Eventually, someone will ask. What’s the wine that got you into wine? Then come the phenomenal answers. Ancient Brunellos discovered on semesters abroad and Burgundies shared with lovers who don’t speak the language. You know, mind-blowing wines, the ones built like time machines and man, what luck to meet them right there at the top of the road. I hear these stories and I almost never have the heart to say my own gateway bottle was an Oregon Pinot Gris, bought for $10 and served in paper cups.
Prior to this moment, I’d had “wine” the way I’d had “beer,” which is to say selected by price and color at a grocery store. Now, though, I needed a bottle to impress someone who knew a thing or two about the stuff, so I traded up from Safeway to the Woodstock Wine & Deli, on account of the word being right there on the sign. I explained about my audience (probably sophisticated) and my budget (definitely miniscule) and in exchange I was handed a bottle of O’Reilly’s Pinot Gris. He mentioned lime. It had a dog on the label. I took it in good faith.
Two days later, I poured it, nervously, at what I now recognize as my first real gathering of grown-ups. An incredible thing happened: everyone enjoyed it. We didn’t ignore it; we didn’t spend the night talking about it. We smiled over it and made note of it and commented as we drained the bottle. It wasn’t astounding, but it was lovely, and that was more than I’d ever known alcohol to be. As the weeks went on, I thought about it and bought it again and wondered what might be beyond lovely. In the decade since, I’ve found out, but I’ve recently made my way back to the grape that got this all started.
Pinot Gris is better known around these parts as Pinot Grigio, which is better known to plenty of people as “what my ________ (mother, sister-in-law, grandfather who adds seltzer to his wine) drinks.” Much of the mass-produced Italian stuff is light-weight and super-bland, a white and nothing more, that being, often, the secret to its traction. It’s inoffensive and vaguely boozey. Unfortunately, encounters with insipid versions, as with Chardonnay and Riesling, often cause people looking for better flavors and better stories to move along and never look back. I did the same, even after it did me the favor of showing me the way. I’ve returned to say that if you’ve also wandered off, come in. There’s plenty here to make the case.
Though it’s been made in Oregon since the 1960s, the Pinot Gris here is still far from being monolithic. Any given bottle may make a completely different argument as to the best expression of the grape in this region. The lack of consistent, recognizable characteristics may be one thing keeping it from Pinot Grigio’s status as a popular house white in the U.S. For my purposes, that’s a great thing, as it makes the exploration that much more rewarding.
There are through-lines to the best of them, of course. They’re crisp and citrusy with a little orchard fruit for good measure. Veer left, and you’ll find more body and Alsatian-style spice; veer right, and you’ll get residual sugar or the tropics, cut with cream. Even the divergent paths, however, still lead to a wine that can unite people new to this world with those who make their lives here. May there be no lovelier task.