This is an overview of my recent three day visit to a dozen Willamette Valley wineries. I want to focus on how I approached planning such a trip and how you can maximize the value of your own wine country excursions. In addition I’ve posted quick summaries of the first day’s visits, some recommended wines and links for purchase. More details of this trip will be posted on my Substack pages in the near future. Full reviews of all the wines gathered during the week will continue to be written and posted over the coming weeks.
Given that I’ve spent a big chunk of my life visiting wineries all over the world, it’s not surprising that I am frequently asked for recommendations from folks planning a wine country excursion. A common question goes something like “we are planning a weekend in the Willamette Valley and we like Pinot Noir. Where would you suggest we go?”
That narrows things down to about 730 options. It’s like asking me what is my favorite wine. I don’t have one, and I can’t help a stranger plan a short trip when I know little or nothing about their budget, their palate or their preferences. But what I can do is tell you how I organize my own schedule. There are certain considerations that will help anyone tour wine country efficiently. Even though my planning was organized around specific goals relating to gathering material for this website, the basics are the same for everyone.
What is the purpose? Pleasure? Education? Entertainment? Purchasing wine? Exploring a specific region or grape? Think about what you want to accomplish, then dive into specifics.
Are there certain wineries you absolutely know you want to visit? Is there a well-defined region that is of particular interest? Do you have any flexibility as far as timing? Once you settle on specific dates you can make educated guesses about the weather, road conditions and how busy the wineries are likely to be.
For my recent trip I budgeted three full days in wine country. I wanted to focus on Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills and McMinnville wineries, allowing one day for each sub-AVA. That met another key goal – minimizing driving times. The Willamette Valley is flat-out beautiful, but it’s a big place. Even within sub-regions distances between stops can quickly eat up valuable time. Before you make specific appointments, spend some time mapping driving distances. You want to spend no more than 30 minutes between destinations.
Plan on visiting two wineries in the morning and two in the afternoon at most. That may not seem like a lot but you do not want to be rushed. That gives you an hour and a half at each stop and a half hour between them. Ideally your first appointment is at 9am, your second at 11am. Give yourself an extra half hour for a quick lunch stop and start your afternoon at 1:30, with the final appointment at 3:30.
If you want free time to do other non-tasting activities you probably won’t be able to do more than a couple of wineries a day. But if wine tasting is your primary focus, then clump your visits as physically close to each other as possible. Make specific reservations; do not just plan to drop in. When booking, ask your hosts if they offer food or if there are nearby restaurants they can recommend. Eat a real breakfast before starting out and keep lunch light. Save any ‘destination’ restaurant meals for the evening.
Many wineries offer on-site lodging. It’s great fun to wind up your last stop at a winery with a lodging option. Availability will depend on the date or dates you choose, so plan as far in advance as possible.
In the Willamette Valley you will not have any trouble finding excellent Pinot Noir. But don’t miss the chance to taste Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier and other white wine options. There are more and more excellent sparkling wines, from simple Pét-Nats to fancy méthode champenoise. So be open to experimentation and you will make some fun discoveries.
At some point you have to choose specific wineries. One option is to pick a known winery for your first destination, then look online to see nearby tasting rooms, and take a chance on one that’s new to you. Or phone the first winery during business hours and ask about their neighbors. The more time you spend doing the research, the better your experience is likely to be. There are a number of tour operators who will work with you and handle the transportation. One that comes highly recommended by a number of wineries is Backcountry Wine Tours.
Oregon winemakers are a resilient and adventurous crew, and they’ve grappled with climate change, wildfires, phylloxera and Covid challenges in recent years. Now with a couple of excellent vintages (2021 and 2022) being introduced, they will be especially pleased to see you and generous with their time if you avoid the most crowded weekends and are genuinely interested in what they have to offer.
Here are some quick sketches of the stops I made on the first day of my recent trip. I will post up comprehensive reviews of new releases for each of these wineries over the next month or two. My accounts of Day Two and Day Three will appear exclusively on Substack. I suggest that you (especially those who work at a winery) sign up as a subscriber. No cost, no obligation. OK, here we go.
Day One – Ribbon Ridge
Founded in 1990 and certified Biodynamic just five years later, Brick House has long been one of my favorite stops up on Ribbon Ridge. The last few years have not been easy ones for winemaker Doug Tunnell and assistant winemaker Savannah Mills. In 2020 all their Pinot Noir was declassified due to wildfire smoke issues, and was blended into a non-vintage cuvée (the 2020 Chardonnays, on the other hand, were superb). For the past decade phylloxera has been creeping through the vineyard, leading to ongoing replanting. Currently it’s the Gamay that is being replaced, so current production of that wine is down to just four barrels. The 2021 vintage wines are just now beginning to be released.
Brick House 2021 Les Dijonnais Pinot Noir
From vines a quarter century old, this young Pinot perfectly expresses the glorious diversity of biodynamic wines. Wild, feral, gamey, unruly flavors compound across the palate, keeping you riveted through the lingering finish. Peppery red berry fruits, juicy acids and underlying wet stone flavors balance it out. Give it plenty of aeration and/or decanting for maximum enjoyment. 13%; $68 (Ribbon Ridge) 93/100
I made it a priority to visit Kevin Johnson and Beth Klingner because I’d had the chance to review several previous vintages of their Dion wines and found them to be exceptional. The vineyard and modest winery and tasting room are on the back side of the Chehalem Mountains AVA, off the beaten path. The vineyard dates back to the mid-1970s when it was first planted by Kevin’s parents and grandfather. Until 2007 they simply grew and sold grapes; currently they also make between 700 and 1000 cases of their own wines annually. Although quantities are small, there is a compelling range to the portfolio, including back vintages, old vine bottlings and a lovely pair of sparkling wines.
When traveling throughout the Willamette Valley it’s a treat to visit wineries both new and old, big and small, fancy and homespun. Dion welcomes visitors from March to November, and as with most small wineries your best experience will be on an uncrowded week day. I usually aim for springtime, as the weather is mild and there’s a chance to taste the first releases from the past couple of vintages. Here is one that is just about to be released.
Dion 2022 Pinot Gris
I loved the previous vintage and the ’22 is a fine follow-up. The vines are fully mature and able to express the richness and depth found in the best versions of Oregon Pinot Gris. This is a juicy, refreshing wine, its ample citrus fruit amplified with bracing acidity. It’s due for release next month. 82 cases; 12.9%; $27 (Chehalem Mountains) 92/100
If you’ve never been to this storied winery in the heart of Ribbon Ridge a glance at the website gives you a hint of what awaits. “Patricia Green Cellars enthusiastically and unapologetically produces more individual bottlings of Pinot Noir than any winery in America” the first page reads. This is true, and as a longtime fan of the wines I’ve often noted that it’s quality more than quantity that makes this more than a dig-me boast. The biggest challenge for any winery producing a big lineup of Pinots from the same vintage is making each of them distinctive, stand-alone wines. When it gets down to single clone or block selections, all too often I taste a good component rather than a complete wine.
The remarkable achievement at Patty Green is that the dozens of different cuvées are all distinctive and compelling, no matter the vintage. Yet even knowing this, I was startled to walk into the tasting room and find a lineup of 36 – yes 36! – 2021 Pinot Noirs staring back at me. How to proceed?
As I surveyed the lineup I noticed that there were no fewer than six different wines from the Freedom Hill vineyard. That seemed to be the perfect focus for a 90 minute tasting, one that would put the winemaking team of Jim Anderson and Matthew Russell to the test once again. Matty and I tasted through all six, giving them as much time as possible. My preference is always to taste at home, where I can return to the bottles over the course of several days. So these notes are first impressions, but let’s just say I was very very impressed. Reviews of more ’21s will follow in the weeks ahead. Purchase the 2021 Pinots here.
Patricia Green Cellars 2021 Freedom Hill Pommard Clone Pinot Noir
“Pommard is a giver. We don’t like to impose too much. We’re like storytellers” – Matty Russell.
Still young, tart mix of cranberry, raspberry and a little black cherry. Some spice and chewy barrel tannins. In particular it is showing strong phenolic flavors right now, with notes of stem and soil. All in all it’s a nicely woven wine that should develop beautifully with more bottle age. 13.2%; $48 (Willamette Valley) 93/100
Patricia Green Cellars 2021 Freedom Hill Dijon 115 Clone Pinot Noir
I found compelling freshness, sparked with good acidity and tangy cranberry/cherry fruit. Spicy, sharp and deliciously deep as it dives into darker flavors of black cherry and chocolate. Great persistence through the finish. 13.6%; $48 (Willamette Valley) 94/100
Patricia Green Cellars 2021 Freedom Hill Wadensvil Clone Pinot Noir
From a 1998 planting, this is aromatically captivating, spicy, with highlights of clean earth, graphite and black cherry fruit. Impressively dense with a slightly chalky mouthfeel, the accent components of bark and earth are perfectly proportioned. The overall focus, depth and detail are very impressive. 13.8%; $48 (Willamette Valley) 95/100
Patricia Green Cellars 2021 Freedom Hill Coury Clone Pinot Noir
This stunning effort is loaded with black fruits and tannins that taste like tea leaves. It carries itself with a delicate lightness, seemingly both elegant and powerful. The long, lingering flavors mix berries, dried leaves, hints of citrus and tannins that build gracefully into a cascading finish. 13.5%; $75 (Willamette Valley) 97/100
Patricia Green Cellars 2021 Freedom Hill Perspicacious Cuvée Pinot Noir
This cuvée is compiled from a different clone every year – recent vintages have cycled through Dijon 115, Coury, 115 again and currently Wadensvil. It’s a barrel selection, 100% whole cluster fermented in a Grand Cru style. In sum this is bigger, darker and more tannic than the other Freedom Hill expressions, and clearly built for the long term. That said it was a bit too stubbornly closed to really get a handle on it in my time-limited tasting, so no score for now. 13.3%; $150 (Willamette Valley)
Patricia Green Cellars 2021 Freedom Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir
This is the least expensive Freedom Hill offering, a mix of Wadensvil, Pommard and Coury clone fruit from younger vines. Compared with all the other Freedom Hill wines reviewed here this shows less focused specificity but the reward for the taster is that it piles on the flavors. Dark fruits, coffee and spice add up to a big, flavorful wine that is, quite honestly, a steal. 13.3%; $37 (Willamette Valley) 93/100
Co-founder and vigneron Bruno Corneaux is a man worthy of a full length book. Suffice it to say he is a native of Burgundy, educated in France, has worked all over the wine world and currently manages his own vineyard as well as the old vine Hyland vineyard. If anyone can lay claim to making Oregon Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in a Burgundian style he is the man, yet it’s more accurate to say that he applies his vast knowledge and experience to perfecting a style that emphasizes the best of both worlds.
Domaine Divio was founded about a decade ago, and from the beginning impressed me as one of the top 10 wineries in the Willamette Valley. Almost all of the wines are sold from the website and tasting room, with numerous small production cuvées that are exclusive to wine club members. This is a wine club you should join if you want to explore some of the very best wines that Oregon has to offer. Take note especially of such rarities as Aligoté, Pinot Beurot, Passetoutgrain and several Crémants.
Domaine Divio 2022 Pinot Beurot (Pinot Gris)
This traditional name for Pinot Gris references monks robes in brown burlap (hence beurot). The wine is fermented in neutral oak and given up to six months on the lees. It’s rich and loaded with sweet brown spices. The ripe apple fruit tastes like a fresh bite of apple pie. The winery is featuring it as a Mother’s Day special at a steeply discounted price. Details here. 350 cases; 12.8%; $32 (Willamette Valley) 93/100
Domaine Divio 2021 Les Climats Chardonnay
The back label provides this explanation of the term: “In Burgundy we talk about ‘Climats’ to describe what makes certain vineyards special and unique. The term is more specific than ‘terroir’ as it encompasses both terroir and the micro-climate, and therefore takes into account the soil, aspect, elevation and weather specific to a given area.” All of Bruno Corneaux’s Chardonnays are textbook examples from an exceptional vigneron. This compelling wine fills the palate with well-textured flavors of tree fruits, citrus rind, seashell minerality and herbal tea. It’s dense and detailed, long and compelling. Not yet released. 13.3%; $?? (Willamette Valley) 96/100
Domaine Divio 2021 Clos Gallia Estate Chardonnay
The estate vineyard was about six years old when these grapes were picked. The flavors reflect that youth, with green citrus, apple and lime in particular. Juicy acids keep the wine lively and the palate fresh, with a kiss of new oak decorating the finish. 130 cases; 13.1%; $60 (Ribbon Ridge) 94/100