Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

The Willamette Valley’s WVU connection

What do WVU, pinot noir and Oregon have in common? Read on and you’ll find out.

So there I was on the campus of Linfield College in Oregon last summer, rushing to get to class on time. I had to chuckle at the irony of it all. Me, worried about being tardy for class? Any of my former WVU professors –if they’re still breathing – would certainly need to “suspend disbelief” in order to accept the absurdity of that image.

Well, I have to admit this was not your ordinary boring lecture by some pedantic, patch-on-the-sleeve liberal arts lecturer. Rather, it was a seminar which required the class to assess the various taste characteristics of pinot noir produced in Oregon and Burgundy. This “class” was one of many such explorations of pinot noir as part of the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) held in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

So what’s so special about pinot noir produced in Oregon? Simply put, it’s about location. The vast Willamette Valley begins near the Columbia River Gorge on the Washington border and stretches about 100 miles south to the city of Eugene. It is approximately 60 miles across at its widest point, and is an incredibly fertile area which produces a virtual cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, including wine grapes.

The valley lies between the coastal mountains on the west and the Cascade Range to the east. The weather in this area consistently produces long growing seasons with warm days and cool nights which is what is needed – meteorologically speaking – to grow good pinot noir.

As I’ve stated before, my general impression of Willamette Valley pinot noir is that it is kind of a cross between the sometimes intense, fruit forward version of the wine produced in California, and the more subtle and restrained style which typifies how pinot noir is made in Burgundy.

The IPNC weekend was filled with tastings of pinot noir from just about every wine making region on the planet, but the emphasis was on Oregon. We were also treated to the wonderfully fresh local foods prepared by an all-star lineup of chefs from some of the region’s most highly regarded restaurants.

At one of the al fresco luncheons on the lawn of this idyllic college campus (incidentally, Linfield has the longest string of winning football seasons in America at more than 50), I spotted a young man wearing a dark blue sweat shirt with a huge gold “WVU” emblazoned on the front. It turns out this mountaineer is an Oregon transplant working in the wine industry for R. Stuart & Co. – a well respected and superb producer of pinot noir.

Kevin Wiles grew up in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and South Carolina and he graduated from WVU. He is the son of the late Edwin “Eddie” Wiles who was a former president of the WV Coal Association. I knew Kevin’s dad from my lobbying days, and so we chatted about family, wine and prospects for the Mountaineers in the upcoming football season. Eventually, I asked the inevitable question: how did you get to Oregon?

It turns out Kevin, who is 32, had worked at a wine shop on Hilton Head Island where his mother now lives, and where he developed a love for wine. While attending a wine seminar in Oregon called “Pinot Camp” several years ago, he met Rob Stuart who is owner and winemaker at the winery that bears his name. Rob invited Kevin to work the harvest and then later offered him a job as an assistant wine maker. And believe me, Kevin is loving every minute of the experience.

I met Kevin again a couple of weeks ago in the Wine Shop at Capitol Market where he was in town to tout the latest wines from R. Stuart. Naturally, I was required to taste along with the good folks from the wine shop, and I was very pleased with the latest wines from R. Stuart.

Here are three R. Stuart wines I recommend for your tasting pleasure:

2007 R. Stuart Big Fire Pinot Gris ($17) – Oregon, without a doubt, produces the best pinot gris grown in North America. This wine has ripe green apple flavors with a touch of minerality and excellent balancing acidity. Pair it with pasta sauced with olive oil, arugula, pine nuts and garlic.

2007 R. Stuart Big Fire Pinot Noir ($27) – Ripe cherry flavors and excellent balance characterize this delicious mouthful of pinot noir. Try it with chicken that has been rubbed with rosemary, olive oil and minced garlic and then grilled over charcoal.

2006 R. Stuart Autograph Pinot Noir ($50) This is the flagship of the R. Stuart line of fine pinot noir. It is at once intensely flavored, yet restrained, with earthy, spicy aromas, dark cherry flavors with everything in balance. This wine will improve for several more years in the bottle. If you drink it now, be sure to decant it for at least one hour and then serve it with roasted rack of lamb seasoned with fresh rosemary, garlic, olive oil and Dijon mustard.

Kevin is back in Oregon now tending the vines and getting ready for another harvest. Just like his beloved Mountaineers, we won’t know the quality of the end product for another few months, but we’re all hoping for a spectacular season.

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