $10

Bethel Heights Vineyard

6060 Bethel Heights Road N.W., Salem

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

Tasting fee: $15

Community Plate Restaurant

315 N.E. Third St., McMinnville

Hours: 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily

$8-$14 a plate