The Pacific Northwest provides so many diverse wine experiences and one of my new favorites is in the heart of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. With its unique soil diversity and various Pinot Noir clones, learning about wine is almost as fun as sipping it in this beautiful region. So, for the ultimate wine adventure, we packed our car and headed south to Willamette Valley Vineyards for a relaxing getaway that included a two-night stay in their onsite suites and a reservation for the Pinot Noir Clonal Blending Experience.
Willamette Valley Vineyards (WVV) is the largest winery in Oregon, and its Estate is located in Turner, OR, just outside of Salem. Having only visited their tasting room in McMinnville, we didn’t know much about the Estate location other than through photos. And, as the saying goes, the pictures simply don’t do it justice.
Expansive, sweeping views that go on for miles, the unique and earthy aromas of a wine production facility, and a friendly greeting from Sandra as she immediately poured us some sparkling wine when we arrived at the large tasting bar quickly turned the one-dimensional photos into a full-fledged sensory experience.
With a full menu of small bites, salads and entrees, we settled into a table by the window and enjoyed steamed clams and a seasonal, locally inspired salad with a glass of Chardonnay — the Tualatin Estate for me, and the Bernau Block for my husband. Until we began visiting Oregon, Chardonnay was a varietal neither of us would order at a restaurant, or even buy for our cellar. Yet Oregon Chardonnay is simply beautiful, with aromatics and structure that don’t elicit oaky or buttery notes but rather a leaner, more complex profile.
Feeling satiated, we made the short walk over to our winery suite. Upon opening the front door, our breath was literally taken away as we looked straight across the room and out the window, where the vineyards were framed with layers of hills and the Oregon coast mountain range in the far distance. A bottle of wine and two glasses awaited us on the table, which we took outside after settling in. A set of glass double doors off the living room provide access to a private outdoor patio that leads to yet another large lower level deck, feeling something like a luxurious hillside home in the vineyards.
As the sun began to set over the horizon, we marveled over the luck of arriving on a day with such beautiful weather. And, as staff began closing things down, the activity of the day was replaced with peaceful silence and a sky changing from pink to orange to deep red.
WVV offers several ways to explore and enjoy its varied collection of wine, from flights at the tasting bar, glasses or bottles tableside with food pairings, and its crown jewel — the Pinor Noir Clonal Blending Experience. This experience enables guests to explore signature Pinot Noir clones and create blends of their choosing.
Our friends from the local area joined us for this special tasting and we started the day with an early lunch in the tasting room. It can get busy at this time so reservations are recommended!
After lunch, we were introduced to our Winery Ambassador, Veronica Ball, who kicked off the experience with a beautiful sparkler, the Bernau Brut Rosé. Named after the founder, Jim Bernau, the Brut Rosé is grown from estate Pinot Noir and was bright, crisp, and also a bit creamy in texture. As we sipped, Veronica shared the story of Bernau and the inception of WVV, including how Bernau’s innovative financing strategy in the 1980s established WVV as a crowd funded winery, even before that term existed.
Glasses in hand, we followed Veronica downstairs to where the magic begins. The room is literally like a Willy Wonka wine factory, with the focal point being a wall adorned with seven wine barrels and dials controlled by a touch-screen computer.
Each barrel contains a specific Pinot Noir clone, and the clones we tasted during this experience included the following: Pommard, Wädenswil, Dijon 113, 114, 115, 667 and 777. These clones and more can be found throughout Oregon vineyards and originate from Burgundy, France. For those who geek out on wine details, see this PinotFile newsletter for more about the clones.
The experience begins with a taste of each individual clone, with the goal to identify your preferences based on the style, aroma and flavor imparted by each clone. Veronica programmed each barrel to dispense one ounce. We each took turns pushing the magic button, releasing the wine into our glasses.
Interestingly, the four of us had similar preferences and leaned toward the same clones. My personal favorites were the Pommard, 667 and 777. With notes written and favorites established, we were ready for the next step — to each create two of our own unique blends. To do this, each individual selects a specific combination of any of the seven clones, and identifies the percent each clone contributes to the blend. Veronica then uses the mechanical dials to apply the percentages and create the blends.
With seven clones and percentages ranging from 1-100, the possibilities are endless. We each documented the composition of our two blends and, as chance has it, my husband and I each chose a blend that was identical!
One-by-one, Veronica created our blends for dispensing. We sampled each others’ unique creation, comparing and contrasting each one. As much as we’d like to each think we were budding winemakers, the reality is that we had a world class set of building blocks to work with. In fact, Veronica compared our blends against the existing WVV Pinot Noir bottlings to identify the closest match to each of our blends. While not all of them had a match, most had a close cousin.
Overall, what a fun, educational way to sample our way through the clones that make Oregon Pinot Noir such a stately example of this magnificent varietal. Now when we drink a glass, we do so with a bit more intention and appreciation. We will definitely return to WVV for its incredibly knowledgeable and friendly staff, diverse collection of high quality wine, and beautiful scenery.