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Swirl n' Spit

Perfectly Pinot

By Heather Irwin

Confession: A weekend away from home, and I got deep into a relationship unbecoming to a California wine lover: I dallied indiscreetly with Oregon's wine country. I mean, after two years of wonderful romance with Sonoma and Napa, you can't blame a girl for wanting, well, something a little different. You know--a sort of grapey one-night stand.

Rolling through the great, green hills outside Dundee--just about 30 miles from Portland--I stopped at Argyle, Erath, Lange and Torii Mor wineries, finding myself hooked, not just on a new wine region, but on a wine I've only dated casually at home--Pinot Noir.

Since the success of the Oscar-winning movie Sideways, Pinot Noir has newfound clout. And though Sideways highlights California Pinots, Oregon is, in many wine circles, an equally stunning--and growing--celebrity in the Pinot scene.

What's so great about Pinot? Pinot is a notoriously difficult grape, both in field and bottle, known to be both a madman's folly and a badge of honor for many grape growers. Knowing the difficulty with which it is produced, wine lovers have come to appreciate the subtle, rich, often earthy quality of Pinot--especially since it's not Merlot.

Here at home, some of the most well-known Pinot Noir growers are located in the Russian River Valley. Wineries like Williams Selyem, Martinelli and Davis Bynum have reached near-cult status (with price tags to match). They are sweet manna. Others, including Landmark, Papapietro-Perry, Russian Hill and Merry Edwards are also on the rise, though still attainable. In the "I can afford this" range, Laurier Pinot Noir (less than $12) is a good bet.

There are many similarities between the mavericks of Oregon and the equally passionate Pinot growers of Sonoma's Russian River Valley, not the least of which is that a number of Oregon winemakers are former Northern Californians, a fact they're not always eager to share, having cut their teeth in Sonoma and Napa. Also somewhat similar is the weather and landscape. Oregon's Willamette Valley has a similar growing season to French Pinot regions, though detractors say the humidity makes for uneven vintages. Higher and often hotter, the Russian River has steep hillsides with less humidity and cool ocean breezes.

As a generalization, Oregon Pinots seemed to have more fruit compared to the typically woody, mushroomy flavors and intense brambliness--what some might call earthy flavors--found in California Pinots. Though several winemakers in Oregon said the often typical "barnyard" nose of California Pinots is a fault, rather than a benefit, I'd beg to differ.

But no matter what my affinity for terroir or barnyardiness, flying home Sunday, watching the rolling green of Oregon hillsides morph into the rolling golden of California, I found myself glad for my little Oregon Pinot dalliance--but longing for home. And a nice glass of Pinot Noir.

To Do List: Check out the annual Russian River Pinot festival Oct. 28-30, featuring the beauty and bounty of Pinot Noir, and many incredible Pinot wineries not often open to the public.

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From the May 18-24, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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