April 27th, 2017

The McMinnville AVA: A detective mystery

Tiny Travels McMinnville OregonIt just so happens I’m in the travel detective business. It’s bad business to have an American Viticulture Area (AVA) right in your backyard that you don’t know. It’s like a clue hiding in plain sight.  From what I’m hearing on the streets it’s the stuff dreams are made of: Sloping hills ripe for trodding, cool breezes wafting from the sea. The whole place like a lover waiting to be touched.

All we’ve got is, maybe the McMinnville AVA will have the best wine in the history of wine and maybe it won’t. But the fact is it’s there, it’s waiting and for most of us working stiffs it’s so close you can almost smell it.

There’s no time for worrying and I’ve been stalling. So I put foot to pavement. I don’t need anybody’s help. The first sign of trouble comes when I find the McMinnville AVA not hanging out in McMinnville, but in the hills just a few miles outside of town. Like a gangster who sticks around close to the scene of the crime, the AVA spreads out just southwest of the tiny burg, clustered at the foot of the Coastal foothills.

My source is a voice without a face. He’s only got one answer for me. It’s the breeze that makes the McMinnville AVA. The wind whips through from the coast at Van Duzer and heads up into the valley. It chills the fruit. The day warms it back up, hot and plump. It’s a delicate dance of the weather. It might just turn out treasure.

It’s morning. I’m tired from last night’s adventure chasing down a wayward Chardonnay, so I start at Maysara Winery, where they serve me a 3° Pinot noir. She’s an innocent. Biodynamic. An angel set down in uneven, unpredictable soils.

I lift the wine to my nose. Gardenia?  No, something better. This is more like oak leaves. Pepper. The stench seeped up from the soil. The land in a glass. For a second, I want to jump inside of it. Get my feet wet.

But it’s a distraction. A rouse. A better-tasting red herring.

I don’t wait for Coleman Vineyards to come to me. I track it down at a site about 300-500 feet above sea level near that shape-shifting rascal, the Van Duzer Corridor. Right away I can tell. Coleman’s old as dirt. A mixed bag of a place forged over 40 million years, silty clay loams rubbed up against a fractured volcanic base.

The wines here have the brightness of fruit grown hot in the sun and then chilled off at night. They’ve hung long on the vines. They’re the last grapes to leave the party, and it shows. But they’re more than meets the eye. Or in this case, the mouth. The tannins march right in but make a quick retreat, finishing light and silky, like a femme fatale’s scarf.  

But I’m still not satisfied. I’m looking for clues at the next scene. I go by feeling. No beating around the bush here. I’m looking for the clue that will tie together all of the loose pieces of the mystery.

The next road winds up into the sky. I watch the tasting room attendant pour a 2016 Aspen Pinot gris at Youngberg Hill Vineyards. It’s a real tiki party in a barrel, all right, from the grapefruit, mango and peach to a full palate of lime. It’s trying to liven me up with some residual sugars, but I know what the score is. It’s a young one. Planted in 2006, but smart for its age.

I walk it to the porch. The day is nearly done and the early fogs have lifted. I’m in a better place. I can see all the way to Mt. Bachelor. It strikes me that these are all better places – far from the city but not that far.  I’ve been plucked from the meanness of the streets and set down this side of paradise.

Up here, at this room with a view, I’ve finally put my finger on it. I think I know who it is, this McMinnville AVA. It’s a place shaped by the ages. A place peopled by Pinot. A perfect pairing of climate and soil. All good things happen here with the flood of summer sunlight and the misty clouds of morning. And the roots stretch deeper. They reach with each passing year into these shifty soils and pull up treasure, hiding it in the fruit. Unambiguous richness.

The only crime is never having come to these places.


Emily Grosvenor is a travel writer in McMinnville, OR. Follow her on Twitter: @emilygrosvenor