Chow Town

Oregon’s Youngberg Hill winery making lovely and complex Pinot Noir

Aerial view of Youngberg Hill
Aerial view of Youngberg Hill

I’ve always favored Oregon wines; I won’t deny it. Maybe it’s that I like Pinot Noir; Oregon is famed for it. Maybe it’s that I enjoy cool weather; I don’t mind rain or overcast skies. Maybe it’s cuz I was born there, though my stay was brief enough that it’s debatable if it registered in my 2-year-old mind. But I like the wines; do I have to justify that?

I can tell you that it’s because Oregon Pinot Noir is often more elegant than most of California’s output. I can also admit that the relationships I’ve built in my time in Oregon have dug firmer and deeper roots than my just-as-frequent visits in California’s wine country. Who knows why that is?

It’s nothing against Californians. As far as I can see Oregon is filled with them. Lots of people who went north for a while and just stayed because it was cheaper (or at least it was some time ago) or something in the landscape just grabbed them. It’s not Oregon’s unique story; California’s wine country is filled with transplants too.

Wayne Bailey and his wife grew up in western Iowa, closer to Omaha than Des Moines, and after college he found himself working in food and beverage as a consultant. He started working in wine and ended up in Burgundy. It’s a good place to fall in love with Pinot Noir, but not a particularly affordable place to start a winery. Oregon in 2003 was cheaper, and Wayne wanted for his kids something like he and his wife had in Iowa: small town, great people, a life nurtured from the land.

He and his family settled on Youngberg Hill in Oregon, named for the Swedish farmer who had farmed there since the 1920s. It’s both closer to the ocean than many Willamette Valley wineries and more exposed to the winds from the Van Duzer Corridor, a gap in the Coastal Ranges that can be surprisingly chilling at times. It slows down ripening but adds to the unpredictability of an already tricky sub-appellation in Willamette: McMinnville AVA.

All three kids (Natalie, Jordan and Aspen) have their own block of vines. They’re part of the team, in their own way, and their presence may at least partly explain why the Baileys have farmed organically since the beginning. Maybe that focus upon organic and even bio-dynamic viticulture gives the wines a slightly softer tone than many of its neighbors; Pinot Noirs in McMinnville can be surprisingly hard and even tannic, compared to most Oregon Pinot Noir.

I won’t say that these are the best Oregon Pinot Noirs you’ll find, but that’s nothing against these wines. Rather it’s because I find so many Oregon Pinot Noirs to be lovely and compelling. These wines speak well to Bailey’s vision and, just like any other among my favorites, they offer the character and complexity that keeps me coming back to Oregon for its wines.

Wine columnist Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based master sommelier and master of wine. To reach him, send email to winedog@att.net.

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