Background on Oregon’s Willamette Valley Wine Region

Just a short forty five minute drive south of Portland, Oregon lays one of the west coast’s largest and most interesting wine regions. The Willamette Valley in northwest Oregon has become a food and wine lovers’ destination despite its relatively brief history. Prior to being known for wine, the Willamette Valley was known for mixed agriculture and fishing.  Apple orchards, berry patches and hazelnut farms stood alongside grazing cattle before David Lett planted his first Pinot Noir vines in the valley about 50 years ago. 

READ: The Essential Willamette Valley Itinerary for Wine Lovers

With most of the vines being planted on the rolling hills of the valley, these farms on the valley floor now coexist with over five hundred wineries.  This is quite a drastic leap in a fifty year span.  With such diverse agriculture, the Willamette Valley is now know for not only being a great source of quality wine, but also an excellent source of the delicious foods that accompany it on the dinner table.

Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley Oregon |
Pinot Noir is Willamette Valley’s signature grape variety. It’s quickly becoming recognized as some of the best in the world.

Wine Tasting Willamette Valley Oregon’s Pinot Noir

The dominant red grape of the Willamette is undoubtedly Pinot Noir.  The varied soils, warm days, cool nights and ocean winds are ideal for the growing cycle of this delicate variety.  What sets this wine region apart from others is the diversity of the smaller regions within the Willamette Valley. Because of its size (150 miles long and 60 miles wide) and diverse geological features, there are many different styles of Pinot Noir to explore. 

RELATED: Take a Helicopter Wine Tour in Oregon’s Willamette Valley Wine Region

There are six sub regions in the Willamette Valley that each produce a slightly different style of wine.  Tart red fruit and earthiness are the prevalent flavors that one finds in Pinot Noir throughout the valley.  There are variations on these flavors that are more or less specific to the sub regions of the valley.  This balance of a homogeneous style of Pinot Noir coupled with the stark differences that this grape is capable of, is part of what makes this wine region so fun and fascinating.

Guide to Oregon's Willamette Valley Wine Region |

Other Wines to Explore in the Willamette Valley

The Willamette Valley isn’t just known for Pinot Noir. There are some other red varietals and many white varietals that thrive in the valley as well. The dominant white grape is Pinot Gris, the first to be planted in the United States. Oregon Pinot Gris can vary in style from lean and racy to lush and opulent.  The stone fruit flavors and floral aromatics make it a pleasant foil to the more serious Pinot Noir. 

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As for other white wines, Chardonnay, the Burgundian partner to Pinot Noir is very much on the rise.  These wines have a more subtle use of oak than the traditional California style, but more fruit and less minerality than most French Chardonnays.

Food Pairing Willamette’s Pinot Noir

When it comes to pairing these wines with food, one doesn’t have to look far.  The blackberries, raspberries and the local favorite marionberry are excellent with Pinot Noir when incorporated in to savory dishes. Salmon, pork and foul are all great matches with Willamette Pinot Noir.  The best matches are neither delicate nor robust, but rather dishes with a balance of richness, sweetness and acidity tend to work well with the tart fruit, soft tannins and silky mouthfeel of Pinot Noir.

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I feel I found my career through my previous experience in the service industry coupled with my exposure to and desire to learn about beer, spirits and eventually wine. My family always had an open attitude toward alcohol. My uncle and grandfather both had interests in wine and its culture, and at a young age, we were allowed to enjoy wine with the family on holidays. As for being in the service industry, that started at an early age as well. From being a golf caddy at the age of twelve to my current position of being the General Manager of the National Wine Program of Smith & Wollensky, I have always been in the field of service and education. From Irish pubs to sorority kitchens to education and outreach programs, I worked many jobs while in college. I always enjoyed being in service and enhancing the enjoyment of my guests. This led me to working in restaurants and making my way to manager. I had always had an interest in the stories, history and origins of beer and spirits, even in my teens (which given my age in a pre-internet world was not an easy hobby to explore). I eventually became a certified sommelier through the International Sommelier Guild, an organization for whom I would later teach, a certified wine educator and I am currently in the process of becoming a certified spirits specialist. These certifications helped me establish myself at a few notable restaurants and restaurant groups in Chicago. After some stints at smaller restaurants, I worked as a sommelier for Lettuce Entertain You while at Ambria, one of Chicago’s top French restaurants and wine destinations for 27 years, and as the Beverage manager and sommelier at B.R. Guest’s Blue Water Grill. From there I went to work at Smith & Wollensky where I have been for the last eight years. All together I have been in control beverage for sixteen years and a certified sommelier for twelve.

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