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The Promised Land of Pinot Noir

On a road trip through Oregon's lovely Willamette Valley, a writer tracks down five talented winemakers who are quietly making some of the best Pinot Noirs in America.

Great Pinot Noir doesn't make me want to say things; it makes me want to do things. I'll go so far as to claim that I find it life-affirming. So when I discover Pinots I love, I become obsessed, as I did with those from Mike Etzel, Ken Wright, Patty Green, Doug Tunnell and Mark Vlossak. These five are turning out some of the best Pinots in Oregon, if not the whole country. Their productions are small, verging on microscopic, and I've had to go to great lengths to taste their bottles--cozying up to wine stewards and cultivating strategic friendships with members of certain wine clubs. Finally, I took matters into my own hands: I flew to Oregon.

BEAUX FRERES: FROM PIG FARM TO PINOT STAR
I rent a car at the Portland airport and head down Highway 99W, through the heart of Willamette (wil-LA-met) Valley. The scenery is suburban sprawl until I hit Newberg, about an hour or so later. By the time I veer onto Route 240, the setting looks a lot more like what I expected: russet-colored barns, silos, filbert orchards. My first stop is Beaux Frères, where I'll meet Mike Etzel and tiptoe around the subject of his brother-in-law and partner, Robert M. Parker, Jr., the famous wine critic. Yes, I've come to taste the Pinot Noirs, but I can't come here and not ask about Parker's influence.

I'm still wondering how I'll do this when I pull into Beaux Frères. As often happens in these situations, I end up blurting out my question about Parker almost immediately. "Well, Marvin Shanken isn't going to give my wines a great score," Etzel replies dryly, referring to the publisher of Wine Spectator. (The magazine rarely recognizes Parker or his publication, the Wine Advocate, which the Spectator considers to be competition.)

Etzel believes in being direct. Originally from Maryland, the 46-year-old came to Oregon with his wife in 1988. They bought a pig farm in need of repair, and Etzel cleared the land himself. A dirt road running up alongside blackberry brush leads from the buildings to the 30-acre vineyard. The wine from these grapes is sold as Beaux Frères; the wine Etzel makes from purchased grapes is called Belles Soeurs. Annual production can be as low as 1,500 cases total, so it's a privilege to taste the 2000 Beaux Frères in barrel. Rich, broad-flavored, but possessed of a fine, almost delicate structure, Etzel's wines capture Pinot Noir's most intriguing characteristics. I'm curious how Etzel would describe them. He is, after all, related to Parker, the oracle of the adjective. He takes a sniff: "Funky," he says.

KEN WRIGHT CELLARS: LOCAL LEGEND
Time is tight, and I'm forced to take my leave. I drive in the dusk across pretty, rolling hills, admiring the soft light coming through the firs as I approach Carlton. The Madsen Grain Co. is the biggest building in town; two lights comprise the local traffic control. I take a right at one of them to get to the unmarked gray clapboard building of Ken Wright Cellars, where the legendary Ken Wright makes some of Oregon's most consistently praised Pinot Noirs. Wright founded the winery in 1994 after he split with his partner at Panther Creek.

Soft-spoken, cerebral and intense, Wright makes wines that tend to be ripe, dense and firm-structured. I decide to ask him what makes the Willamette Valley so special. The "hang time," he replies, explaining that the northern latitude permits grapes to mature gradually, giving the Pinot Noirs their wonderful complexity. This is what happened in the miraculous succession of great vintages 1998, 1999 and 2000. But with this gradual ripening also come huge risks. The moment the fruit is at its peak of maturity is the moment it can be wiped out by fall's first storm. An almost operatic, life-and-death drama unfolds every harvest and is the basis of the very real solidarity that exists among Oregon's winemakers.

PATRICIA GREEN CELLARS: PINOT'S FEMININE SIDE
I spend the night at Steiger Haus, a charming bed-and-breakfast in the center of McMinnville, the Yamhill county seat, and the next morning I am on my way along Route 47, to my meeting with Patty Green of Patricia Green Cellars, outside Newberg. It's very un-PC of me, but I'm wondering whether she will attribute the feminine, almost floral, aspect of her Pinot Noirs to her gender. To my relief, Green laughs: "Well, some people think so. A lot of winemaking is instinctual, and that's how I approach it: I feel it."

Green first made wines from berries in the basement of her childhood home in Aurora, Illinois. Her career later took a vertical detour when she hooked up with a forestry crew that climbed tall Douglas firs to gather seeds. ("Boy, was I in shape," she says.) By 1987 she'd made her way into the wine world and, six years later, took over at McMinnville's Torii Mor, which under her direction earned a reputation for top-notch Pinot. The first vintage under her own label will be 2000.

BRICK HOUSE: WINES THAT MAKE NEWS
I leave Green's winery and drive just down the road to Brick House. When I pull up to the brick building, the Willamette Valley dramatically opens before me as I look toward the snowcapped volcanoes of the Cascade Range. An Irish setter (named Gamay, I'll discover) runs out toward me from under the vines.

The owner and winemaker of Brick House is Doug Tunnell, a native Oregonian whose memories of Yamhill County predate the founding of its wine industry (generally set at 1965, when David Lett first planted Pinot Noir). "I remember the town of Dundee when it was a bump over the railroad tracks in the back of my grandparents' car," he says. Tunnell has a deep, modulated voice that he put to good use for 16 years as a foreign correspondent for CBS News until he returned to Oregon in 1992 to dedicate himself to winemaking. He makes three rich, deeply concentrated Pinot Noirs: Cuvée des Tonneliers (a play on the original spelling of his Huguenot name), Cinquante and Les Dijonnais. His wines, which include a Chardonnay and a Gamay Noir, have been served at the White House, but he keeps his success in perspective. "I like driving tractors," he says. "What comes out of the ground is miraculous, and wine is the greatest expression of that. It's that simple." And that complicated.

ST. INNOCENT: LETTING THE VINEYARDS SPEAK
That afternoon I drive down to Salem, world capital of maraschino cherries, to meet Mark Vlossak, the winemaker and president of St. Innocent and--in the circuitous ways of Oregon winemaking--the consulting winemaker at Panther Creek. Vlossak is 48 years old, a onetime physician's assistant with a quick wit. ("I didn't call the winery Vlossak because they'd think we sold pickles," he says.) His wines are all vineyard-designated: six Pinot Noirs, three Pinot Gris, a Pinot Blanc, two Chardonnays and two sparkling wines.

As we sample wines from barrels stacked three high, Vlossak hops from one to the next, discussing the decisions he's made: how hard to press the grapes, how long to ferment them and which yeast to use; which cooper to hire, where to source the oak for the barrels and how much to "toast" them. (Yes, Vlossak has been to France to talk to his cooper about that.) Vlossak wants each vineyard to speak as eloquently as it can. He hands me a glass of his 1999 Freedom Hill Vineyard. "For me this is a big deal," he adds, "because I spent years trying to figure it out." Vlossak is talking almost to himself, as if confirming his own impressions. As he places the bung (or stopper) back in the barrel, he punches it softly, a few more times than he needs to.

Back in Portland, I walk to the Pearl District, where I have a reservation at Bluehour, a hip new restaurant. I'm back in the world of black-on-black clothes, and I miss the open spaces of the Willamette Valley. I spot a Brick House Pinot Noir on the list and order it. The waitress asks me how I find it. I nod approval, remembering.

-Patric Kuh is the restaurant critic for Los Angeles magazine and the author of The Last Days of Haute Cuisine.

Published June 2001
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