The southern Willamette south of Eugene has a special place in my heart.
My first visit was in 1992 when I house-sat for friends on the mid-Oregon coast in Florence. I took a day trip inland and just for fun decided to drop down south and check out the wineries. My expectations were not high. At that point, I was still a bit of a California snob.
As I drove south from Eugene into what the Native Americans called the “Valley of Sickness”, an area of herbaceous fertility, my allergies went into overdrive. I started sneezing so hard I had to pull the car over. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a shoulder on that narrow two lane road, so I had to recover quickly.
The landscape was rougher than I normally associated with wine country – shaggy and overgrown like a rough highland cow. It was summer, and the air was thick with heat, pollen, bees and small birds darting between the trees.
While I had spent time in the Northern Willamette Valley, enjoying the Pinot Noir, I was curious about the Pinot Gris that I’d tried from the cooler Southern Willamette Valley. While the Italian Pinot Grigio is usually lean and lemony, the Oregon Pinot Gris made from the same grape went a bit further, adding fruit notes of peach, tangerine and floral notes of honeysuckle and violet.
As I drove south, I realized that there weren’t really that many wineries open (a fact which has been rectified, there are now dozens of wineries in the area). I hoped to visit King Estate as I had read of their winery in the tourist magazines in Florence. It was further than I thought, and I was about to turn around when I finally saw it – a newly constructed chateau-like building rising out of raw earth on the crest of a hill. I drove up the smooth new driveway and parked in the empty lot. There was no one around, and I began to get suspicious as I opened the door and stepped inside.
The entry lobby was large, with photos and brochures laid out, but there was no one there. I waited, and a young woman eventually appeared and asked if she could help me. I told her I was there to taste the wine and she kindly informed me that they weren’t open yet, they were still under construction. I was disappointed, and told her how much I liked their wine and that I’d made the trip specially. She kindly took pity on me and gave me a short tour. It turned out that she was an intern from Australia, helping to open the new facility. She took me through the processing area, explaining how the wine was made, letting me knock on the empty tanks to hear the huge hollowness of the interior, then escorted me up to the tasting room, still raw with sawdust on the floor. Even though they weren’t open to the public, her enthusiasm was evident at each turn.
There were no wines to taste that day since they didn’t yet have their license, but they sent me away with brochures and a videotape on the winery. I was very impressed that someone would take the time to show me around even though they weren’t even open. Nowadays King Estate is a thriving concern with a restaurant and event facility, and they still make delicious wines.
Pinot Gris is a very food-friendly wine, whether in its more austere Italian style, or the New World fruit forward style.
Old World Pinot Grigio can almost veer into Sauvignon Blanc territory with its crisp lemony appeal. It goes great with seafood, especially oysters and clams, as well as tomatoes and chicken with buttery sauces.
Oregon Pinot Gris with its richer taste goes well with summer grilling, especially white fish and salmon and can take on a little spice from a marinade or rub. It pairs especially well with hazelnuts, another famed Oregon export – try a salad with your favorite greens, chopped toasted hazelnuts, red onion slices and smoked scallops – fantastic!
Oregon Pinot Gris usually scores well in the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine competition, held each year with Washington’s own Taylor Farms Kumamoto oysters. The lucky judges compare how each submitted wine compliments the sweet little oysters. Each year after the results are posted, my friends and I do our own tasting to ensure the judge’s accuracy. We buy three of the best wines, a bucketful of oysters and settle in for a lively, briny debate. Our event is this weekend, and I’ve already reserved my oysters from the Pike Place Market. It’s one of our favorite parties of the year, and easy to do. If you’re not up for cracking your own oysters, go ahead and try a Pinot Grigio the next time you’re at your favorite seafood restaurant. It’s a refreshing combination, one that just might hook you!