Messages in A Bottle
Written by Bridget Williams / Photography by Tony Bailey
Having come to appreciate a good wine later in life, I do not consider myself an expert by any means. However, even more than a good pour (preferably red), what I do love is a good yarn, and a trip to the Dundee Hills in Oregon's Willamette Valley yielded both in abundance.
The epicenter of Oregon pinot noir, the Dundee Hills AVA, is located 28 miles southwest of Portland and 40 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. With the majestic snowy peaks of Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson frequently punctuating the view, the area certainly doesn’t lack when it comes to spectacular scenery.
Winemaker David Lett planted the first pinot noir in the Dundee Hills in 1966, naming it The Eyrie Vineyard. He soon had company on the south-facing slopes from Dick Erath and the Sokol Blosser family. Notoriety came quickly when the then-unknown Eyrie pinot noir placed among the top three wines in the1979 Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades, besting more famous French labels.
Part of a North Willamette Valley hill chain that developed from intense volcanic activity and the collision of the Pacific and North American plates, the vineyards spread out over 6,490 acres in the Dundee Hills are known for rich, red volcanic Jory soil. They typically reach a depth of four to six feet and provide excellent drainage for superior quality wine grapes.
Cultivation practices in the region lean heavily on natural inputs and sustainable practices, including Certified LIVE, organic, and biodynamic farming methods. There are more B-Corp-certified wineries in the Dundee Hills than any other AVA globally. Friendliness towards the earth extends to visitors, particularly at smaller wineries, where the owners often lead tastings.
Of the approximately 793 wineries in Oregon, 44 are in the Dundee Hills. For the two full days we had for tastings, I'd meticulously plotted out an itinerary to visit 12 of them (with a designated driver). However, even with scheduling appointments beginning at 10am, my carefully conceived schedule quickly went out the window due in part to the aforementioned storytelling aspect I love so much, along with the very real need to break for lunch (at Red Hills Market, of course!). Following is a quick overview of the seven wineries where we enjoyed quality tastings: Argyle Winery, Anderson Family Vineyard, Cramoisi Vineyard, Élevée Winegrowers, Maresh Red Barn, Native Flora, and Purple Hands Winery.
Anderson Family Vineyard – andersonfamilyvineyard.com
We came for the views and lingered for the wine. The vines grow organically on precipitous rocky hillsides—a forty-degree slope to be exact, owner and winemaker Cliff Anderson told us. A self-professed "science geek," Cliff said he began making wine in high school, stashing his equipment under his bed. So if you are into the science of making wine, he's the one to talk to if you want to get into the minutiae, yet he makes the process exciting and easy to digest for those who are less scientifically minded.
Cliff and his wife Allison spent three years in the 1980ssearching for an ideal site to plant a vineyard, intending to be farmers and not winemakers. However, it wasn't until he tasted a less-than-satisfactory wine made by someone who bought his fruit that he decided to found their own label, releasing their first commercial vintage in 2002. Those steep slopes, terraced in some places, allow vines to be deeply rooted and dry-footed, resulting in wines with intense flavors. Their pinot noir, pinot gris, and Dijon chardonnay are made reductively with native yeast, moved entirely by gravity, and wait patiently to mature in a cool cave beneath the tasting room. "When I started, I didn't think I had a 'style,' but over time, I've decided that I don't like too much oak," explained Jim, whose love for the process is genuinely evident in conversation. Tastings are by appointment only and take place in what Jim describes as "a building that looks like it belongs on a true Oregon vineyard and not imposed on the landscape.
Argyle Winery – argylewinery.com
After arriving in Portland and spending a few soggy hours hiking around spectacular Multnomah Falls, our first stop was Argyle Winery for a flight of bubbly. Argyle led the way to sparkling wine in the region when they launched their 1987 vintage. Argyle always makes my list when I'm in the area as their Extended Tirage, a brut-style wine aged ten years before bottling, is incredible, and the fact that their founding viticulturalist, Allen Holstein, is a fellow Kentuckian.
Argyle's tasting room, located in the heart of Dundee on the site of a former nut processing facility, encompasses two buildings: the quaint tasting house, a historic home complete with a white picket fence, and behind that, the Living House, a contemporary indoor/outdoor tasting and event venue with an intimate tasting library holding reserve wines dating back to Argyle's very first vintage.
Cramoisi Vineyard – cramoisivineyard.com
Winemaker Ryan McKay, the co-owner of Cramoisi, has made it his mission to find ways to harness Old World techniques, including seeking out heritage clones not yet planted in the Willamette Valley. His quest led to the discovery of clone 122, sourced from a Grand Cru vineyard in the Vosne-Romanée region. It is more than one thousand years old, and with only 25 plants, Cramoisi is growing their own budwood to propagate a one-acre block on their biodynamically farmed 10-acre vineyard.
I met Cramoisi's co-owner and Ryan's better half Sophia Torres, a native of Mexico City, at a tasting event several years ago when they had only a few bottlings under their belt. As the only Latina winery owner in the Dundee Hills, Sophia co-founded AHIVOY to empower vineyard stewards who are looking to advance in the industry through education. After several years of hosting tastings at their home, the couple opened a beautifully appointed hillside tasting room in 2021. They resumed their wine tasting experiences (reservation required) in January, which includes a pre-tasting walking tour of the vineyard. Their rosé pinot noir is my go-to summer sip.
Élevée Winegrowers – eleveewines.com
As someone who is continuously pondering what I want my next act to be, I love an engaging mid-life change story, and I found one at Élevée Winegrowers. As we sat outside under the shade of giant umbrella steps from the home of Tom & France Fitzpatrick, France shared Élevée's origin story. It began when Tom opted for a mid-life career change and became a winemaker in 2003, wetting his feet in Washington State, New Zealand, and Napa and earning a master's degree in Viticulture & Enology from UC Davis. After graduation, he headed for Burgundy, France, before settling in Oregon with his wife in 2007 to carve out their niche as boutique winemakers while maintaining other full-time jobs.
The vineyard was 23 years old when they purchased it from Archery Summit's Gary Andrus in 2008. They sold their harvested fruit until they saved enough to make their first cases of wine in 2012. Today, the high-density site produces 1400cases, with every aspect from tractor to tasting handled personally by the couple. You can't help but appreciate their hustle as they aspire to greatness.
Tom's work in Burgundy reinforced his affinity for terroir, and France said that they plant "postcard vineyards" that allow Tom to take a deep dive into discovering an appellation's nuances.
France was a consummate hostess during our tasting, even presenting my mother, who was celebrating her 70th birthday on this trip, with a jar of homemade pinot noir jelly. We picked up a few bottles of their excellent Élevée Vineyard 2015 pinot noir, a single-vineyard bottling, and look forward to a return trip to see how their style continues to develop.
Maresh Red Barn – mareshredbarn.com
Northeast Worden road is the site of some of the most vaunted vineyards in the Dundee Hills AVA. When Jim and Loie Maresh purchased their first plot of land here in 1959, they had no intention of becoming winemakers. Instead, they wanted to give their five children a fresh-air upbringing in what was then very rural Oregon. Eventually amassing more than 200-acres, it wasn't until Dick Erath came calling that Jim began making wine, learning by trial and error as they went along. Jim, who passed away in March of 2021, drove a tractor into his 90s and proclaimed himself and the original Oregon winemakers and his longtime friends the "Geezers Grape growers Group." The vineyard's history on the Maresh Red Barn website is worth reading.
A natural hostess with Energizer Bunny-like enthusiasm, Jim's affable daughter Martha oversees the vineyard and Red Barn Tasting Room along with her husband, Steve Mikame. As much as she treasures the family farm today, she said that as a child, shehated school breaks because it meant farm work.
Martha's son Jim Arterberry-Maresh is the winemaker, learning the trade from his father Fred, an award-winning Oregon winemaker. He revived the Arterberry Maresh label that went away when his father died in 1990.
Today, the vineyard, the fifth oldest in Oregon, covers 140-acres and is planted predominately to Pommard and Wadenswil clones. With their gnarly thick roots enveloped in neon green moss, the oldest vines are closest to the tasting room.
Under the Arterberry Maresh label, Jim Arterberry-Maresh crafts highly rated rosé, chardonnay, and pinot noir. In 2019 he started the Tan Fruit project to "play" with purchased grapes. The six cuvées he crafted for the initial Tan Fruit vintage will be released sometime in 2022.
Native Flora – nativeflora.com
Morning fog is nearly a given in the Chehalem Valley, lending an impressionist painter's perspective to the already idyllic landscape at Native Flora. Adding to the alluring aura is a fluffy flock of Southdown Babydoll sheep languidly grazing on cover crops strategically sown beneath the 35-acres of vines, having no idea that their chowing keeps weeds at bay. The scene is intoxicating without tasting a drop of wine, but not doing so would be a shame, as Scott Flora makes some of the best juice in the valley.
Appointment-only tastings occur in Scott and Denise Flora's stunning home overlooking the valley. An emphasis on symbiosis extends to the architecture, including geothermal heating and cooling and rainwater collection for vineyard use. Don't miss a tasting of their Jolly Rancher, a unique blend of their estate Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Their limited production wines are only available via tastings or as a member of their wine club.
Purple Hands Winery & Haakon/Lenai Vineyard –purplehandswine.com
I'll admit that it was the contemporary tasting room jutting out over the undulating hills of the 35-acre Haakon/Lenai Vineyard that led us to Purple Hands Winery. Aesthetics aside, we were pleasantly surprised to uncover some of our favorite wines of the trip. Cody and Marque Wright own the winery; Cody is the son of esteemed and much-awarded Oregon winemaker Ken Wright, who I learned also has a Kentucky connection as a native of Lexington.
While he learned from the best, Cody has developed a unique style for winemaking: lush and fruit-forward and with the kind of structure that will allow it to cellar well. While Purple Hands also has an "urban" tasting room in Dundee, you can't beat the setting of the vineyard tasting room. As a bonus, the latter is the only place to taste and buy Haakon/Lenai wines under the likable and knowledgeable direction of Robert Clary, the tasting room manager.