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State versus state 

Don't just compare find the best wines in Oregon and California

click to enlarge WAIT, THAT ISN'T CALIFORNIA! :  Take a long look, locals. This is what Oregon's wine country looks like. But before you decide to pick a fight, taste some of what our northern neighbor has to offer. - PHOTO BY DAN HARDESTY
  • PHOTO BY DAN HARDESTY
  • WAIT, THAT ISN'T CALIFORNIA! : Take a long look, locals. This is what Oregon's wine country looks like. But before you decide to pick a fight, taste some of what our northern neighbor has to offer.

# I just returned from a wonderful visit to Oregon's Willamette Valley and as locals there insist, it's pronounced: "Will-AM-ette, dammit." It's one of this nation's most highly respected wine growing regions for Pinot Noirs and Pinot Gris, and many of them are nationally distributed and value-priced. Some interesting new aspects of this trip, however, were the tasting room employees who provided me with a few lessons on California wines.

"Our Chardonnay exhibits fruit flavors and well-balanced acidity they're nothing like those over-oaked butterballs from California," an employee at one busy tasting room quipped.

In fact, I heard similar statements from other like-minded pourers who informed tasters: "Our Pinots show fruit, earth, and minerals unlike those over-extracted, over-ripe Pinots they make in California."

This wasn't the attitude everywhere, fortunately, but I heard it often enough. I'll admit I've written about rude tasting room visitors who make serving the public a lousy job but it goes both ways. Tasting room employees better serve the vintners who hired them by pointing out what makes their wines great, rather than comparing them to a growing region that's quite different from their own.

Lacking the ability to bite my tongue, I responded: "The wineries on the Central Coast in fact in all of California are every bit as diverse as the many producers in the Willamette Valley."

I knew I sounded like a homey, but no wine connoisseur needs this explained.

Cheerfully I added: "Our fabulous World of Pinot Noir event just reached its sixth year, and like your International Pinot Noir Celebration it attracts top winemakers from around the world.

"Not only that," I insisted, "every year more winemakers from Oregon attend it."

I've loved Oregon wine country ever since my first visit in the early '90s. Clearly, it was about the wines not the attitude. But the latter didn't matter once my husband Dan (Oregon State 1980 alumnus) and I began traveling through the state. Driving past farmhouses as picturesque as Norman Rockwell's rural American farms, I realized that this state never fails to charm me. We've both loved Oregon's complex wines long before my first visit, and this time we found some surprises: a delicious 2006 Pinot Blanc from Erath was the best example of this varietal I tried in Oregon and a 2006 Chardonnay named "Quercus Non" (meaning un-oaked) from Bethel Heights.

No surprise, we still preferred the state's excellent red and white Pinot-based varietals (Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc), even at larger producers like Bethel Heights, Erath, and Torii Mor. We also bought some collectible wines at artisanal wineries like Chehalem, Lange, Lemelson, and Ponzi, plus little known brands like Andrew Rich, Boedecker Cellars, J. Daan, and Lazy River, who share the production facility at the Carlton Winemakers Studio.

One of my favorite tastings was at Chehalem in northern Willamette Valley, which is open only by appointment. We sat down at a table with two other wine aficionados and the winery sales manager and tasted their exemplary Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noirs. We also enjoyed tastings at Domaine Drouhin and Domaine Serene (Oregon's celebrity wineries), but I found them overpriced comparatively and the tasting room staff attitudes overbearing.

Admittedly, I was shocked at discovering that every Oregon winery charged a tasting fee, even when we purchased a $50 dollar bottle of wine, which seemed insulting. That's one thing the Central Coast has on them: When you buy wine from our tasting rooms, the fee is usually dropped and many still don't charge a fee.

Wherever we travel, Dan and I always visit local wine regions, whether it's in another state or abroad, as we did on this two-week road trip through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming. Over the last 15 years, we've found that nearly every state in the United States emulates California, particularly Napa Valley. In Oregon, we discovered more than a few ill-informed servers who believe California Pinot Noirs are nowhere near their league.

I knew where some of those Oregon servers got their attitudes after reading an older wine country guide still available in tasting rooms from the Oregon Wine Advisory Board. It claimed: "No other area in the New World, and only Burgundy in France, has a climate as ideal as the Willamette for producing this elegant and complex red wine." Newer information on their website, www.oregonwine.org, is a little more realistic, providing maps, winery bios, and the state's history in winemaking that began in 1970 at Eyrie Vineyards.

Oregon's Willamette Valley is 150 miles long, 60 miles wide, and is home to 200 wineries. The appellation has been divided into six sub-appellations to better define the region's distinctive characteristics, with additions like Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, and Ribbon Ridge. We spent most of our time in McMinnville and still didn't get to every tasting room we wanted to visit.

Not surprisingly, when I asked tasting room people if they had visited Central Coast Pinot Noir country, most said no. Typically it's the winemakers or owners who attend the World of Pinot Noir event, and I usually make appointments at wineries to meet the winemaker. But this trip I visited strictly as a consumer, and it certainly provided a glimpse of how the general public is treated.

Most of the tasting rooms we visited were quite fun when the pourers shared our passion for wine. They were as interested in hearing about our wine-growing regions and visiting here as we were about Oregon. I hope this report serves to remind every vintner to inform their tasting room staff you just never know who might be on the other side of that wineglass.

Most of these wineries have various vintages available in California wine shops. I highly recommend experimenting with these interesting wines and tasting them next to your favorite local wines, but I remind you to stay open-minded. Seek out what you like best from Oregon's various appellations rather than just comparing them to California's.

I'm pleased to say with the new opening of BevMo!, San Luis Obispans can find most of these excellent wines at lower-than-usual retail prices. Never hesitate to experiment, and you'll be sure to discover excellent wines to enhance your nightly dinner.

INFOBOX: This is sweet

"A Chocolate Suite" at Talley Vineyards in rural Arroyo Grande Valley takes place Saturday, Aug. 25, 5:30 to 8 p.m.

The evening event features fine wines from Talley, Laetitia, Saucelito Canyon, and Firestone Paso Robles paired with appetizers and chocolate-focused desserts. The fundraiser to benefit the San Luis Obispo Literacy Council is also offering a silent and live auction of original works from local artists. It's $50 per person for a great cause. For more information, visit www.talleyvineyards.com or call Patricia Rogers at 489-0446, Ext. 20.

Contact New Times' Cuisine Columnist at Kathy@GrapevineRadio.net.

 

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