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For wine snobs, Willamette Valley is the place for pure pinot noir

WILLAMETTE, Ore. -- One of the memorable lines from last year's movies came from ''Sideways," when wine-obsessed Miles Raymond has a tizzy before a double-date dinner. ''If anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving," Miles screams at his laid-back friend Jack.

Miles's wine of choice is pinot noir, a grape much like his character: thin-skinned, temperamental, and complex. The grape can be grown only in climates with sunny but cool autumn days, as in such regions as Burgundy, France; Santa Barbara, Calif., where ''Sideways" was filmed; and the emerging Willamette Valley in Oregon.

Since 1998, Oregon has had six great pinot noir vintages in a row, which is remarkable considering that one torrential downpour at the wrong time can wash out the grape's taste. Oregon oenophiles note that if Miles were a true wine snob, he would have flown to Portland and driven the 45 minutes south to Willamette (pronounced will-AM-it).

''In California, you're allowed to blend in 25 percent of another grape, like syrah and zinfandel, and still call it pinot noir," says Jay McDonald, owner of the Tasting Room in Carlton. ''Here in Oregon, we're 100 percent pure pinot."

McDonald opened his business in a former bank on Main Street in 1995 as a way for smaller wineries to showcase their wine. There are more than 250 winemakers in the state, and many lack the space necessary for folks to stop in and sample the goods. They include Ken Wright Cellars and Beaux Freres, the darlings of Wine Spectator magazine, whose wines consistently score high ratings. They aren't cheap, though, with bottles in the $40-$50 range. McDonald's own blend of pinot noir grapes, which he calls EIEIO, is a bargain starting at $20 a bottle. As a thank-you to McDonald for displaying their wares, sellers asked if he wanted to buy any of their barrels. He agreed, starting up the age-old Burgundian practice of being a négociant, a merchant who buys wines from several vineyards to create his own blend.

Pinot noir lacks the heartier tannins of cabernets and is far more subtle. It starts with the scent of raspberries, cherries, or tangy blackberries, spiced with the aroma of cardamom, rose, or cinnamon, and can finish with a hint of smoke or earth.

''A glass of pinot can be a sensual, even spiritual experience when all the elements fall into place, and a heartbreaker when the universe doesn't cooperate," says Heidi Yorkshire, a Portland-based wine writer and former wine columnist for The Oregonian.

The stars were certainly aligned when winemaker Steve Doerner created his 2001 Cristom Jessie Vineyard pinot. At least, that's what the lot of us thought over dinner at Wildwood, in Portland. The ruby color hid a mix of black cherries and cinnamon, and, when tasted, the long silky finish left us clamoring for more.

I wanted to ask Doerner about the wine, so I visited him at the 60-acre operation on the outskirts of Salem, where the vines are named for the owners' four daughters. Doerner made his reputation as a master craftsman in California, but he prefers the hassle-free nature of Oregon.

''My philosophy is simple. To cultivate the vine when necessary, but try not to handle the grapes too much," he says. His hands-off approach works wonders, producing wines with an intriguing array of flavors. The 2002 Marjorie Vineyard smelled of black raspberry and the sweetness of vanilla. It's bigger and bolder than Jessie, but has the same soft finish.

Having forgotten to spit, I was in dire need of sustenance to soak up the alcohol. Nick's Italian Cafe, on Third Street in McMinnville has been a wine country institution since it opened in 1977. It serves a five-course prix fixe Northern Italian dinner, but all I craved was a bowl of minestrone soup and a good chunk of freshly made bread. I sat at the long counter and peered down at the extensive wine list, which dates to Nick's early years.

''Winemakers often stop at Nick's to savor a long-lost bottle they can no longer find in their own cellar," says Kirby Neumann-Rea, a former waiter at Nick's and now editor in chief of Hood River News.

Indeed, the list includes the legendary 1975 Eyrie Vineyards South Block, the wine that put Oregon pinot noir on the international map. In 1980, a young David Lett brought this same vintage to a premier French wine-tasting competition and shocked the old world vintners by coming in second. The man who organized the event, Robert Drouhin, a third-generation Burgundy winemaker, was so impressed that he followed Lett, now called ''Papa Pinot" to Oregon and, in 1987, purchased a 225-acre estate that was formerly a Christmas tree farm. Drouhin created the first building in Oregon designed solely for fermenting wine and hired his daughter Veronique as winemaker. In typical Burgundy fashion, they both see Oregon as a long-term investment, where their descendents will be creating some incredibly mature wine.

And ''Sideways," too, will soon be associated with Oregon. Bill Hatcher, owner of A to Z Winery, has trademarked the name and plans to use it for an upcoming pinot noir. Never, he hopes, to be labeled by someone like Miles as ''quaffable, but far from transcendent."

Stephen Jermanok is a freelance writer in Newton.

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