What do Howard Hughes, UFOs and famous vineyards and wines have in common? McMinnville Oregon. This quaint town just 1 ½ hours southwest of Portland is the unlikely home of Howard Hughes’s giant airplane The Spruce Goose, a historic UFO encounter and acres of vineyards and wineries.
The newly opened luxury lifestyle hotel Atticus located in downtown McMinnville makes an unmitigated base of operations when visiting the area. Not far from the Atticus you will find Elizabeth Chambers Cellar. This small, locally-owned winery specializes in Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley. It was founded in 2011 by the late Liz Chambers, a 3rd generation pioneer winemaker with over 20 years in the Willamette Valley. Winemaker Drew Voit has recently taken over the reins and continues the tradition of spectacular Pinot Noir from the best vineyards in the area. These wines are known for their elegant color and silky supple texture with earthiness that goes from nose to glass, and distinctive delicate cherry notes. “We have an entirely new team in here and we want to make some of the finest Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in the Valley,” said Voit.
Behind many wines there is a story and a family. Maysara Winery is no different. Originally from Persia, Moe and Flora Momtazi came to the area in 1997, bought 496 acres of abandoned wheat fields just south of their home in McMinnville and never looked back. In the winery, only native yeast present on the grape skins initiates primary fermentation. The winery produces world-class Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and of course Pinot Noir. Their highly rated Mitra Pinot Noir, a small-lot wine, is a hand selected, four-barrel blend from their estate Momtazi Vineyard and not to be missed.
Exploring a new AVA, or American Viticultural Area, can be full of adventure meeting the people, learning the history of the region and tasting through the wines with people who have made them for generations. Yamhill Valley Vineyards is the oldest winery in the McMinnville AVA, having produced their first vintage in 1983. Young winemaker Ariel Eberle is producing award-winning Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling. Her 2014 Pinot Noir Reserve recently won a Judges’ Selection Oregonian Red Gold Medal at the TEXSOM International WIne Awards in 2017.
Winemaking team Amy Wesselman and David Autrey founded Westrey Wine company in 1993. This legendary team was at the very forefront of the creation of the AVA. “I believe in Oregon Chardonnay and you have to sometimes push a little bit on extremes to find that kernel of greatness,” said David. “We strive to bring out the length, richness and balance in our reserve wines.” Their 2014 Cuvée 22 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir shines on the palate with raspberry and truffle notes augmented by rich balanced texture. It was only the second time they made an old vine Pinot Noir cuvée and it celebrates Amy’s 25th vintage in Oregon.
In downtown McMinnville you will find another prominent husband and wife team that have been making wines since 1994. Rob and Maria Stuart started R. Stuart & Co. in 2002 after making wines for other people for decades. Rob has a degree in biochemistry and started his winemaking journey on the bottling line at Hanns Kornell in Napa, California. After many years he moved to McMinnville and went to work on his own project. Maria started her wine career in Chicago selling to restaurants and began focusing on the wines of Oregon and their makers. She is also the author of “The Life and Times of a Pinot Mom” a blog about food, life and their wine.
R. Stuart & Co.’s Big Fire Pinot Noir can be considered an everyday Pinot Noir. It is approachable, delicious and ideal for drinking now. The Autograph Pinot Noir is their benchmark wine that is handpicked from the area’s best vineyards, its quality showing on the nose and in the glass. “You have to have a vision on where you want to go to and then move incrementally towards that complexity year after year,” said Stuart. Every vintage they make five or six single vineyard wines, made in small quantities, that are unfined and unfiltered. These wines are worth seeking out to sip, enjoy and compare their unique characteristics.
McMinnville wine country is fascinating in many ways. From the legendary founders to the upstart wine makers, men and women, young and old, they all share a passion for wine and particularly, their AVA. This region is special and worth repeat visits to truly experience all it has to offer.