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In America-Santa Barbara County's phenomenal Pinot Noirs and Syrahs. In France-The Southern Rhone, Provence, and Languedoc. The quality from the South is only getting better, and the current vintage,'98, was the best vintage of the '90's. In Italy-Tuscan reds, particularly Rosso di Montalcino; Barberas and Dolcettos coming out of Piedmont; Friuli whites.

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Willamette wines are truly worthy

Chances are you've driven by this scene dozens of times while on the way north.

Glance off to the east side of Interstate 5, about 10 miles south of Salem, and you see a large gate, row after row of grapevines behind it and then some buildings atop a fairly steep hill.

This is the home of Willamette Valley Vineyards. It's worth a visit, for several reasons.

For starters, it's a large winery. While many Rogue district wineries produce 5,000 cases of wine a year, or less, Willamette Valley does 85,000 to 90,000. And of that total about 6,000 a year carry the Griffin Creek label — wines made with grapes grown by Don and Traute Moore of Talent. The winery does custom work for other labels as well.

The large tasting room doubles as a gift shop. You'll find gift cards, cookbooks, wine bottle openers, vinaigrettes, spreads, crackers, etc.

Next door is a mini-museum with displays of wine-related items like medals, bottles and hundreds of corks. One sign notes that the winery will pay you 10 cents for the return of a wine bottle, $1 for a returned wine shipping box.

A nearby dining room accommodates wedding receptions, private luncheons, etc. Some outdoor seating is available. As you might expect, the view from up there is notable.

Visitors generally can sample six wines for free and another, more expensive, group of six for $6 — the latter served in a Riedel glass that customers get to keep.

During September, the six free-taste wines were Griffin Creek 2002 Pinot Gris ($16 retail), Willamette Valley Vineyards 2002 Chardonnay ($16), Tualatin Estate 2003 Pinot Noir ($25), Willamette Valley Vineyards 2004 Pinot Noir ($22), Griffin Creek 2001 Merlot ($27) and Edelweiss 2004, a dessert wine ($11).

Then, if you wanted to spring for the $6 group, you got Founders' Reserve 2002 Pinot Blanc ($16), Tualatin Estate 2002 Chardonnay ($16), Freedom Hill 2002 Pinot Noir ($45), Griffin Creek 2003 Cabernet Franc ($38), Griffin Creek 2000 Griffin, a red blend, ($48) and Frizzante 2004 Semi-Sparkling Muscat ($17).

A fine cheese plate was presented for palate cleansing.

Griffin is a really good wine, as well it should be for $48. It's 69 percent cabernet sauvignon, 23 percent merlot and 8 percent cabernet franc.

But, I think my favorite Griffin Creek wines are its 2002 Viognier — a delicious white that sells for about $20 — and the 2001 Syrah, pleasantly earthy, $32.

Also notable is the 2004 Tempranillo, which hasn't yet been released. Supplies are limited, so it probably will be sold only at the tasting room.

Winemaker Forrest Klaffke has some other interesting future wines in barrels, including grenache, pinotage, tempranillo port and a syrah with 7 percent viognier.

Aside from the Griffin Creek wines, Willamette Valley Vineyards is a noted producer of pinot noir and pinot gris under its own label.

The winery hosts special events from time to time. Coming up Sunday, Oct. 8, from 3 to 5 p.m. is a jazz concert featuring a pianist, guitarist and vocalist. The show will pay tribute to the music of Nat King Cole. Tickets are $18 general, $16 for wine club members.

A FEW ROGUE VALLEY restaurants — Porter's, for example — serve wines that bear their own private label. Add Rosario's to the list. Visit this Italian restaurant in Medford, and you'll note Rosario's Merlot on the wine list. It's actually from Valley View, that winery's 2001 Anna Maria Merlot. You can get a bottle for $20, a glass for $5. I tried some, and it is an earthy, invigorating wine. Very nice. When I was at the restaurant in mid-September, a Rosario's Chardonnay was being added, also from Valley View.

ALSO SAMPLED RECENTLY:

* Gato Negro 2005 Cabernet-Shiraz. Here's a good value from Chile in the "cheap but drinkable" category. I have long admired the winery's cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend. This new blend is just as good, if not a little better. And the price is the same — less than $7 for a 1.5-liter bottle at discount supermarkets like Food 4 Less.
* Tapestry 2004 Chardonnay. This is an Australian white that's fruit-forward and makes a statement. They have it at Gogi's in Jacksonville for $24 a bottle. I enjoyed it with one of my favorite dishes: coriander-lime-glazed halibut on a stir-fry of Asian vegetables, ginger and soy (served when fresh halibut is available).

Cleve Twitchell is a retired Mail Tribune editor and columnist. E-mail him at clevelinda@msn.com.

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