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Ever since Miles and Jack sniffed, swished, and slurped their way through the movie “Sideways,” the American appetite for pinot noir has been voracious. While that movie focused on the wine regions near Santa Barbara, Calif., the folks up in the Willamette Valley outside of Portland, Ore., quietly fancy their locale as producing the best pinot noirs America has to offer. And with good reason. Winemaking in Oregon stretches back into the mid-1800s. But it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that a new generation of winemakers turned their attention to the region’s nearly perfect climate for growing pinot noir. These early efforts paid off in 1979 at the Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades when an Eyrie Vineyards pinot noir from the Willamette Valley beat out French burgundies for the title of best pinot noir. Since those early days, winemaking in Oregon has exploded and pinot noir remains the hot ticket, typified by the fruitiness associated with New World wines and the earthiness and structure found in Old World wines. Like pinot noir from just about anywhere, Oregon pinot is not inexpensive. Bottles under $15 are nearly impossible to find. For this report, I amassed a dozen widely available examples of Oregon pinot noir under $30. Two worth a look are the 2006 Willamette Valley pinot noir from Benton-Lane Winery and the 2005 Eola-Amity Hills 2005 Reserve pinot noir from Lange Winery. While both retail for around $24, they show different faces of the pinot noir grape. The Benton-Lane smells of fruit and spice, namely blackberries, cherries, rosemary, and thyme. The fruit is even more apparent on the palate where cherries and berries mix with hints of tarragon and black pepper. The Lange pinot noir is more Old World in style, showcasing earthy, non-fruit aromas and flavors. The overwhelming bouquet is of wet earth and fresh manure (but in a pleasing way). Medium-bodied and complex, the wine provides flavors of black cherries, cloves, and vanilla. Four other wines were of near comparable quality. The 2006 Eola-Amity Hills pinot noir from Domaine Coteau ($25) nicely mixed fruit and earth aromas and flavors with crisp acidity, but a note of sulfur detracted from the wine. Similarly, the 2005 Ponzi Vineyards Talova pinot noir ($25) displayed a pleasant mix of berry and earthy aromas and flavors, including a spicy note not seen in many of the wines tasted. The Willamette Valley Vineyards 2006 Willamette Valley pinot noir ($26) was not quite as well balanced. The wine provided long-lasting and smooth flavors of strawberry and ripe cherries. The 2006 Oregon pinot noir from King Estate ($24) was just the opposite. Loads of fresh fruit flavors and aromas, a generous dose of new oak, and zippy acidity make the wine seem fresh and clean, but not very complex. The rest of the wines generally disappointed. Witness Tree’s 2006 Willamette Valley pinot noir ($27) showed some attractive notes of red cherries, cola, and plums, but was thin and lacking in intensity. The 2006 Willamette Valley pinot noir from Chateau Bianca ($19) didn’t taste much like a pinot noir. It smelled of green vegetation and cherry pie, and was sweet on the palate with flavors of plum and vanilla. The Erath Vineyards 2006 Oregon pinot noir ($18) also smelled green and stemmy, but with a whiff of strawberries and flavors of fresh cherries that redeemed it a bit. The worst three wines were downright unpleasant. The 2006 Cloudline Oregon pinot noir ($20), A to Z 2006 Oregon pinot noir ($16), and Willamette Valley Vineyards 2007 Whole Cluster Fermented pinot noir ($21) were all thin, tart, and most useful for sangria. Of special (but not positive) note, the 2007 Whole Cluster Fermented pinot noir was still grapes on the vine less than six months ago, but tasted of nothing other than strawberry Starbursts. Less-expensive pinot noirs from Oregon can be hit-and-miss. Some have much to recommend them, including an ability to walk the fine line between fruitiness, earthiness, and structure. But, in the end, it’s strictly buyer beware.
Phillip Dubé is a wine and food writer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and an attorney at Becker & Poliakoff, P.A.

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