NORTHERN WILLAMETTE VALLEY

If you only wish to dabble for a day in the region’s pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay, the vineyards and wineries that lie north of Hwy 240 and south of Hwy 26, between Yamhill and Newberg, are the easiest to access from Portland. But convenience isn’t this pastoral area’s only attraction. A trip here also offers an excellent introduction to some of the valley’s top vinos. Even better, once you head deep into the undulating hills, you’ll be traversing the three different AVAs that make up the northern edge of the Willamette Valley, a striking tour indeed of the region’s varying landscape.

Cross-hatching most of the valley’s northern portion is the Chehalem Mountains AVA, an impressive uplifted mass of land that stretches some 20 miles long and is home to Bald Peak State Park—one of the area’s highest points (1,629 feet) and the perfect location for a picnic. To the west lies the northern half of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, set in the foothills of the Coast Range. And tucked away between the two is the tiny Ribbon Ridge AVA. Somewhat overshadowed by the surrounding AVAs, Ribbon Ridge’s unique marine sedimentary soils have attracted Beaux Frères, Patricia Green and Brick House—wineries whose wines have achieved near-cult status.

To get a sense for the distinct wines made in each AVA, start out at two of the oldest wineries in the valley: Rex Hill, located on the eastern edge of the Chehalem Mountains, and Ponzi, the first winery to plant pinot gris in the area. Meander on to Brick House, whose Les Dijonnais pinot noir our wine critic has chosen as one of the top 10 Pacific Northwest wines. Brick House’s vineyards are also some of the first in the valley to be certified organic and biodynamic, an agricultural trend that’s just now beginning to sweep the entire valley. And if you work your way through those wineries? There are at least 30 others in the area to choose from.

BEST BETS

1 PONZI VINEYARDS Housed in the elegant home that Dick Ponzi built for his family in the 1970s, the tasting room of this 38-year-old winery is most stunning on a cloudless day, when the soaring windows drench the lofty, tiled room with warm sunlight. The Ponzis were the first winemakers to plant and grow pinot gris locally, and their 2006 release of the varietal has proven to be their fastest-selling bottling yet. Down in Dundee, the Ponzis’ other tasting room sits right next to Dundee Bistro. 14665 SW Winery Ln, Beaverton; 503-628-1227; daily 11-5

2 REX HILL VINEYARDS Situated on a vine-covered slope just off of Hwy 99, Rex Hill (now owned by A to Z Wines) is one of the most convenient wineries to visit on a day trip from Portland, not to mention the best of the larger producers in the area (they turn out 30,000 cases a year). Housed in an old fruit-and-nut drying plant, the tasting room offers several pinots, the most notable of which is the winery’s William Hatcher’s 2005 pinot noir. 30835 Hwy 99W, Newberg; 503-538-0666; daily 11-5 (Dec-May), daily 10-5 (June-Nov)

3 BRICK HOUSE VINEYARDS Winemaker and owner Doug Tunnell, a former CBS newsman, is so committed to his 15-year-old enterprise—growing and vinifying 100 percent certified organic and biodynamic pinot noir, gamay noir and chardonnay grapes—that he lives on the very land he farms, in the old brick house for which his winery is named. Using grapes grown in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, Tunnell produces some of the best wines in the region—which, if you can snag an appointment, you’ll get to taste in a shed that doubles as his laboratory. 18200 Lewis Rogers Ln, Newberg; 503-538-5136; by appointment only

4 WILLAKENZIE ESTATE WillaKenzie may be a sprawling estate winery, but it achieves its grandiose aesthetic without feeling corporate—in fact, it’s elegantly designed, with tall ceilings, curved windows, and an impressive mural of French wine country. But the real thrill of visiting this wood-toned tasting room is the sheer number of Burgundian-style wines you’ll sample, from pinot noir to pinot gris and pinot blanc. 19143 NE Laughlin Rd, Yamhill; 503-662-3280; Fri-Sat 12-5 and Mon-Thur by appointment (Nov-April), daily 12-5 (May-Oct)