World-Class Willamette: Entrees and Enology

There’s an old Italian saying, “Grow grapes for your children and olives for your grandchildren.” When olive farmer and millerPaul Durant says this, we are standing in the middle of a sun-soaked olive grove—but not in the Tuscan countryside. We are just outside the tiny town of Dayton (population 2,542) in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley at Red Ridge Farms. Durant’s parents, Ken and Penny, planted Pinot Noir vines here in 1973 that are now harvested by Durant Vineyards at Red Ridge. In 2004, Paul and Ken planted 13,000 olive trees on their land, now a shimmering ocean of silvery-green to be farmed and pressed for generations to come.

I’m visiting today with an old friend in town from Chicago. She has never walked through an olive grove, and didn’t imagine olive trees as part of the Oregon landscape. But that’s that I love most about Oregon, the unbounded sense of possibility. Oregon Olive Mill at Red Ridge Farms is the only estate olioteca in the Pacific Northwest, and began because the father-and-son had a dream that they turned into a reality. I’ve found this a common thread in the food and wine stories unfurling across the Willamette Valley.

The valley is home to more than 500 wineries—a significant leap from 1970, when there were only five, started by the now famed Pinot Noir pioneers. Today, a visit any of the surrounding wineries and vineyards yields a rich backstory and an undaunted, inventive spirit.

Stoller Family Estate Winery for example, can trace its roots back to a turkey farm, when the valley was a mosaic of wheat fields, hazelnut orchards and small family farms. After a successful business career, Bill Stoller planted grape vines in 1995 on family land and established the first LEED Gold Certified winery in the world. Today, we relax in the Adirondack chairs overlooking leafy vineyards and time slows down. We each savor a glass of crisp, strawberry-scented rose.

Our next stop for the day is Winderlea Vineyard and Winery, where my Chicago friend loves hearing about owners Donna Morris and Bill Seat. They took that intrepid leap—the one many urbanites fantasize about—and left careers in bustling Boston to live in a place where time moves to the rhythm of the vines. Out on the deck, their plucky vineyard dogs bask in the late summer sun while we sip the bold, earthy Weber Vineyard Pinot Noir.

Eight miles north at Trisaetum Winery, owner-winemaker James Frey marries his two passions of winemaking and art. After we sample through the wines, including his standout 2014 Estates Reserve Riesling, a fragrant white that bursts with ripe peach and pear flavors, we wander through the adjacent gallery and marvel at how he incorporates vineyard cuttings and soil into his large-scale tactile paintings.

Since I’m traveling with an art buff, we cross the hillsides over to Saffron Fields Vineyard, another destination that infuses art with wine. Throughout the tasting room, owners Dr. Angela Summers and Sanjeev Lahoti highlight avant-garde pieces from their personal art collection, such as Leo Villareal’s light sculpture Coded Spearum.  We taste their 2013 Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir, a silky wine with notes of ripe plum notes, then stroll the surrounding gardens brought to life by renowned landscape architect Hoichi Kurisu.

In the Willamette Valley, it’s not just the winemakers who have adventurous spirits. Tonight we are staying in the renovated grain silos at Abbey Road Farm Bed & Breakfast, a beautiful 82-acre farm which owners John and Judi Stuart modeled after agriturismo, or farm stays, from their European travels. The Stuarts left careers in Las Vegas to settle down in the Willamette Valley, where they opened their B&B in 2005.

Another valley lodging full of characters is the McMenamins’ Hotel Oregon in downtown McMinnville. The building dates back to 1905, and in line with the McMenamins suite of hotels, pubs and restaurants, has a colorful history. In past lives it was a bus depot, soda fountain and beauty parlor. Now, with a lively rooftop bar, it’s the summertime spot to raise a glass of ale and watch the sun go down.

And high on the bucket-list of where to stay in the Willamette Valley is The Allison Inn & Spa, a wine country resort with a state-of-the-art spa. Set on 35-acres of hillside property in Newberg, the light-drenched modern design brings the beauty of the outside in. An extensive art collection throughout the hotel features over 500 original works from 100 Pacific Northwest artists such as Romona Youngquist.

We are excited to dine at the resort’s onsite restaurant, JORY (named after the Willamette Valley’s volcanic soil). We take two seats at the chef’s counter, where executive chef Sunny Jin, an alum of The French Laundry and ElBulli, prepares dishes such as cedar-plank Oregon salmon with fresh garden tomatoes and razor clam chowder with smoked mussels. The restaurant houses one of the most robust cellars in the valley with more than 1000 bottles from Oregon labels and 40 wines poured by the glass.

Without a doubt, now is the time to wine and dine in the valley. We have favorites such as Red Hills Market, where wood-fired pizzas are paired with Pinots made just down the road. And at Recipe in downtown Newberg, Chef, Paul Bachand, smokes his own fish, cures bacon, and makes his own cheese. For once-in-lifetime meals, I send visitors to the esteemed Joel Palmer House, a rite-of-passage for mushroom lovers, and the Painted Lady Restaurant, an exquisite fine-dining experience.

No matter how many times I visit the Willamette Valley, I always leave with a sense of wonder. All of these food and wine attractions can be traced back to Pinot Noir. When I ask Thomas Houseman, winemaker for Anne Amie Vineyards about this, and he sums it up perfectly: “Pinot fits the region—if you think about our local food—salmon, truffles, hazelnuts, and cheeses, they all pair wonderfully with Pinot Noir. Also, the grape itself is known for being unpredictable, and if we Oregonians are nothing else, we are that.”

Unpredictable, yet filled with a sense of possibility. That’s the Willamette Valley.

Willamette Valley Made Chocolate & Cheese

“Wine and cheese are ageless companions,” said famous food writer M.F.K. Fisher. That’s one reason why Sarah Marcus built her destination creamery in the middle of wineries and vineyards. Visit the tiny but tasty Briar Rose Creamery in Dundee on weekends for bites of aged goat cheese and creamy spreadable chevres (like lemon-dill and spicy chipotle). Neighboring wineries include the father-and-son run Lange Estate Winery with views of the Cascade Mountain Range, and Torii Mor Winery, where the grounds include a beautiful Japanese garden. For sweet cravings, Honest Chocolates always hits the spot—and shops in Newberg and Carlton mean you can easily pop by for a taste of their signature dark chocolate ganache made with blueberries soaked overnight in pinot noir.

Willamette Valley Happenings

Oregon Wine Country Half Marathon: A destination race that begins around sunrise at Stoller Family Estate and finishes in the historic downtown Carlton with a post-race celebration hosted by the renowned Ken Wright Cellars.

Bounty of Yamhill County: A three-day food and wine celebration led by chefs, vintners and farms throughout the Willamette Valley with al fresco feasts, and side adventures including hot-air balloon rides, horseback riding, yoga in the vines, and a scenic paddle along the Willamette River.

¡Salud! The premier Oregon Pinot Noir Auction: This premiere Oregon Pinot Noir auction is a rare opportunity to sample with winemakers, preview the 2015 vintage of Oregon’s foremost Pinot Noirs and bid on on one-of-a-kind cuvees, proceeds support healthcare for vineyard workers and their families.

Olio Nuovo Festa at Oregon Olive Mill: Marking the end of olive harvest, this festival offers the chance to sample freshly pressed, limited-release extra-virgin olive oil and tour the only estate olioteca in the Pacific Northwest.

Alaska Beyond magazine | August 2016