The Joel Palmer House restaurant was recommended to us by so many people that there was simply no other choice for dinner. Housed in a historic two-story building in Dayton—yet another quaint town dotting the Willamette Valley—the Joel Palmer House is known for head chef Chris Czarnecki’s unrepentant use of wild mushrooms, which he forages for in the area. “Use” might be an understatement; there’s an absolute profusion of them in every dish, including desserts. Here’s a sampling: an appetizer of escargot with black chanterelle duxelles and garlic butter on polenta with chimichurri; for the entrée, crab cakes with porcini duxelles and mustard vinaigrette; and for dessert, crème brûlée with essence of candy-cap mushrooms. All of the dishes hold up with more robust pinots, and the Palmer House wine list, like almost every one we were handed, is well-chosen and heavily slanted toward local wineries.
I was expecting overcast skies and a threat of rain, but instead woke the next day to cerulean skies dotted with white, biscuit-shaped clouds. It was a perfect morning for golf.
The Reserve Vineyards and Golf Club, like Pumpkin Ridge, is located just west of Portland on gently rolling farmland. Operating under a distinctive format, the Reserve’s two courses are rotated every two weeks, with one designated for members and the other open for the paying public. On this magnificent morning, I was fortunate to find the more difficult South Course, by John Fought, in the public rotation.
A tough, heavily bunkered but eminently playable 7,172 yards, this was yet another wonderful Willamette track. The course was densely wooded, but a handful of holes opened up to the surrounding vineyards—I was beginning to think that the entire valley was planted in grapes—and water came into play on at least six holes. An intelligently designed blend of the difficult and the manageable, all of the South Course’s par fives are in excess of 559 yards, and the par fours are no pushovers, either. The eighth, at 487 yards, is particularly barbarous, especially following on the heels of the demanding 235-yard par-three seventh. The inward nine draws to a conclusion first with the stout 473-yard par-four seventeenth, and if that isn’t enough to rob the starch from your legs, then trudge to the subsequent tee and gird your loins for the 578-yard par-five eighteenth, a breathtaking finishing hole.
The course mentally exhausted me, but fortunately there were some more of those fine Oregon pinots waiting in the Vintage Room restaurant, situated in the spectacular, forty-thousand-square-foot château-style clubhouse. Suddenly, my eighty-six didn’t seem all that appalling. “Hell,” I said to Renay while exulting over a sumptuous glass of Eyrie pinot, “I’m ready for another eighteen.” If Pumpkin Ridge was everything it was vaunted to be, the Fought eighteen at Reserve Vineyard was the surprise for me. Even though I had seen it used as a venue for the Fred Meyer Challenge, television doesn’t do justice to this minor masterpiece. It’s a must-play for anyone who comes to Willamette with both golf and wine on the brain.
Afterward, there were more wineries to visit. We headed over to meet Mohamad “Mo” Ayoub at his Ayoub Vineyard. Well, actually, it’s not really a winery, nor a tasting room, but rather his modest house off a gravel road in the Dundee area. His patio overlooks his vineyard, its exclusively pinot rootstock nesting in mineral-rich volcanic red-clay soil, the signature feature of most of the Willamette Valley vineyards. “The only difference between Burgundy and Willamette is the soil,” Ayoub proudly informed me. “In Burgundy, the vines grow in a chalky limestone. We think our wines will rival theirs in ten years’ time.”
Ayoub has been vinifying pinots—and only pinots—since 2003. His is not a tasting room open to the public, but anyone eager enough to sample his wines can make an appointment and he’ll try to accommodate you. He definitely accommodated Renay and me, beginning with a 2005, then working upward to an ’07, then backward to an ’04, a kind of ad hoc, out-of-order vertical. Ayoub’s wines are bold, rustic and some of the finest expressions of the pinot noir grape I’ve ever tasted.
Perhaps it was the tremendous view of Newberg in the far distance, the vineyard that ran away below us from Ayoub’s deck, or the shifting clouds in the still-azure sky, but I could taste the minerality in the wines, the deep intensity. In sharp contrast to Scott Paul’s wines, Ayoub strives for more extraction, and his wines possessed an earthiness and a wonderfully complex structure bursting with notes of cardamom and mica. I was impressed with every one of this great artisanal vintner’s wines. Maybe it’s unfair to single out one winemaker to the exclusion of so many others in the Willamette Valley, but Ayoub is emblematic of what’s happening with Oregon pinot: small production, hands-on approach, and intimate and rigorous control over the final product. These vintners are doing it, first and foremost, because of their passion for the grape.
I guess I was a little too enthusiastic, because Ayoub offered to open one of only twelve remaining bottles of his maiden vintage, the ’03. The serious tannic structure had started to soften. He said the wine could easily go another five to ten years, and I believed him. It had such a depth of richness and a multiplicity of flavors that no hyperbolic winespeak could do it justice. It was easily the finest bottle of pinot I had during the entire trip.
As the sun set over the valley, we continued to discourse on arcane matters of viticulture. Like most winemakers I have met, Ayoub claims 90 percent of what makes a pinot transcendent happens in the vineyard: the winter pruning, the careful canopying, the dropping of fruit or irregular clusters. By the time the grapes are ready to be picked, the clusters should be beautifully consistent, almost all of them perfectly ripe.
Ayoub kept pouring. The sky turned creamy, striated by orange pennants of drifting clouds. The wine seemed to grow even more elegant and lovely...the sun lowered on the horizon....
Bidding farewell to Bruce and Susan at Brookside the next day, we headed back toward Portland. On the way we made an impromptu stop in Dundee and sampled wines at Ponzi Wine Bar. Ponzi, along with Archery Summit, Patricia Green and too many other wineries to mention here, is one of the premier wineries in all of the Willamette Valley. Its terrific wine bar features a number of wines other than Ponzi’s, a show of solidarity you won’t find in most wine-tasting rooms. Adjacent to the wine bar sat the cute Dundee Bistro. For a small, inexpensive bistro, it featured a local wine list to die for, with so many homegrown pinots I had never heard of that I promised myself a quick return. Maybe for the twenty-third annual International Pinot Noir Celebration this summer.
Just up the road in Newberg I spotted the Rex Hill Vineyard tasting room, and unable to resist, I asked Renay to pull in. Run by the literary-minded Bill Hatcher—yet another corporate dropout transplanted to Oregon—Rex Hill is an august producer of Willamette pinot. A former consultant to Domaine Drouhin and founder of A to Z Wines, Hatcher and his wife and their partners make some of the finest pinots in the area. We talked, we sipped, but sadly, it was getting time to leave.
One last thing: Now that you know how wonderful the Willamette Valley is, don’t tell anyone. If asked, say the sky is perpetually closed off by depressing gray clouds and that it rains all the time. Really, you might as well be in Finland.