The Oregon Trail conjures up images of covered wagons, gingham-clad pioneers and an assortment of hard times. And although the great westward migration of the mid-1800s is impressive, it was certainly not the first path cut across the Northwest Territories. Fifteen thousand years ago, Mother Nature removed her finger from the ice dam corralling Allison Lake in Montana, letting loose the cataclysmic Missoula Floods.
Tidal waves of water raged westward, carving the Columbia Gorge, finally coming to rest in what is now the Willamette Valley. The floodwaters carried mineral-rich silt and gravel that mixed with the native volcanic and ocean sediment soils, thus producing just the right cocktail for growing wine grapes. Combined with the elevation and weather conditions of the region, Oregon’s Willamette Valley is ideal for Burgundy-style grapes—namely, pinot noir and chardonnay.
In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, a new kind of pioneer settled in Oregon, bringing grape vines up from California and beyond. Hazelnut orchards, hops fields and even turkey farms were slowly replaced with Willamette Valley’s award-winning cash crop. Today more than 600 vineyards produce grapes for over 300 wineries. Talk about wine-tasting weekends to last for years!
For complete luxury, look no further than the Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg. Everything about this retreat encourages relaxation: luxurious spa treatments, sparkling indoor/outdoor pool with adjacent hot tub, more places to recline than time to sit, local art, in-room fireplaces, window seats and soaking tubs. Other vineyards that offer guest rooms include the cozy ranch house at Abbey Road Farm (Carlton), the three vacation homes at Stoller Family Estate (Dayton), and an apartment and cottage at Red Ridge Farms (Dayton). Glamp it up at the Vintages Trailer Resort near Dayton—new and beautifully restored Airstream trailers featuring comfy beds, cruiser bikes, outdoor patios with propane grills, and a resort pool and hot tub.
There is no shortage of good places to eat in Oregon’s wine country. Many Portland chefs have smartly opened eateries south of their urban counterparts. Additionally, Willamette Valley fine-dining standbys like the Joel Palmer House (Dayton) and the Painted Lady (Newberg) now have casual alter egos—the Barlow Room and Storrs Smokehouse, respectively. Ruddick/Wood (Newberg) dishes up a side of hipster envy even to card-carrying Portlanders, while Recipe (Newberg) serves food that embodies “the good life” with dishes featuring house-made burrata, steak tartare and a little thing called truffle-buttered duck egg pappardelle. For in-house charcuterie and a refreshing lack of pretention, locals have patronized Nick’s Italian Café (McMinnville) since 1977, making it somewhat of an institution in these parts. Travelers venturing closer to Salem should definitely make a point to visit Chef Bernard Malherbe at the Crooked House Bistro—his smoked meat cassoulet is out of this world!
Hundreds of wineries, so little time. Soil, terrain and microclimate diversity have spawned six distinct wine regions within the Willamette Valley AVA (American viticulture area), sub-appellations known as Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Yamhill-Carlton District, Ribbon Ridge, McMinnville and Eola-Amity Hills. Each boasts dozens of wineries and vineyards. Here are a few suggestions bound to kindle a budding wine romance.
Starting out up north in the Chehalem Mountains, stop for a tasting at Raptor Ridge Winery. A patio seat features expansive views of five mountain peaks. Birds of prey soar over the vineyard while guests sip the laid-back vibes of Raptor Ridge pinots.
The drive out to Penner-Ash Wine Cellars (straddling Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton) is deceiving—a gravel side road that seems to lead into the woods and has been known to flood when the Willamette River jumps its banks. But faith is rewarded at the top of the hill as you round a corner and the vineyard comes into sight. The winery facility is pretty enough to be a daylong destination, and the sweeping valley views, framed by carefully cultivated flower gardens, will take your breath away. Alas, you wouldn’t want to miss nearby Adelsheim Vineyard, just as beautiful with a great lineup of cool-climate chardonnay.
Back in the relative civilization of the Dundee Hills, stop in at Stoller Family Estate, the nation’s first LEED Gold–certified winery and one of the only tasting rooms with a view of the vineyard hill. Owner Bill Stoller transformed the old family property from turkey farm to a highly regarded vineyard in the early 1990s. With a dozen years of winemaking under her belt, winemaker Melissa Burr oversees Stoller’s three tiers of products from the affordably priced Estate wines to the delicately styled Legacy line.
Other noteworthy stops in the Dundee Hills include Durant Vineyards at Red Ridge Farms, certified organic Sokol Blosser Winery, and Oregon pinot noir pioneers Erath Winery. Across from Erath is Winderlea Vineyard & Winery where, along with making fabulous wines, co-owner Donna Morris donates her time and wealth of business know-how to the nonprofit Salud!, an organization providing health-care access to Oregon’s seasonal vineyard workers and their families.
Kramer Vineyards in the Yamhill-Carlton District is another multigenerational family business. Trudy and Keith Kramer planted their first vines in the 1980s and now their daughter Kim has taken the helm as winemaker. Kramer produces one of the region’s few sparkling wines—bubbles are always a good idea in my book.
Further south toward Salem, the road less traveled leads to the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. A powerhouse group of wineries are conveniently clustered toward the middle and include Bethel Heights Vineyard (with some vines planted in 1977!), Cristom Vineyards, the site-specific wines at St. Innocent Winery, and the fledgling Walter Scott Wines (by appointment only). If you spy a towering white oak on a hill, chances are you’re beholding the witness tree of Witness Tree Vineyard. In 1854, the oak was marked by surveyors indicating the corner of “Donation Land Claim No. 51”—a 100-acre parcel purchased by Claiborne C. Walker who arrived in the Northwest via the famed Oregon Trail.
Though less scenic, many more tasting rooms can be found in the downtown sections of McMinnville, Carlton, Dundee, Dayton, and Newberg.
So you’ve sipped your way into the dreaded wine country syndrome known as palate fatigue and you’re wondering what else there is to do in the Willamette Valley . . .
Get a massage at the Allison Spa. Then, take a nap in the spa lounge area. Or take an easy-paced bike tour down picturesque country lanes with expert guides from Pedal Bike Tours. How about soaring over wine country in a hot-air balloon from Vista Balloon Adventures? Let Oregon Olive Mill’s expert Libby Clow lead you in a blue glass olive-oil tasting—she will have you tasting green banana and toasted walnut skins in no time.
For an endearing local experience, take the Wheatland Ferry—a two-minute jaunt over the sparsely bridged Willamette River south of Dayton. Open daily from 5:30 a.m. to 9:45 p.m., but subject to closures, so be sure to check ahead; two dollars in cash or check per vehicle.
Shoppers may stroll downtown Carlton’s boutiques with a stop at Republic of Jam, where dozens of jams, jellies, syrups and preserved fruits are available for tasting. Red Hills Market in Dundee is the place to go for kitchen, home and food gifts (and lunch). McMinnville (“Mac”) is known as the big city in these parts and affords the most shops and bars—try Thistle for a pre-Prohibition cocktail where barman Patrick will customize drinks based on your whims (or his, if you’re feeling adventurous).
Willamette Valley’s first-ever pinot noir
barrel auction (willamettewines.auction).
North Willamette Wine Trail Weekend featuring complimentary tastings, food pairings and activities at participating wineries (nwvintners.org)
Oregon Wine Month
International Pinot Noir Celebration turns 30! Taste pinot, attend seminars, tour wineries and eat amazing meals prepared by
Northwest chefs (ipnc.org).