Dakota The Neurotic Shoxer is in agony. Her precious precious mistress, Lisa's mother Lorraine, has tied her to a tree and gone to find out what the kids are up to at this wine thing, and the poor dog is surely going to die from the pain of separation. Her escalatingly frantic whines are threatening to drown out the chat we're having with the hostess at the Carlton Winemakers' Studio, until she finally just leans over to Lorraine and says "Bring her in, it's fine. Please." The resulting mother-and-dog-reunion is heartwarming and brings a palpable sense of relief to all concerned.

So we're here in Portland on the tail end of a quick family-visit run up the West Coast. With our usual halfassed planning we only have one afternoon to spend roaming the wine country, and that afternoon is upon us. Lisa's parents aren't winegeeks, but are content to chauffeur us around and observe the antics of geeks at play in their natural habitat.

As a warmup, we have a few samples of the local product for breakfast before we head out:

Eola Hills Wine Cellars Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2002. Gentle cherry-plum aromatics, hints of clove and toast. Soft and quiet in my mouth, small and moderately flavorful, loosely wrapped and soft-spoken. Decent enough, but not a very good match with my Cream of Wheat. One thing that I've noticed about some Oregon pinots is that they seem to strive for a pleasant, inoffensive quality, soft and spicy and smooth, pointedly eschewing Californian in-your-face ripeness and lumber. That's all very well, but it can lead to a lot of drinkable but rather nondescript wines: this is one such wine.

Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 1999. Cherry-pit aromatics, dark undertones of tree bark and sod. A medium bodied wine of considerable tensile strength, taut and racy, with a velvety skin. The fruit has a lip-smacking tartness to it; it finishes smoothly and dustily, but it's very young and rather coiled right now, needs time. This is not one of the nondescript wines spoken of above; there's a lot of oomph and character here, along with a sense of composure. Needs time, but goes very nicely with scrambled eggs and Jimmy Dean pork sausages.

A helpful employee at a wine shop called something imaginative like 'Good Wine Buys' suggests a couple of places. We trust her because a) Lorraine took a pottery class with her once, and b) the store is full of Dressner wines--more so than any we've seen on the West Coast--and this implies trustworthiness.

So our first stop is the tasting room at the Carlton Winemakers' Studio co-op, which seems to be a collection of nine or ten semiwacky folks making offbeat wines; in short, just our cup of tea. A charming expat New Yorker named Lauren pours and chats and pours some more. The place is empty when we arrive, but slowly fills up--there's a guy named Al who is camping and tasting his way through Oregon on five dollars a day, a couple from Pennsylvania who seem to have mutual acquaintances with Lisa's parents, a friendly dog named Romeo who belongs to one of the winemakers. Romeo and Dakota TNS investigate each other, I keep an eye on him (with a name like that, you have to be careful).

This place is a cozy commercial tasting bar with various flights on the menu. We hunker down and say 'bring us one of everything you've got,' while Lisa noshes on the cheese and locally made smoked salmon. The cheese is very good, but a bit too peppery for me while I'm tasting, so if there's a preponderance of peppery notes, that may be why.

Hammacher Chardonnay Willamette Valley 'H' NV. Loose pear-apple fruit laced with light vanilla-butterscotchy hints. Round, soft and clean, a loose little wine with three or four calm flavors and a lightness that helps to allay the general lack of spine. A bit short and vague, but decent enough sipping wine.

Carlton Winemaker's Studio Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2001. Softly aromatic, cherry-raspberry lightly dusted with clove. Fruity and easygoing, in the same mold as the chardonnay--the lightfootedness serves it well, a simple wine that has charm and balance without heft or angularity. Smooth, spicy little pinot, a decent value at $14.

One of the things that attracted us to this place was the opportunity to try things other than the ubiquitous chardonnay and pinot noir: the first flight is entitled "Oregon's Not Just for Pinot Noir Anymore..."

Penner-Ash Cellars Syrah Oregon 2001. Lightly candied purplefruit hints, plum and a trace of pepper (the cheese?) with minerally undertones. Tastes smooth and velvety-creamy and rather loose, a middleweight wine that carries itself well within its narrow amplitude. Just a touch of astringency on the finish. Smallish, easygoing syrah that doesn't have much to say but says it politely and with excellent diction.

Les Vigneaux (Andrew Rich) Mésalliance 1999. Hmmm... here's an aromatic change of pace: light but interesting plum-cassis fruit, hints of cedar and oregano. Medium-bodied, with better focus and more grab than the others, some bright acidity gives it good mouthzip. This is apparently some kind of syrah/cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend; it comes off as fairly Bordeauxish. Pretty good, an interesting wine with a lot of character.

Dominio IV Tempranillo Oregon 2002. Smells of ripe, creamy-dark red berry and gravelly minerality. More meatiness than I'd have expected from my somewhat limited experience with Pacific Northwest tempranillo, this is a rather chewy, berry-stony wine that edges towards a glossy, candied quality in the midpalate, then dodges away with some aggressive tannins on the finish. More like a merlot than any tempranillo I've had, but I suspect it's a crowd pleaser, as it's a robust wine with a lot of good chewy-ripe fruit.

Les Vigneaux (Andrew Rich) Malbec Columbia Valley 2002. At last, the legendary Oregonian Ct. Peppery blackberry-raspberry aromatics, smells dark and quietly spicy. A sip, and it's a mediumweight wine, blackfruity and smooth, turning towards plum and licorice on the finish. Rather indistinct, but pleasant enough.

Domaine Meriwether 'Discovery Cuvée' Brut NV. Lots of minerals here, very pure and clean, crisp and focused, a fizzy glacial stream. Light hints of yellow appleskin in the middle, traces of ginger flicker on the finish. This is Lisa's favorite: she digs the clarity and brightness. Very good stuff, and another good value at $15.

Andrew Rich Gewürztraminer Willamette Valley Ice Wine 2002 (16% RS). Yowf, smells extravagantly gewürzy, like lychee jelly-candies drizzled with attar. Very very sweet, almost syrupy, with almost but not quite enough acidity to carry it off. Too much sugar, too little spine.

Hamacher Wines Pinot Noir Rosé Willamette Valley 2003. Mediumweight rosé, crisp, squeaky-dry and pretty. Slight smokiness, almost a barbeque note. Very decent, very drinkable.

Hamacher Wines Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2000. Pleasant, loosely-wrapped and easygoing, another straightforward and honest wine that's just fine but doesn't really grab me.

Scott Paul Wine Cellars Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Cuvée Martha Pirrie 2002. Here we have the overenthusiastic use of toasty wood. Tight, taut and tannic, dominated by smoky-toasty notes. The woodiness seems to have deadened the fruit, making the wine hard to judge, but I'm not terribly optimistic.

Penner-Ash Cellars Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2001. Softly fruity, easygoing. Quiet aromatics, a shy, slightly selfconscious wine that's friendly but a bit wan. It's got an honest, real-wine quality and I want to like it, but it's not really saying much now.

A stable of interesting, slightly offbeat wines, most seemingly made with care and not beaten senseless or tarted up out of all recognition. Some more successful than others, but only one or two that I'd spit out of bed for eating crackers; for me a very credible ratio.

Once we've coaxed Dakota TNS back into the car it's off to a place that's slightly off the main road... somewhere. We drive around a bit and have to call for directions, but eventually roll up only a few minutes late for our appointment at Belle Pente Vineyard & Winery.

The proprietor, one Mr. Brian O'Donnell, meets us outside. He's an affable guy, with a precise, gently academic mien. He takes us on a brief swing round the premises, mentioning that they grow such-and-such percent pinot gris, chardonnay and pinot noir, along with a couple percent of a few other things. This seems to call for investigation, so I ask "What other things? Experiments?" He says he's got some gamay, and both Lisa and I perk up. "Oooo," she purrs, "We LOVVVVE gamay!"

He cocks an eyebrow at us. I'm guessing that's the first time today he's heard that.

It's always awkward tasting wines that curdle your stomach with their maker sitting and watching you; conversely, it's a pleasure to have your expectations surpassed and to be able to communicate that delight on the spot. Fortunately, it seems like this is going to be one of the latter experiences.

Belle Pente Winery Riesling Willamette Valley 2002. Lightly floral aromatics, gardenia and white peach, wet rocks. Just a hint of sweetness, a light wine, bright and crisp. Not a lot of strength, but fine purity and delicacy. "Charming" comes to mind, and "lacy."

Belle Pente Winery Pinot Gris Willamette Valley Reserve 2002. Mmmm... plumeria, honeysuckle and rainwater, robustly sweet-smelling. Tastes crisp and focused but also politely extravagant and moist--the semifirm spine is wrapped in several layers of ermine. Very seductive yet with a happily saucy tartness: Mae West in a glass. I find that I've drunk my taste up before I can really pin it down.

Belle Pente Winery Chardonnay Willamette Valley 1999. Smells pleasantly tropical, pineapple, pear and hints of vanilla-coconut. A substantial wine with fine supporting acidity. The wood is spicy and distinct but doesn't overwhelm the fruit (elevage is in a mixture of French and Oregon oak). As west coast chardonnays go, it's quite decently restrained (i.e., you can still taste fruit). Of course, I've never been entirely convinced that chardonnay is a grape worth cultivating outside of Chablis, and I find this by a good margin to be the least interesting of the wines.

Belle Pente Winery Cuvée Contraire Rosé Willamette Valley 2002. A blend of gamay and pinot noir, a kind of Oregogne Passetoutgrain. It's labeled a rosé, but it's a deeper, shinier color than many a cult pineau d'aunis or grolleau. Strawberries, cherries and dark dirt, lots of dirt. Rather rounded and supple, uncomplicatedly cheerful and juicy, a fine wine for a picnic; makes Lisa wriggle fetchingly.

Geek details: the whites are fermented with commercial yeasts, the reds done with local flora. The pinot gris is fermented in the big ol' foudres that live in the barrel barn.

Okay, here are the most recent two 'basic' pinots, presented as a comparison of the different characteristics of the two vintages.

Belle Pente Winery Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2001. Medium-light garnet. Lightly funky, truffley-earthy-shroomish hints over muted red plum/cherry fruit. Tastes light and layered, well structured and breezy, a surprisingly complex and tasty young wine. Quite lovely, happily talkative young pinot.

Belle Pente Winery Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2002. Fruitier, less earthy, more juicily cherried. It seems a bit softer, although I'm not sure if it's really lower in acidity or just riper and more pillowy. At any rate, there's a sense of plushness here that's absent in the last; a fun n'fruity pinot that doesn't have the complexity of the '01.

If these two wines are at all representative, it seems like '02 might be more of a pointy vintage and '01 a little more of a right-thinking person's vintage.

(Hey, lookee there--I've only tasted two wines and already I'm qualified to make sweeping vintage generalizations! Heady stuff....)

One of the guys working in the background is having trouble picking up a palette with a forklift; M. O'Donnell excuses himself to show him the proper technique. He backs up a few yards, then hits the gas--Crash! and it's on. "He was too tentative," he explains when he returns. "Sometimes you have to be aggressive." Impressed, we nod vigorously, and move on to the reserve pinots.

Belle Pente Winery Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Murto Vineyard Reserve 2001. From twenty-six year old vines. Bright aromatics, dark cherry, smoke and a beguiling spiciness, Christmas potpourri laced with cloves. I say "Oooh, spicy..." and M. O'Donnell smiles and says "Midnight on St. Mark's Place." Good one, gotta steal that one day. The wine is racy and muscled like a ballet dancer, lean and taut, possessed of a wonderfully nimble strength. Fine stuff, layered and expressive. The toasty wooding is overt but not domineering. Tickled, I burst out with "Wow, this is just beautiful--really expressive, honest stuff!" and the poor guy looks a bit nonplussed by all the enthusiasm. "Well... uh, thanks," he finally manages. Probably the first time he's heard that today as well, but over the years I've squirmed in my seat often enough trying to find pleasantly noncommittal things to say about wretched wines that opportunities like this are to be seized with both hands.

My promise to myself to never again use the word "Burgundian" is being tested today.

Belle Pente Winery Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Wahle Vineyard Reserve 2001. From thirty year old vines. More blackfruit here, blackberry-cherry hints, a little bit riper than the Murto, more of a plush feel to it, with similar toasty-woodiness. Sweetly ripe pinot with a firm backbone, silky and warm going down. Also very impressive, well-defined, broad-beamed pinot. Definitely needs a few years, but charming in its youth.

Belle Pente Winery Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Estate Reserve 2001. Very aromatic, richly pinot-spicy: clove, blackberry-cherry, earth and toast. Brawnier than the other two, rougher around the edges, more muscular, the toastiness more overt. There's a certain abrasiveness to this one after the spicy Murto and silky Wahle. Lots of stuffing, but the wine seems awkward and young. One to hold, give it time to get its act together.

Belle Pente Winery Riesling Willamette Valley Vendange Tardive 2002. From thirty-five year old vines. Bright and tropical smelling, pineapple and white grapefruit, whiteflowers and lime zest. Sweet, crisp and juicy-fruity, relatively lightweight but very flavorful. Not a wine with great depth, but happily fresh and flickery-complex enough to keep me sipping happily away. There's apparently a good dose of botrytis, but it's not really manifesting itself in a way that I can sense.

We've already got more bottles than we can lug to the airport, but pick up a couple each of the Murto, the sweetie ("We're raising the price from $18 to $25 today, but you can have it for the old price...") and the gamay. We'd have gotten more, but supposedly there's good distribution in NYC, so we indulge in a rare moment of restraint.

Well, that was fun. Lisa and I don't often come away from tasting at an American winery excited and elated; even Dakota seems a bit less neurotic than usual. It's a happy afternoon for us all in Portland, Oregon.

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