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The Oregon Wine Trail

Near Portland, a network of easy-to-visit wineries has taken root among the hills and hamlets of Yamhill County

September 21, 1997|JOAN DRAKE | Former Times managing editor for food, Drake recently has moved back to California from McMinnville

McMINNVILLE, Ore. — I've toured Temecula, sipped my way through Sonoma, sniffed the bouquets in Napa and meandered the vineyards of Mendocino. And like a shortsighted New Yorker who believes the country ends at the Hudson River, for years (before I moved to Oregon) I didn't think there was a wine country of merit outside the Golden State.

That's a mistake I don't want other Californians to make.

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Since our friends' flight from Los Angeles was arriving in Portland at 9:30 a.m., I figured we had ample time to collect their bags and reach Rex Hill Vineyards before the huge carved wooden doors to the tasting room were unlocked at 11 a.m. The winery sits on a hillside just off Oregon 99W, half a mile inside the Yamhill County line. More than 30% of Oregon's 116 licensed wineries are located in this county a mere 25 miles southwest of Portland. Along with wineries in several other counties from Salem north to the Columbia River, the Yamhill vineyards make up the North Willamette winegrowing region.

This is the farthest north, and therefore coolest, of Oregon's four wine regions, or appellations. It's protected by the Coast Range to the west and the Cascade Mountains on the east. Long, warm summer days, gently cooling autumn weather and moderate winters have encouraged vintners to plant mainly pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling and pinot gris vines, but smaller amounts of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, gewurztraminer, the riesling-like muller-thurgau and sauvignon blanc also are being grown.

I thoroughly enjoy wine, although I'm not a trained expert. So the Yamhill County wineries I revisit, particularly when friends are in town, are those where people are friendly, the buildings and grounds have character, or the location offers breathtaking views of the countryside. Yamhill wines, restaurants and lodgings generally are less expensive than those in Napa-Sonoma, and the only time I have seen the wineries crowded is on Memorial Day and Thanksgiving weekends.

On this trip, I figured the antique-furnished tasting room at Rex Hill Vineyards would appeal to my collector friend. She did enjoy looking over the various pieces while sipping wines produced under the Rex Hill and Kings Ridge labels. The rest of us wandered around with our glasses, checking out the art on display and the balcony overlooking the tank room, void of activity on this particular Saturday morning.

Only a few other tasters were out this early, so we pretty much had the spacious room to ourselves. Like most of the area wineries, Rex Hill has nonalcoholic beverages or coffee, either complimentary or at a nominal charge, for those of us designated as drivers.

Heading southwest again on 99W, we descended the long grade approaching Newberg. We drove through town, then another mile down the highway to Duck Pond Cellars. The tasting room here has a similar feel to the one at Rex Hill, but on a smaller scale. Like many Yamhill County wineries, Duck Pond is a family operation. The owners focus on producing affordably priced Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris from their own vineyards. We sipped the last of our samples by the small pond in front of the winery--the ducks must have been sleeping late or taking the weekend off.

Duck Pond's vineyards were planted in 1986, but the tasting room wasn't built until 1993. New wineries often wait until they establish regular tasting hours to be listed in the "Guide to Yamhill County Wineries," an indispensable map when you tour the back roads. You usually can pick up a copy at one of the wineries along 99W, but just to be safe you may want to order one by mail before heading north (see Guidebook, L11).

Sue Horstmann, executive director of the Yamhill County Wineries Assn., remarked that the industry is growing so rapidly it's difficult to keep up with the number of wineries in Yamhill County, much less the entire state.

Rex Hill Vineyards winemaker Lynn Penner-Ash agreed, adding that "right now the industry is growing quite rapidly, and we're finally able to get some fairly reasonable prices for our wines, where in the past a lot of us were selling wines at a loss."

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Our next stop was a restored Victorian farmhouse in Dundee, where we tasted the three Argyle sparkling wines made by the Dundee Wine Company. Their brut, blanc de blancs and rose are produced using the traditional hand riddling and disgorging methods of Champagne. A few other area wineries produce sparkling wines, but none make them in a former hazelnut processing plant; Dundee is the "hazelnut capital of America."

Before heading home, we made a final stop at Sokol Blosser Winery. Perched on a hill half a mile off the highway, the winery offers panoramic views of the surrounding bucolic valley.

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