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Pinot Gris meets Grigio challenge

Wine of the week: 2002 Rogue Valley full, fruity match for Italian varieties
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Jim Bernau, the president of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Vineyards, did something interesting the other day. Along with his latest releases of Pinot Gris, he sent me a bottle of the well known, heavily advertised Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio (the same grape) from Italy. Why would an American winery try to generate interest by asking you to taste one of the most popular examples of one of Italy’s signature white wines?

It didn't take long to figure out. The folks at Willamette Valley, who also make wines under the Griffin Creek label from the Rouge Valley in southern Oregon, think they’re on to something with Pinot Gris, a cousin of Pinot Noir, and to prove it they invited a comparison with the ubiquitous Santa Margherita. The grape is emerging as an important player on the Oregon wine landscape beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — it is, in fact, the most widely planted white variety in the state. And Griffin Creek’s 2002 Rogue Valley Pinot Gris, at $18, is an exciting new entry.

How does it stack up against the Santa Margherita, which costs quite a bit more? The short answer is — quite a bit better. The longer answer is — I think the comparison is somewhat unfair.

First, the Santa Margherita has never made an impression on me. It tastes rather generic, and I have never understood why it costs so much. (Could it be all that advertising?) Jim Bernau could have chosen a better Pinot Grigio that costs a lot less, such as Bruno Verdi’s excellent Pinot Grigio from the Oltrepò Pavese region. But I guess he was going for a familiar “brand name” wine.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Oregon Pinot Gris versus Italian Pinot Grigio really boils down to a preference of style, with one not necessarily being better than the other. The Italian wines, in general, are going to be lighter and crisper, while those from Oregon a bit more full and fruity.

All that said, the 2002 Griffin Creek Pinot Gris, of which 2,150 cases were made, is a fresh and elegant wine, its lean framework supported by layers of tastes, including pear, nuts, herbs such as fennel seed, and minerals. It will accompany any number of foods.

The Rogue Valley, just north of the California border, is one of the newest appellations in Oregon and refers to the river of the same name. With a warmer climate than the Willamette Valley 150 miles or so to the north, it is also becoming known for Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Griffin Creek wines are available in quite a few states and Willamette Valley Vineyards can ship them to many more. You can find more information at the winery’s Web site. (The 2002 Pinot Gris, by the way, is set for release in a month or so; the 2001 is still around.)

As for Jim Bernau and his little exercise with Pinot Grigio, I would suggest that he sit back, have a glass of his own wine and save the marketing department a few bucks by not worrying about comparisons with the Italians. His Griffin Creek Pinot Gris should do just fine, all by itself.