Early spring a boon to Oregon wine-country touring

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Wine-related projects -- be they vineyards, wineries or destination resorts -- are long-term. Despite the economy, new wineries, restaurants and wine-country lodging continue to debut across the Northwest. On a recent trip through Yamhill County, I was startled at the changes -- in the number of new wineries, the appearance of restaurants that can compete with Portland's best and the debut of at least two destination hotels.

Whether or not you love pinot noir, wine-country touring in Oregon is hard to beat. Early spring is an ideal time to visit, as you will avoid summer crowds and summer heat. Get a copy of the current winery guide and wine-touring map (free from the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, info@willamettewines.com).

Give your trip a focus. There are six subregions (AVAs); pick one or two and explore them. Or choose a style of wine and find the wineries that specialize (aromatic white wines or elegant pinots or big blockbusters). Keep driving distances minimal; it's easy to get lost on the back roads or eat up too much time moving from place to place.

If there is a special tasting room you want to visit, call ahead to be certain they're open on the day you plan to be there. Many will open for you if you make a reservation. There is usually a small charge ($10 to $15) to taste wines.

General strategies: Get off the main highway into the hills, which are spectacular, but cluster your visits. Don't try to taste everything at every stop. Drink lots of water.

The wineries association's Web site (www.willamettewines.com/) has a helpful "Where To Stay'' listing of accommodations at a variety of prices. Newly opened are two of particular interest. The Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg (www.theallison.com) is the most luxurious, with every amenity imaginable and a restaurant (JORY) specializing in regionally inspired food. The Inn at Red Hills in Dundee (www.innatredhills.com) is smaller and a bit more down-home, but includes a marvelous deli, gift shop and wine bar that holds daily tastings of hard-to-find boutique wines. Both places opened in the second half of 2009.

How to choose from among the 200-plus wineries that are hoping to see your smiling face? Good luck! Here are a few highlights from my own recent trip: ArborBrook.Home is a bright red and thoroughly charming former walnut and hazelnut farm. Owners Dave and Mary Hansen have the enthusiasm of midlife newcomers to the wine business. Their hands-on enterprise now includes a 12-acre vineyard, a tasting room in a century-old nut-drying barn, and case storage in what were once paddocks for the owners' horses. The Carlton Winemakers Studio. The town of Carlton (and surrounding area) is the epicenter for wine touring, and this studio, built and managed by winemaker Eric Hamacher, has as many as a dozen garagistes on site. It's a great one-stop opportunity to taste through some of the newest and rarest of the region's offerings, and a lesson in green engineering. Trisaetum.James Frey is the owner, a talented photojournalist and painter whose marvelous artwork occupies an on-site gallery. Specializing in truly Germanic rieslings and a limited selection of elegant pinot noirs.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries.''

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