The Oregon Wine Trail

Former Times managing editor for food, Drake recently has moved back to California from McMinnville

I've toured Temecula, sipped my way through Sonoma, sniffed the bouquets in Napa and meandered the vineyards of Mendocino. And like a shortsighted New Yorker who believes the country ends at the Hudson River, for years (before I moved to Oregon) I didn't think there was a wine country of merit outside the Golden State.

That's a mistake I don't want other Californians to make.

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Since our friends' flight from Los Angeles was arriving in Portland at 9:30 a.m., I figured we had ample time to collect their bags and reach Rex Hill Vineyards before the huge carved wooden doors to the tasting room were unlocked at 11 a.m. The winery sits on a hillside just off Oregon 99W, half a mile inside the Yamhill County line. More than 30% of Oregon's 116 licensed wineries are located in this county a mere 25 miles southwest of Portland. Along with wineries in several other counties from Salem north to the Columbia River, the Yamhill vineyards make up the North Willamette winegrowing region.

This is the farthest north, and therefore coolest, of Oregon's four wine regions, or appellations. It's protected by the Coast Range to the west and the Cascade Mountains on the east. Long, warm summer days, gently cooling autumn weather and moderate winters have encouraged vintners to plant mainly pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling and pinot gris vines, but smaller amounts of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, gewurztraminer, the riesling-like muller-thurgau and sauvignon blanc also are being grown.

I thoroughly enjoy wine, although I'm not a trained expert. So the Yamhill County wineries I revisit, particularly when friends are in town, are those where people are friendly, the buildings and grounds have character, or the location offers breathtaking views of the countryside. Yamhill wines, restaurants and lodgings generally are less expensive than those in Napa-Sonoma, and the only time I have seen the wineries crowded is on Memorial Day and Thanksgiving weekends.

On this trip, I figured the antique-furnished tasting room at Rex Hill Vineyards would appeal to my collector friend. She did enjoy looking over the various pieces while sipping wines produced under the Rex Hill and Kings Ridge labels. The rest of us wandered around with our glasses, checking out the art on display and the balcony overlooking the tank room, void of activity on this particular Saturday morning.

Only a few other tasters were out this early, so we pretty much had the spacious room to ourselves. Like most of the area wineries, Rex Hill has nonalcoholic beverages or coffee, either complimentary or at a nominal charge, for those of us designated as drivers.

Heading southwest again on 99W, we descended the long grade approaching Newberg. We drove through town, then another mile down the highway to Duck Pond Cellars. The tasting room here has a similar feel to the one at Rex Hill, but on a smaller scale. Like many Yamhill County wineries, Duck Pond is a family operation. The owners focus on producing affordably priced Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris from their own vineyards. We sipped the last of our samples by the small pond in front of the winery--the ducks must have been sleeping late or taking the weekend off.

Duck Pond's vineyards were planted in 1986, but the tasting room wasn't built until 1993. New wineries often wait until they establish regular tasting hours to be listed in the "Guide to Yamhill County Wineries," an indispensable map when you tour the back roads. You usually can pick up a copy at one of the wineries along 99W, but just to be safe you may want to order one by mail before heading north (see Guidebook, L11).

Sue Horstmann, executive director of the Yamhill County Wineries Assn., remarked that the industry is growing so rapidly it's difficult to keep up with the number of wineries in Yamhill County, much less the entire state.

Rex Hill Vineyards winemaker Lynn Penner-Ash agreed, adding that "right now the industry is growing quite rapidly, and we're finally able to get some fairly reasonable prices for our wines, where in the past a lot of us were selling wines at a loss."

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Our next stop was a restored Victorian farmhouse in Dundee, where we tasted the three Argyle sparkling wines made by the Dundee Wine Company. Their brut, blanc de blancs and rose are produced using the traditional hand riddling and disgorging methods of Champagne. A few other area wineries produce sparkling wines, but none make them in a former hazelnut processing plant; Dundee is the "hazelnut capital of America."

Before heading home, we made a final stop at Sokol Blosser Winery. Perched on a hill half a mile off the highway, the winery offers panoramic views of the surrounding bucolic valley.

Even though we visit this winery often, it took the sharp eyes of our out-of-town friend to notice the "Welcome to the Sokol Blosser Walk-Through Showcase Vineyard" pamphlet by the door. As we wandered between the rows of muscat ottonel, muller-thurgau and pinot noir, he read the description of each, along with the information about what goes on each season in the vineyard.

Nearby we saw the amphitheater where Sokol Blosser sponsors a series of outdoor concerts each summer. Ticket-holders bring blankets to spread on the grass and picnics to nosh before the performance--sort of an informal Hollywood Bowl.

This year's lineup included Johnny Mathis; Peter, Paul & Mary; Manhattan Transfer and Dan Fogelberg. Last year, in typical Oregon fashion, it poured the night Ray Charles performed.

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It was late afternoon by the time we reached home in McMinnville. Our friends were spending the nights of their visit with us. Like most lodgings in this area, our "guest room" is comfortable, but doesn't rate the four Mobil stars of the Hotel Vintage Plaza or three stars of the Heathman in downtown Portland.

Country elegance best describes accommodations in this area. There are a couple of comfortable motels and several attractive bed and breakfasts, the latter often furnished with antiques, quilts and chintz.

If you enjoy being in the country, the Wine Country Farm or the Mattey House are good choices. (Both have rooms starting at $75 to $125.)

If you'd rather be close to restaurants, galleries and shops, there's Steiger Haus and Williams House in McMinnville, with rooms from $60 to $100.

It's a pleasant walk from either B&B; to the town's historic district. Four of the better restaurants--Nick's Italian Cafe, Cafe Azul, Third Street Grill and Golden Valley Brewery & Pub--are intermingled along Third Street with shops and buildings dating from the 1880s.

When Nick's owner Nick Peirano is cooking, his restaurant is well worth a visit. The prix fixe Northern Italian dinner changes daily, but always includes an appetizer, the signature minestrone soup, salad and a pasta course. One night in August the entree choices were salt-grilled fresh salmon steak, pork tenderloin with fresh rosemary and garlic, and top sirloin steak with Gorgonzola butter. Fresh local blackberries had been combined with cassis in a dessert ice, and hazelnuts and chocolate were teamed in a decadent torte.

The new kid on the block, Third Street Grill, also focuses its menu on Northwest ingredients. Try the "trio of wild mushrooms and brie" appetizer, baked in a puff pastry and served on a pool of roasted garlic cream. The hazelnut-crusted halibut with citrus butter entree also is a good choice.

Sophisticated southern Mexican food is served at Cafe Azul. And Golden Valley Brewery & Pub offers a casual menu, for moderate prices, to accompany their handcrafted ales and wines.

Despite wanting to show off the town of 22,280, we decided these friends, who had been up since 3:30 a.m., would appreciate more an early dinner cooked on our outdoor grill. They were nodding off before we finished the meal, accompanied by a little more local wine.

The next morning our group headed to Jessie's on 99W in Lafayette (breakfast doesn't always come included with our guest room). The roadside cafe has great hash browns--be sure to order them with onions--and huge, fluffy pancakes.

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Lafayette, about halfway between McMinnville and Dundee, is a haven for antique seekers, and we still had time for a little browsing before the wineries opened. Eight rooms of the town's old schoolhouse are packed with china, glass, porcelain, clocks, vintage clothing and furniture. The owners tout Lafayette Schoolhouse Antique Mall as Oregon's largest permanent antique show. Next door is Rick's Antiques, which sells mostly furniture. Wywurri Antiques, Oak Furniture Discount Outlet, The Pack Rat and Again New & Used are within a few blocks.

Dragging our collector friend away, we headed north on Bridge Street into the country for one more quick diversion before getting down to the serious business of visiting wineries. At the Trappist Abbey three miles out of town, the monks not only warehouse wines for the area vintners, but bake and sell fruitcakes, date and nut cakes, and biscotti. I didn't want our friends to go back to Los Angeles without one of their cakes.

Then it was off through the countryside, taking in pastoral scenes in every direction. Vineyards and orchards share this landscape with cows, sheep and horses munching the lush green grass. The air is clean, the sky blue (although this being Oregon, it's not a bad idea to have an umbrella along), and we had wineries to visit.

At Autumn Wind Vineyards, just north of Oregon 240, one friend found a Chardonnay she preferred over all others she had tasted. (Now I know what to take her when we visit Los Angeles.) No fancy tasting room here. You sip at a counter set up between the oak barrels and stainless tanks. Outside are a few picnic tables, and on this day a group gathered around one of them was having a wonderful time sharing a picnic and some wine they had just purchased.

Brick House Vineyards is another short drive through the country. Their tasting room is open Memorial Day weekend, Thanksgiving weekend and by appointment. Owners Doug and Christine Tunnell make their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gamay Noir wines from organically grown grapes.

Nearby, Adelsheim Vineyard is one of the wineries that opens to the public only on Memorial Day and Thanksgiving weekends. This drawing card, together with the discount prices, food and entertainment provided by many wineries on such occasions, accounts for those holidays having the highest visitor attendance of the year.

During the rest of the year, most of the wineries are not crowded by California standards. A few places have begun charging for tasting on holiday weekends or for their elite wines, but it's still not the norm.

Heading back over the red hills of Dundee on Worden Hill Road, we made a right turn into Erath Vineyards. Our first summer in Oregon, friends from Portland brought us here to the annual harvest festival. That day we sat on straw bales and sipped wine in the afternoon sun, but on return visits we've munched hot sausage sandwiches outside the packed tasting room on a cold Friday after Thanksgiving and conversely been the only souls around other than the staff on a sunny Sunday in October.

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Farther south on Worden Hill Road we stopped at the Red Barn, reopened in May under Rex Hill Vineyards management. The winery is still owned by Jim and Loie Maresh and for now Maresh Red Hills Vineyard wines are being poured, but Penner-Ash of Rex Hill said they expect to add their wines for tasting in the near future.

There are other wineries off this same road, but we had a dinner reservation to keep at Tina's in Dundee. The consistently good food and service at this tiny restaurant makes it an area favorite. "We prepare delicious meals to accompany the wines of our friends and neighbors," is how owners Tina Landfried and David Bergen describe the creative dishes they cook with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Specialties include risotto with salmon and wild mushrooms, roasted duck breast with pomegranate sauce and roast leg of lamb with a fennel rub and honey fig sauce.

Over dinner we contemplated our plans for the next day. We could head north to Gaston and sip the fruit wines at Kramer Vineyards and the dry Riesling we enjoy at Elk Cove Vineyards. We might go south to Amity Vineyards or southwest to the Oregon Wine Tasting Room, a part of Lawrence Gallery, where we also could try the new upstairs restaurant, The Fresh Palate Cafe. Or maybe we should. . . . Too many wineries, too little time. But no matter, our friends are already planning a return visit.

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GUIDEBOOK: The Line on Yamhill Wines

Getting there: United, Alaska and Delta fly nonstop between LAX and Portland, Ore. Advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at around $200. Yamhill County is about a 45-minute drive southwest of Portland. Take Interstate 5 south, then Oregon 99W to reach Newberg, Dundee, Lafayette and McMinnville.

Wineries: For a free copy of the "Guide to Yamhill County Wineries," contact Yamhill County Wineries Assn., P.O. Box 25162, Portland, Ore. 97298; leave a message at telephone (503) 646-2985, fax 1-800-WINEGRAPE.

Where to stay: Mattey House (10221 NE Mattey Lane, McMinnville, tel. [503] 434-5058) is a Queen Anne Victorian home on 10 acres. Four rooms, private baths; rates $85-$95 per night double.

Safari Motor Inn (345 N. Highway 99W, McMinnville, tel. [800] 321-5543); large motel-type rooms from $48 per night.

Shilo Inn (501 Sitka Ave., Newberg, tel. [800] 222-2244); typical motel chain property with rooms from $69 per night.

Steiger Haus (360 Wilson St., McMinnville, [503] 472-0821). Three-level creek-side home, five rooms with private baths, one with fireplace; $70-$100 per night double.

The Heathman Hotel (1001 SW Broadway, Portland, tel. [800] 551-0011); luxury hotel in downtown Portland; rates start at $180 per night for double occupancy.

The Hotel Vintage Plaza (422 SW Broadway, Portland, tel. [800] 243-0555) four-star, European-style hotel in downtown Portland; rates start at $175 per night.

Williams House (809 NE Evans St., McMinnville, tel. [800] 441-2214); two rooms with private baths in 1928 colonial-style home for $60 and $95 per night double; a single room rents for $45.

Wine Country Inn (6855 Breyman Orchards Road, Dayton; tel. [800] 261-3446); six bedrooms, one suite with private baths in 1910 farmhouse for $75-$125 per night.

For more information: Oregon Tourism Division, 775 Summer St. N.E., Salem, OR 97310; tel. (800) 547-7842 or (503) 986-0000.

--J.D.

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