“It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” I’ve found that sage bit of perspective applicable often in my travels — save for that drive across Nebraska. On occasion, the phrase really rings true, however. With one particular journey last summer being perhaps the most exemplary. Well actually, it was an expedition.
Up in the hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the team at Illahe Vineyards rightfully pride themselves on producing high-quality wines as naturally and sustainably as possible. No enzymes, no additives and — occasionally — no electricity. Since 2011, Illahe has been producing a very unique labor of love, the 1899 Pinot Noir. To begin with, it is sourced from the most distinguished parts of the vineyard. A blend of 50 percent whole-cluster and 50 percent destemmed grapes are fermented in wooden vats on native yeast for 24 days. The extra stems help to increase the tannin content, which is important, as the added tannins help protect the wine from increased oxygen contact when it is moved via a bicycle-powered pump into the barrel.
Yes, it’s bike-powered. That’s because the 1899 Pinot is produced entirely without any modern winemaking equipment, technology or — per its namesake year — electricity. From start to finish, it is handpicked and destemmed, transported up the hill by horse, pumped into barrels by bike, fermented without inoculation, bottled and corked manually, and labeled by letterpress. The result is a complex wine with darker pinot notes: spice, tamarind, black currant, plum, orange peel and truffle.
Then comes the journey. After the wine has been deemed ready for public consumption, it is delivered to the distributor in Portland. But winemaker Brad Ford and his crew thought it would be a shame to go to such great lengths in the wine’s production only to throw it in the back of a truck and slog it through traffic up Interstate 5. Instead, each summer the wine is carefully loaded onto a vintage horse-drawn carriage and taken to where the Willamette River passes through the idyllic town of Independence. The wine, along with other necessary provisions, is then placed in canoes and taken on a 65-mile journey down the Willamette. The transporting party camps twice along the way before arriving in West Linn, just south of Portland. Finally, the precious cargo is delivered to the distributor via a 13-mile bicycle ride. This is the Illahe 1899 Expedition.
For skeptics that are tempted to dismiss the whole thing as some unrealized “Portlandia” premise, understand two things: The wine is fantastic — a wonderful expression of vineyard and winemaking heart, soul and acumen. So chuckle all you want. Also, the expedition is far more than just an old-timey way to deliver the goods. I was lucky enough to take part in last year’s trip and discovered this firsthand.
The public is invited to join the team for the paddling portion of the expedition. Thanks to some friends of friends, I was able to pull a few strings and sit in on the carriage ride as well. The lovingly restored and maintained carriage was its own attraction for those that saw us off from the winery as well as those awaiting our arrival at Independence Riverview Park. After loading up the kayaks, taking some photos and saying some goodbyes, our flotilla of four canoes and one kayak — all burdened by wine weight — left for Portland.
In very short order, the Willamette River seemingly left civilization behind. The gently flowing waterway serpentined under a wide-open azure sky populated by transient white clouds, and the banks were beset with groves of trees and grassy meadows teeming with wildlife.
The first night, we camped at Grand Island where we were met by friends and family. Night two was spent at the Champoeg State Park where we encountered even more friendly faces and enjoyed a wine dinner for the ages. In between, there were tree swings, swimming holes, lots of laughter, and perhaps a few incidents of mild deviance. River code mandates that some details remain exclusive to the participants. Due to a convenient mix of scheduling conflicts and laziness, I did not partake in the final 13-mile cargo bike delivery ride, but it looked like fun in photos.
So yes, the expedition is more than a justifiable and clever way to conclude production of each vintage of the 1899 Pinot Noir. It’s a three-day opportunity to experience a familiar river that is somehow still wild in places. A chance to see the bucolic countryside it carves through from a new perspective. And to partake in well-earned food and drink before retiring each night beneath the stars. It also gives the Illahe team a wine-fueled river vacation with co-workers, family, friends, and soon to be friends, every year. And why not? It’s about that journey.