One could get delightfully lost on the roads around Yamhill, especially at 6:30am on a quiet weekday in August. All around you are rolling, yellow-and-brown hills crowned with emerald — the vines of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay, and sometimes, something more obscure like Gamay or Pinot Meunier or Grüner Veltliner. Tucked into the clefts of the hills are silver-blue forests that remind you where you are: Oregon.
For the last three years, I’ve been … hmm, how should I put this? … ever-so-slightly obsessed with places where wine is made. I blame the Barolo region around Alba, Italy, for once I saw and tasted what was emerging from that gorgeous landscape, I was gone for good. After that, it was an escape to California’s Anderson Valley. Then a “family trip” to Germany, where my mother is originally from (although she’s from Osnabrück, not the Mosel). Around April, just three months after our second was born, I found myself saying “hey family, what about Oregon? Beaches! Berries! (ahem, Pinot…).”
Each time, my family has been game. They are good sports, and they are also good at sleeping in. That’s why it was just me, my camera and the rental car on that misty morning, creeping along Highway 240 east of Yamhill looking for a worthy vantage point that showed what I was seeing.
But that’s the thing about photographing the Willamette Valley wine country — or any wine country in the United States, from my experience. Those elements you seek in a compelling image — e.g. sight-lines to take in a foreground, midground and background, a detail of the vines within their cultivated habitat — are often only found on private property. Shooting from the roadside has its limitations, especially here, where the vines are located on top of distant hills where they can absorb as much sunlight for ripening.
In Italy and in Germany, walking into a row of vines to attain the right composition seems like no big deal. There were no fences to hop (not that I would), no signs declaring private property, and often, if there were harvesters nearby, they’d smile and nod their head as I did my thing. That’s not to say a man with a camera is an unwelcome sight in American wine country. It’s just a different game that you have to adapt, too.
For the best access, I find that it helps to drink their wine.
I saw a sign for Lenné Estate and hung a left onto Laughlin Road. Earlier in the year I had bought a bottle of theirs at a restaurant, and here was my chance to see where it came from. I quickly overshot the driveway (they were closed anyway) and soon came upon an open gate and road to WillaKenzie Estate, further up the road at the entrance to a small, forested canyon. I carefully drove up the driveway, chasing a flock of California quail into the shrubs as I did so. At the parking lot, I saw several compositions and excellent light — but was I OK to be here? The only people around appeared to be out in the vines in their tractors.
From the tasting room patio, a magnificent view unfolded over the tumbling hills. A herd of longhorn cows were moseying below just as the sun crest the horizon. This was going to be good, but I didn’t want to waste the moment here if I wasn’t allowed. So I soon found an employee and got permission to photograph the vineyards. I promised to come back to the tasting room in the afternoon, but he didn’t seem to care. Of course it sounded like a flimsy promise, but I would definitely come back now: so much of being wine enthusiast is knowing where your wine comes from. That morning spent in the vines made me a lifelong WillaKenzie drinker.
The day before, we had spent the morning picking berries in the Chehalem Mountains. Afterward, we made a quick stop at Raptor Ridge Winery, which occupies a nice, east-facing slope overlooking what is essentially the Willamette Valley’s high ground. It’s the perfect place for a certain style of Pinot Noir: because it is cooler, grapes ripen a little differently here, making Pinot Noir that is a little crisper and less fruity.
After sipping through a flight of wines that included a refreshing Grüner Veltliner, they allowed me to walk through the vines a bit. Since it was overcast, I focused on the clusters of grapes that had reached veraison, which is the onset of ripening.
On our final morning in the valley — as we headed to the coast — I twisted everyone’s arm for one last tasting, at Elk Cove Vineyards. While this winery is secluded and tucked well off the beaten path west of Gaston, it’s reputation is anything but hidden. I rushed through the tasting a bit, keenly aware that Hailey and the kids were at the gazebo eating lunch and would soon get bored out of their gourd. But one wine of theirs stopped me in my tracks: the Late Harvest Riesling, which grows on that far hillside you see in the photo below.
The light was fairly harsh when I stepped out to join them. It was midday after all. But had we more time and better light, what a magnificent vineyard this would have been to photograph.
So in conclusion, the secret to getting good shots here: hit the tasting room in the late afternoon and ask if you can wander. Fairly simple. It’s the only way to get clearance and to get up close.