Oregon’s Willamette Valley: A Wine Lover’s Heaven
By Eric Blankenburg
Sliding my glass along the counter, the sultry, scarlet wine dances inside it like red waves, and a seductive, earthy aroma — filled with black cherries and a hint of anise spice — crashes against my nostrils as I inhale.
I look out on the clean Willamette Valley, watching the smoky sun spider through the endless grape vine rows.
The full-bodied Pinot Noir I’m drinking tastes like it could’ve come from Burgundy, France, the Mecca of Pinot Noirs, and because I’m straddling the same latitude as the Bordeaux region, another legendary wine producer, it’s easy to forget that I’m thousands of miles away from France, hidden on Southern Oregon’s mild slopes.
The Willamette Valley, Oregon’s wine growing gem, has burst onto the international scene, competing head-to-head against Burgundy’s elite Pinot Noirs, and is winning.
This area tops France for another important reason: a chance for connoisseurs, newbies, and travelers to enjoy an affordable, world-class wine-tasting vacation that costs far less than a trip to France. Plus, the rugged, dewy mountains and slick pine tree hills make the scenery here unbeatable.
The Willamette Valley, 160 miles long and 60 miles wide, looks like a dagger that slices between the Cascade Mountain Range on the east and the Coastal Mountain Range on the west. And the Pinot Noir grape is a fickle thing, which needs the precise amount of rainfall, cool temperatures, and moist soil, Reid Oliver, the sales manager at Archery Summit, arguably one of the region’s best, is telling me.
“These mountains ensure that the vineyards do not endure the pounding winds, and torrential rainfall that’s more common on the other side of the Coastal Range,” Oliver says.
Besides these two towering wind guards, most wineries here sit on south facing slopes from 200 to 1,000 feet elevation. Standing on Archery Summit’s patio, a lipstick sunset fading into night above the valley, it looks to me like drift-boats floating in a silent bay.
About 10,000 years ago Glacial Lake Missoula thundered past its Idaho ice dam and flooded the low lying areas from Spokane to Southern Oregon, down the Columbia Basin, and drained violently into the sea. It scoured the land, but left those little boat-hills, with their rich, ancient million-year-old ocean floor dirt.
Now, many wine tasting rooms offer breathless vistas of this wine tasting harbor, and with over 200 wineries in the area, finding the next best view is like skipping stones in the old flood and following the splashes. So it’s no wonder why this area now leads the state in wine production, with over 60 percent dedicated to Pinot Noir grapes.
Smoking Something Funny
But less than 40 years ago none of this was here. The area was dedicated to farming and apple orchards, and most of the hillsides were considered un-farmable due to steep slopes and low soil fertility, Oliver tells me.
Then, in the 1960’s, as the legend goes, David Lett, a graduate from the prestigious wine university UC Davis, had taken a vacation to the area and tried what he believed to be the most delicious strawberry he’d ever eaten. So, he reasoned, why couldn’t this hold true for grapes?
In the beginning, no one believed it possible, and both his classmates and the local agricultural organization thought, “Mr. Lett was smoking something funny,” says Oliver.
They believed the climate was too unstable, cold, and wet to plant the fickle Pinot Noir grapes. But Lett, known today as “Papa Pinot,” planted the first vines while on his honeymoon in the Dundee Hills area. Those vines are still thriving today, and the roots Lett put down have blossomed into one of the world’s best wine regions.
The Northern Willamette Valley
The Willamette Valley’s northern half is about a 45-minute drive from Portland, but because of its size, the southern half stretches all the way south to Eugene. My two favorite wineries are here: Archery Summit and WillaKenzie Estate. Both offer fantastic wines, extremely friendly and knowledgeable staff in their wine tasting rooms, and flooding views of the valley that will scour permanent marks in your memory.
Seeing both the northern and southern half are difficult to do in one vacation, due to the distances of driving and the time to take in this whole area. So, I’m impartial to the northern part of Dundee Hills and McMinnville. This area is arguably Oregon’s best because it offers a sizeable cluster of wineries and it’s so close to Portland.
Some of the most prestigious and world-renowned wineries and vineyards are planted here. The area also offers the best range of accommodations, from budget to high-end spa, with charming bed and breakfasts in the center. And if that’s not enough, it has some of the finest Pacific Northwest cuisine, packed with locally grown fresh veggies and freshly caught seafood from the nearby coast.
The Dundee Hills, where I’m sipping Archery Summit’s full tour of their finest, award-winning wines, was the area where Lett first planted his grapes. This area is now home to 100 vineyards and 31 wineries. Some of the best wineries and most familiar names, like Archery Summit, Domain Drouhin, DePonte Cellars, and Erath Winery are located here, plus many other smaller production and family-run, sustainable operations, like Sokol Blosser Winery and Coeur d’ Terre.
With so many wineries in this area, you don’t have to drive more than 15 minutes before finding the next place to stop. Some of the best wineries this area has to offer are hidden down gravel roads that trickle along the many hillsides.
The Dundee Hills area also has one of the best restaurants in the Willamette, called Farm to Fork. This restaurant bases its menu on seasonal crops and local meats, so it’s constantly changing. The razor clams here are succulent and amazing, or you can try the rabbit sausage. For dessert, try the crowd-pleasing goat cheese tart.
Attached to Farm to Fork, is a great wine bar, called Press. With so many wineries in the area, wine bars are the best way to sample the wide range of options, and every wine tour should include at least a couple of these wine bars.
McMinnville, about an hour drive from Portland, has the best dining and accommodations in the area. My favorite restaurant here is the Thistle. Eric Bechard, the owner, works closely with his suppliers, traveling to every farm, ranch and dock to ensure the freshest local ingredients. The menu changes regularly, but a constant that shouldn’t be missed are his oysters. His wine menu complements these exquisite foods with Willamette’s best.
McMinnville is the hub for bed and breakfast hotels. But A’ Tuscan Estate, built in 1928, is one that tops them all. This European style bed and breakfast offers a lovely patio overlooking a garden, where you can enjoy an afternoon wine and cheese plate. Inside, elegantly aged wood decorates the walls and floors, giving visitors an historic feeling. The rooms are a bit pricy, but worth every penny.
If you don’t plan on spending much time in your room, McMinnville also offers plenty of budget hotels, like the Oregon Hotel. This hotel offers great wine tasting package deals and cheap rooms with shared bathrooms. And, if you’re a bit exhausted from all the wine, check out the Golden Valley Brewery and Pub, in downtown McMinnville, which offers over a dozen house-made microbrews and a decent food selection.
Too Much Wine Tasting
A great day trip from this area is the drive down to Pacific City Beach. This drive cuts along Highway 18 and through some of Oregon’s legendary old growth forests. The staggering cliff views and wide beaches offer spectacular scenery of this magnificent coast. Sitting right on the beach in Pacific City is the Pelican Pub, where you can sip one of their microbrews and watch the tides roll in.
The Willamette Valley is breaking into the wine world like the old glacial floods that shaped this area: scouring the floor with the competition and leaving everyone wondering where this rush came from. So forget about an expensive trip to France or even Napa Valley, and enjoy this world-class wine tasting heaven.
With so many wineries and regions and varieties and destinations it’s hard to figure out where to go. But, as Oliver tells me before I finish my last sip, “It is about the relationships and the experiences you have at the wineries you visit,” which really count.
Looking out on the last dimming light over the Willamette, I couldn’t agree more. At most of the wineries I visited, the atmosphere was low-key casual with a living room feel. And a few times, the one pouring my wine was the grower imself, something you’ll rarely see anywhere else.
Wineries Not to Miss
18599 Northeast Archery Summit Rd
Dayton, OR 97114
Open Every day 10:00-4:00 p.m.
Tasting 15$ for 4 Select Wines
Tours 25$ includes tasting
19143 NE Laughlin Rd
Yamhill, OR 97148
Open every day 11:00-4:00 p.m
Tasting 15$ for 4 Pinot Noirs; refunded with 25$ purchase of wine
17545 NE Archery Summit Rd
Dayton, OR 97114
Open every day 11:00-5:00 p.m.
Best Hidden Winery
Coeur d’ Terre
21000 SW Eagle Point Rd
Open every day 11:00-4:00
Farm To Fork
1410 N. Hwy 99W
Dundee, OR 97115
Bakery open 6:00 a.m Lunch 11:00-2:00 p.m. Dinner 4:00-10:00 p.m.
Prices 12$-28$ for Entrees 6$-12$ appetizers
Wine Bar Press Attached to Restaurant
Open 4:00-8:00 p.m.
Offers nice plates of cheeses and wines
228 NE Evans St
McMinnville, OR 97128
Hours 5:30-10:00 p.m. 11 on weekends; closed Sundays/Mondays
Prices 7$-20$ for entrees
Seating is very limited so call ahead for reservations
Golden Valley Brewery and Pub
980 E 4th St
McMinnville, OR 97128
Open every day 11:00-10:00 p.m. Prices 7$-20$ for all meals
A’ Tuscan Estate
809 NE Evans St
McMinnville, OR 97128
1-800-441-2214 / (503) 434-9016
Offers 5 single king sized bedrooms
Prices 140$-250$ per night
Amenities: TV, DVD, wireless Internet, A/C, robes, glasses
310 NE Evans St
McMinnville, OR 97128
(888) 472-8247 / (503) 472-8427
Offers 4 types of rooms from single queen to king suite
Wine tour package 289$ includes transportation, tastings, and tours to select wineries
Amenities: Shared bath; with private bathroom for adjoining rooms; also have rooms with private bath
Currently based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China, Eric Blankenburg has written travel-related articles since 2000. His articles have appeared in Outside Missoula, Outside Bozeman, Suite101.com, and has travel articles forthcoming for websites and newspapers across the U.S. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. Blankenburg is currently trying to freelance his way from Bangkok to Bangladesh, while working on a travel-related novel about Asia. Visit his personal Website www.ericblankenburg.com.