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Pinot noir tasting in D.C. April 2 demonstrated why Oregon wines are so fine

"Wine is just grape juice, but we take it so seriously," said one of more than 50 Oregon Pinot noir winemakers who participated in Washington, D.C.'s "Pinot in the City" April 2.

"Pinot in the City" drew more than 50 Willamette Valley Oregon winemakers to Washington, D.C. April 2. Willamette Valley, Oregon's main wine-producing area, is seen here in the autumn.
Willamette Valley, Oregon's main wine-producing area. Photo by Janis Miglavs

These Willamette Valley wineries and a couple hundred guests took it extremely seriously and deliciously at the sold-out tasting in the Long View Gallery.

And why not. The Willamette Valley, Oregon's leading wine region, is becoming known as one of the world's finest Pinot noir producing areas. It's the main variety that's building Oregon's reputation as a fine wine state.

(I'm only half an oenophile -- a lover of wines, but hardly a connoisseur. So I'll just give a sampling of background about the winemakers I met:)

The family-owned Coleman Vineyards takes philanthropy very seriously. All proceeds from sales of their 2010 Many Hands Pinot Noir ($36) go to the Emily Georges Gottfried Fund, supporting initiatives and programs that open dialogue among people of different faiths, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Coleman Pinot noirs were served at two White House Christmas dinners during President George W. Bush's administration, said owner Kim Coleman and her daughter Kristin Coleman.

The majority of the Willamette Valley wineries are family-owned, and the Dukes Family Vineyards makes that ever so clear. They even name their wines after family members who have helped on the farm: daughter Alyssa; granddaughter Charlotte; nieces Kate and Bella. And one of the Dukes' dogs is named Pinot.

My favorite wine was Left Coast Cellar's 2013 white Pinot noir -- and only $20. Most of the wineries' white noirs were $60-$80, and most of the noir noirs were $40-$60 or so.

"It's crazy good, crazy good," said Left Coast Cellar's sales rep Mark Pape. "No one's making white Pinot noirs affordable. But it needs to be accessible -- accessible, that's the word." And the ticket. And left coast is quite the term for the west coast.

When in Willamette in the summer, don't miss Left Coast Cellar's "Hog Wild Hootenanny" with the Wild Hog in the Woods string band. They play at the cellar's Treehouse Pavilion. Check events calendar for date.

For those who feasted a bit too much on the wines and charcuterie, Cana's Feast's Patrick Taylor has just the remedy. In addition to Pinot noirs and white Pinot noirs, he makes a digestive fortified wine, Chinato d' Erbetti. Medicinal purposes only? Hardly. Its history dates back to 19th century Italy, Taylor told me. The medicinal digestive aid chinato, owing a lot to Barolo wine, "was so popular that it was served at (the end of) royal banquets."

It's no wonder that these Oregonian Pinots are becoming so popular -- here's background provided by the Willamette Valley Wineries Association (WVWA) nonprofit:

The valley, between Oregon’s Cascade Mountains and the Coastal Range, has a "maritime climate is ideal for Pinot noir, a long and gentle growing season – warm summer days with cool evenings, often an Indian summer, mild winters and long, often rainy springs." More than 85 percent of Oregon’s Pinot noir is grown in the Willamette Valley.

Almost half of Willamette Valley vineyards are certified sustainable by independent third party certification programs.

Wine grapes in Oregon date back not quite to the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), but to the mid-1800's, with wine production in Willamette Valley stretching back to 1966. That's when Utah "pioneers" David and Diana Lett planted 3,000 Pinot noir vines in the valley's Dundee Hills.

"It's a safe bet that without Pinot noir, there would be no Oregon wine industry as we know it today," says the WVWA. More than 85 percent of Oregon’s Pinot noir is grown in the Willamette Valley.

Many of these wineries are only about 45 minutes from Portland, and the farthest ones are about two hours from Portland. So go west to Willamette.

Where to stay? The valley that has many lovely B&Bs and inns, but only one resort -- The Allison. "Condé Nast Traveler" ranked it the "#1 Hotel in Pacific Northwest 2013".

The 35-acre hillside resort in Newberg, about an hour from Portland and its airport, is near about 200 wineries -- and has its own Pinot noir and Pinot gris. The first release of its Austin Knoll 2012 estate vintage Pinot Noir is this summer.

The Allison's 15,000-square-foot spa even offers signature "Pinotherapy" treatments. Another unique aspect is its 500-piece art collection by a hundred Oregon artists. Its name comes from the ancient Lake Allison that once covered the entire valley.

Now that you're considering an odyssey to Willamette Valley, to convince you, here are Alexander Pope's words from "The Odyssey of Homer": "And wine can of their wits the wise beguile, Make the sage frolic, and the serious smile."

For more info: Willamette Valley Wineries Association, www.willamettewines.com/, 503-297-2962. For a schedule of tasting events throughout the valley, click here. And here's a list of all Willamette wineries and contact info. The Allison, www.theallison.com, 2525 Allison Lane, Newberg, Oregon. 877-294-2525.