Memorial Day Wine Tour of South Willamette Valley Wineries

| May 31, 2011 | 2 Comments

Instead of sticking close to home this Memorial Day, I decided for a change to head South with my wine buddies to the Eugene area for a change of pace and visit King Estate, Sweet Cheeks, Domaine Meriwether and Benton-Lane. This allowed us to take the less-traveled portion of Highway 99 from Monroe back to Salem via Monmouth and the Willamette River Bridge just south of Monmouth on a day that we knew I-5 would be clogged with people returning from the weekend vacations.

We started the day at King Estate, a sprawling and magnificent winery perched on a hilltop with a commanding view of the Lorane Valley. King Estate is the largest premium producer of pinot gris in the U.S. and is a wonderful place to visit, with a sumptuous restaurant and visitors center that also has a very nice tasting bar. When we got there at 11 a.m., the sun was shining and the patio of the visitors center was already dotted with people tasting flights of wine and nibbling on food from the restaurant.

One of the nice things about King Estate is that in addition to being able to taste wines from the King Estate label, you can also taste flights of wine that combine their other sister labels: Acrobat and NxNW. There is a complimentary tasting of two of their wines and then you pay a tasting fee of $5 to taste four additional wines. King Estate’s Domaine Pinot Noir and Domaine Pinot Gris are made from organically grown estate grapes while the Signature Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are made from a blend of estate grapes and grapes sourced from other fine vineyards in Oregon. Both have drawn high marks from wine magazines including estate-grown grapes and have drawn high marks from wine magazines.

Here are excerpts of reviews of the 2008 King Estate Domaine Pinot Noir:

Wine Spectator – 92 Points
Smooth and polished, with a bit more density than most 2008s, this is rich and warm, with toasty oak and mocha overtones to the black cherry and spice flavors. Shows elegance and finesse. Drink now through 2018.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate – 91 Points
The 2008 Pinot Noir Domaine ups the ante with greater complexity, dense, layered fruit, and a lengthy, seamless finish. It will be at its best from 2012 to 2020.

Wine & Spirits – 91 Points
Earthy and bright at once, this estate pinot has aromas of cherry blossoms and horehound. The flavors are precise and lean – dark cherry and rosemary – with moderate oak filling out the middle of the wine. For a rosemary roasted pork loin.

Wine Enthusiast – 90 Points
This wine is King Estate’s superpremium offering, made exclusively with organically grown grapes from the estate vineyard. Lush and earthy, it’s got a lot of forward tart berry fruit power, turns a bit soft in the middle, and sails away with a hint of heat and a lick of chocolate.

Here are excerpts of reviews from Wine & Spirits magazine:

92 Points | King Estate
2009 Oregon Signature Pinot Gris
Bright and exuberant as soon as it hits the glass, this wine has vibrant and persistent tangerine and white peach scents. On the palate it has a fresh mineral bite, the flavors more in the vein of citrus, the acidity lively and on point.

91 Points | King Estate
2008 Oregon Domaine Pinot Noir
Earthy and bright at once, this estate pinot has aromas of cherry blossoms and horehound. The flavors are precise and lean – dark cherry and rosemary – with moderate oak filling out the middle of the wine. For a rosemary roasted pork loin.

90 Points | Acrobat
2009 Oregon Pinot Gris (Best Buy)
Clean and citrusy in scent, with a soft leesy note, this brisk gris has a peppery phenolic bite that makes it ideal for pairing with whole-roasted fish.

I’ve found King Estate’s Signature pinot noirs and pinot gris to be consistently excellent wines to serve at home for all occasions, the pinot noir is fruit-forward with lots of berry flavors and a touch of cloves, and the pinot gris is crisp with hints of pear and apple and a touch of cinnamon and makes a perfect pairing with seafood like crab or oysters.

During our visit, we asked to taste two of their NxNW wines that we have never tried before and came away very impressed with the 2008 NxNW Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 NxNW Walla Walla Syrah. King Estate’s NxNW label wines are made from grapes sourced from vineyards in eastern Washington, which allows the winery to make varietals from grapes that don’t do well in Oregon’s cooler marine climate. I’m not usually a fan of California cabs because I find their alcohol content and tannins to high and bold for my taste, but I was pleasantly surprised by the NxNW cab. It was smooth, more fruit forward with flavors of raspberry and a hint of licorice. I actually savored this wine and found it pleasantly slightly sweet at the end. The tannins were silky and smooth.

Our next stop was Sweet Cheeks Winery, just a few miles north of King Estate. By the time we got there a little after noon, the place was already hopping. The winery’s hilltop patio was arranged with tables and had a nice view of the valley. People were already at tables enjoying their lunch with bottles of wine. A tent with space heaters had been erected right next to the tasting room for those who wanted to be a little warmer and a band was playing, providing an entertaining atmosphere.

The small tasting bar inside was crowded, but we didn’t have to wait long for a spot to open up. The tasting flight was complimentary and the wine bar was equipped with a deli case stocked with a variety of gourmet cheeses from Tumalo Farms, an artisan cheese maker in Bend, and Rogue Creamery in southern Oregon.

It was the first time that I tasted Sweet Cheek’s wines and found both their pinot gris (with flavors of green apple and citrus) and riesling (with honeysuckle and cinnamon flavors) on the sweeter side of dry than what I’m used to, but very good nonetheless. I also was surprised to find that they had a shiraz, which was imported from Australia. It had berry and black pepper flavors and was a very robust red.

Since it was lunch time, we decided that a bottle of their pinot gris would be perfect with the picnic that I had prepared and we enjoyed lunch on their patio while the band played.

One of the popular events at Sweet Cheeks is the Twilight Tastings every Friday from 6-9 p.m. Guests can enjoy their wines with gourmet cheeses to the sound of acoustic music on their patio. It’s the perfect way to end the work week.

Our next stop was Domaine Meriwether, just outside of Veneta. We must have missed their sign because even though we had the address programmed into our satellite navigation system, we got hopelessly lost and ended up getting there through the back entrance and had to fight traffic leaving the winery. But our patience did pay off. There’s no permanent tasting room yet, but a tasting bar was located in the same building that housed the winery’s production facilities, which made for a casual as well as educational atmosphere. We were able to marvel at the barrels and stainless steel fermentation tanks that lined the far wall where the wine was being poured. I had put Domaine Meriwether on our itinerary because they are one of the few wineries in Oregon that produces sparkling wines. I got to taste three during our visit, the NV Discovery Cuvée, Prestige Cuvée and Prestige Rosé Cuvée. The Discovery Cuvée had a nose of pear with a slight almond flavor and the Prestige Cuvée had flavors of peach along with a slight almond flavor. The Prestige Rose Cuvée had aromas of strawberry and hint of caramel with flavors of cherry with a hint of clove. The color wasn’t exactly pink but more of a peachy rose color.

We spoke to Buzz Kawders, the director of operations, about the winery and he told us about plans to add a tasting room to the front of the winery with a glass wall so that people could see into the production facility. The wall could be opened up so that the space in the production facility could be utilized for special events.

Our last stop on Memorial Day was Benton-Lane Winery in Monroe, right on Highway 99W. The winery and vineyards are located on property that straddles Benton and Lane counties, hence the name.

Steve and Carol Girard purchased the property in 1988. According to Benton-Lane, planting of pinot noir began in 1989 and over the years the vineyard has grown to 138 acres predominantly planted with pinot noir with 7 distinct clones on a wide variety of rootstocks carefully matched to the planting location. The winery is a beautiful place to visit and you can take a short walk from the tasting room into their production facility to admire the superb environmentally-friendly design of the winery production building. Walking past the patio that connects the tasting room and production building, we noticed a wood-fired, pizza oven where pizzas were being made for visitors to enjoy with the wine.

Benton Lane’s wines have received great reviews from the wine magazines, with their Benton-Lane 2008 Pinot Noir receiving 91 points from Wine & Spirits, 90 points from Wine Spectator and 90 points from Wine Advocate.

So the next time you’re thinking about a day of touring wineries with friends, consider heading south towards Eugene for a change of pace and enjoy the wines of our southern neighbors!

— Victor Panichkul

Tags: , , , ,

Category: Wine/Wineries

About the Author (Author Profile)

Victor Panichkul is a journalist and writer by training; a cook, wine lover and photographer by passion; and a lover of the outdoors since moving to Oregon more than 10 years ago. He is a native of Bangkok, Thailand.

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Y’all had more fun than I did on Memorial Day weekend.

  2. Victor says:

    See what you’re missing out on? Come visit us!!

Leave a Reply