As I began to make plans for a short Easter weekend trip to Willamette Valley, I kept getting the question, “why are you driving nine hours for wine when you live in Napa?” Having done some research on the region’s easy access to wineries, restaurants, and outdoor splendor, I was able to formulate a basic answer. However, after only a few days in Northern Oregon Wine Country, I can now easily articulate many reasons why you should visit Willamette Valley (hint: most of them involve wine).
In search of fine dining in the middle of wine country, I came across Joel Palmer House in Dayton, Oregon. Owned by Jack and Heidi Czarnecki, two of the top wild mushroom experts in the United States, the Joel Palmer House revolves around (none other) than wild mushrooms and truffles. The menu is chock full of mushroom inspired dishes using locally raised ingredients paired with world class Oregon Pinot Noirs. The wine list features over 500 Pinots from Oregon, many of them coming from the surrounding wine growing region of Willamette Valley
We asked the restaurant sommelier for his guidance on selecting a bottle from the extensive list, ultimately taking his suggestion on the 2014 Seven of Hearts Pinot Noir. As our inaugural wine from Willamette Valley, the 2014 Seven of Hearts surely did not disappoint!
The discreetly designated road-side sign, simply noting “MSR”, is not any indication for the weight this winery holds in Willamette Valley. A curving dirt road up the hillside brings you to their bucolic barn that is the Soter Vineyards tasting room. Estate ambassador, Grace, greeted us outside the door with a splash of their 2013 Mineral Springs Brut Rosé. Just inside, the warmth emanating from the hearth and the open-concept kitchen welcomes you to take off your rain coat and stay a while.
It was Easter Sunday morning and a holiday spread awaited us. But first, Grace poured us tastings from the winery’s Soter Vineyards and North Valley wine labels. A flight of 2016 North Valley Chardonnay, the newly released 2017 North Valley Rosé, 2014 North Valley Eola Amity Hills Pinot Noir, 2015 Mineral Springs Ranch Pinot Noir, and 2014 Mineral Springs White Label Pinot Noir each had a food pairing coming.
Estate Chef, Alex Daley, delivered a rustic wood board topped with delectable plates crafted from the vegetables and meat grown on their biodynamic farm. Our special Easter Sunday menu included potatoes with a salsa verde, homemade cavetelli pasta in a vegetable ragú, boudin blanc sausage over a bed of kale rabe, and a surprisingly simple yet delicious chicken liver crostini topped with prunes, Dijon mustard, and walnut oil (easily my favorite bite of the day).
While I sipped and savored, Grace spoke of the history and philosophy behind Soter Vineyards. Native Oregonians Tony and Michelle Soter founded Soter Vineyards in 2001 on a passion for winegrowing, sustainable farming, and hospitality. Their beautiful property has some of the best views in Willamette Valley, perched high on a hill surrounded by acres of verdant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards, forests, and grasslands. The wine is just a portion of the fascination behind Soter Vineyards. The winery is also home to sheep, chickens, dogs, cats, fruit orchards, gardens, you name it!
My only wish from an otherwise flawless visit to Soter Vineyards was for a warmer, sunnier day so I could enjoy their gorgeous outdoor space. I was told to stay positive as the weather in Willamette Valley changes on a dime – rain one minute and sunshine the next. I suppose I’ll just have to make another appearance at Soter in the summer time (yay!)
For the international wine lovers, Antica Terra is not to be missed! Located in a modest warehouse in the center of Dundee, Oregon, you would be amazed by the hidden treasures inside. Estate Ambassador and San Francisco native Akoni, led us to the private tasting room hidden amongst palettes of wine and glorious stacks of wine barrels. Songs from indie-pop singer, Børns filled the intimate room while we took our seats at the farm benches. A leg of pig was at the head of the table waiting to be carved for our tasting pleasure.
Winemaker Maggie Harrison is the mastermind behind Antica Terra. In addition to tastings from her highly-acclaimed Pinot Noirs, Harrison pours wines from around the world that have inspired her winemaking over the years. Akoni started the tasting with a splash of 2008 Jacques Lassaigne Blanc de Blancs which paired nicely with a selection of Foie Gras. As it was the onset of rosé season, we continued the tasting with a tasting of Château Simone, a special rosé wine from Provence, France. The wine that surprised me the most (in a good way) was a 2001 Chateau Musar Bordeaux-style blend from Lebanon. This fascinating wine is a great introduction to Lebanese wines and I ended up purchasing a bottle to take home with me.
Harrison’s wines were just as memorable. Each bottle was labeled differently with a sketched imaged of an insect or floral motif. I really enjoyed the 2014 Antikythera Pinot Noir, an interesting name for an interesting wine. Akoni explained that an antikythera is a device from the bronze age that was used to calculate astronomical positions. Playing off the fact that “antikythera” looks remarkably similar to “Antica Terra” they chose this name to also allude to the history of their vineyard site.
There’s a special activity in Willamette Valley that is reserved to only a few weeks throughout the year. Every spring, this year from March 23 to April 30, the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival takes place in Woodburn, Oregon. Forty acres of tulips in every color sprout up from the ground after a rainy winter. It was raining the morning we decided to explore the tulip fields, but the sun came out just in time for the photographs. The water beads on the closed blooms made for some stunning images. If you want to avoid rain puddles and want to catch the tulips in their prime, I would recommend going in mid-April.
Not knowing much about Stoller Family Estate prior to my visit other than I “must try their rosé”, I was eager to join Winemaker, Melissa Burr for a tasting and learn more about them. The welcoming sign directed us through a tree-lined driveway at winery opening time. Michelle Kaufmann greeted us in the solar-powered and naturally sunlit tasting room. Our table was facing panoramic views of Stoller’s 300+ estate vineyards and I was finding myself imaging it was summer time and the retractable doors were open to the Oregonian elements just outside.
A plate of local accoutrements was our starting point for the morning as Michelle poured Stoller’s wonderful examples of Chardonnay, Rosé, and Pinot Noir. We were soon joined by Director of Winemaking, Melissa Burr, who shared with us her favorite nuances of the Stoller property and how Oregon is so much more than Burgundian varieties. While Stoller dedicates most of its planted vines to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris, they also grow Tempranillo and Syrah. As a Tempranillo-lover, I was excited to taste their 2015 Single Acre Tempranillo. Burr’s wines are refined, affordable, and there’s absolutely something for every palate.
Following the tasting, we were given a behind-the-scenes tour of Stoller’s LEED Gold Certified gravity flow winery. Sustainable and environmentally protective practices are at the forefront of everything Stoller Family Estate does, a philosophy engrained by founder, Bill Stoller. His passion for sustainability gave way to an enduring legacy that was recognized when the winery received the first ever LEED Gold Certification in the world. It’s an added bonus to know that Stoller’s wines are not only enjoyable to drink but are good for the planet. Win win!
The last tasting of the trip could have easily been the most intimate. We crossed paths with Barbara Banke, Chairman and Proprietor of Jackson Family Wines, on our way into the Gran Moraine Tasting Room. Assistant Tasting Room Manager, Anne-Marie, was our host as we belly-up’d to the bar. One of the benefits of visiting on a weekday in early Spring was having the tasting room to ourselves. Anne-Marie introduced us to Gran Moraine with a splash of their delicious Yamhill-Carlton Sparkling Brut Rosé. We gabbed about travel, food, and wine while sipping. I felt like I was catching up with a girlfriend over some bubbly rather than standing at a tasting bar.
From the sparkling, we moved to their 2017 Rosé of Pinot Noir which was surely one of the highlights from my Willamette Valley tastings. Another favorite of mine was their Yamhill Carlton Chardonnay, expressing a racy acidity and minerality that offered a fresh break from my Pinot Noir drained palate.
Wine glass in hand, Anne-Marie guided us through Gran Moraine’s open air winery. Winemaker, Shane Moore, casually made an appearance during our visit. Completely down-to-earth, we hadn’t realized he was the winemaker until after he left.
A combination of a full memory card in my camera and the impending nine-hour drive back to Napa led to a shortage of photos from this winery. Although, I highly recommend a visit to Gran Moraine to see it for yourself!