An Afternoon Drive through Oregon's Willamette Valley during Harvest
By Ryan Snyder
On Friday, I buttoned up my work projects at 2pm and made a mad dash out of Portland with Dana Pickell to the Willamette Valley. It was a perfect day for an afternoon drive to see the vineyards… 70°F with barely a cloud in the sky and the penetrating scent of Autumn in the air. From the rearview mirror I could see the white-spotted Mount Hood looming off in the distance.
The traffic on 99 West was slow, to say the least. We crawled at the sound-breaking speed of 15 mph for about 15 miles (you do the math), and were stuck at more than a couple of stoplights because young ladies were chatting on their cell phones and didn’t get moving in time. Even with the windows rolled down and a fresh breeze sifting through, it was tough not to get frustrated.
And then, the slow drive made sense. Just before reaching Newburg, Dana pointed to the right, and yelled, “Look!” Each of the green vines had a purple stripe running along the bottom of the vine – ripe clusters that were hanging low ready to be picked. From the car ahead of me, a young female slowed down, leaned her arm out the passenger window and snapped a picture with her camera phone. The parking lot at Rex Hill Winery was full, and I realized we weren’t the only ones who came up with the idea of jetting off to wine country.
Turning onto Worden Hill Road, the road twisted and veered up the hill, where we happened upon Cameron’s Clos Electrique vineyard, named such because of the electric fence surrounding the property. As we drove down the lane, on the left side of the drive tiny Pinot Noir clusters about the size of my hand hung from the bottom of the vines, and it almost seemed like Christmas lights lining a winter street. The grapes were ripe, sweet, with thick skins and monstrous seeds, not exactly like the Thompsons I’m so used to tasting! On the right side, sea green Chardonnay clusters shielded the view of the Nebbiolo vines just a few rows back. Rumor has it that winemaker John Paul has hand-delivered his Nebbiolo wines to the Produttori in Barbaresco, and they were impressed. Man, am I Jonesing for a bottle!
Back in the car, we moseyed down the road and everywhere there were vines, vines and more vines. Dust-laden Latino workers huddled around their rusted-out sky blue Chevy pickup for a quick break and a couple of laughs before heading back to the grueling harvest work. Pinot Noir clusters lay rotting on the ground between some of the vines, cut in order to ensure that only the best clusters remained on the vine and received every last drop of nutrition from the roots.
Up the road at Erath, tiny speakers blared fake bird calls into the air in order to detract other birds from flying into the vineyard and stealing the fruit. A wild pheasant ran along side the car in front of me, almost as if it had found a new friend (or maybe it thought the car tire was a prospective mate!). We entered the tasting room and were promptly greeted from behind the bar, “Ya wanna taste some wine?” “Actually, I was hoping to get a vineyard map so I could snap some pictures of grapes,” I responded. “Oh. Well we don’t know where any of the grapes are, but here’s what they look like,” he said as he pointed to pictures of grape clusters on the wall.
Back on the road, Worden Hill Road eventually ran into 240, which we took to North Valley Road and finally Laughlin Road, where a large blue sign depicted, “Welcome Yamhill-Carlton District: American Viticultural Area”. “What in the hell?” I asked out loud in my favorite Appalachian voice, not realizing that it was not an official appellation yet. We found WillaKenzie Estate up on the right, and turned into their drive, where longhorn cattle grazed in the fields just beneath the vineyards being combed over by Latinos.
The end of our journey through wine country was at the top of Yamhill Road, where Dana and I sipped a glass of Viognier with Tim, the assistant cellar master at Ken Wright Cellars. We sat on his deck, soaking up the sun the same way the Pinot Noir vines just 100 yards away were soaking up their last rays as they prepared to be picked the next morning at 5am.
It was a quick, but glorious jaunt through the Valley, and I only had a chance to snap about 40 pictures. I’ve included some of my favorites below…
Overlooking the Willamette Valley
Dropping Clusters to the Ground before Harvest
Chardonnay grapes at Cameron Winery
Pinot Noir grapes at Cameron Winery
Nebbiolo grapes at Cameron Winery
View from the Erath Tasting Room
Wild Pheasant in the Erath Parking Lot
View of the Vineyards from WillaKenzie Estate