Its Willamette Dammit

Last week Lisa and I took an afternoon and investigated the northern half of the Willamette Valley in Oregon just south of Portland. It is a great place to visit especially if you like Pinot Noir because that’s about the only red you will find.
Don’t ever pronounce this area as Will-A-Met, you might not get served. The proper pronunciation rhymes will dammit. So it is Will-Am-It.

The Willamette Valley used to be under the Pacific Ocean 15 million years ago but the Pacific and North American tectonic plates pushed together lifting western Oregon out of the ocean creating the Coastal and Cascade mountain ranges on either side of the valley. This shift caused intense volcanic eruptions as demonstrated by Mt. St. Helens when it erupted May 18th, 1980 only 75 miles away. The previous ocean sediment floor was covered by volcanic lava, basalt and dust and wind swept loess and silty loams.

Much later, about 18 thousand years ago at the end of the last ice age a melting glacial dam in Missoula Montana repeatedly broke sending 400 foot high walls of water across Washington Sate stripping the soil from the Columbia Valley and dumping sediment into the Willamette valley. This also stripped the Willamette valley walls leaving them less fertile or baron.
I guess Oregon has had its knocks, but this sets up ideal conditions for grapes. On the steep slopes of the valley, in the rocky infertile soil, 14,000 acres of grapes are planted supporting over 300 wineries. We didn’t have time to visit them all and focused on the Dundee Hill area which produces some incredible Pinot Noirs.
Three years ago, I had traveled through this area and stumbled across a fantastic little winery and was determined to find it again. The only problem was I forgot the name and where it was. We stopped at a few wineries in the Dundee area, tasted their wines and asked about the “small winery with an A-frame building overlooking 40 acres of land” for this is all I remembered. Eventually we found it and for reference it is Vista Hills Vineyard. The wines are fantastic. The views are fantastic and the staff is fantastic. This is a definite stop over.
The most interesting part is that the tasting room sits at the top of the vineyard and looks over the 42 acres of Pinot planted into about a dozen blocks rolling down the steep hillside. It was amazing how wine from different blocks on the property tasted very different but all were fantastic. Small changes such as elevation, wind direction, sun exposure, soil composition, drainage, organic matter, etc. all change the flavor of the wine in dramatic ways. You can check them out here.

So the next time you say I don’t like X, or I don’t like Y from Z you might want to think twice and try it again. In France the difference between a Grand Cru and a village wine might be a fence.

If you have the opportunity to spend time exploring the Willamette valley, it is well worth the effort. The entire area is huge and diverse but be warned practically the only thing on the tasting menu will be Pinot Noir (and some Chardonnay for whites). And remember, Willamette rhymes with dammit.