You can love wine, food, or model trains but in the end it’s always about the people that make standout memories.

Friday wrapped up my short visit to Oregon and the Willamette Valley and the trip just couldn’t have ended better. Sure, we tasted some insanely wonderful Pinot Noir Friday in the Dundee Hills. With names like Domaine Serene, Domain Drouhin, Winderlea, and Sokol Blosser, great wine is an expectation.

Another big highlight of this trip was meeting Don Lange, Lange Vineyards, Don Hagge, Vidon, and Cliff Anderson, Anderson Family Vineyards. And it was seeing friends like Bill Sweat and Donna Morris, Winderlea, that make visits memorable.

But while making all those awesome stops, and a few more, we met some really interesting and amazing people along the way. I learned a long time ago in the newspaper business, that everyone has a story.

Click on my “Wine Travel Photos” at right for all the week’s pictures and here for Friday’s photos.

We started our day at Winter’s Hill, an Oregon producer most have never heard about. Emily and Peter Gladhart own and operate the small tasting room and brand new winery with a panoramic view of the valley. Their daughter-in-law Delphine, who grew up in Beaujolais and Burgundy, is now the winemaker.

Emily pours the wines in the tasting room. I had visited Winter’s Hill two years ago but, frankly, had no memory of the product. Their Pinot Noir was very nice and holds up to most on the hill. It’s a great product. Emily is a quiet and unassuming woman not afraid to ask for the sell. But she clearly is living a dream in an unbelievably beautiful spot in the valley.

Anyone who loves Pinot has heard of Domaine Serene owned Ken and Grace Evanstad. We had a marvelous visit and tour thanks to Lucas Willett. Lucas has 10 years of experience in the wine industry, most of it prior to Serene spent with King Estate Winery in Southern Oregon.

Lucas (at left) gave us ample time, answered questions, and was a great host. The thing that stood out was the repeated attention to detail Serene gives their wines and entire operation. Taste the wine, it all makes sense.

Lucas led us through the five story, gravity flow operation. Along the way we met 25-year-old Jason McCluskey who worked as an intern but so impressed the winemakers they hired him full time.

Jason (in photo at right) was preparing to balance the acidity in aging wine when we met him.

Willett had us sample the usual super lineup of Serene Pinot Noir. But he also poured a very unique white Pinot Noir. I’d never had anything like it. They make less than 200 cases and you’re not going to find it at your local wine shop. The Coeur Blanc is rich with an almost Sauternes mouth feel. At $85 a pop it’s not for everyone, but a very very unique wine.

One of my goals on this trip was hit some spots I’d previously missed. Sokol Blosser is one of the Valley pioneers in Pinot Noir. As a matter of fact, they claim their tasting room to be the very first in the Valley.

That’s where we met the entusiastic and knowledgeable Forrest Schad. Forrest (at left) was a bit over-the-top enthusiastic but it was hard not to enjoy the guy’s enthusiasm. He grows some grapes with his father and a few acres of his own. Ask him about his future plans and you’ll get, “I want to be the winemaker at Sokol Blosser.”

He poured the lineup for us and it was outstanding juice from top to bottom. They might have the best Rose’ of Pinot Noir I’ve tasted. The Blosser 2008 Dundee Hills Pinot rocked!

At that point in the day I really didn’t think things could improve much and it was just past noon. But an appointment at Domaine Drouhin blew us away.

I met and interviewed Laurent Drouhin for Palate Press in the spring of 2010. When I told him I had visited the Willamette Valley twice but never DDO he admonished me. So I had to make it up to Drouhin this trip.

We were greeted by DDO Managing Director David Millman, a most gracious host. We had so much fun talking out in the vineyard we almost never got the winery tour started.

David walked us through the beautiful facility and a tasting of Drouhin’s wines. Along the way we met a very young icon – Arthur Drouhin, the fifth generation of the Burgundy family.

David shared a great story of how Burgundy wines afte often named for family daughters but never sons. Apparently young Arthur felt slighted and mother Veronique, winemaker for DDO and Joseph Drouhin, asked family patriarch Robert for permission. But Burgundy families are all about the tradition and the elder Drouhin said no.

Veronique didn’t give up easily though and eventually Robert gave his permission to put a boy’s name on a white, instead of the traditional red, wine. The Arthur Chardonnay is widely distributed.

Arthur admitted he frequently gets asked about his plans to join the family business, and understandably at 16 he isn’t so sure. He was in Oregon on a three-week visit to work in the winery and work on his English.

One of the cool things at Drouhin is the ability to taste Veronique’s great DDO wines and then compare them to one of her bottles from Burgundy. The “Laurene” Pinot at $65 isn’t cheap for the average consumer, but about as good as Oregon Pinot gets.

We also got the chance to taste a 1999 vintage of the Willamette Valley Pinot. The current release is the entry point for DDO wines at $40. The 1999 is available in the tasting room for $100 – the taste indicated a bottle would be worth every nickel.

The wines on Thursday and Friday just blew us away. I brought a few back with me. A hint for wine country travelers. Always check the fee for a second bag if you’re traveling with just one checked piece of baggage.

With the record heat I couldn’t ship by ground, air shipping is about $10 a bottle. I brought my wine back for a $35 second-bag charge and it arrived just fine. A suggestion, though, is to find a local UPS store and have the wine professionally packed.

I like it when my Pinot rides home with me.

I do have some other odds and ends about this trip I’ll get up in the coming days. I am going to put together a video about the trip for Palate Press but that will be a few weeks away. I have some cool video clips too just for the blog.

This year I faced a choice of visiting Drew Casey, Wabash Class of 2012 and his family, or going to my first Wine Bloggers Conference. That was an easy choice but I’ve always wanted to attend WBC.

I learned today Portland was selected as host for next year’s conference.

What perfect timing!

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