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Portland Wine Country: Harvest in Willamette Valley

Fall is definitely in the air. For many Portlanders that means it’s time to go to the valley. But with over 700 wineries, it can be more than a little daunting to plot a course. We sure couldn’t decide. We debated throwing darts at a map or plucking names from a hat. We considered going to one of the Harvest Festivals and stomping some grapes ourselves. But this year, we were in the mood for something a little more sophisticated. So we decided to try out a tour.

Portland Wine Country: Harvest in Willamette Valley

We loved the idea of the NW Wine Shuttle. For only $75 you get picked up downtown and choose 3-4 wineries out of the 13 they stop at. You buy a pass online and then it’s up to you to hop on and off the shuttle throughout the day. But after some consideration, we decided we were in the mood for something a little more luxe. So we went with Tesla Custom Winery Tours. And boy, are we glad we did.

We were picked up at our front door around 10:00 am. We joined a couple visiting from Georgia. The driver quickly put us at ease with some chit chat and by the end of the day this charming, funny couple felt like old friends. Really, anyone that goes on a Willamette Valley wine tour is already exhibiting good taste, right? For us, it made the tour even more interesting to get some outside perspective on the area and hear their take on Portland, too.

We began our journey past strip malls and then, suddenly we simply turned a corner and bam, winding roads and rolling hills. Before we spotted grapes, the road was lined with Hazelnut trees and fields of cows. We were in the valley now. We would work our way up from a small boutique winery to bigger producers and sample a wide range of varietals.

Walking into Natalie’s is like walking into the home of a good friend. A spread of munchies is laid out on the dining table and they pour from a home-sized bar in a tasting room that feels like a well-to-do Suburban dining room. This boutique winery produces big reds so it’s a great place to visit if you’ve had your fill of Pinot Noirs. If you’re not a member, they’re only open on certain holidays or by appointment. But they assured us that just means to give them a call before coming by. They simply have to make sure someone is home! On the day we visited they were releasing some new vintages so the members started arriving when we did, right at 11 am. They were a chatty, enthusiastic bunch, singing the praises of Natalie’s wines and wine in general. One woman, a nurse, told us that she even has a job pouring at another vineyard on the weekends because she loves to be around happy people. Everyone winetasting is happy. True.

Try: 2014 Sangiovese Reserve
Many of the wine club members we talked with raved about the Meritage. It was good, but we loved the Sangiovese—big and bold with black cherry and spice. Plenty of strong tannins but no cheek puckering with this one! A plus about Natalie’s—the wines are very reasonably priced. Most bottles are under $40.

The perfect spot for a picnic, Blakeslee has a huge green lawn area with picnic tables, a view of Mt. Hood, the vineyards and their own infinity pool. Book a tour that includes lunch as we did (yum!), bring your own or order ahead from the vineyard itself. Blakeslee was also a hit with our group because they had beer on tap—a nice break for some. On hot days, nobody can resist their wine popsicles.

Try: 2014 Yamhill-Carlton Chardonnay
We fell in love with this bright wine. Its nose had the summery freshness of a Sauvignon Blanc with hints of grapefruit and toasted vanilla. But the flavor had a touch of soft lemon and just enough creaminess to satisfy that Chardonnay craving. They’re something for everyone here with bottles ranging in price from just under $40 to over $80.

This is the place to get some serious terroir knowledge. Alexana’s 80-acre estate boasts 18 soil types. Ask one of the incredibly knowledgeable hosts to explain the bar to you. It literally has layers of soil behind glass and they can walk you through the differences and how it affects the grapes. They also have great viticultural area maps and can tell you all about the Missoula Flood 15,000 years ago which is responsible for the Willamette Valley’s rich soil. While you can walk in for a tasting at the bar, we recommend making a reservation for one of the primo tables on the outdoor deck. When we were there the lavender was in full bloom and its heady scent filled the air while we enjoyed the incredible view.

Try: 2014 Alexana Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir
We tried four Pinots here and truly got an education on the difference the soil types make on the taste. This was our fave. Jammy fruit with some herb and a nice medium finish. You’ll pay a bit more for bottles here, they’re mostly in the $70s but boy, will you know how to talk about them when you uncork them with friends.

We dare you to leave this place without joining the wine club. We certainly couldn’t! The name means passionate and that’s just what you get from every person in the place. Our pourer, Paul regaled us with stories—about the owner, the wines, the area, his own life. And the recently opened tasting room is spectacular. Floor-to-ceiling glass puts the vineyard right there in front of you but keeps you comfortable on days that are too hot or cold. Paul told us it was designed to feel like a cruise ship, heading out into a sea of vineyards. Another cool detail here is that there are several glass panels in the floor and during harvest, you can see the winemakers at work beneath you.

Try: Kalita Vineyard 2016 Pinot Noir
We ended up going home with a bottle of every Pinot we tasted here but this one really made an impression with intense florals and an elegant structure. Plus, it’s a bit of a sneak peek into what we can expect in upcoming years when they begin uncorking wines from their bordering Trovato Estate Vineyard. We thought all the wines here were delish and most were reasonably priced in the mid $40s.

Portland Wine Country: Harvest in Willamette Valley