Last summer, I took a lovely trip to explore Willamette Valley wine on the Wine Writers Educational Tour (WWET), which was organized by Fred Swan. The trip was 3 days long and consisted of multiple vineyard and winery visits with about 20 other wine writers. Oh, how I miss trips like this. The trip was a wine geeks dream. We delved into many aspects of Willamette Valley wine. MOST of what we talked about would not be of interest to a “regular” (non-industry person). Above all, my goal here is to distill what I learned on that trip and take you on a journey through the sub-AVAs of Willamette Valley wine country. Basically, how to help you break down what’s in the bottle of a Willamette Valley wine.
As an aside, the Willamette Valley is an amazing place to visit for wine. That is to say, for someone coming from Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest is stunningly beautiful and rustic. As you likely know, the wine is stellar, and there are eateries that would rival those in any big city. One particular stellar experience with Willamette Valley wine was at Youngberg Hill. Above all, the hospitality, wine, views, and food were all top-notch.
Back to the wine! Let’s start with some numbers and facts to give you context before we look at each sub-AVA. Firstly, the Willamette Valley wine region is the largest wine region in Oregon. 71% of Oregon wine is produced here. Secondly, the region lies between the lower Coast Range and the higher elevation Cascade Range. Aside from Napa, I’d say that the Willamette Valley is the most prestigious wine making area in the US. Jason Lett, whose father David Lett planted the first Pinot Noir vines in the region (in 1965) said that the Willamette Valley is the New World wine region that is taken with the highest degree of seriousness. Here in the Willamette, they make good wine and they care about it. Thirdly, the Willamette Valley is a large region over 150 miles long and 60 miles wide. There are over 23,000 acres planted, 756 vineyards, and 564 wineries. Moreover, Pinot Noir dominates with over 65% of plantings.
This quick breakdown of the 7 AVAs of the Willamette Valley is meant to help you navigate bottles on a shelf. What might a wine from the Chehalem Mountains or Yamhill-Carlton taste like? Read below!
I would be remiss if I did not mention Elaine Brown, who led the group through a seminar comparing Willamette Valley AVAs through Pinot Noir. Elaine has spent significant time researching and studying Willamette Valley wine. Certainly, her attention to detail and relatability makes her one of my favorite speakers and educators on the topic of wine.
Let's move onto the AVAs!
Willamette Valley wines from the Chehalem Mountains are rich and full. Certainly bigger wines than any of the other sub-AVAs.
Willamette Valley wines from Yamhill-Carlton have fine-grained tannins and darker fruit character (blue and black fruit). The wines are fleshier and richer.
Willamette Valley wines from Ribbon Ridge express elegance and structure. There is an intensity to the fruit and concentration.
Willamette Valley wines from the Dundee Hills showcase red fruit predominantly. These wines are not heavy. They’re finer and more delicate; leaner.
Willamette Valley wines from McMinnville have deep flavor concentration. Darker flavors and more apparent tannins.
Willamette Valley wines from the Eola-Amity Hills are bright and have high acid. Clean, distinct aromas and flavors.
Willamette Valley wines from the Van Duzer Corridor have rustic tannins. This the newest sub-AVA in the Willamette Valley and is less than a year old.
Bookmark this page to help you navigate the shelves of Willamette Valley wine!
Did you know Brianne can lead you through a virtual wine tasting, from the comfort of your own home? For example, we can focus on and explore Willamette Valley wine. Please contact Brianne to book your virtual vino class.
Walk into some wineries and you can tell that they’ve read the studies: millennials are drinking wine at increasing rates and the way to get to their hearts (and wallets) is through experience. These wineries have crafted Instagrammable moments onsite, they sell wine tchotchkes (including t-shirts that say “rosé all day”), and there is bus/shuttle parking out back for the birthday and bachelorette parties coming through. Those wineries are (generally) fun to visit and have a convivial atmosphere, but the wine isn’t always so great. Sooner or later the bachelorette party starts getting loud and you realize the people behind the counter at the tasting room don’t really know much about wine or have any connection to what they’re pouring, other than to regurgitate tasting notes that appear on the tasting sheets.
Now imagine the complete 180 of that. That would be Lenné Estate in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. To say that Lenné doesn’t have as much “atmosphere” would be completely inaccurate. For those wanting a more authentic and less gimmicky experience, Lenné Estate is the answer. The focus is the wines. Period. And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a super-serious experience only for wine connoisseurs. You still have Scarlet, the requisite winery dog who I could NOT get enough of. The tasting room is beautiful with sweeping views of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. And they’re looking to add a winery house onsite. Something tells me it wouldn’t be a bachelorette type destination, but more of an escape for those seeking a quiet haven in wine country. Lenné is the winery to visit if you want a wine-focused tasting experience; minus the wine charms and key chains for sale on the tasting counter.
Lenné Estate resides in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA of the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Owners Steve and Karen Lutz bought the property and planted their first vines in 2001. Six long years later the vines produced their first vintage and the tasting room opened. Steve is notorious for proclaiming that his 20-acre vineyard has the poorest soils in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Their Peavine soils are nutrient deficient, low vigor, and depleted. Perfect for growing grapes! The vineyard lies on a steep hillside. So steep that one year a tractor tipped in the vineyard. There have also been many “almost” tipped stories. Steve likes to say they grow “death-defying Pinot Noir vines”.
Stepping out of the vineyard and into the bottle, we have minimalist wines at Lenné made from both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In all, approximately 1500-2000 cases are produced each year, and they have no intention of expanding. Steve likes to make single-block wines so the customer can understand and study terroir. The tasting room is comfortable with ample seating, which is important to Steve. This isn’t a drive-by tasting kind of experience. He wants you to get comfortable, get to know the wines, and maybe enjoy one of his epic charcuterie plates.
The tasting room is open Wednesday-Sunday weekly. Steve also holds wine seminars throughout the year, including blind tastings of his Lenné wines alongside top Pinots from around the world. This is a gutsy move to put your wines alongside Pinots from Burgundy, for example. However, this fact alone shows how transparent Steve is. His wines are not meant to replace or compete with Pinots from Burgundy, New Zealand, or anywhere. The goal is to showcase the unique attributes of each wine and where they came from.
I asked Steve if Lenné has any plans for growth. Any desires to make wine elsewhere? Nope. This site here. This is Steve’s story.
“This site is ingrained in my DNA” says Steve.
“I didn’t choose Lenné. It chose me”.
My notes: Bright fruit aromatics. Does not smell like a Chardonnay. Great green fruit on the palate with medium acid.
Their notes: Asian pear and green apple with lively acidity and creamy texture.
My Notes: Oh yeah. Big nose here: bright red fruit plus pepper and smoke. I also get a minerality on the palate. This is their largest production wine.
Their notes: Tighter grained, smaller tannins give a silkiness to the wine. Currant, mocha, and Bing cherry aromatics and a long, elegant finish.
My notes: A very balanced combination of red and black fruit. Great mouthfeel (texture) plus a clean, medium plus finish.
Their notes: Black cherry, black raspberry, and mocha aromatics surround a soft mouthfeel and long finish.
My notes: Cherry on the forefront of the nose and palate. A good chunk of dirt/earthiness that I expect from a Pinot Noir.
Their notes: Black raspberry fruit, mocha, and truffle aromatics and a rich mouthfeel.
My notes: No words. Wow. This is my favorite wine of the group.
Their notes: This is their five-barrel blend of the best barrel from each of their clonal blocks. Mixed black and red fruit, mocha, and earth aromatic frame a dense wine with layered, and rich finish.
Their notes: Seeing nearly 80% new oak, this wine has plenty of tannins an should be our longest-lived wine of the vintage. Dark Bing cherry, red fruits, smoke, and mocha aromatics and a long finish.
Their notes: 600 cases of this wine was made and 200 cases were held back. It was re-released in 2015. This wine still hasn’t peaked but is delicious, with black and red fruits, forest floor, truffle and the longest finish of any wine we have ever produced.
At Vidon Vineyard, there is a perceivable push/pull between science and romance. According to David Bellows, the Vidon winemaker with a PhD in molecular biology, the artistic side is overrated. But I’m going to have to disagree with him. Even here, at a science-filled laboratory/winery, there is some romance. A lot of heart goes into the wine here, and contrary to popular belief, it’s not all science.
Vidon Vineyard gets its name from the combination of the names of the owners: Vi-Don (Vicki and Don Hagge). Vidon is a family-owned estate vineyard (14.5 acres) in the Chehalem Mountains AVA of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Don and Vicki purchased the property in 1999 when Don was 69 years old and “retired”. In order to prepare the land for vines, he had to clear an ungodly amount of rocks and stumps (over 1,000 of them!). The soils here are varied, with predominantly sedimentary and volcanic elements. A “dog’s breakfast” David called them. “Gemisch” in German. “Mish mosh” in Yiddish. When you are with Don and David, you get a lot of facts thrown at you. It’s the scientist within each of them. David says “We are educators, so we like to educate.”
Don holds a PhD in Physics and worked at NASA as the Chief of the Physics branch for the Apollo 7 through the Apollo 13 missions. Which begs the question: Is it more difficult to make wine or to send a man to space? Not sure if there is a straight answer, but we can certainly ponder. In addition to being the owner, Don is also vineyard manager and tractor operator. Retirement has not slowed him down one bit. Sidenote: He also jumped out of airplanes in the Korean War. Is there anything this man has not done?
Both Don and David are constantly tinkering and inventing. During our visit, they showed us a few of their inventions: a glass stopper bottling line, a makeshift wine preservation system, and a wine storage system. They both like to develop new skills and create things from scratch. And their modest winery does function as a sort of laboratory. Decisions are made pragmatically with cost and efficiency in mind. According to Don “Part of what you learn as a scientist is to be systematic. I always try to figure out how to do things better and more efficiently.” Don is even working on creating a new wine club, called VinAlliance that is more like a loyalty club, with multiple wineries participating. No rest for the weary at Vidon Vineyard.
Their style is minimal intervention winemaking with indigenous yeasts and thoughtful oak use. According to Don “We keep the use of SO2 down, and we don’t use enzymes or additives. And we don’t mess with the wines, but let nature take its course.” With that being said, I had to ask the scientists their thoughts on biodynamics. Their exact words: there’s no singing or naked dancing here!
Vidon produces Pinot Noir (three different clones: 777, 115, and Pommard) and small amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Syrah, and Tempranillo. They have a 2,100 case production that all takes place in an 800-square-foot facility. All Vidon wines are 100% estate grown.
Fun fact: The Apollo 11 spacecraft carried man to the moon on July 20, 1969, which Don observed from NASA headquarters along with the rest of the team.
They liken this wine to a jazz trio (piano, bass, drums) all playing together. This wine has all BRIGHT red fruit; very primary.
This wine was the most aromatic of the Pinots. The piano of the jazz trio. A surprising palate of complex fresh and juicy fruit with a slightly candied note. Also, fresh rose petals and white pepper. Each of the component Pinots are named after Don’s grandchildren.
This component adds the acidic backbone to the Three Clones Pinot. On its own, I’d describe it as feminine and Burgundian in style. The vines for these grapes are on red Jory volcanic soil. This wine has a perfumed nose with a touch of vanilla.
This component was described as the shoulder of the wine, or the bass line. The whole structure of the Three Clones is sitting on this. I felt more phenolics on this wine than the others, yet it really softened up upon drinking. Beautiful vanilla note both on the nose and palate.
Saturn was the powerful booster that launched the Apollo 11 spacecraft into orbit on its way to the moon in 1969. This wine has a deep purple color with dark red and black fruit both on the nose and palate.
If Don and David don’t feel any romance for the wine, then why don’t we find them in a laboratory? Or plugging away at a desk in a library with their heads in a book? Something drew them to this world. Either the juice in the bottle? The story behind the bottle? Or maybe getting to meet people day in and day out who come visit the tasting room? In the end Don “Just wants to make a good product, charge fair prices, and give folks a nice experience.” So while it may look like these guys are all science, they do have a heart. A logical, scientific heart. And according to Don “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to make good wine, but it doesn’t hurt if you are.”
As we were wrapping up our visit, we also got to meet Mr. Studley, the rooster who prances around the property like he owns the place. I asked Don if he’d ever get a vineyard dog. “When I get old, I’ll get a vineyard dog”. He’s 86.
Pulling up to the driveway at Alloro Vineyard, I immediately saw the Tuscan-style farmhouse that houses the winery, barrel room and tasting room. There are striking Italian cypress trees lining the vineyards. Am I in the Italian countryside? Or the Willamette Valley in Oregon? Surprisingly enough, you are in Oregon! This property was founded in 1999 by David Nemarnik, of Italian/Croatian descent, who now lives on the property.
We find ourselves in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, which is east of the Coast Range. Soils here are a combination of: Jory (volcanic red), marine sediment, and loess (sedimentary sand and silt). Laurelwood, also one of the sub-soils, could become a new AVA soon, as Luisa Ponzi is spearheading that movement.
“Alloro” means laurel in Italian. The name comes from the winery’s location on Laurel Ridge and also for the Laurelwood sub-soils in the vineyard. The estate is 110 acres, with 34 acres planted to vines. All wines are estate, single vineyard with an annual case production around 2.5K-3K cases. They currently sell half of the grapes they grow.
Overall the goal at Alloro is to make low-intervention wines using sustainable and holistic agricultural practices. The vineyard is dry farmed and L.I.V.E and Salmon-Safe certified. Solar panels generate all the electricity needed for the estate and they’re still able to credit power back to the grid. There is a culinary garden onsite and both heirloom sheep and Hereford cattle are reared on the property. Every September they host the Whole Farm Dinner, with foods prepared by a local chef to celebrate the estate’s harvest of lamb, eggs, olives, chestnuts, figs, vegetables, and wine. Typically, 90% of the ingredients used at this dinner were grown on the estate.
We spent some time with Tom tasting through their portfolio and walking through the vineyards. Tom’s demeanor is one of deliberate intention. He’s not one of those “artist types” who speaks better to the vines than to people. He is quiet and thoughtful in how he communicates, and you get the feeling that is also his approach with winemaking: deliberate, intentional, and controlled. According to Tom, this is a single site, so his focus is on capturing the personality of this site in their wines. Tom continued: I love vintage variation. I want the wines to look like the year they came from. His goal is to make graceful, elegant wines with a sense of place. If this isn’t an example of honest, regional wine, I don’t know what is.
The Alloro portfolio includes: three Pinot Noirs, Chardonnay, Riesling, Rosé of Pinot Noir, and their Vino Nettare (dessert wine). The tasting room is open Thursday thru Monday 11am – 5pm. There is both indoor and outdoor seating.
This wine was just bottled when I tasted it and is under screw cap. Notes of: citrus (lime), green fruit (pear), stone fruit, tropical fruit, and white flower (jasmine). Also, a slight honeyed note. Something different for the Willamette.
This wine made it to the Wine Enthusiast Top 100 List. Read more HERE.
I get juicy red/blk fruit, specifically black cherries, baking spice (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg), and floral (rose). Pleasing AF! I get this wine. This is the best more value priced Pinot Noir I have had in awhile. This wine has a minimal oak footprint (though there is some new French oak) and was meant to showcase terroir.
This wine has more weight and fullness than the Estate Pinot Noir and is all about texture. Predominantly red fruit with lots of spice on the finish. The wine is composed of special barrel selections blended with higher proportions of oak. This makes sense as in Italy, wines with extra aging (usually in oak) are called “riserva”.
This is made in the Icewine style. The juice is frozen solid, drains itself, and is then fermented. Muscat makes up ⅔ of the blend and Riesling makes up the other third. I get citrus, stone fruit, tropical fruit (pineapple), floral, and smoke/petrol.
A short 45-minute drive from the Portland airport and we had arrived to a peaceful, pastoral wine country setting in the Willamette Valley. The sign signaled our arrival “Youngberg Hill: Wine-Inn-Events”. A mile-long driveway (more about that later) separated the main road from the tasting room. The views here are beautiful. Views of rolling hills with perfect rows of vines. But what I noticed is that there is a lot of land on this property not planted to vine. Lots of trees (almost a mini-forest), a small lake among the vines, grazing land for the Angus cattle and Scottish Highlanders, grassy hills, native plants, and did I mention trees? Lots and lots of trees. Why wouldn’t they maximize their 50-acres and plant as much to vine? The answer is biodynamics.
Biodynamics refer to the process with which grapes are grown and wine is made. Biodynamics were developed by Rudolf Steiner using his own formulas as well as referring to the astrological and lunar calendars. Organic wine is wine in which the grapes were not sprayed with chemicals (making the grapes certified organic) and the wine was made with no added chemicals (i.e. sulfites). Both biodynamics and organics are very sustainable and have their own pluses and minuses. The beauty of nature, is that there is no waste. Nature is a naturally sustainable system. Biodynamics closes the fertility loop because everything the system needs is within the system.
After the mile-long drive up the driveway, you arrive to the tasting room/B&B onsite. It’s a gorgeous house on a hill. When you walk in it feels like it could be your aunt’s living room. A throw rug. Flowers on an end table. Lots of dark wood. It feels comfortable and familiar. To the left you have the tasting room that is very warm and welcoming with sweeping views of the vineyards. As you continue through the house, and it really does feel like a house, you pass through the kitchen, living room area, and a wrap-around deck with views that cannot be adequately described unless you see them with your own eyes.
On the deck you are given a taste of the 2017 Aspen Pinot Gris to enjoy, compliments of the winemaker. From here, you can check-in to your room, or begin the full tasting flight. Either way, you are fully immersed in the Youngberg Hill experience. What mortgage payment? What grocery list? What dry cleaning to pick up? All the “noise” of the city and of your daily life seems to melt away and you are fully present on this deck with this taste of wine.
According to Wikipedia, experiential marketing is defined as a marketing strategy that directly engages consumers and invites and encourages them to participate in the evolution of a brand or a brand experience. Rather than looking at consumers as passive receivers of messages, engagement marketers believe that consumers should be actively involved in the production and co-creation of marketing programs, developing a relationship with the brand. This blurb isn’t necessarily part of my review of this property. And it isn’t what a consumer is thinking of while onsite, but it’s happening. It’s running quietly in the background. You are experiencing Youngberg Hill in the present. And it’s not in a sales pitchy way, but you are quickly becoming one with your setting. This is your new life for the next day or two. Youngberg Hill has hit the mark with their quiet yet solid version of experiential marketing.
There are over 550 wineries to choose from in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and the wine marketplace in the Valley is fragmented. So much so that 85% of wineries are small, craft producers of less than 5,000 cases.
How can the Willamette compete with say, Napa? When people are choosing a wine country vacation destination, they have a few options. They can go to a wine country made up of big, fancy McChateaus with names we all recognize, white tablecloth dining, and over-confident tasting room staff.* Or they can come to the Willamette for that quintessential wine country experience: small towns, friendly people, good food, and good juice. Though the Willamette Valley runs a sweeping 150 miles north to south, it feels like one big small town.
*I actually love Napa, and have found some gems there. But there is a lot of “fluff” and “noise” to get through in order to reach the authentic part of Napa!
Youngberg Hill is a 50-acre estate with 20 acres of biodynamically farmed vineyards. The first vines were planted in 1989, and current owner Wayne Bailey acquired the property in 2003. Today Wayne and his wife Nicolette live on the property with their three daughters: Natasha, Jordan, and Aspen. Wayne is also winemaker at Youngberg Hill and keeps a “pragmatic obsession” and “fervent” “non-interventionist” approach to winemaking. He makes wines that have been described as “seriously organic”.
In addition to the vineyards and tasting room, there is a 9-room B&B onsite. As well as a full events center that can be rented out for private events and weddings. The “Wine Wednesday Music Series” is weekly from 6pm-8pm throughout the summer. Both wine and food are available for purchase, in fact one of Youngberg Hill employees brings a food cart out and caters onsite
Upon arrival, Neal, Alyse, and I had the Seated Tasting Experience with Karyn Howard Smith, the new Hospitality Manager at Youngberg Hill. Neal and Alyse are bloggers at Winery Wanderings out of Eugene, OR. My tasting notes follow at the end of this post. As a visitor to Youngberg Hill, there are two tasting options. The $15 general tasting in the tasting room, or a longer, more in-depth seated tasting experience for $30.
After our tasting we were lucky enough to meet Bobby Fanucchi, the self-proclaimed “vineyard guy” onsite. Bobby is everything you’d expect from a guy who works in the vineyard. He walked in sweaty, dirt under his brow, and in overalls. It doesn’t get more authentic than that! Bobby’s passion for the property is evident. He drove us around in a Jeep and you can tell he lives and breathes this place. He knows every nook and cranny and is proud and happy to take such good care of the land. He works in the vineyard 5 days a week and also helps out in the tasting room, when needed. He and his wife also work on the events side in catering for some of their public events.
All in all, our visit to Youngberg Hill was impeccable. After our vineyard tour with Bobby we took a glass of wine on the deck in the sunny afternoon. We met a couple visiting from St. Louis, who looked just as relaxed as us! We stayed in the cozy and comfortable Cellar Room downstairs. They even had a bottle of their Jordan Pinot available for purchase (at a discount!!) on the nightstand. Displayed with 2 branded wine glasses. Nice touch.
The next morning Alyse and I took a walk to the end of the driveway. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but it was 2 miles roundtrip! A beautiful walk, with a nice incline on the way back. You can even grab a Youngberg Hill reusable water bottle to keep you hydrated! After the walk, I took my coffee (before breakfast) on the deck and met a couple visiting from Washington state. The quiet of this place still astounds me. I live in Los Angeles and have been there for 18 years. It’s never quiet. To be able to sit on the deck and answer emails to the sounds of birds chirping is a beautiful thing. After getting ready for the day we enjoyed a made to order breakfast. 2 courses: homemade granola & Greek yogurt plus sausage links & stuffed French toast. All of this is included with a stay at the B&B.
Overall, it was a lovely stay from start to finish. Youngberg Hill has a lot to offer and I’d highly recommend a visit here if you want to “get away” in a peaceful wine country setting in the Willamette Valley.
There are over 550 wineries in the Willamette that are waiting for you to experience them and who want to share their stories with you. This is what you get in the Willamette: a convivial atmosphere to enjoy some pretty damn good wine. Warning: Must Love Pinot! I highly suggest you make Youngberg Hill your homebase while visiting the Willamette Valley.
This wine is every so slightly sweet with detectable RS (residual sugar) at 2%. I prefer a drier wine, but this is a nice easy drinker.
Some Pinot Gris vines onsite were pulled up to plant Chardonnay. This wine gives me dairy and cream on the nose, with nuttiness on the palate. Barrel aged in once-used oak barrels for 6 months. 336 cases produced. 12.9% ABV.
I got slate/graphite on the nose. A nice earthiness/forest floor note and good overall texture/body. The soils for these vines are shale/volcanic. 151 cases produced. 13.3% ABV.
These vines are grown on marine sediment. This wine has more fruit notes than the Bailey. It is a big, structured wine and would be good to recommend for Cabernet lovers. I get mostly red fruit (rhubarb and raspberry) + a good amount of spice (including white pepper and baking spices). 558 case production. 14.5% ABV
These vines are grown on volcanic soil and this fruit gets 1.5 weeks longer hang time than the other Pinots. This wine is feminine and elegant and full of red fruit and floral notes. There is also a strong earthiness, plus spice and tobacco on the back palate. 448 cases produced. 13.7% ABV.
The fruit here is sourced from the Rogue Valley, which is south of the Willamette. I get ripe red + black fruit, chocolate, and coffee bean.
The fruit here is partially estate-grown and partially sourced. An approachable, easy to drink Pinot Noir with simple notes of red fruit and spice. A great value. This wine is ready to drink now. 286 cases produced. 13.5% ABV.