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San Francisco Tastes Willamette Wines

Pinot Noirs star in group's first Bay Area tasting

by Jane Firstenfeld
willamette valley pinot san francisco
Oregon artist John Fisher designed the image to promote Thursday's event.
San Francisco, Calif.—Almost 500 consumers crowded into the Presidio’s Golden Gate Club last night, paying $65 a head to sample Pinot Noirs and other varietals poured by winemakers from 70 Willamette Valley vintners. That crush followed an afternoon session that drew media and about 300 members of the trade.

“Pinot in the City” marked the first time that the Willamette Valley Wineries Association (WVWA) had descended en masse on San Francisco, following previous road trips to Seattle and New York. WVWA executive director Sue Horstmann, who organized the event, said the association schedules two traveling shows per year, with Chicago on the map for next spring. Los Angeles and Texas are potential future destinations. “We decided not to go back to any city two years in a row,” Horstmann told Wines & Vines.

With its 194 winery members producing some 70% of Oregon wine on an estimated 15,120-plus acres, the Willamette Valley in the state’s northwest quadrant is largely responsible for Oregon’s fame as a cool-climate producer of artisan Pinot Noirs. For this event, participating wineries paid $500 to pour a maximum of three wines. The wineries were responsible for transporting their bottles. Most piggy-backed with their Northern California distributors; the remaining 13 shipped their cases or flew in with them, Horstmann said.

Meet the vintners
Each winery was personally represented by its winemaker, owner or principal. “This was not a distributor event,” Horstmann stressed. Behind the tables, many of the vintners emphasized that theirs are multi-generational, family operations.

While all poured at least one vintage of Pinot Noir, many also showcased Pinot Gris wines, which are achieving recognition. Chardonnay is re-emerging as a promising varietal—“We’ve found the right clones now,” Horstmann said. A few Rieslings and Gewürztraminers also were offered.

Only a few rosé wines were on the tables, including a standout Pinot Noir Brut bubbly from Argyle. Horstmann explained that although Willamette Valley produces many rosés, “Most are sold out by this time of year.”

Interestingly, a large proportion of the wines, including some pricey Pinot Noirs, were bottled under screwcap. Virtually all the white wines had the easy-open finish. Mimi Casteel, general manager of 13,000-case Bethel Heights Vineyard in Salem, commented, “We’re Oregon. We’re progressive.”

Isn’t it harvest time in West Coast vineyards? Not in Oregon: “Washington and California are hot,” said Wynne Peterson-Nedry, winemaker at 18,000-case Chehalem in Newberg. “We’re cool.” She and her neighbors don’t expect their grapes to be ready until the end of September.

“We never harvest this early, ever,” Horstmann said.

Producing a major road show takes time and money. Horstmann said planning for the San Francisco event began early this year. Settling on a venue was simple: The San Francisco native had fond memories of youthful parties at the Golden Gate Club (then the Officers’ Club): “It was always one of my favorite pieces of property in the city,” she said.

Now Oregon-based, she hired a local to be her “feet on the ground.” Collateral material, including a handy book tasting notes, and a wall-worthy poster designed by Portland, Ore.’s John Fisher, also required seed money. “You never know for sure if you’re going to get 500 people” who will pay to attend, Horstmann said.

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