There are many exciting wineries to visit in the Portland / Willamette Valley area. Although not as famous as Domaine Drouhin nor Argyle, Cristom is undoubtedly one of my favorites in the region, if not my absolute favorite. Everything about Cristom screams family – from the shape/structure of the tasting room, to their candor and joy while conducting their tastings, to the accessible prices of their wines and your ability to taste anything (with the right appointment), to even the way they named the winery (named after the co-owners - Christine and Thomas).
Starting a new winery is hard. There are so many things to do on the operations side such as clearing out the field, adjusting the soil, planting and caring for the vines, etc. But just as important as making the product is building a brand and fostering a consumer base that will purchase your product. This is even harder when you are entering an established market like Willamette Valley. Thankfully for Domaine Drouhin, they had the branding piece covered already when they established the winery in 1987 and have continued to add to their reputation and legacy from Burgundy.
When people think of Oregon wine, they normal think of red still wine that ranges from the finesse of Burgundy Pinot Noir to the power of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. They don’t necessarily think of Sparkling wine, which is a key product of Pinot Noir all around the world, not just Champagne. And when it comes to Oregon Sparkling Wine, there is no place more established than Argyle; heck, it’s even called out specifically in my Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Sparkling Wine Class! The reputation alone is enough to entice even seasoned wine professionals, but when I discovered there was a special Sparkling tasting that also lets you to disgorge a bottle by hand, I made Argyle my first call during my itinerary construction. I brought along my cousin and her husband for a full weekend of tastings in Willamette as their wedding gift, but this visit was definitely a gift to myself, haha.
One of the toughest questions I’ve been asked about my Oregon travels is “where do I find good Pinot?” The reason this is tough is because it’s everywhere, especially with Willamette Valley being a short 1-hour drive from Portland. But when people ask me where the best Oregon Pinot Noir can be found, I normally respond with Archery Summit in my Top 3. As its name implies, the winery can be found on the top of a hill not far from Domaine Drouhin, Sokol Blosser, and others. I love their planting pattern too - you almost need to weave through the vines while driving up to the tasting room.
The last winery for one of our weekend trips to Napa and it was indeed a good one. Once you contact the winery to setup an appointment, you’ll have a couple of options for the tasting: the Amuse Bouche building in downtown Napa or the Au Sommet vineyard on Atlas Peak. We obviously chose Atlas Peak, but if you are pressed for time (it is a 20min drive from Napa) or are a nervous driver (it’s unpaved roads only 1.5 lanes wide going up a mountain), I recommend you stay in Napa. Once you do make it to the winery though, like so many others, the view is worth it.
It’s hard for me to recall another winery with as large a production, well-known reputation, but as reclusive from the public eye as Shafer. But I totally understand and appreciate it - especially since we had the whole place to ourselves during our visit. Although the estate appears large and the tasting room is gorgeous, there are actually not many people onsite. Besides ourselves, the Shafer wine educator and the father/son proprietors, I don’t recall seeing anyone else on the property at the time. There were three workers in the field grafting vines, but that’s it.
Besides Bo and Heidi Barrett, there may not be another couple in the valley that has the background, experience and reputation of Annie and Andy Erickson. Both have worked for their share of cult wineries that produced highly acclaimed wines wines and the price tags that go along with them. But now, they work for themselves at their family winery in Coombsville. The new up-and-coming AVA of the Napa Valley, Coombsville is still not on many people’s radar and wasn’t on mine until this visit. Though, knowing Annie and Andy, I knew this was going to be an incredible experience. I later found out that Coombsville winemakers like the make the anology of Coombsville is to Napa as Brooklyn is to NYC.
As I mentioned in earlier articles, Napa can be both the ultimate educational experience and ultimate relaxation getaway - it all depends on what you are looking for. Hall Winery is predominantly for those that are looking for the later, though you can definitely purchase 100 point quality wine there too if you wish. For being both a purveyor of fine wine and tastings with a beautiful landscape, it’s surprisingly easy to find. Right off the main highway (Route 29), the giant metal rabbit out in front of the winery is hard to miss.
Many of the wineries I’ve talked about have very nice views from their property, but the one from Gandona is just surreal. Located up on Pritchard Hill in the Vaca Mountains, Gandona sits at 1800 feet and overlooks Lake Hennessey. It is also next to popular cult wineries such as Bryant Family, Colgin, and others that charge $500+ per bottle of wine. With those kinds of neighbors, you’d get the feeling that this place would be unapproachable. Not true at all - Gandona is another winery that invites you in with open arms, both with its open-air tasting room that takes full advantage of the view and their great host / wine ambassador.
Not all of the best places in Napa are the highly rated (e.g. Lokoya), produced by someone famous (e.g. Michel Rolland) or have a well-established pedigree (e.g. Opus One). Some are family businesses that truly enjoy making good wine and sharing it with others. Add unassuming, hard-to-find, and approachable to that mix, and you have Clark-Claudon. I first had a bottle of Clark-Claudon Cabernet Sauvignon after seeing it ranked fairly high on Vivino. As soon as I poured myself a glass, I was hooked. Deep inky color, a very fresh nose of blue/black fruit, and crushed rocks in the palate profile - it was one of my first Cabernets where the fruit and secondary/tertiary flavor characteristics truly harmonized for me. So I looked them up on the internet, sent an email requesting a tasting and set off on my journey to pay homage.