Standing at the bow of a little rowboat and chatting with my two companions, I realize I’m not just fly-fishing Oregon’s famed McKenzie River, I’m also a student in a floating master class on how chance geologic events made this valley about perfect for two things: growing grapes to make world-class wines, and sustaining some of the country’s loveliest wild trout.
True, my shipmates aren’t your average fishing buddies. Manning the oars is river conservationist and science teacher Steve Lent; wielding a fly rod at the stern is Jesse Lange, lifelong fly fisherman and winemaker at one of Willamette Valley’s first – and finest – wineries.
How I’d managed to score such a spot was, as with many things in my life, a matter of dumb luck.
Like most wine geeks who love pinot noir, my wife, Gail, and I are familiar (read: obsessed) with those from Willamette Valley. When I noticed images of fly lures festooning most bottles of Lange Estate’s wines, I deduced that someone there might share some of my other passions. One thing led to another, and after a brief email exchange and phone call, Jesse invited my family to visit his vineyards and for me to come fishing with him.
That such a several-day trip would mean blessedly cooler weather than at home in Florida, along with hills bigger than speed bumps, and lots of good local food, was enough to convince our teenage son, Ewan, that it could be fun for him, too.
Arriving one mid-March morning after an hour’s drive southwest from Portland, we drop our bags at one of the guest houses at Stoller Family Estate and, running late for the first of several vineyard visits I’d arranged, hoof it half an hour north, to Ponzi Vineyards.
Despite its spare, modern architecture and snazzy tasting room, Ponzi’s laid-back vibe seems worlds away from the atmosphere at many of California’s Napa and Sonoma wineries, where tourist-packed wine tastings often feel more like boozy rugby scrums. Gail, Ewan and I agree that even fellow drivers here seem more courteous than those on other vineyard routes we’ve traveled. These impressions are confirmed over the next few days.
Among the area’s pioneer winemakers, the Ponzis settled near the northern tip of the 150-mile long Willamette Valley in the late ’60s. Convinced the climate and dirt were ideal for growing wine grapes such as pinot noir, they cleared pastureland, and swapped hazelnut and walnut orchards for vineyards.
Over lunch of fresh-baked quiche and a sampling of wines, Gail and I agree they made the right call. Their riesling, zingy and vibrant, is lovely. A pair of chardonnays are excellent, though we prefer the younger one, a crisply acidic 2014 reserve chardonnay. Their pinot noirs, especially those made from their oldest vines, are delicious. Ewan has only high praise for his glass of Ponzi’s Cugini sparkling grape juice.
Back that sunny afternoon at Stoller, we stroll to the hilltop tasting room. Families, most with small children, are picnicking and playing outside. Kids steamroll down the grassy hill, while others take turns on the tire swing hanging from a white oak tree in the field below. In nearly every parent’s hands is a glass of wine. It’s an idyllic scene, replayed most fair-weathered weekends, that has earned Stoller the half-joking nickname among locals: Willamette Valley State Park. It’s a name the good-natured winery staff seems to embrace.
Though a little too old to join the youngsters, Ewan is happy to explore the grounds, taking photos of the daffodils and playing fetch with a friendly dog.
Pinot noir may rule in Willamette Valley, but Stoller, like other area wineries, also makes very fine wines from other grapes, including sister Burgundian grape chardonnay and lesser known types such as tempranillo. Gail, after a sip of their 2016 late harvest riesling, declares the golden liquid “ambrosial.”
After an early dinner nearby at homey Nick’s Italian Cafe, unofficial clubhouse for area winemakers, we return to Stoller, where we lounge outside our guest house in Adirondack chairs, watching the sun set on acres of gnarled vines.
Though eager to join Gail and Ewan that evening in stargazing, I reluctantly turn in before midnight. After all, I have a different sort of appointment with a winemaker early next morning.
If Jesse seems unusually happy for a man about to start a two-hour drive before dawn with a near stranger, it may be because he’ll soon be doing something that, as a busy winemaker and new dad, he increasingly has less time to do: fly-fish. This is, as I learn on our way, among the enthusiasms he’d picked up from his dad, who founded the family winery three decades ago.
At the valley’s southern tip, we meet Steve at Hayden Bridge and hop aboard his McKenzie River dory. From here we’ll float about 8 miles down the river to Armitage Park.
When not teaching science to middle-schoolers, Steve volunteers as a river steward, helping to safeguard native wild fish in a river in neighboring Washington state. It’s a combo that makes him particularly good at explaining complex ecology to middle-agers like me, too.
As he sets our little craft on a path downstream, he joins Jesse in giving me a quickie tutorial on fly-fishing from a drift boat, including tips on casting. Because you and your fly line are generally traveling at the same speed, they explain, your fly often has ample time to pass by – and entice – any number of potentially hungry fish.
Taking note of a few brownish mayflies ascending from the river’s surface, Steve ties a Prince Nymph and a March Brown Soft Hackle fly, about a foot apart, to the end of my line. Matching your lure as closely as possible to what’s hatching is key to enticing finicky trout to bite, he says. Or, as he puts it, “If you’re eating french fries and there’s one green french fry, you won’t eat that one. Same with picking a fly for feeding fish. Don’t be the green french fry.”
I’m so lost in reverie about the river’s beauty that I nearly miss the tug at the end of my line. After a short fight, I gently cradle a handsome cutthroat trout. And a wild one, Steve and Jesse say, as evidenced by its vibrant colors and sharply defined fins. Hatchery-born fish, they explain, can also be spotted by the absence of the little adipose fin near their tail that’s typically removed for easier identification.
Though the McKenzie River is stocked with hatchery trout upriver, this stretch is home to mostly native-born, wild cousins.
By the time I’ve said goodbye to my released fish, Steve and Jesse are landing, and releasing, the first of a handful of pretty wild rainbow and cutthroat trout.
This being Willamette Valley, our streamside lunch of grilled flank steak and onions with salad is accompanied by bottles of pinot noir and chardonnay from Jesse’s vineyards.
“This sure beats the PB&J sandwiches I was planning to bring,” Steve says with a laugh.
Back at Stoller that night, Gail, Ewan and I swap stories about our day. Theirs was fun-filled, too, spent mostly in nearby McMinnville, where they visited record and bookstores, and ate lunch at historic Hotel Oregon’s rooftop bar.
Next morning, wending our way up a gravel road, I wonder if I’ve goofed the directions until we suddenly see the sign for hilltop Lange Estate Winery. After greeting us, Jesse jokes that the lack of fancy signage and pavement is “our bubba filter,” meant to screen out folks just eager to gulp free wine.
We’re joined in our winery tour by Jesse’s equally affable dad, Don, who tells us how a love for pinot noir, especially how it’s traditionally made in France, lured him and other winemakers here. “We weren’t paying attention to what California was doing (with wine),” he says. “We were looking to Burgundy.”
Besides stellar pinot noirs, Lange Estate also makes wonderful chardonnay and pinot gris wines. Most recently, they’ve begun producing bubbly. Named for Don’s wife, Wendy Mia, their sparkling Mia Mousseux brut rose is delightful.
Much as Gail and I would like to linger, we have one more winery to visit. About 15 minutes’ drive west, Soter Vineyards’ purposefully cryptic road sign (MSR 10880) belies a winery staff, including rambunctious young cats, Bill and Ted, that welcomes visitors. Gail and I love their pinot noirs but are gaga for their sparkling Mineral Springs brut rose.
Dinner that night at cozy restaurant Thistle, in nearby McMinnville, has us considering extending our stay. The pot de creme dessert, a delicate custard decorated with paper-thin salted rosemary cookies, is especially persuasive.
Next morning, after packing our rental car, we take another stroll around the grounds. We swear we can almost see the first new buds peeking from the vines, signaling the beginning of what will soon be a riot of springtime green. Which, I remember Jesse and Steve telling me, also happens to be prime season to fish for trout.