Oregon’s Willamette Valley, that is, where world-class pinots and golf make an intoxicating twosome
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.
Birdsong woke us the next morning, and what a chorus it was! Bandstra had a splendiferous breakfast waiting. Fresh-brewed coffee accompanied by sinfully delicious hazelnut scones; scrambled eggs perfectly cooked, rich and velvety. Brookside’s kitchen is beautifully appointed, centered on a warm antique stove. I can only describe the views out the floor-to-ceiling dining room windows as pure nature. The running joke in Oregon is how gray and rainy it is all the time (although the sun was out for much of our visit). In other words: Please don’t move up here and crowd us out. Sure, they’re kidding, but only slightly.
Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club needs little introduction. Everyone remembers the curling birdie putt Tiger Woods made on the thirty-fifth hole to force his match against Steve Scott to the thirty-eighth hole, where he closed out his third straight U.S. Amateur title. The Golf Channel recently called it the greatest shot Tiger ever hit. But that was on Pumpkin Ridge’s private Witch Hollow Course. I played Ghost Creek, the half of Bob Cupp’s stunning thirty-six that is open to the general public. Other than Bandon Dunes, this is the gem of Oregon golf. Situated just west of Portland and located at the very northern end of the Willamette Valley, the course is routed through stands of tall trees before returning to open countryside and is kept in immaculate condition.
From the back tees the course offers a wide palette of holes. The opening par four is relatively benign, but then the course toughens up, concluding with a brutal 469-yard par four before heading to the second nine and more of the same. Like the front nine, the back initially lulls you to sleep with some playable, par-yielding holes, then hammers you with a 234-yard par three that required everything in my bag short of the driver. Cupp’s design is both fair and demanding. The longer holes tend to feature larger greens than the shorter ones—such as the tricky, underrated par-three sixteenth, which showcases a tiny, extremely difficult to hit green.
I really didn’t care what I shot at Pumpkin Ridge, because I found it to be one of the prettiest golf courses I’ve ever played. Mark Twain’s thoughts notwithstanding, Pumpkin Ridge is a great walk in unspoiled terrain—and the golfers do walk here. As a bonus, the clubhouse has a fine restaurant, where a framed photo of a smiling Tiger holding his U.S. Amateur trophy affirms that you are in the presence of golf history.
On the following day we were off to Scott Paul Wines in Carlton, where the owner, Scott Paul Wright, his wife, Martha, and their principle winemaker, Kelley Fox, greeted us warmly. We arrived on harvest day, and the collective tension was omnipresent. It’s an uneasy but exciting time, because the grapes have to possess the right combination of Brix, the approximate concentration of grape sugars, that will then determine the percentage of alcohol—too little and the wine can be thin, too much and the alcohol will overwhelm the delicate flavor of the fruit—along with the wine’s acidity. That balance is important in determining the final outcome of the wine. But this vintage was boding particularly well, after a long, cool growing season, and the winemakers and their harvesters soon relaxed and talked to us spiritedly about their approach to wines, viticulture and vinification.
Wright likes to make wine in a more Burgundian style, lower in alcohol and food-friendlier. It’s well known that American pinot makers favor a much more extracted wine. Opposite in style from a lot of these pinot “fruit bombs,” Wright’s wines showcase the grape’s elegance and nuanced notes. Like a growing number of winemakers, especially in Europe, Wright farms and vinifies biodynamically, an organic and sustainable form of agriculture and wine-producing inscrutably timed to the rhythms of the earth. “All of our pruning, treatments and picking are timed to the lunar calendar,” he explained to me. “In the cellar we follow the lunar calendar as well—for the timing of any and all topping, racking and bottling.” With a glint in his eye, he added, “We don’t dance naked under the full moon, but we haven’t ruled that out entirely.”
Wright’s three signature wines—one of which is a cuvée and another is from a single vineyard—are eminently approachable. Each displayed a lovely, perfumed nose, and all paired delightfully with a lunch that the owners were kind enough to have catered for us and their crew. But the grapes were being trucked in, and it was time for work.
Directly across from the tasting room, in a large industrial building, was the actual winery. It was a treat to watch the bins of pinot come in on forklifts, ramble up a conveyor and then be upended into a de-stemmer. (Some winemakers cheat and don’t de-stem, and although they end up with slightly more extracted wines, they get more of a vegetal taste that is harsher on the palate.) From the de-stemmer, the grapes were dumped into large fermentation vats.
We watched the frenetic action for a while—and I’d love to report that I rolled up my pant legs and stomped grapes in the fermentation vats—but there was more golf on the agenda. We broke away from the harvest-day madness, hopped in the car and sped over to Langdon Farms Golf Club.
Clouds had amassed in the sky and a slight drizzle had started, misting our faces. It may have been the weather, but there appeared to be almost no one on the course. Certain holes were flanked by the freeway and could roar with passing cars, but this Bob Cupp design was otherwise a wonderfully conditioned linkslike track, speckled with straw-colored tufts of fescue and water features that came into play on four holes.
Playing just a tick under seven thousand yards from the tips, the wide-open nature of the course brought wind into play prominently and made for a challenging round. The pro shop staff claim the eighth is Langdon Farms’ signature hole, but for me it was the 629-yard eleventh. Playing into a fierce headwind, this brute of a par five required me to hit driver-hybrid-hybrid to get home. A large, old-fashioned red barn-style clubhouse was just a joy to relax in after the round.
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.
The Willamette Valley is a short drive from Portland International Airport. Golf and wine are enjoyed year-round.
Where to Play
Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, Ghost Creek Course 12930 Old Pumpkin Ridge Road, North Plains. Architect: Bob Cupp, 1992. Yardage: 6,839. Par: 71. Slope: 145. Green Fees: $50–$100. Contact: 503-647-4747, pumpkinridge.com.
Ayoub Vineyard 24377 NE Airport Road, Aurora. Architect: Bob Cupp, 1994. Yardage: 6,931. Par: 71. Slope: 128. Green Fees: $42–$99. Contact: 503-678-4653, langdonfarms.com.
The Reserve Vineyards and Golf Club, South Course 4805 SW 229th Avenue, Aloha. Architect: John Fought, 1997. Yardage: 7,172. Par: 72. Slope: 132. Green Fees: $45–$89 Contact: 503-649-8191, reservegolf.com.
Where to Stay
Brookside Inn 8243 NE Abbey Road, Carlton. Rooms: from $185. Contact: 503-852-4433, brooksideinn-oregon.com.
Chehalem Ridge Bed & Breakfast 28700 Mountain Top Road, Newberg. Rooms: from $120. Contact: 503-538-3474, chehalemridge.com.
Where to Taste
Ayoub Vineyard 9650 NE Keyes Lane, Dundee. Tasting Room Hours: by appointment only. Contact: 503-554- 9583, ayoubwines.com.
Rex Hill Vineyards 30835 North Highway 99W, Newberg. Tasting Room Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Contact: 800-739-4455, rexhill.com.
Scott Paul Wines 128 South Pine Street, Carlton. Tasting Room Hours: Call for hours and appointments. Contact: 503-852-7300, scottpaul.com.
Ponzi Wine Bar 100 SW Seventh Street, Dundee. Tasting Room Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Contact: 503-554-1500, ponziwines.com.
Where to Eat
The Dundee Bistro (Northwest)100-A SW Seventh Street, Dundee; 503-554-1650, dundeebistro.com. $$
The Joel Palmer House (Eclectic) 600 Ferry Street, Dayton; 503-864-2995, joelpalmerhouse.com. $$$
Tina's (French contemporary) 760 Highway 99W, Dundee; 503-538-8880, tinasdundee.com. $$$
Also of Interest
International Pinot Noir Celebration, July 24–26, McMinnville, Oregon; 800-775-4762, ipnc.org.
Willamette Valley Wineries Detailed information on hundreds of wineries and activities: willamettewines.com.