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Oregon wine country, part 6
Benton Lane

Website: www.benton-lane.com

I left King Estate early on Monday morning, on another glorious July day. The temperature was nudging 80 F, with a bright blue sky plus a little haze on the horizon from the fires lit by grass seed farmers to deal with their stubble. Oregon is one of the world centres for grass seed, as well as hazelnuts (second only to Turkey here). In fact, the Willamette Valley grows just about everything. I was tempted to stop at one of the the pick-your-own blueberry farms, because they looked so gorgeous.

On the way back up to the heart of the Willamette Valley I had an appointment at Benton Lane, which is located at the bottom end of the appellation.

Benton Lane is owned by a Calfornian couple, Steve and Carol Girard (above). They had caught the wine bug and decided, like many, that Pinot Noir was their thing. They were based in the Napa Valley, but they eventually decided they weren’t going to be able to pursue this dream in their home state. ‘I spent two years of my life looking for the best place to grow Pinot Noir’, says Steve. ‘We looked at Anderson Valley, central California, Tasmania and finally Oregon.’ Finally, analysis of factors such as soil, degree days and wind strength led them to identify this area, between Eugene and Corvalis as the most promising.

‘We started looking around and kicking dirt clods’, recalls Steve, ‘and then one day we stopped on the highway and found this place was for sale’. It was then an old sheep ranch of 1860 acres called Sunnymount, which was good news, because it meant the land had already been cleared (deforesting acidifies the soil). There was a problem, though: it was too expensive.

‘I couldn’t afford it, but I lusted after it for 4 years’, admits Steve. However, the property was actually owned by a bank, which had foreclosed on the previous owners, who, as well as farming sheep had been growing marijuana. The bank kept calling Steve, and eventually in 1988 he bought if for the right price.

It’s a beautiful site, with a sunnier climate than most of the surrounding areas, so that Pinot Noir stands a better chance of getting ripe before the autumn rains. Because the estate straddled the border of the Benton and Lane counties, the name Benton-Lane was chosen. In 1989 the Girards started planting Pinot Noir, and added more little by little. All plantable areas have now been used and the vineyard is a respectable 147 acres (60 hectares).

First vintage was 1992, and the winery here was built in 1997. Sustainability is taken seriously here, and Benton-Lane is certified by both LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) and Salmon Safe. In the vineyard, every other row is tilled or mowed to combat soil erosion. A big problem here is voles: in 2005 3% of the vineyard had to be replanted because of girdling by voles. Throughout the vineyard there are strategically placed raptor poles which give birds of prey somewhere to sit while they’re waiting for the critters to come out.

98% of plantings here are Pinot Noir. Wadenswil and Pommard were initially the most important clones; of late, plantings have been with Dijon clones.


After wandering through the vineyard it was time for lunch: al fresco fresh pizza from the winery’s own stone pizza oven. It was delicious, the weather was perfect and everyone was in a good mood. And the wines were pretty good too.

Benton Lane Pinot Gris 2007 Oregon
3500 cases, retail $16. Very fresh, bright nose is quite minerally with citrus and grapefruit notes. The palate is bright, crisp and fruity with lovely presence. This is a modern, vibrant wine that’s very fresh. 88/100

Benton Lane Pinot Blanc 2006 Oregon
150 cases, $18 retail. Barrel fermented, this is slightly smoky with nice depth and texture. 86/100

Benton Lane Pinot Noir Rosé 2007 Oregon
$14 retail. Lovely crisp strawberry fruit with nice crispness. Really interesting stuff with good balance and texture. 89/100

Benton Lane Estate Pinot Noir 2006 Oregon
$26 retail. Expressive and quite elegant. Light and fresh with supple dark cherry and red berry fruit. Elegant and smooth with nice fruit focus. A fresh, approachable wine for drinking now. 90/100

Benton Lane First Class Pinot Noir 2006 Oregon
700 cases, $60 retail. This is not made every year. Lovely vivid nose with sweet, focused cherry fruit with a hint of mint. The palate is beautifully textured with nice smoothness, silky tannins and good acidity. A really lovely, well balanced wine. 93/100

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Wines tasted 07/08  
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