Winter Wine in the Willamette Valley

The Dundee Hills are the Willamette Valley’s most acclaimed AVA. (JGA)

There’s no better time for wine enthusiasts to visit their favorite wineries than in the middle of winter. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, autumn harvest has ended and spring bud break is a couple of months away. Winemakers have time and energy to share their latest vintages and varietals with those who love fermented grape juice.

Not to diminish the experience offered by sophisticated tasting rooms, but it’s this time of year that wine lovers really want to explore wine regions and get to know the winemakers.

Nearest my home is the Willamette Valley, home to more than 500 wineries that are world renowned for their production of pinot noir. On a recent visit to the Dundee Hills region, I discovered four wineries whose doors I hadn’t previously entered.

Each of them — White Rose Estate, Vista Hills Vineyard, Day Wines and Remy Wines — showed me something distinctive. The former two wineries stand near the peak of the Dundee Hills.

White Rose

It’s common to see Hispanic laborers harvesting vineyards, but far less usual to find a winemaker of Mexican heritage.

Winemaker Jesus Guillen (White Rose)

Jésus Guillén is the head winemaker at White Rose Estate, one of Oregon’s most exalted makers of pinot noirs. Yet when he came to the Northwest from his native Chihuahua in 2002, he spoke only Spanish.

Guillén’s father, also named Jésus, was the vineyard manager at White Rose when his son, then 21 and a new college graduate (in computer science), came to visit. The young man decided to stay. He went to work in the vineyards, enrolled at Salem’s Chemeketa Community College to learn English, and self-educated in viticulture.

With the support of winery owner Greg Sanders and consulting winemaker Mark Vlossak, he was named cellar master in 2004 and winemaker four years later. Today, from the Jory soil on the 900-foot hilltop, he produces a mere 800 cases of high-end pinot noir a year.

General manager Gavin Joll said the winery strives for a “breed standard” — think “Best of Show” — in its whole-cluster pinots. Selecting grapes according to elevation and age of the vines, White Rose produces wines of elegant complexity and depth. Stems and seeds remain with grapes during pressing “as a source of tannins,” Joll said.

These are high-end wines, mostly priced between $80 and $125 a bottle. I especially liked the 2013 Neo-Classical Objective.

Vista Hills

Opened 850 feet above Dundee in 2007, Vista Hills’ Treetop Tasting Room stands in the midst of 42 acres of vineyards planted primarily with pinot noir and pinot gris.

Treehouse Tasting Room view (Vista Hills)

General manager and winemaker Dave Petterson produces nine different labels of pinot noir from a single vineyard, depending upon the location and exposure from which grapes were harvested.

I sampled five of those vintages, as well as a pinot gris (good stonefruit flavors, moderate acid) and an effervescent white pinot noir made with champagne yeast.

Best of the pinot noirs, I thought, was a 2015 Heritage Reserve ($56), with nicely balanced fruit and spice. Petterson suggested that it should be cellared for 10 years for greatest appreciation. Likewise, the 2014 Skyraider Reserve ($60) was outstanding. The dark pinot, with plum undertones, was made with 90% whole cluster fruit.

Vista Hills founders and owners John and Nancy McLIntock planted their first vineyard here in 1997. Today, said Petterson, they focus much of their energy (and a share of wine sales) toward the Clint Foundation, established in 1995 as a college scholarship fund with a catch: Students must work to receive 3-to-1 matching funds for the cost of their education at any of 15 American colleges.

Day Wines

When I stopped by “Day Camp,” as Day Wines’ new tasting room is called, I did a double-take. An attractive young woman was standing behind the counter, bouncing an infant between bottles of wine.

Brianne Day with VIggo (JGA)

Brianne Day, the founder, winemaker and namesake of Day Wines, became a first-time mother last August as harvest approached. Did baby Viggo get in the way of her wines? Not a chance. Her son harnessed to her bosom, she went about business as usual.

What makes her story even more improbable is that Day doesn’t make just one wine. She produces 19 varietals — red, whites and roses — with artful labels and names like Mamacita, Babycheeks and Tears of Vulcan. Day Wines’ annual production is about 5,000 cases.

My favorite wines are the pinot noirs. The 2014 Crowley Station pinot ($42), from the Eola-Amity AVA, is fruit forward and light in alcohol (only 11%). The 2015 Johan Vineyard pinot ($42), another Willamette Valley varietal, needs time in the bottle but has good potential. One-third whole cluster, it has good spice and a more typical 13.5% alcohol.

Other wines include several sweeter choices that may be pleasing to others. Vin de Days Blanc ($18) is an Alsatian “blanc de pays” blend of 42% pinot blanc with four other grapes. Mamacita ($30) is an effervescent Rementino-muscat blend suggestive of Spanish sangria. Day described viognier-dominated Tears of Vulcan ($30) as “white wine made as though it’s red.”

With years of international winery experience, Day, 38, launched her business in 2012 when she was approached by investors at a downtown Portland restaurant where she worked.

Day Camp is also the cooperative home to 10 other small producers, none of whom have a tasting room of their own. Here they can offer wine flights and sips by the glass or the bottle.

Remy Wines

The most unusual thing about Remy Drabkin, founder of Remy Wines, is not that she describes herself as “the first Jewish lesbian elected official (she serves on the McMinnville City Council) making wine in the Willamette Valley.”

Remy Drabkin (Remy Wines)

It is that while nearly every other Willamette winery places heavy emphasis on the pinot noir grape, Drabkin specializes in single-vineyard Italian varietals. Those who don’t come to her Farmhouse Tasting Room looking for pinots are rewarded with other delights: Barbera, Dolcetto, Sangiovese and Lagrein.

In keeping with McMinnville tradition, she does have an estate pinot noir and pinot gris. But as good as they are — the hearty 2015 Giulio pinot noir ($30), with dark fruit and hints of smoke and orange peel, is sourced from her own Lone Madrone Vineyard — it is the Old World-styles wines that set Remy apart.

Lagrein is especially interesting. Native to the lower slopes of northern Italy’s Dolomites, this rich, full-bodied wine comes from 9 acres of vineyards at the foot of the Dundee Hills. As is custom in Europe, this wine is barrel-aged for a full two years in 50% new oak, and an additional six months in the bottle. The 2013 vintage ($50) surprised me with a toasted-coconut finish atop smoky plum.

Drabkin sources her bright red 2014 Kiona Sangiovese Riserva ($55) from eastern Washington’s Red Mountain AVA, her 2015 Jubilee Dolcetto ($30) from Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills AVA, her 2013 Rosebud Barbera ($50) from central Washington’s semiarid Wahluke Slope AVA.

Remy Wines was established in 2006. Drabkin created a downtown McMinnville winery a few years later and opened her Farmhouse location last summer on a longtime family estate.

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