Oregon's sprawling Willamette Valley has become a highly sought destination for wine enthusiasts, and not just for the great weather and stunning scenery.Over the past few decades, this region has established itself as one of the world’s finest producers of pinot noirs and attracted some of the world’s most renowned winemakers. Many of the towns throughout the valley cater to the traffic of tourists hoping to pair exquisite wines with fine dining, beautiful locales and five-star accommodations.
But even though the Willamette Valley has attracted the likes of celebrities and high profile winemakers, it’s also managed to retain a tranquil setting that feels like anything but one of the world’s wine epicenters. There’s something for everyone to enjoy, and enjoy wine, restaurants and other attractions that you’re bound to see your trip come to an end before you hit everything on your wish list. As you do start to form your top targets for a Willamette Valley getaway, use this guide to make sure you hit the high points offered in this region.
Introduction to Willamette Valley Wines
Since the first Pinot noir vines were planted in 1965, the Willamette Valley has become one of the most influential wine-producing regions in America, not just in Oregon or the Pacific Northwest. Now boasting over 300 wineries across more than 5,000 square miles, running from the Columbia River in Portland south through Salem to the Calapooya Mountains outside Eugene, this region has built a reputation on small production excellence and is now producing some of the best and highest rated wines in the world.
Becoming an official AVA (American Viniculture Area, meaning a federally recognized wine growing region) in 1983, winemaking in the Willamette Valley began in earnest in 1965 when David Lett, Charles Coury, and Dick Erath planted Pinot noir and small amounts of Pinot gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling in the valley. However, it wasn’t until David Lett won top honors against France’s best label Pinots in 1979 that the world started to take notice of Oregon as a serious winemaking region.
Differing from the traditional Burgundian soils comprised of chalk, clay, and granite, the wine-growing regions of the Willamette Valley are comprised mostly of volcanic Jory soil mixed with gravel, silt, and rock, supporting excellent drainage for superior quality wine grapes.
The Willamette Valley has one of the world’s perfect diurnal temperature systems, enjoying warm days and cool nights, allowing wine grapes to develop their complexity while keeping their natural acidity. It remains relatively mild throughout the year, with cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers with most rainfall occurring in the winter. This temperate climate is ideal for cool climate grapes, including Pinot noir.
Well protected by the Coast Range to the west, the Cascades to the east, and a series of hill chains to the north, the Willamette Valley sits in an almost perfect wine-growing climate. The largest concentration of vineyards are located to the west the Willamette River and a few hundred feet above sea level to avoid the major frosts that settle in the valleys.
Named for the Willamette river that flows directly through the region, the Willamette Valley has the largest concentration of wineries and vineyards in Oregon and includes six sub-appellations: Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton, and the recently approved Chehalem Mountains.
Of course, many visitors to Willamette Valley consider accommodations and dining to be prelude to the main course: Wine, wine, and more wine. There’s no end to your possibilities when you set out for a day of tasting, but some destinations simply can’t be missed.
Penner Ash – This vineyard boasts a three-story gravity winery and tasting room, all of which can be toured in addition to your tasting.
The vineyard’s namesakes bring more than 30 years of experience to their work, which has produced a number of award-winning wines.
Ponzi – One of the first wineries in the Willamette Valley and responsible for some of the best early recognition, Ponzi produces wines made of at least seven different grapes, including a couple of Italian varietals, showing that Oregon isn’t just for Pinot noir lovers.
Maysara – A trendsetter in New World winemaking and one of the few Demeter Certified Biodynamic wineries in the world, Maysara composts, crops, and integrates based on strict organic and ecological standards as well as by the cycles of the Earth and moon. Wines are spicy, edgy, and earthy — a perfect example of New World excellence.
Domaine Serene – Awarded #3 Wine of the Year on the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of 2013 list, this is one of the true great wineries in the Willamette Valley, having produced over 85 wines rated 90 points or higher since its first vintage in 1990.
Archery Summit – With first-class Pinot noir and a beautiful winery built into a hillside, Archery Summit offers one of the best tours in the valley, including a walk-through demonstration vineyard. Its wines are well-rounded and routinely receive outstanding scores.
Domaine Drouhin – Owned and operated by Robert Drouhin of the famed Drouhin family in Burgundy, this is one of the best Old World wineries nestled in the New World. Styles are more delicate and traditional in the Burgundian style, and they offer one of the best views from their tasting bar, with selections from their sister operations in Burgundy as well.
De Ponte Cellars – Offering a signature white wine, Melon de Bourgogne, which is identical to the grape used in Muscadet in France, along with a more Old World style Pinot noir selection, De Ponte Cellars is one of the true hidden artisans and a great secret of the Willamette Valley.
Much of the lodging found in the Willamette Valley is quaint hotels and bed and breakfasts fully aware of your main interests. These venues cater specifically to the wine enthusiast and offer a range of related accommodations, from daily tasting hours to tickets for free wine tastings in the area.
McMenamins Hotel Oregon, McMinnville – Cost-effective with choices of private or shared bathrooms, this historic inn is in the perfect location from which to explore, and it has a rooftop bar that sports the best views for miles.
Abbey Road Farm B&B, Carlton – Sleep in converted grain silos, and experience beautiful views of the valley and rolling hills.
Red Hills Market, Dundee – Right across the street from the Ponzi Wine Bar and a perfect place to grab a cappuccino and pastry for breakfast or artisan sandwich for lunch
411 Eatery and Lounge, McMinnville – Easily one of the the best parts of your journey. Specializing in small bites and excellent service. The bacon and asparagus soup special was incredible.
Nick’s Italian Cafe, McMinnville – Named one of America’s Classic restaurants by the James Beard Foundation, Nick’s Italian Cafe offers homey Italian food featuring delightful appetizers, pastas, and wood-fired pizzas.
The Horse Radish Restaurant, Wine and Cheese Bar, Carlton – Amazing artisan cheeses, meats, and a wonderful lunch menu for eat in or grab-and-go for our wine country picnic.
Willamette Wine Country Activities
Of course, when breaks from wine tasting are required, there’s plenty to do. Hiking abounds in the Willamette Valley and in the nearby foothills of the Cascade mountain range, where you can also find river rafting and even skiing in some of the year’s warmer months. McMinnville is home to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, which is connected to the Wings & Waves Waterpark. The beautiful Oregon Coast is less than an hour-and-a-half away, and Portland proper is replete with excellent restaurants, brewery tours, professional sports, art exhibits and just about any other interest you might harbor.
Other trip-planning tips
Plan your trip to fall in May and June or in September and October. Many wineries only open their tasting rooms seasonally, and July and August in the Willamette Valley can get a little too hot for comfort. Look into a driver service, such as one offered by the limousine companies in the area, that will agree to drive you and your party around to a handful of tasting rooms in the span of a few hours. And purchase as many bottles as you can manage — you’ll usually get the tasting fee waived with a purchase.