Oregon Pinot Camp Recap
I recently had the incredible opportunity to attend the 16th Annual Oregon Pinot Camp (OPC) in the Willamette Valley. The camp was started in 2000 by several of the region’s best wineries as a way to showcase their wines to the rest of the country. This year, there were 50 local wineries on hand to meet and sample their wares to 240 wine industry professionals from around the country and around the world. OPC is three days of intensive study on the story of Oregon Pinot Noir both in the vineyard and in the winery.
DAY OF ARRIVAL: A RELIGIOUS RIESLING EXPERIENCE
I arrived in Portland around noon on Saturday and arranged a ride to the pre-Pinot Camp, Oregon Riesling Revival Pool Party at the home of one of the host winery’s winemakers. The party was sponsored by a group of wineries:
- Elk Cove
- Anne Amie
- Bethel Heights
They all brought along their current releases of Riesling as well as some older vintages to share — to make sure Riesling wouldn’t be forgotten after all the Pinot Noir we’d be drinking the next three days.
Opening Night Festivities at Sokol Blosser
After the Riesling Revival it was off to my hotel in Newberg to check in and get cleaned up before heading to Sokol Blosser for the opening night festivities. All 50 wineries were in attendance pouring their current releases — including some whites and rosé, which were a treat considering the temperature outside was pushing 100 degrees.
Event Highlight: 1998 The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir
David Lett’s Eyrie Vineyard was the first to plant Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley 50 years ago – the ’98 was alive and well and maintained the classic cherry fruits and earthy edge that makes Oregon Pinot Noir so fascinating.
DAY 1: THE STORY OF OREGON PINOT — AND SOIL!
Sunday started early with a 7:45 am bus trip to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum for breakfast with a view that included Howard Hughes’ famous Spruce Goose airplane. After breakfast we headed over to the museum’s auditorium where every camper was introduced to the winemakers from all 50 wineries. The last winemaker introduced was Jason Lett from The Eyrie Vineyards who spoke with passion about carrying on his father’s vision of making the Willamette Valley a world class Pinot Noir destination.
My first stop of the day was St. Innocent Winery’s Zenith Vineyard in Salem where we walked the vineyard for three unique seminars on topics from canopy management to a study of soil via a 5-foot-deep trench that highlighted the vineyard’s marine sedimentary soils, known locally as WillaKenzie. These soils reside at lower elevations in the valley and are a result the Missoula floods that swept through the area centuries ago.
Left : Marine Sedimentary Soil Right : Jory Soil
The next stop was Brooks Winery in Amity, which rests above an entirely different subsoil. The vines at Brooks are growing in Jory, the region’s famous volcanic soil that’s loaded with Iron heavy Basalt which adds a beautiful red tint to the earth.
The day ended with ice-cold beers and a Q&A session with the winemakers.
Sunday Dinner at Anne Amie
Sunday’s dinner was hosted by Anne Amie winery in Carlton. The amazing view of the coastal mountain range to the west was a stellar vantage point for one of the greatest sunsets I’ve ever seen.
Half of the 50 wineries were showcasing their wines that night, including several large-format bottles and plenty of older vintages — both educational and delicious! I was seated randomly with a group from Penner-Ash Winery who just happened to be pouring a 3-liter of their 2005 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir.
Event Highlight: A Surprising Blind Tasting
Another highlight of the evening was doing a blind tasting with Jason Lett from The Eyrie Vineyards. He poured me a wine that I knew right away to be Cabernet Sauvignon. I knew the wine had some age to so I guessed it was from the mid-1990s. I was shocked to learn that the wine was from 1976! The wine was still vibrant, especially given its age — the fruit was sourced from Washington at a time when no one was sure Pinot Noir would succeed in Oregon, and the Letts were just doing their best to keep the dream alive.
DAY 2: INSIDE THE WINERIES
We spent Monday visiting wineries in Dayton. My first stop was Domaine Drouhin, owned by the Drouhin family who has a long history of winemaking in Burgundy who were early adopters of the potential of Oregon Pinot Noir. The day’s first seminar was “The Multiple Personalities of Oregon Pinot Noir,” my favorite seminar from the entire event. We tasted through three flights of six wines — the last two flights were blind — with the emphasis being on figuring out how different factors like soil, vintage, vineyard practices and production methods affect Oregon Pinot Noir.
Our second stop was at Lemelson Winery, where we got to witness the process of getting wine from grape to glass. The final stop of the day was at the stunningly beautiful Soter Winery for a seminar called “Hunting the Great White.” The seminar, a refreshing break from tasting literally hundreds of Pinot Noirs the previous two days, focused on Oregon Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay.
Event Highlight: Stunning Whites
Oregon wineries are really striving to make world-class whites to match their Pinot Noirs — in my opinion, they’re already there when it comes to Riesling, but they’re still playing catch-up with their Chardonnays.
Monday Dinner at Stoller Winery
Monday’s dinner was incredible and featured the other 25 wineries that didn’t pour at Sunday’s dinner. The main event was an Oregon salmon bake with whole fish cooked over open flames. By pure chance I was lucky enough to be seated with Janie Brooks Heuck from Brooks Winery. She is one of the nicest people in the industry and was extremely helpful in making my OPC experience so wonderful. Dinner ended with s’mores roasted over the open flames followed by the entire OPC group descending upon Dundee’s favorite karaoke dive bar, Lumpy’s.
DAY 3: WINE WIZARDRY
Tuesday afforded campers the opportunity to choose their own adventure and I went with Wine Wizardry at Brooks Winery, sponsored by Brittan Vineyards, Brooks and Winderlea. We broke off into three groups, each one led by one of the winemakers. We tasted through six wines made from different clones (nerd alert!), soils or oak treatment — and then we were tasked with blending our own wine from any of the samples. We also had to brand and pitch our newly created wine to the entire group. My group didn’t win, but it sure was fun to pretend to be a winemaker for the afternoon to conclude my time at OPC.
Event Highlight: Oysters and Riesling
An added bonus at the day 3 event was having lunch at the winery. Our feast at Brooks started with fresh oysters and a sampling of their bone-dry Riesling. The crisp acidity of the wine was a pristine match with the salinity of the oyster.
POST CAMP FUN: EXPLORING PORTLAND
Although the official events were finished, I ended my trip with one last hurrah with Janie after she was able to give several campers a ride back to Portland. Janie, fellow Chicago camper Patti Robison (from Vera) and I finished out our trip with a bottle of bubbles at Ambonnay Champagne Bar in Portland. We drank a bottle of Champagne Savart ‘Bulle de Rosé’, which, fittingly, was made from mostly Pinot Noir.
I learned a lot at OPC and was lucky to be a part of such a great event. It was nice to be there with several Chicago friends but it was also rewarding to be surrounded by so many other industry professionals. There’s definitely a sense of camaraderie among everyone involved in making and selling Oregon Pinot Noir and it was enlightening to see just how passionate they are about what they are doing.
I’ve always thought that in their early days, Oregon Pinot Noir was trying to emulate the great wines of Burgundy. However after my experience in the Willamette Valley, I realized these winemakers have truly embraced their own identity and become confident in making great wines that showcase everything Oregon has to offer.