Oregon pinot boasts intriguing, worldly taste 

When I first set foot in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, way back in 1994, the energy of this up-and-coming wine region was palpable. Trying to carve an identify for itself as a world-class locale for pinot noir, producers were on a crusade to be taken seriously.

Pioneer producers like Dick and Nancy Ponzi, Susan Sokol-Blosser, David Lett and Dick Erath had been at the forefront of the pinot noir movement in Oregon in the 1970s. The early ’90s was when they began to reap the rewards of two decades of hard work, as their wines were widely recognized as being among the best pinot noirs made in the United States. Throughout the 1990s and since, the wine industry in the Willamette area has undergone exponential growth. In Burgundy, France, some claimed that the Willamette was the new world heir to its coveted grape.

As the Oregon pinot noir’s star ascended, so did its prices. There is nothing wrong with capitalizing on quality. Oregon is capable of making $50 wines that are every bit as good as premier cru, and even in some cases grand cru Burgundy.

However, I often find that the price-quality range in Oregon pinot noir can be off — and not in the customer’s favor. That said, there are still some surprising values to be found — value, of course, being a relative word, as the chances of finding a high quality of Oregon pinot noir for less than $15 are slim. But, here are a few that are worth the effort.

Brooks Runaway Red, 2008 (Willamette Valley, Ore.): Brooks is owned by Pascal Brooks, now a teenager, who inherited the winery when his father, Jimi, unexpectedly passed away in 2004. Winemaker Chris Williams and others have helped keep Jimi’s dream going over the last five years, with wines like this unassuming but delicious pinot noir. Bright with cherry cola, raspberry candy flavors and spice, even those who loathe the Trotskyite label will love the juice. Suggested retail: $18

McKinlay Pinot Noir, 2008 (Willamette Valley): Founded in 1987, McKinlay’s wines march to a different beat in a very good way. Floral with rose petals and blueberry, black cherry fruit, this wine has a Burgundian quality, but will also appeal to those who prefer fruit-driven wines. Suggested retail: $18

Westrey Pinot Noir, Oracle, 2008 (Willamette Valley): Though this wine is a bit more spendy than the two others mentioned, it is one of the best Oregon pinot noirs in its price range. Amy Wesselman and David Autrey gave birth to Westrey in 1993 (human children followed later) and while it often remains under the radar, the wines are superb. With an abundance of red berries intertwined with red licorice, cigar tobacco and spice, this multilayered wine lives up to its price tag and more. Suggested retail: $29

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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Michael Daboll

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