The plan for Jesse Lange was already in the soil of tiny Dundee when he moved there as a 9-year-old. It wasn’t preordained determinism. Oregon’s wine industry back then couldn’t yet be called much of an industry. The soil was new to the noses in the wine world, and most clear thinkers were clearly skeptical of its potential. Oregon wine was what Californian wine-growers considered to be the hooch of a few hippies who had lost the points on their compass, errant souls swept up in a northerly trade wind.
“There was David Lett and a few rows of wine grapes,” says Lange, now 33. David Lett was one of those first few who thought the soils and climate of this part of Oregon would make for a great place to reproduce French Pinot noirs. The honorific of “pioneer” supplanted “dreamer” only after the fruit of Lett’s bottled heresy pleased the international Pinot judges in the sip heard around the world in 1979.
Once a sleepy hollow known for Christmas tree farms, Dundee was on its way to becoming the birthplace of the Oregon wine industry. There was David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards, Dick Erath of Erath Winery, the Blossers of the Sokol Blosser Winery, Dick and Nancy Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards and Robert Drouhin of the esteemed Burgundian Domaine Drouhin family.
Lange’s parents, Don and Wendy Lange, were close to the wine industry in California. In 1987, they moved to Dundee and planted sixty acres of wine grapes. “It took a great leap of faith and a long time to build the reputation,” the younger Lange admits. The relocation to the farms and fields of Dundee from the civilized Santa Barbara, California was a welcome culture shock. “We were growing grapes, and I was driving a tractor,” Lange says. “I loved it.”
The population of Dundee then barely registered. There were enough people to plant acres of wine grapes and work on the farms with a few hands left to pump gas and work the few retail businesses in the 896-acre town in the northern Willamette Valley.
Today, this small town’s reputation for wine stretches across the country. On a late summer morning, a traveling couple arrived at Lange Vineyards well before its tasting room was open. “We just wanted to tell people back home that we were here,” said one. “We love your wine.” And earlier this year, Lange and others uncorked their wines to a sold out dinner at SoHo’s City Winery, the avant garde wine bar and music venue created by Michael Dorf, founder of the spirited Manhattan jazz club, Knitting Factory. This was a spectacular reception for Oregon wines in a city known for its Old World tastes, says Lange.
Though quintessential Oregon, Dundee was named after Dundee, Scotland, an eastern port and the birthplace of William Reed, an early railroad magnate in Oregon. The Oregon town is stretched along a busy 99W that runs southwest from Tigard before hitting a southern inflection point at McMinnville. Besides serving as an artery into Willamette wine country, 99W is also a thoroughfare for casino- and coast-bound Portlanders and suburbanites. In the busy summer months, the seamless line of cars leaves pedestrians with a binding ultimatum—take to the north side of the street or the south side.
Within a few years, Dundee could address that ultimatum with a sixmile $192 million bypass to the south. On paper, the road project began as a four-lane $850 million federally funded job creation package. After federal spending projects were severely curtailed, a whittled-down state-funded alternative emerged.
“This is part of an effort that began in 2004,” says Dundee mayor, Ted Crawford. “If you can move truck traffic to the bypass and reduce the speed to 25 miles per hour, then Dundee traffic gets quiet.” The master plan for the town envisions reconnecting the Willamette River to the north side of Highway 99W, where the Red Hills lie. “Ultimately, we’d like to tie together the Willamette River, wine-tasting and eco-tourism,” says Crawford.
Along the north side of the road, visitors encounter the Dundee Bistro and the Ponzi Tasting Room and Wine Bar. In 1999, one of the area’s earliest wine families, the Ponzis, built the tasting room and bistro, bringing together two of the region’s best qualities—wine and food. The tasting room is the hub for many of Oregon’s top wines and gourmet appetizers.
Chef Christopher Flanagan at the Dundee Bistro leverages his experience as the understudy of his noted predecessor, Jason Stoller Smith. Flanagan brings in fresh local fare that takes on the tasty forms of smoked pork sandwiches served with a house-made barbecue sauce and baby greens with Oregon strawberries and sweet onions.
The adjacent Red Hills Market is a good stop for wood-fired pizzas, local wines and a bocci ball court outside of a dining area with roll-up doors. A classic deli with refrigerated cases of meats and cheeses, Red Hills Market also has a wall of local wines from which to choose.
Though most traffic converges on the thoroughfare of 99W, the Red Hills of Dundee are best experienced on foot in the tasting rooms of its wineries or at the table of its eateries. It’s in these places that Dundee cultivates a lasting impression on the palate that was crafted around the Pinot grape.