If you set out by car from the center of Santa Monica, where I live, and head in any direction, you have to drive ninety minutes before you see something other than stucco apartment complexes, sprawling car dealerships, belching oil refineries or concrete edifices housing multinational corporations. Contrarily, if you start from the charming downtown of Portland, Oregon, fifteen minutes in any direction will find you agape in sylvan splendor. Another ten minutes and you’re deep into rustic countryside, cruising on roller-coastering back roads that wind through verdant farmland planted in fruit and nut trees—and grapevines. Mostly pinot noir—an astonishing 60 percent, in fact. As far as the eye can see, vineyards sweep up hillsides in flowing grids of manicured rootstock. To an oenophile, it’s pulse-quickening. To me, the author of Sideways, a novel that glorified the Willamette Valley’s signature grape variety, it’s a preternatural vision.
Thus, less than a half-hour after we picked up our rental at Portland International, my friend Renay and I were enjoying a heart-stopping transformation of scenery. Adding to the vineyards’ pulchritude was the fact that it was mid-October and the leafage was a riot of color: green, yellow, rust, ochre. An unseasonably warm fall, I learned, had allowed the viticulturists to let the grapes hang on the vines longer than usual. Nervousness sets in when the rains come early—wet weather close to harvest tends to plump up the grapes and dilute their intensity and eventually promote rot (and not the noble rot so prized in Sauternes).
Of course, if you’re a devoted golfer, when you think of Oregon the first thing you think of is not wine but Bandon Dunes. Yes, Bandon is indisputably one of the world’s premier golf destinations, but it would be a shame to think that it’s all the state has to offer. To remedy any misconception, my mission was the 150-mile-long, 60-mile-wide Willamette Valley, which contains the broad Willamette River and its mosaic of tributaries. Tucked between the Coast Range to the west and the Cascade Range to the east, its approximate northern and southern borders are Portland and Eugene, respectively.
As Oregon’s most accredited American Viticultural Area, with no fewer than six sub-appellations, the Willamette Valley is home to nearly three hundred wineries, many of them famous as producers of America’s best pinot noirs. It falls at the same latitude as fabled Burgundy, which any wine wonk will tell you is the finest region in the world for pinot noir. The slightly colder climate and the milder growing season are, when meteorological conditions behave themselves, perfect for the stubborn and fickle grape. Pinot noir requires a balance of daytime heat and nighttime chill in order to ripen and develop the necessary acidity that can result in one of the most revered and prized wines in the world.
Known among vintners as the “heartbreak grape,” pinot can, in difficult years, produce thin, astringent wines. But in great years, it can produce wines of such astonishing beauty that—well, I’ll let Miles from Sideways have his say: “It’s a hard grape to grow. As you know. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention and in fact can only grow in specific little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it, really, can tap into pinot’s most fragile, delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.”
The Willamette Valley is studded with many quaint inns and B&Bs. I selected the Brookside Inn outside the tiny town of Carlton. Jancis Robinson—whose brilliant Oxford Companion to Wine I have endlessly consulted—stayed there a few years back, and I figured if it was good enough for her I would not be disappointed. Having booked our stay with Bruce Bandstra, the affable owner and chef—along with his wife, Susan, the manager—I relaxed, knowing I would be in good hands.
We reached the Brookside Inn just before dusk and found a wooded enclave that looked like something out of a fairy tale. Across a small bridge that forded one end of a pond, a trout leapt out of the water and quickly disappeared; farther up, sunlight streamed through towering trees, throwing long shadows across the verdant, pristine property. Our tires came to a crunching stop on the narrow gravel road at the front of the main house, a beautiful two-story structure of shingle and stone. When we stepped out, the quiet was deafening, the smells redolent of nature in all its glory.
At one time a religious retreat, the Brookside Inn has been beautifully transformed into a nine-suite inn comprising two separate buildings. Bruce and Susan greeted us inside. Mondo, their mammoth Newfoundland hound, hoisted himself to his feet, as if trained to welcome arriving guests. As Bandstra walked me to the guesthouse—I’m a little chary about staying in the main house of a B&B, usually electing for a little more privacy—he briefed me on the inn’s history during his and his wife’s short tenure. It included a theme that would develop over the course of my stay: burned-out Wall Street brokers and stressed-out corporate executives, having spent decades in soul-destroying occupations, unleashing a desire to abandon high finance and relocate to a rustic hideaway, buy an inn or a small vineyard and live close to the land, hands working the soil, among friendly and reliable neighbors. (At two decades and counting in the film business, I’m a candidate for the cut-and-run catharsis myself.)
After settling in, we wended our way to the only place open for dinner on Mondays: Tina’s. It would be the first of many wonderful meals we had during our too-short week. Tina’s is situated in the small, nearby town of Dundee. All of the ingredients used there are sourced locally and change seasonally, a testament to Willamette’s bounty of organically grown fruits and vegetables and humanely raised poultry and beef. We paired the meal with a Rex Hill pinot (I couldn’t resist the name), and the trip was off to a propitious start.