Last week I embarked on a road trip to Oregon like I hadn’t done since my college days. Back then I would travel to Eugene to watch my Huskies destroy the University of Oregon Ducks in football.
For the record, the University of Washington has won more college football national championships than Oregon, with one. Do the math and you can deduce, the number of Oregon championships.
Last Saturday, I stayed in Seattle to watch the University of Washington spring football game at Century Link Field, the temporary home of the Huskies next season.
The defense made me optimistic about the 2012 season. The offense was downright offensive and made me want to drink Oregon Pinot Noir. That would have to wait a day.
On Sunday morning I flew to Portland, where our Oregon odyssey began. Crammed in a van, we covered Oregon wine country over the next four days from the Willamette Valley by the Washington border to the Rogue Valley almost to the California border.
Four writers from California, yours truly as the only representative from Washington, and the Oregon state wine industry each professed the virtues of the various wine regions. The preference and bias for wines, neatly falling by local allegiance, were as clearly defined as the state borders.
Furthermore, a clear division (in some cases animosity) became evident between American Viticultural Areas within each state. Like the Civil War, Oregon was split between the north and the south of the state. California’s ugly stepchild wine regions were Temecula and Mendocino County. As for Washington, even more specifically Woodinville, I was reminded of the division between wineries based in Woodinville versus wineries with tasting rooms in Woodinville but based elsewhere in the state.
There are slightly more than 400 wineries in Oregon. There are almost twice as many in Washington state, at around 750. California has five times as many as Washington at almost 4,000 wineries.
During the course of my work I try wines from all over the world. I believe it gives me a clearer perspective on the wines of Washington that are the focus of the Cork Dork column each week. And I’m here to tell you that Woodinville competes toe-to-toe with the best and largest wine regions of the world.
Granted, most of the fruit that goes into wines made in Woodinville comes from vineyards east of the Cascade Mountains, but the variety and quality produced in Woodinville is remarkable at every price point. Woodinville does not have the climate to ripen vinifera properly. What Woodinville lacks in grape growing conditions, it makes up in innovative and precise winemaking.
Most of Washington doesn’t provide the conditions to make Pinot Noir like they do in Oregon. That singular reputation for spectacular food-friendly Pinot Noir has positioned Oregon wines across the country better than wines from Washington, where growers and winemakers continue to experiment with new varietals.
In Oregon, Pinot Gris is the leading white varietal. Chardonnay has made tremendous strides over the last decade or two since many of the growers and winemakers have focused on Dijon clones of the varietal.
Over the next decade or two look for Rhone, Bordeaux and Rioja-style varietals from Southern Oregon to thrive. Abacela in Roseburg is already making world-class Tempranillo and Albarino as good as the wines in Spain, and Viognier and Grenache-based Rosé that compares to the wines of the Rhone.
Many of the other wineries in Southern Oregon, such as Brandborg Vineyard & Winery, Cowhorn Vineyard, Del Rio Vineyards, Folin Cellars, Quady North Winery and Red Lily Vineyards, are making outstanding wines with hot weather varietals such as Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Viognier in a more elegant style than in Washington or California. Northern Oregon producers Domaine Serene and Ken Wright Cellars make outstanding wines with Southern Oregon fruit under the labels Rockblock and Tyrus Evan, respectively.
For one current measure of how Washington compares to Oregon and California, I turned to the 18th annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, organized by seafood guru Jon Rowley of Jon Rowley & Associates. Yours truly was one of 25 judges in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco selecting the 10 winning wines.
Washington showed the best in the annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition completed last week with four of the 10 winners hailing from the Evergreen state. Kirkland’s Cedergreen Cellars won for its 2010 Sauvignon Blanc.
Oregon and California had three wines each among the 10 equal winners, as Rowley likes to say. See below for a complete list of winners.
In judging the wines, Rowley urged us to first smell and then chew the oyster before taking our first sip of wine to rate the “bliss factor.” Generally, dry, crisp and clean wines pair best with oysters.
Look for the winning wines at local oyster bars, restaurants or at the Taylor Shellfish store in the Melrose Market on Seattle's Capitol Hill. Most of the wines are also available at specialty retail stores or supermarkets at under $15 a bottle.
2012 “Oyster Award” winners:
Cedergreen Cellars 2010 Sauvignon Blanc
Hogue Cellars 2010 Pinot Grigio
Milbrandt Vineyards 2010 Traditions Pinot Gris
Sockeye 2010 Pinot Gris
Brandborg Vineyard & Winery 2010 Pinot Gris
Foris Vineyard Winery 2010 Pinot Blanc
Van Duzer Vineyards 2011 Pinot Gris
Dry Creek Vineyard 2011 Dry Chenin Blanc
Kenwood Vineyards 2011 Pinot Gris, Russian River
Kenwood Vineyards 2011 Sauvignon Blanc