Luscious to drink, intoxicating if you're not careful, wine can also be intimidating to the uninitiated. Just think of how Paul Giamatti's unforgettably fussy wine snob, Miles Raymond, opined about Pinot Noir in 2004's wine-film hit Sideways: "Its flavours, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and”¦ancient on the planet."
Now that's some heavy talk for a bunch of grapes.
Here's a secret from a real expert, one of Oregon's learned sommeliers: "The only thing that matters is that you like what you're drinking." Tysan Pierce should know: she's one of the state's few full-time sommeliers and the wine director of Portland's largest wine cellar, the 500-bottle cave at the Heathman Hotel.
Maybe Oregon is starting to agree with her. The balloon goblet is threatening to replace the coffee mug as Portland's unofficial emblem, as new chic-but-casual wine bars continue to pop up and the number of wineries in the state has nearly quadrupled-from 78 to more than 300-in the past decade.
More than 5,200 hectares of grapes were growing in the Willamette Valley and Oregon's other wine-producing regions last year, and most of them carried the state's most cantankerous and gifted fruit: those Sideways-approved pinot grapes. If the state had a mistress, her name would be Pinot Noir. An intemperate, complex burn of rich red-fruit flavours, this delicate powerhouse has been turning heads toward Oregon since gaining international recognition in the mid-'90s. Pinot Noir and her lighter sisters, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, are fashioned from a grape so finicky it can only be grown in a handful of places around the world.
It takes someone like Pierce, a self-described Pinot Noir addict, to get a handle on this vine. At the ripe age of 29, Pierce already has earned her diploma from the International Sommelier Guild. Her job at the Heathman is to educate hotel diners and waiters on wine.
Sometimes that job is easy because, in Oregon, a love of Pinot is just a glass away.
A bold blond leans over the L-shaped bar at downtown Portland's Oregon Wines on Broadway and yells, "Hey! How ya doin'!" over the blues blaring from the speakers. Like a high-class version of a local pub, the place is adorned with a row of spigot-decked bottles lining the back wall of the bar. Instead of Guinness on tap, it's Oregon wines the barmaids are pouring, 36 different reds every night (30 of them Pinot Noirs) for tastes by the sip or glass. The blond in fishnets and motorcycle boots? That's Betsy Bolling, who helps run the joint along with the owner-her older sister, Kate.
"We have really strong local winemakers around here," Kate Bolling explains. "Why not showcase them? After all, if I'm going to buy an expensive bottle of wine, I want to know if I like it." The straightforward attitude and the sisters' friendliness make Broadway one of the best places to start learning what the Oregon wine region has to offer.
And what, specifically, about pinot noir? Betsy Bolling's eyes narrow. "Oooh. Now that's a moody little grape," she says. Pierce translates: of all the varieties, pinot is the most susceptible to rot on the vine. Once picked, its thin skin can sunburn and ripen too quickly. Too cold? Underripe qualities surface in the blend.
Blessed with the same temporal zone and weather conditions as Burgundy, France, the Willamette Valley-home to more than 70 percent of Oregon's vineyards-is a perfect Pinot match. Many local growers still abide by the centuries-old French notion of terroir, the idea that the very soil a vine is rooted in is what gives a wine its most potent characteristics. "That's why winemaking is so enchanting," Pierce says. "It's not an exact science."
Although Broadway has its charms, it's the coarse enclave across the river once known for its dive bars that has really become Portland's vino central: Northeast 28th and Burnside.
There's the gregarious Noble Rot, where trios of ladies sip glasses of J. Christopher Pinot Noir outside the bar's roll-up garage doors. Pierce is there, too, trying a flight (a grouping of similar wines) of Oregon Pinots. The Bordeaux-coloured space serves an international list of wines by the bottle, glass, or taste.
A block and a half away is the elegantly minimal Navarre, where you can sample small plates of exquisite food as well as compare a French Burgundy with its local Pinot brethren by the glass, the quarter-, half-, or full carafe. Pierce has a theory on the popularity of these small-plate/big-bottle destinations.
"A lot of people can't afford to go out for a big dinner, so they go grab some tapas and a glass or two at a wine bar." She gets back to describing the glass of wine in front of her, but it seems impossible for her not to talk about the personality of the winemaker behind it. "It's better when you know the people. It comes out in the wine," she says. Lucky for us, some of those people are only a 45-minute drive away.
Taking Highway 99 west out of Portland is a start-and-stop journey through booming suburbs and little towns in the midst of growing pains. But as you drive farther south, the mini-malls fade and rolling hills begin to stretch far in their stead. As you round the final turn out of Newberg, you're there: wine country.
To jump into the wine scene feet first, Pierce suggests a stop at Ponzi Wine Bar in Dundee. Before Noble Rot uncorked a single bottle, the Ponzi name was synonymous with local Pinot culture. Dick and Nancy Ponzi are two of the valley's pioneers, venturing to Oregon to try their luck at pinot grapes in 1969. Thirty years later, their dynasty includes 40 hectares of vineyards, a Beaverton winery, and the Dundee wine bar.
"Sometimes wineries are intimidating," says daughter Luisa, one of the country's most lauded female winemakers. "But the wine bar is all about trying new things."
As the wait staff whiz about the Tuscan-style room, often carrying three balloon goblets in one hand, our wine expert and "vine virgins" alike sit back and relax at a sunny table or at a high bar stool. Unlike a regular winery visit, here you may stick to a budget flight of Ponzi wines or build your own tasting experience. The wine list rotates weekly through a roster of more than 70 Willamette Valley wineries. Designate your driver early, though: the Ponzi pours big.
Continuing south past Dundee, Pierce hits the sleepy community of Carlton. Boasting a population of a bit more than 1,500 people-and more than 10 wineries and vineyards-this dusty little town is also a heavy pumping chamber in the heart of Oregon wine.
On the corner of Pine and Main streets sits the former Carlton State and Savings. Since 1995, the vault of this bank has carried different treasures: bottles from vintners such as Domaine Drouhin, Lemelson Vineyards, and Ken Wright Cellars. This is Jay MacDonald's The Tasting Room.
The blunt warning that pops up when you click on the store's Web site (www.pinot-noir.com/) says it all: "If you're looking for cheap prices on mediocre wines, this isn't the place. Save us all from public embarrassment and leave now."
Luckily, the bricks-and-mortar version, a tiny room packed with barrels topped with bottles from small vintners and hard-to-find buys, is less daunting. Pierce lets us in on another secret: this shop is an essential stop for anyone looking to build a cellar of Oregon Pinot because customers can taste wines (at 10 percent of the bottle cost) from the valley's vibrant community of boutique wineries that aren't open to the public.
"It's great-we got to buy a bunch of wines that we would never have tried otherwise," says Rebecca Roberts, a Raleigh Hills customer who was shopping with her husband, Evan.
Rolling back toward the cityscape of Portland after an afternoon of tasting wines, you're bound to feel a warm contentment. But as Pierce stresses after our trip, this is just the beginning. Getting to know mistress Pinot is all about enjoying the learning curve: from savouring the sweet, fruity bombast of newer vintages at Wines on Broadway to seeking out tannic, cellar-worthy finds in the wilds of Carlton. Start your own Sideways journey, but make sure you're ready for the long haul. The effect of good wines, like cherished friends and old lovers, lingers.
ACCESS: From Vancouver, Portland is a five-hour drive south on Interstate 5. Start your wine education off right by lodging at the classic Heathman Hotel (1001 SW Broadway, 1-800-551-0011, www.heathmanhotel.com/), right in the middle of downtown Portland. The hotel's restaurant is home to both Tysan Pierce's massive wine cellar and chef Philippe Boulot's delicious Northwest-meets-French cuisine.
Oregon Wines on Broadway (515 SW Broadway, 1-800-943-8858, www.oregonwinesonbroadway.com/) is located only blocks from the Heathman Hotel, while those chic wine bars Noble Rot (2724 SE Ankeny Street,  233-1999) and Navarre (10 NE 28th Avenue,  232-3555) are located across the Willamette River in the Laurelhurst neighbourhood.
Take your time exploring the city. You can nab a lunch-time glass of Pinot Gris in Portland and still make the 45-minute drive west on Highway 99 to the Willamette Valley wine country, in time to try a flight of Pinot Noir in Dundee at the Ponzi Wine Bar (100 SW 7th Street, Dundee;  554-1500; www.ponziwines.com/). Smart drinkers will book a room at the Black Walnut Inn (9600 NE Worden Hill Road, Dundee; 1-866-429-4114; www.blackwalnut-inn.com/), an upscale new Tuscan-themed bed-and-breakfast in town.
Continue down Highway 99 to reach the tiny town of Carlton, home to The Tasting Room (105 West Main Street, Carlton;  852-6733; www.pinot-noir.com/) as well as the innovative Carlton Winemakers Studio (801 North Scott Street, Carlton;  852-6100; www.winemakersstudio.com/), a nine-member wine collective that boasts a rock-climbing wall next to its oak barrels. Want to start planning your trip early? Call the Oregon Wine Board at 1-800-242-2363 or check out www.oregonwine.org/ for more information about Oregon's wine scene. Cheers!