That Oregon, with its wet weather and short summers, could ever be famous for wine was in doubt until as recently as 30 years ago, when it began to receive international acclaim. Today the damp Willamette Valley is the epicenter of a world-class wine region famous for some of the country's best Pinot Noir.
Adelsheim’s small-lot Pinots helped pioneer Willamette Valley’s fine-wine industry and remain among its best examples. David and Ginny Adelsheim founded their small estate in 1972; though David passed winemaking duties to Dave Paige 11 years ago, the focus on high-quality estate wines remains constant. The whites are silky, vibrant and more affordable than the reds.
Vintner Rollin Soles is as skilled at crafting seductive still wines as he is at making elegant sparkling cuvées. Their common denominator is superb Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes from 280 acres of estate-owned vines in the Dundee and Eola hills. Argyle is responsible for some of Oregon’s finest wines; the Nuthouse Pinot Noir is among its most coveted bottlings.
A to Z Wineworks
A to Z Wineworks became Oregon’s biggest wine producer just a few years after launching in 2002 (it’s still one of the biggest). Its secret is simple: Along with winemaker Michael Davies, founders Bill and Deb Hatcher, Cheryl Francis and Sam Tannahill are master blenders. They source prime fruit from over 60 vineyards in order to achieve seamlessly balanced wines.
Wine critic Robert Parker and his brother-in-law Michael Etzel purchased a former pig farm in Willamette Valley in the late 1980s and converted it to a biodynamically farmed vineyard. Since then, Beaux Frères has been acknowledged as one of Oregon’s finest Pinot Noir producers. Etzel makes just three pricey Pinots; they offer loads of smooth purity and polish.
It may be Benton-Lane’s eye-catching postage-stamp labels that first attract shoppers, but it’s the juicy, well-made wines that keep them coming back. The winery’s basic Willamette Pinot became popular in the 1990s as a go-to value red, and it still is. At the high end, its top Pinot is among Oregon’s greatest wines.
This Willamette Valley winery has a short but impressive track record. Founded by Portland surgeon John Bergström and his wife, Karen, in 1999, Bergström is helmed by son Josh, who studied winemaking (and met his future wife) in Burgundy. Biodynamically farmed vineyards yield cool-climate wines—mainly Pinot Noir—of remarkable poise and depth.
Bethel Heights Vineyard
In 1977, twin brothers Ted and Terry Casteel and their partners, Patricia Dudley and Marilyn Webb, ditched their jobs to get back to the land. Specifically, to 75 acres in Eola-Amity Hills, a marine-influenced slice of Willamette Valley that’s prime Pinot territory. It was the right move: Today family-owned Bethel Heights remains one of Oregon’s most respected producers.
Domaine Serene lays claim to a collection of top Dundee Hills vineyards and produces some of America’s most remarkable Pinot Noirs. Among these is the bold, rich Evenstad Reserve, named for owners Ken and Grace Evenstad. Its legacy is now in the hands of a new winemaker, Erik Kramer, who follows in the footsteps of his supertalented predecessor, Tony Rynders.
Elk Cove Vineyards
Over the past two decades, family-owned Elk Cove has steadily improved, becoming one of Oregon’s finest producers. Winemaker Adam Campbell took the reins from his parents in 1995, and crafts precise, full-flavored Willamette Valley Pinot and a few whites. Elk Cove’s single-vineyard and reserve Pinot Noirs are trophy wines worth the hunt—and the price.
Winemaker Gary Horner (formerly with Bethel Heights and Benton-Lane) continues the work that Dick Erath began at this venerable Oregon winery. Washington’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates purchased the property in 2006, but the wines haven’t slipped a bit, still exhibiting an elegant style that’s a welcome alternative to California’s plumper Pinots.
King Estate Winery
The estate, founded by the King family in 1991, is known for two things: terrific Pinot Gris and a vast organic ranch, located southwest of Eugene, which includes gardens, orchards, a restaurant and wetlands. The brand’s top wines are the estate-grown offerings made under the Domaine label. The Acrobat tier offers super value; the Signature wines are a step up.
In the early 1970s, Dick Ponzi helped jump-start Oregon’s wine industry when he founded Ponzi Vineyards. His winemaker daughter Luisa follows in his footsteps, making Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris from some of the state’s oldest vines, as well as wines from obscure grapes like Dolcetto and Arneis.
Scott Paul Wines
Martha and Scott Paul Wright are so passionate about Pinot Noir that, after their first vintage of it in 1999 (supervised by Pinot guru Greg LaFollette), they moved from Sonoma to Oregon to create their own boutique brand (and even started importing some wines from Burgundy). They hired Eyrie Vineyards alum Kelley Fox to help craft their Burgundy-inspired wines.
St. Innocent Winery
A former physician’s assistant in pediatrics, vintner Mark Vlossak takes a meticulous approach to winemaking, and it pays off. Vlossak’s small-lot Pinots, which come from an all-star collection of vineyards across the Willamette Valley, are among the most sought-after in Oregon. Small amounts of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay round out the compelling portfolio.
Willamette Valley Vineyards
Founder and native Oregonian Jim Bernau bought a run-down plum orchard in 1983, cleared it himself and planted vines. Bernau eventually built Willamette Valley Vineyards into one of the state’s largest producers, thanks also to late winemaker Forrest Klaffke, who made crafting terrific Pinot across the price spectrum look easy—as does current winemaker Don Crank III.