PORTLAND, OR – There is nothing more fun, educational, and exciting than visiting wine country for wine geeks.

One of my favorite places has become Oregon’s Willamette Valley. This is my third trip to the region and first solely focused on the wine, food, and people. In other words, I’m not here for work – just wine, food, and cultural appreciation.

After an ugly Monday Indianapolis to Dallas to Portland flight (not a route I’d recommend), my first day Tuesday was off the charts in diversity, fun, and enrichment.

Two of my favorite things – wine and food – took center stage. I’m not going to write wine reviews on these daily updates but, instead, mention places I really liked and what I enjoyed about each. And one of the biggest things about visiting a place like the Willamette Valley is not just the wine, but the people and the food.

See Drew and my photos in an album here. All of this week’s albums will be included in the link to the right.

Our day included four wine stops. We started at Dundee, just off Highway 99W, at Four Graces. I had visited the “Graces” two years ago and loved it. Tuesday the highlight was a white wine instead of their Pinot Noir. I found a rich, creamy and dry Pinot Blanc that just rocked. Their Pinots, a bit on the higher price side at $29-$45-$75, are nice wines.

Our second wine stop was in downtown McMinnville – my first visit to the town at the heart of wine country. We sort of wandered into Willamette Valley Vineyard’s tasting room and were welcomed by the very knowledgeable and fun Mari Yeckel. Mari – (pronounce it like there are two “r’s” .. Marrr-ee)

Mari poured a really nice Syrah based Rose’ and several Pinot Noirs. Drew, my host in Portland, joined me with his mother for Tuesday’s fun. Drew is a senior in College where I work and has a pretty discerning palate for a 21 year old.

Drew and I both loved the 2008 Tualatin Estate Pinot with hints of black cherry and raspberry. I was taken by the wine’s smooth and rich mouth feel. This wine was worth the $45.

Mari exemplied customer service in a customer service industry. We learned just before leaving that she’s also a food blogger. Check her blog out here.

Wine stop No. 3 was at the Carlton Winemaker’s Studio. These collaborative wine operations are a good place for anyone new to the area to include on their itinerary. Jeff Woodard poured wines from 4-5 of the 11 winemakers represented. Many of these wine labels are names you may not know but offer real quality. Andrew Rich is the headliner and you’ll find his wines in many states.

Other labels include: Wahle, Lazy River, Dukes, Hamacher, Retour, and Brittan. Robert Brittan makes the wines of Winderlea and Ayoub as well. His $45 “Basalt Block” Pinot was the best of the lot being poured Tuesday.

In one of my most recent newspaper columns I recommended asking tasting room workers for recommendations on other wineries. We did that Tuesday and nearly everyone recommended Vidon, just north of Newberg.

We got to Vidon late in the afternoon after a mix-up on the tasting room’s closing time. The young man pouring, on his first day on the job, agreed to give us a taste of two Pinots. We tasted the 08 and 09. Many have called the 2008 vintage one of the best in Oregon’s recent history. But Drew and I both liked the 2009 best.

Vidon has bit of a cult status in the valley. The 09 was “silky” in texture with beautiful balance. I often admit struggling for the right words to describe wine. I’ve seen “silky” used before but never tasted it. I found the Vidon ‘silky’ Three Clones Pinot Noir easily the best wine of the day. Easily!

Our lunch, at Mari’s recommendation, at the Community Plate just down the street in McMinnville was another big highlight. The latest in the growing ‘farm-to-fork’ movement didn’t disappoint. A great menu with four cold and four hot sandwich choices made our day. The cool urban feel of the place, along with all the young people working the food, was a big highlight.

But even with the Vidon Pinot and Scott Cunningham’s insanely delicious hamburger, jam stole the day. Lynnette Shaw and Amy Wilder have created a sensation in Carlton known as the Republic of Jam. Lynnette’s secret, she laughs – “I don’t like sweet stuff.”

The ladies at ROJ take Oregon’s incredible fruits and combine them with the area’s wines,spices and create unbelieveable taste combinations that lean to the savory side. Many of the jams can be used for entrees or in ways you’ve never imagined using a jar of breakfast spread.

I did some video with the ladies and plan to incorporate that into a video I’ll do for Palate Press in the coming weeks. I’ve never had taste combinations – in jam or much else – like I enjoyed at the Republic of Jam. They run their small business like a winery tasting room when you visit. You can also order their unique combinations online.

I’ve simply never tasted anything like it.

Wednesday is a day away from wine. I’m going to drive the Columbia River Gorge, drive around Mt. Hood, go up the the lodge at about the treeline on the mountain, and maybe make one or two winery stops in that area. Then it’s back to Willamette Thursday and Friday to visit a few of the most iconic names in Oregon wine.

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com