Wine Wednesday: Oregon’s Willamette Valley

Mar 6, 2013

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Welcome to another installment of our #WineWednesday series, where each week we give you a brief snapshot of wine regions across the globe and insight on how to get there, where to stay and a couple places you might want to visit while there. Today, TPG Contributor Melanie Wynne invites us to explore one of her favorite American wine regions, Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

About 45 minutes southwest of downtown Portland, the rolling hills of northwestern Oregon’s cool, often rain-soaked Willamette Valley (pronounced “willAMet”) are famous for producing some of America’s most highly-regarded Pinot Noirs. Because the area has an ideal growing climate for grapes from Western and Central Europe, you’ll also see your fair share of Rieslings, Sauvignon Blancs, and sparkling wines. Declared an American Viticultural Area  (AVA) in 1984, the still-young wine region attracts day- and weekend-trippers to its 400+ wineries, rural landscapes, farm-to-table bistros and romantic inns.

The Willamette Valley.
The Willamette Valley.

The Willamette Valley’s three million acres of vineyards are divided into four sections:

The East is the quietest, spread along the 213 between Oregon City and Stanton in an area equally known for farming dahlia bulbs. The Mid-Willamette includes one sub-region, the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, where most wineries include a sparkling wine on their roster. The South, which at its farthest point is about two hours from Portland, stretches from Salem to Eugene; the finest small-production wines here are rarely found outside the Pacific Northwest.

The North Willamette Valley is the most condensed and visited area, composed of five AVAs: Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton. You’ll find the highest concentration of lodging and eateries in the North Willamette, and the architecture of many winery tasting rooms rivals that of Sonoma and Napa. To get a feel for the area, click here for an interactive map.

Getting There

The airport in Portland, Oregon (PDX) is your hub for the Willamette Valley. Alaska, Jet Blue, Southwest and Virgin America offer frequent and direct flights, and you’ll find most major alliances represented here. For SkyTeam it’s Delta; for Star Alliance, United and Air Canada; and Oneworld is represented by American Airlines.

While there are a wide variety of wine-country tour companies from which to choose, it’s ideal to rent a car for traveling around the Willamette; one of the pleasures of any wine country is getting recommendations at each winery and changing your itinerary as you go.

From Portland, there are two main routes to Willamette wine country:

The most direct: Take the 99W straight out of town for about 50 minutes.

The most leisurely: Take the 26W to the Glencoe Road/219 exit, and head south into Newberg. At one hour and 10 minutes, this route takes you through several small towns and past some lovely farmland.

Where to Stay

The Nines, Portland.
The Nines, Portland.

The Willamette makes an easy day trip from Portland, which has all the major hotel brands for point collectors, including a Radisson, Hilton, Marriott, Westin, Crowne Plaza and a few Holiday Inns. Boutique hotel The Nines is a Starwood property in the heart of downtown, as well as a member of both Visa Signature Hotels and Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts; additional local Fine Hotels include the historic standby The Heathman Hotel and Kimpton’s RiverPlace, which offers some of the city’s best views of the Willamette River. Other top choices downtown are an über-hip Ace Hotel which serves locally-roasted Stumptown Coffee, and the fashionable Hotel Lucia.

However, if you want to make a weekend (or more) of the Valley, there are a handful of independently-run properties that will help you unplug from city life and get on the wine country’s gentle wavelength.

Consider staying at the Black Walnut Inn.
Consider staying at the Black Walnut Inn.

With only nine guest rooms, the family-owned Black Walnut Inn sprawls across 42 acres of the Dundee Hills, offering expansive views of the valley and surrounding mountains. At this eco-friendly luxury inn, which opened in 2003, breakfast features produce from the property’s organic garden and eggs from its own hens.

Set on 82 acres of Yamhill County farmland just outside Carlton, the five cozy suites at the Abbey Road Farm Silo B & B have been carved out of renovated grain silos. Owned by a married couple since 2007, the main building is surrounded by fruit trees and a working barnyard, replete with goats, llamas, sheep and more. The Allison Inn & Spa near Newberg is probably the area’s most luxurious accommodation.

Part of an enormously popular area chain of whimsical hotels, bars, and movie theaters set in historic buildings, 42-room McMenamin’s Hotel Oregon offers a smalltown version of the Valley. Set in sleepy downtown McMinnville (which runs for about three blocks in any direction), you can enjoy three daily meals in the on-site pub or sip local wines and beers at the rooftop bar.

Where to Eat
The indoor-outdoor Dundee Bistro.
The indoor-outdoor Dundee Bistro.

Dundee is the center of locally-sourced cuisine in the Valley, and two particular restaurants have remained popular since the 1990s:

The indoor-outdoor Dundee Bistro looks not unlike a winery tasting room writ large, in keeping with its ownership by local Ponzi Vineyards. Almost everything on the menu is sourced from within 100 miles, save for the Italian-roasted coffee.

Tina’s specializes in creative, seasonally inspired meals, attracting area chefs to its tables in their off-hours. A small, romantic spot with a central fireplace, advance reservations are highly recommended.

McMinnville’s downtown Main Street is another ideal (and wine-friendly) dining destination, with eateries like the sweet little French Bistro Maison, where dinner is only served on Saturday night and the best seats are on the garden patio. Barcelona-style tapas are the focus at La Rambla, while the communal tables at Community Plate serve breakfast and lunch items comprised entirely of ingredients that have been locally-grown and raised.

Wineries to Visit

In a tasting room set in a renovated Victorian house, Dundee’s Argyle pours classic Oregon Pinots and a surprising range of sparkling Pinot Noir blends. A special flight dedicated to Argyle’s beloved and now-deceased tasting room kitty, Snowball, benefits area cat adoption efforts. Nearby, Sokol Blosser serves some of the Valley’s best in one of the area’s most beautiful tasting rooms, set up on a hill amongst leafy old trees.

Domaine Drouhin.
Domaine Drouhin.

The sister winery to Burgundy’s exquisite Joseph Drouhin, the wines at Domaine Drouhin are dry, sophisticated, complex and some of the most expensive in the area. Its stunning, cellar-style tasting room arguably offers the best view of the North Willamette Valley, so be sure to treat yourself to a tasting on the side porch.

Set in a modern-day castle, Domaine Serene, this elegant sprawl borders on a bit too touristy (the parking lot can accommodate several tourist buses at a time), but with six different versions of Pinot Noir on offer, this is a good place to experience the range of the Valley’s terroir.

The architecturally eco-friendly space at August Cellars belongs to family farmers who offer Pinot Noirs and Riesling through their own label, as well as wines from other area wineries such as Toluca LaneLaura Volkman, and Et Fille.

Set in an 1800s storefront in the small farm town of Carlton, The Tasting Room is a great place to chat with staff about the area, check out affordable local artwork and taste the fruits of off-the-map micro-wineries like EIEIO. Just outside the downtown drag, the 10-vintner collective at the Carlton Winemakers Studio offers an ethos of sustainable farming in a modern, airy tasting room.

With an increasing presence in prestigious wine festivals and on restaurant menus, the influence of the Willamette’s wines is spreading. However, many of the area’s finest vintages still never leave Oregon, making a visit to these scenic hills more than worth any oenophile’s while.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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