The year was 1965, and although the dust of the Oregon Trail had long settled, once more a pioneer set his eyes on the fertile land and opportunity of the Willamette Valley. His name was David Lett, and he had dreams of moving north and starting a new life.
With him, Lett brought 3,000 cuttings, gathered from vineyards around UC Davis where he had earned his degree in viticulture. From there, he began cultivating prize-winning pinot grapes, earning himself the nickname “Papa Pinot”, while laying the foundation for what would become a premier, internationally acclaimed wine-producing region.
Though pinot noir is quintessential to the Willamette Valley, there is one special time of year that suits sipping the red wine particularly well: the holiday season.
“Pinot noir has it all,” says Julia Burke, marketing and communications coordinator at Willamette Valley Wineries Association. “It’s light-to-medium-bodied so it won’t overwhelm your meal, but with enough fruit and structure to stand up to hearty dishes. It’s versatile—like the kinds of foods people eat this time of year—and it’s moderate enough in tannin and weight to be a fine accompaniment to a variety of protein sources.”
Each year, thousands of visitors sample the iconic pinot noir, gris, blanc and a plethora of other superb varietals during the Willamette Valley Wine Country Thanksgiving. In 2018, the event runs November 23-25, and out-of-towners and locals alike will encounter a bushel-full of exclusive offerings at more than 100 wineries. “Special tastings for the Thanksgiving weekend might include library wines, new fall releases, holiday flights, pairings, promotions, and even opportunities to taste with the winemakers,” explains Burke.
Well-known or off-the-beaten path, deciding where to start can be an overwhelming task, but Wine Country Thanksgiving is an excellent time to get in the trailblazing spirit and explore some new wineries. “The South Willamette Valley is well worth the farther drive for those coming from Portland,” Burke suggests, “and it’s quite convenient for those visiting family near Salem, Eugene or Corvallis.”
Revisiting old favorites is completely acceptable as well, especially in the company of loved ones. It’s easy to move laughter and good times from the dinner table to any one of the valley’s wineries, where lawn games, exquisite harvest-time fare and warm hospitality create the perfect setting for a celebration.
As much as enjoying a bottle with friends and family may embody Thanksgiving, giving back to those less fortunate is just as important. With this in mind, many participating wineries also contribute to the Willamette Cares Food Share program, which collects nonperishable food and cash donations for Oregon’s food banks.
Giving doesn’t have to stop there. When attending (or hosting) any Thanksgiving gatherings, nothing demonstrates gratitude like a thoughtfully selected vino. “For people who love to entertain and find pleasure in hosting and feeding others, finding wine to complement good food and great company can be its own reward,” says Burke. “For those who prefer to show up and let someone else manage the menu, wine is the perfect gift to bring. It fosters companionship and conversation, and the right wine can truly elevate a meal.”
Her go-to? Something a bit bubbly like a Willamette Valley sparkling wine: impeccably suited for the hours between early-morning Turkey Trot races and post-turkey, tryptophan-induced naps. If it’s sophistication you’re after, keep an eye out for more mature vintages. “For an impressive treat I’d suggest a Willamette Valley pinot noir with a little age on it—the 2007s and 2008s are just singing right now.” The noteworthy acidity can keep the palate fresh throughout lengthy meals, and its balance and range of flavors will undoubtedly land it on tables across Oregon. It seems Papa Pinot knew what he was doing.