Little Minnesota in the Willamette: Winemakers from the North have staked their claim in Oregon’s wine scene

The Willamette Valley // Photo courtesy iOTA Cellars Wine

The Willamette Valley // Photo courtesy iOTA Cellars Wine

Pinot noir that seduces with satin-and-lace elegance. Riesling worthy of her exalted status as Queen of the White Wines. Chardonnay that walks a tightrope with both energy and grace. These are the kinds of wines coming out of arguably the most exciting wine region in the United States today—Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Over the years, several Minnesotans heeded the call west in search of the finest grapes to make wine, and staked their claim in the sparse hillside soils of the Willamette.

Decades ago, some of the first Minnesota-connected vines went into the ground under the eye of Ken and Grace Evenstad. After launching in 1989, Domaine Serene has grown to become an empire unlike anything the Willamette Valley has witnessed. The wines command prices parallel to Grand Cru Burgundy, and they’ve accrued critical praise from around the globe to ground their reputation. In 2016, Domaine Serene was awarded the #1 Pinot Noir in the World at the Decanter World Wine Awards for their 2012 Winery Hill Pinot Noir. Later in the year, Wine Spectator declared their 2014 Evenstad Reserve Chardonnay the top white in the world. One helluva year for the once pharma-focused owners of Upsher-Smith in Maple Grove.

The stories of the other Minnesotans are more modest, as are all other wineries in Oregon by contrast. However, the wines crafted by the multitude of others speak the compelling, nuanced language of the Willamette Valley.

Annie Shull, a St. Anthony Park native, co-owns Raptor Ridge Winery with her husband Scott. With a background in curriculum development for sales teams, Annie now leads national sales efforts and PR, while Scott steers the winemaking efforts. The duo has built a modern, inviting tasting room and winery a quick jaunt southwest of Portland on the north slope of the Chehalem Mountains, and have an estate vineyard surrounding the facility. Beyond the noteworthy pinot noirs, including the 2014 Barrel Select Pinot Noir, the Shulls also produce pinot gris, beautiful bubbly brut rosé, and the unheralded varietal, auxerrois.

Raptor Ridge Winery // Photo courtesy Raptor Ridge Winery

Raptor Ridge Winery // Photo by Andrea Johnson, courtesy Raptor Ridge Winery

Twenty-five miles farther south in the Willamette Valley, Johanna and Don Sandberg purchased land in 2000, planted vines a couple years later, and launched iOTA Cellars in 2006. Don grew up around Lake Minnetonka, and married Johanna after she moved to Minnesota post-college. After seven years together in Minnesota, the couple moved west to turn their dream into a reality.

“Our particular excitement about pinot noir from the Willamette Valley led us here,” says Don. “We never discussed any other option, since Oregon was the right fit not only for our future wine venture, but the lifestyles we wanted to lead.” And after toiling for years planting a vineyard, building a winery, and launching a small wine company—grueling and risky work—they must surely be grinning now with the recent national and international attention focused on their little corner of the valley, the Eola-Amity Hills. The winery makes persuasive wines, including the flagship iOTA Pinot Noir bottling. No wonder top-rung producers have knocked on the Sandberg’s door for over a decade to receive a few tons of their fruit for their own production.

Some of the first vines ever planted in Oregon have a strong connection to Minnesota. Founded by Cal and Julia Lee Knudsen, Knudsen Vineyards was first planted in 1971, and the famed Knudsen Erath Winery started shortly thereafter in partnership with winemaker Dick Erath. Years later, Erath would separate, and Knudsen Vineyards would begin selling their fruit to Argyle Winery. Fast forward, and today Page Knudsen Cowles, resident of the Twin Cities and partner to Jay Cowles of Star Tribune heritage, now owns and manages her second generation vineyard with the help of her siblings.

Starting in 2012, they began producing a few thousand cases each year of historic and stunning pinot noir and chardonnay from their estate vineyard under their new Knudsen Vineyards label. Doubly interesting, Nate Klostermann crafts the wines for Knudsen Vineyards. Klostermann graduated from the University of Minnesota, and first worked for a Minnesota winery before heading west to work as an intern at Argyle Winery. He now serves as head winemaker for Argyle, one of the top posts in the valley for a winemaker. Few new labels out of Oregon can hang their hat on estate fruit from one of the founding vineyards. Knudsen Vineyards can, and the wines measure up to the high expectations.

And then there are the rebels. The micro-production, under-the-radar, or avant-garde producers from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Bill Hooper attended Cretin–Derham Hall as a youngster, and after marrying a German gal, he landed in Pfalz, Germany, learning the art of viticulture and winemaking at the Wine and Agricultural school in Neustadt an der Weinstraße. He is one of only two American graduates in the 115-year history of the school.

Bill Hooper looks over the crops at Weinbau Paetra Vineyard // Photo courtesy Weinbau Paetra

Bill Hooper looks over the crops at Weinbau Paetra // Photo courtesy Weinbau Paetra

After returning stateside, Oregon became the clear choice for a rabble-rousing small, production riesling producer like Hooper. He founded Weinbau Paetra, and now, you can’t find much better American-made riesling. The “K” Riesling, his entry wine and an homage to the Kabinett Rieslings of Germany, will give you a taste of what to expect.

The bounty of connections continues like the Mighty Mississippi herself: Scott Neal of Coeur de Terre Vineyard produces estate pinot noir, pinot gris, and syrah from his vineyard in the McMinnville AVA, a windswept area known for balanced, deeply pitched wines with higher concentrations of tannins. His 2014 Oregon Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) is a standout, especially at the price point. Anne Hubatch hails from over the border in Wisconsin, and after working for other wineries in Oregon, set off on her own under the Helioterra label. You can find her wines across Minnesota and Wisconsin—look for the pinot blanc and Starthistle Cuvée. Tim Wilson of Denison Cellars also has roots in Minnesota, and his robust Rosé of Pinot Noir serves as a reminder that the current trend toward pale, Provençal rosé need not be the only expression we value.

For these Minnesotans, Oregon’s Willamette Valley has proven a seductive siren. The valley’s unique ability to grow fruit that transparently and compellingly gives voice to pinot noir specifically, but also riesling, chardonnay, pinot gris, and more, led these wine lovers west. Their passion translates into arresting wines widely available in the Midwest thanks to their roots in the heartland. Raise a glass of Minnesota-connected Oregon wine, and you raise it knowing you share a connection to the hands that crafted it. You’ll also savor every delicious sip.

Anne Hubach of Helioterra Wines // Photo by Josh Chang, courtesy Helioterra Wines

Anne Hubach of Helioterra Wines // Photo by Josh Chang, courtesy Helioterra Wines

Wines of Note:

Coeur de Terre Vineyard 2014 Oregon Pinot Noir

Well-structured with brambly red and black fruit, and a well integrated kiss of oak. This wine could age thanks to the tannin profile combined with the vibrant, balanced acidity. Great value!

iOTA 2014 Not One iOTA Pinot Noir

Cherry, cigar, and bramble flow into a luscious palate with deft, balanced weight, and gentle tannins. A wine that can easily impress the connoisseur and wine novice alike, no small feat. Lovely, giving, and layered. Yum.

Weinbau Paetra 2016 Elwetritsche Riesling (dry)

Shows a lusher style of dry riesling with profound aromas of Asian pear, lemon candy, and honeysuckle. A lingering memory of residual sugar exists on the dry, vibrant frame. A very compelling bottling with tension abounding between supple ripeness and vibrating acidity.

Knudsen Vineyards 2015 Pinot Noir

Elegance abounds with classic Dundee high-toned cherry, black tea, and a hint of baking spices. Both smooth and refined on the palate with deftly balanced acidity, this pinot noir shows its pedigree. Lovely.

Raptor Ridge 2012 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir

Delicious and profound aromas of spiced cherry, black tea, and dried fall leaves. The palate maintains elegance and holds the 14.1 ABV very well. A touch of cola comes through on the palate. One of the best Shea Vineyard bottlings tasted to date.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that cabernet sauvignon is being grown and made in the Willamette Valley. Cabernet sauvignon is grown in southern Oregon, in the Rogue Valley.