#SnoothPVA: Oregon Wine Board Dinner

Hello Friends,

Following the Wines of Scarpa Master Class [posted here], we took a short break and jumped glass and fork first into what was a very enjoyable and informative ‘Oregon Wine Board Dinner.’ The evening’s festivities were led by Jim Bernau, President of Willamette Valley Vineyards; Earl Jones, founder of Abacela; and Brian O'Donnell, owner of Belle Pente Vineyards. The Peking Duck House in Manhattan hosted us and I can tell you from experience that Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and duck (depending on how it’s prepared, of course) work very well together.

 Oregon Wine Board Dinner

What Oregon, particularly the Willamette Valley, has achieved with Pinot Noir in such short time is no easy feat. It’s a great American wine story of hard-work, chance, sacrifice, hope, passion, risk, and success. Oregon’s modern wine era began in the 1960’s with a group of young men who all had a few things in common. They had a European experience, attended UC Davis, and were into cool-climate viticulture. Most of them had also fallen in love with the finicky, heart-break grape, Pinot Noir and sought the perfect place outside of Burgundy, France, to grow it. Burgundy was the benchmark, however. At the time, California –from north to south -- was considered too warm for (Burgundian style) Pinot Noir. The relatively cool-climate coastal-influenced regions we know today were largely unfounded back then. This group of young men were also discouraged from growing Pinot Noir (or other cool climate varieties) in a damp, cool, and wholly unproven place like Oregon – where, by the way, nothing wine wise was going on.

Jim Bernau, President of Willamette Valley Vineyards

The first to make it to Oregon was Richard Sommer who was looking for a cool-climate area to grow Riesling and other cool-climate vinifera varieties. Ignoring advice of cohorts and instructors, in 1961 he founded Hillcrest Vineyards in the Umpqua Valley (south of Willamette Valley). He’s often referred to as the “Father of Oregon wine” and was the first to plant European vines in Oregon post-prohibition. Approximately four years later, a young man named David Lett who graduated from UC Davis and had done a good amount of studies in climatology, planted the Willamette Valley’s first Pinot Noir, first Chardonnay, and first Pinot Gris (in the US) in the Red Hills of Dundee. These three grape varieties would go on to define the appellation. David Lett championed the idea and later proved that world class Pinot Noir could be grown and crafted in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In 1979, his Eyrie Vineyards' 1975 Pinot Noir showed exceptionally well among top selections from Burgundy at a competition in Paris. This event, as well as other tastings where Willamette Valley Pinot Noir showed well against examples from Burgundy, put Oregon on the wine map. From 1965 to the mid 1970’s, people like Charles Coury (a classmate of Lett who specialized in cool climate viticulture and in some respects clonal selection), Dick Erath (another early UC Davis graduate), the Ponzi family, Blosser family, David Adelsheim, and others – all well-known names today (save Coury), laid down the groundwork and provided a strong foundation for the acclaim and fame Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is experiencing today.

Peking Duck ... #Yummy

Four years after the aforementioned successful Paris tasting, Jim Bernau, who shared insight, passion and laughs while speaking about his 30-year Oregon wine experience, founded Willamette Valley Vineyards. Jim cleared an old plum orchard and planted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris – three varieties proven to work well in the Willamette Valley. I have personally found satisfaction with just about everything I’ve had from his portfolio. The Willamette Valley 2009 Estate Pinot Noir and 2009 Elton Vineyard Pinot Noir, tasted with dinner, was no exception. Brian O'Donnell, who poured a nicely textured and smooth 2009 Pinot Gris, founded Belle Pente Vineyards in the Willamette Valley’s Yamhill-Carlton District sub appellation. In 1994, Brian planted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris. See a trend here? While Pinot Noir is the shining star of the Willamette Valley, don’t discount the region's white wines. There are some seriously nice (and complex) Chardonnay and Pinot Gris being grown there that should be shared with good company, good conversation, and delicious food.

Albarino, Vermentino, Rose, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay

The excitement of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir has also opened doors for a new wave of passion and discovery further south (Umpqua and Rouge Valley appellations). Take Earl Jones, for example, whom I had the pleasure of chatting with during dinner. Similar to the European experience many of the pioneers had back in the 1960s, Earl and his wife Hilda had a Spanish experience and sought the perfect place to plant Tempranillo (aka "The King of Spanish red grapes").  In 1995, Earl found a site in Douglas County's Umpqua Valley to plant Tempranillo and is the first grower in the Pacific Northwest to plant the variety. The Umpqua Valley is warmer and drier than the better known Willamette Valley and the region’s significant diurnal temperature variation (i.e., warm/hot days and cool nights) results in excellent ripeness potential while preserving good natural acidity. Earl’s 2011 AlbariƱo made quite a splash at the event and the 2007 Reserve Tempranillo was well received at the Snooth’s Peoples’ Voice Wine Awards Grand Tasting. Earl’s Abacela Winery was recently named Oregon Winery of the Year for 2013.

Oregon Wine Dinner Wine Listing

Generally speaking, you will typically find Oregon wines, both white and red, to have a good food-partnering nature. While ripe, in many cases there's a pleasant built-in brightness that can match a wide selection of foods, moods, and occasions. Looking at Oregon as a whole, especially the southwestern portion of the state, you'll find a good amount of diversity with everything from Bordeaux to Rhone grape varieties planted. We even tried a nice Vermentino from Troon Vineyard during dinner. I would like to thank the good folks at Snooth for the wonderful opportunity and a hat tip to Jim, Earl, and Brian for sharing their wines and great stories with us. I suggested they take to the road and call it the “Oregon Wine Show.” Cheers!

Read what other 2013 Snooth PVA Bloggers are saying about the Oregon Wine Board Dinner:

 Benito's Wine Reviews writes "Snooth PVA: Oregon Wine Board Dinner"

Reverse Wine Snob writes "Oregon Wine - Pinot Noir and Much More"

Blooms from my Yoshino Cherry Tree

Have a question about this post? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at myvinespot@yahoo.com or hit me up on Facebook or Twitter. Stay tuned ...more to come. Happy Sipping, my friends! Disclosure: This trip was provided by Snooth. Thoughts are my own.

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