COVID canceled our planned trip to Willamette Valley for the 2020 International Pinot Noir Celebration. While we don’t go every year, we had tickets for the 2020 festival. We had planned to spend time in the Willamette Valley to taste wines and restock our cellars of some of our favorites. Oh well, now we hope to attend the 2021 event. However, even with Covid and being careful, we decided to take a road trip to see how Willamette Valley wineries were fairing. Besides, we still needed to replenish our wine cellar!
Don’t Let COVID Stop You. Just Be Safe
Most Oregon wineries are now reopened and are accepting a limited number of guests. Reservations, strict masking, and distancing requirements are the new norm. And, while most of California currently allows only outdoor wine tastings and restaurant visits, Oregon allows both outdoor and limited indoor tastings and meals—both subject to strict ventilation, social distancing, and masking requirements. Hand sanitizer and restroom facilities (for full handwashing) were widely available. Although the vast majority of our Oregon tastings and meals were outdoor, space limitations and the continual threat of rain, periodic sprinkles, and occasional downbursts forced us to a few indoor tastings.
Visiting wineries during COVID takes a lot of prep work. Unlike in the past when one could drive by a winery and stop, most places now require advance reservations and limit the number of people they admit at one time. One has to figure out how much time to spend in each place and how long it takes to get to the next place. It is not an easy feat. Fortunately, Tom is a master planner. He spent hours plotting out our path and making reservations. Due to the limited time, we focused on wineries whose wines fit our palates. For Pinot Noirs, we prefer those with deep, concentrated flavors of earth and dark fruit. Rather than attempting to characterize each of the wines we taste (we aren’t very good at the terms that winemakers and critics use to describe them), we focus on those wines that express our own preferences.
Willamette Valley Wineries
The following is a summary of places we stopped at and also refers briefly to some of the best—and less rigorous—practices for protecting staff and guests from Covid. We also wanted to note that in addition to allowing smaller numbers of people into a tasting room (whether inside or outside), not surprising, staffing was also reduced. Yet, each place was very accommodating and welcoming.
Cristom Vineyards grows all its grapes in the Eola-Amity AVA. We continue to enjoy a number of their wines and we still do. Among the current vintage wines that we found most interesting are the 2018 Mt. Jefferson Cuvee, 2017 Paul Gerrie Vineyard, and, especially, the 2018 Eileen and Paul Gerrie Vineyard Pinot Noirs.
Goodfellow Family Cellars is another of our perennial favorites. It is a small (4,200 case) family operation that sources all its grapes from three of the winemaker’s (and our) favorite Willamette AVAs—Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity, and Ribbon Ridge. The winery focuses primarily on pinot noir. Yet it also produces a few Chardonnays, a Pinot Gris, and a Riesling. We enjoyed a number of the roughly dozen wines we tasted: 2018 Durant (Dundee Hills), and 2018 Whistling Ridge Richard’s Cuvee Chardonnay. But our two favorites were the 2018 Durant Vineyard Heritage No. 11, and the 2018 Temperance Hills Vineyard Pumphouse (both from Dundee Hills).
Willamette Valley Vineyards. Our favorite Pinot Noirs are the 2018 Founders’ Reserve, 2016 Tualatin Estate (both from Willamette Valley AVA), and 2016 Elton (Eola-Amity). We’re also very impressed by the value point of the light-bodied, but smooth, flavor-packed 2019 Whole Cluster Pinot Noir.
PennerAsh Wine Cellars is one of the Valley’s premier wineries. Its tasting room provides a lovely panoramic view over the vineyards from which it sources 98 percent of its own fruit from renowned vineyards. The tables were properly spaced although we felt the staff sometimes came too close to us when talking due to the high noise level. The favorites of our tasting—again, all Pinot Noir—are the 2017 Bella Vida Vineyard (Dundee Hills), the 2017 Zena Crown Vineyards (Eola-Amity), and our perennial favorite, the 2018 Shea Vineyard (Yamhill-Carlton). Interestingly, we were less impressed by the winery’s two showcase multi-vineyard wines. The 2017 Pas de Nom Chardonnay was heavily oaked—a taste that we no longer appreciate. Its Pas de Nom Pinot Noir was produced from grapes from seven of the vintage’s 374 total pinot barrels, 70 percent of which are sourced from Dundee Hills wineries, and 30 percent from Shea and Zena Crown vineyards.
Patricia Green. Although we often enjoy these wines, we were less impressed this time (again, for our palates) by the eight wines we tasted. The 2018 Freedom Hill Vineyard, Dijon 115 Clone, and Mysterious Pinot Noir (both from Dundee Hills) were the closest to our style.
Willakenzie Estate earned a gold star from us for being the most stringent of the wineries we visited in following Covid protocols. The door was wide open, tables were spaced apart and the person working with us was very conscious about distancing herself from us. While it only had one Pinot Noir, the 2016 Triple Black Slopes, on its standard tasting list that came closest to addressing our preferred flavor profile, Rylee, our tasting guide, took this and our description of what we were looking for to select two additional wines, both of which were precisely on target. These were the 2017 Clairiere and especially the 2016 Terres Basses—all from their Yamhill-Carlton vineyards.
Lenne Wines had their tastings set up with socially distant tables on a somewhat enclosed outside area (it was raining and cool that day) that overlooked their vineyards. We liked its 2017 Estate and Jill’s 115 Pinot Noirs. We were even more impressed with the 2018 vintages of the same two wines that the manager recommended that we taste. The comparison of the vintages provided a striking example in the role of weather, contrasting the restraint of the slower ripening of the 2017 Yamhill-Carlton harvest with the bigger, more opulent wines of the warmer, lusher 2018 vintage.
Four Graces is a place we always try to stop as we find its wines a good price/value. However, the place was dramatically understaffed as they had spaced people out in three buildings. We felt that we had long waits for the next wine. We also asked to taste a wine that we had previously purchased in a previous vintage. When told we could not taste it, we told the person working on us that we would buy a bottle and taste it onsite to see if the current vintage was one we wanted to purchase. When she finally returned with a bottle, she did end up opening it up for tasting. We ended up buying a case of the 2018 Yamhill-Carlton Reserve Pinot Noir. Although we generally enjoy a number of their wines, this experience was underwhelming.
Le Cadeau Vineyard (and its alternative Aubichon label) also did an admirable job in handling Covid tasting protocols. The gentleman in the tasting room was continually sanitizing everything that anyone touched. And, as we have found in the past, he was friendly and very helpful. When we didn’t find anything on the tasting list that conformed to our taste, he suggested two other wines: a very nice 2016 Aubichon Riverside Pinot Noir, and better yet (for our tastes), a 2017 Aubichon Reserve Pinot Noir (from the Ribbon Ridge AVA). After better understanding our tastes, he offered a couple of previous vintages of both, explaining how the differences of weather affected each. In the end, our favorites were the 2013 Riverside Pinot Noir and especially, the 2017 Aubichon Reserve.
White Rose Estate White Rose’s tasting room is located in an older building that made social distancing a challenge. As it was raining that day, we do not know if they normally offer outdoor tasting. However, the staff did a reasonably good job of reducing risks. We have long enjoyed the winery’s highly expressive, deep-flavored wine, many of which show dark fruit and earthy flavors. This year’s tasting did not disappoint. The preset tasting of three wines yielded two that closely matched our flavor profile: the 2016 Neo-Classical Objective and the 2013 White Rose Vineyard. With this as a foundation, our tasting guide took us through tastings of two or three additional vintages of each of these wines. He explained the differences in growing conditions of years: the rainy 2013 (in which the vineyard lost a quarter of its crop), the hot 2015, the warmth and smoke (from Columbia Valley fires) of 2015, and the ideal growing conditions of 2018 with its very warm summer, cool autumn and long hang times.
Archery Summit is another of our many Willamette Valley favorites. It offers a very nice, socially-distanced, curated tasting on a patio. We particularly enjoyed five of the nine Dundee Hills wines we tasted, beginning with two whites: a nice, very reasonably priced 2018 Bieraton Pinot Gris and a nicely rounded, minerally 2018 Chardonnay that belied the 30 percent of new oak in which it was aged. Our favorites Pinot Noirs, all of which will benefit from setting down, included a lighter-bodied 2016 Whole Cluster Cuvee, a deeper-color, lusher 2016 Red Hills Vineyard, and our favorite and surprise, more expensive, just released 2018 Summit Pinot Noir.
Domaine Drouhin provided another nicely socially distanced tasting that was accompanied by a beautiful view from its deck. The tasting was designed to provide direct comparisons among Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Roserock (its two Oregon brands) and its Joseph Drouhin line of Burgundys. We had particular favorites from among each of three tasting tiers: Chardonnays and mid-range and premium points. These were the 2018 Domaine Drouhin Arthur Chardonnay, 2017 Joseph Drouhin Santenay Beaurepaire 1er Cru, and the premium 2017 Domaine Drouhin Laurene Pinots.
Willamette Valley Restaurants
Jory Restaurant is a lovely, formal restaurant in the Allison Hotel in Newberg Oregon. The amuse-bouche was a delightful mushroom arancino with herbed cream cheese. Our delicious entrees were Alaskan Halibut with local corn and squash succotash, chanterelles, daikon radish, red pepper, and citrus vinaigrette; and the very rich wild mushroom agnolotti in a mahon cream sauce. Our server was very helpful in guiding us through the huge, pinot-focused wine list to a lovely, reasonably attractively-priced Ridgecrest Vineyards Pinot Noir from Ribbon Ridge. We also discovered a less-formal section of the restaurant that serves a bistro-style menu all day. Unlike the formal restaurant, this area doesn’t require a reservation. We will certainly return to one, and probably both.
Joel Palmer House is a 100-year restaurant located in a historic, 1857 home that was built by the great-grandfather of the current chef/owner. The restaurant originally opened in 1916. It soon began offering a mushroom-centric menu. Although the menu and recipes continually change, the concept has remained the same. The current five-course menu provides a choice of options with each course, allowing us to experience nine different dishes. Our favorite dishes were a three-mushroom tart, Beef Stroganoff with wild mushrooms, and a Candy Cap Mushroom Crème Brulee. We felt the other dishes needed more flavor.
Although we generally enjoyed the food and the small amuse bouche, palate-cleansing two-in-one gazpacho (cucumber-ginger and pickled tomato, which merged into an interesting intermezzo), and the personal attention of the chef/owner, the experience was marred by several drawbacks.
First, due to no fault of the restaurant, the weather forced diners into the small rooms of the old house instead of being on the pleasant, roomy outside dining space. Although we were happy to be located next to an air purifier, few of the masked staff maintained a sufficient distance from the diners. Some clearly lacked experience. One new employee had a penchant for getting into discussions of personal issues (of which we didn’t have a problem, but were out of place). Our greatest service disappointment, however, was with the sommelier, or at least the person who claimed to be responsible for the wine. We began by browsing through the huge, Oregon Pinot Noir-centric wine list to provide examples of the wines that we knew we enjoyed in our desired price range from which she could recommend other wines. Despite the large list, she focused exclusively on wines in the chef’s recommended list, some of which we knew to be far from the taste profile of our preferred wines or were not in our price range. She offered tastes of a few recommendations that were so far off that we ended up returning to one of the wines we originally posed as an example—a 2016 Pike Road Shea Vineyard which we greatly enjoyed and nicely complemented our dishes. After a similar mixed experience in a previous visit, we aren’t likely to return.
Dundee Bistro was a stop for a quick lunch. We had a slightly overcooked hamburger (which interestingly, had mustard spread on the bun even though it wasn’t listed as part of the hamburger on the menu) and a reasonably good tomato sauce, mozzarella, and sausage pizza. The tables were inside due to the rain but socially distanced.