An Insider’s Guide to the Willamette Valley

Having worked in the Willamette Valley in Oregon since 2012, I am often asked, “Where would you go if visiting the Willamette Valley?” My answer generally will include places that I know that person is likely to enjoy.  However, if it were up to me, I would have some specific, special recommendations. Here are a few of my top recommendations.

Grape Escape Tour

A Grape Escape Tour

Tour companies: Either select a designated driver or take a tour.   While tours aren’t cheap, they generally are cheaper than a DUI ticket, and they are much more enjoyable because everyone can drink. Tours also generally include the tasting fees (depending on the winery, $15-$20 per person), but check with the company when you are booking your tour.

  • For groups of 4+: Grape Escape – Ask for Ralph, and he will take great care of you. This is probably one of the best deals out there. Furthermore, if your group isn’t big enough and you don’t mind going with others, it will likely be even cheaper. The tour guides are very knowledgeable.  While you will be riding in a large 10-passenger van, they pay the tasting fees and include small snacks such as meat and cheese plates for you to enjoy at one of the winery stops. Let Ralph know where you would like to go and let him know what places I recommended. He’ll do his best to set everything up in advance for you. I consider this a no-nonsense tour with great staff and service. They will also pick you up from your hotel in downtown Portland.
  • For couples 2-4 people: Oregon Select Wine Tours – Ask for Jeff. Jeff has been giving tours for a very long time, though you wouldn’t guess it since he’s a young entrepreneur. With Jeff’s beautiful SUVs with leather interiors, you will be riding around in style. Jeff works with a lot of the hotels in wine country, so if you are staying outside of Portland and at the Allison Inn and Spa or the Black Walnut Inn, I would recommend contacting him. If you are looking for a nice anniversary or couple’s weekend with class, Jeff is the way to go.  He also said he would honor a six hour tour at the price of a five hour tour, so make sure to mention that I sent you.
  • For younger groups of 6-12: Wildwood Adventures – Ask for Maria. Maria and her husband started this company this past year and have seen tremendous success with the younger, more active demographic. It probably helps that they both came from Nike before they decided to drop everything and follow their dreams. They have a winning combination of wineries to which they like to take their folks, but if you specifically want certain places, let them know.

Wineries

Here are some of the wineries that I traditionally recommend visiting whenever people ask me. Picking my favorites is always so hard, since so much depends on the person who is asking. Following are places where I would spend my day with my dearest friends. I generally like to stick to four wineries maximum as more than four becomes too much and I’d rather enjoy each winery than rush to the next and to the next. Wineries these days are opening earlier and earlier; some open now at 10:00 a.m. Make sure to check their hours, and, if possible, book a reservation. Avoid Mondays because most wineries are closed then.  Some wineries also have limited hours during the fall season.  Generally, I prefer to visit when there is less of a crowd, so I recommend visiting on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays, if at all possible. Your doing so is generally not expected, but it is appreciated, and you will also get the best service if you do this.

  • Bubbles: Always start with bubbles. Argyle Winery in Dundee is always my first stop, I love their Pop tasting menu, which features all sparkling wines.  You are sure to enjoy them.
  • History: Try a few Rieslings and Pinots from one of the most historic vineyards in the valley: Hyland Estate. Brady, Michael, or Hannah will take incredible care of you. Let them know I sent you, and they will honor a two-for-one tasting.
Red Hills Market Pizza and Beer

Lunch at Red Hills Market

  • Lunch: Stop for lunch at one of these two incredible spots:
    1. Red Hills Market for some stone-fired pizza and a beer on tap, and, at the same time, rub elbows with winemakers and vineyard managers from nearby wineries.
    2. Enjoy a Pinot Burger at Dundee Bistro with some truffle fries!
  • One-on-one with a view: Enjoy an incredible view and top-rated wines, with a private one-on-one tasting, at either the Dusky Goose (closed Tuesday and Wednesday) or Soter. Both have world renowned winemakers and have some of the most beautiful views in the valley.  Make sure to call ahead to set this up; you won’t be able to get in by showing up.
  • Traditional and on the way back into Portland:  Visit one of the most established wineries in the valley: Ponzi, Adelsheim, Archery Summit or Bergstrom. Be aware that these are well-visited places, and a phone call to them the day before will go a long way. Also, tasting fees may be higher depending on the location.  Sometimes the fees are waived with a purchase, but each place is different, and this shouldn’t be expected.

While there are so many more that I could visit, reducing this list to only a select few wineries can be hard. These are my personal recommendations and generally where I personally would take my friends visiting from out of town. Every year there are new wineries opening up and this list may change over time but it serves as a good base to plan your trip. Visiting during the summer can be a busy time to visit but the weather couldn’t be better. Spring and Winter may be wet but you have less tourism traffic and have a chance to do more one-on-one tastings. I personally prefer to go in the middle of the week and in the Spring or Winter time as this gives me a great opportunity to learn as much as I can from the staff and have a more dedicated tasting.

Shipping Wine Home:

At the end of the day, if you haven’t already purchased a case of your favorite wine but instead picked up a few from each location, The Newberg Mailroom is where you’ll want to stop and drop your wine off to have shipped to your final destination. Sometimes you can ask your tour operator when scheduling your tour that you may want to do this at the end of your tour and perhaps to do this quick stop for you. I would recommend filling a case of 12 bottles because it won’t matter whether you send 6 bottles or 12—the shipping cost will generally be the same.

If you are flying with Alaska Airlines, there is a special program called Oregon Wines Fly Free. You can see the details at: http://www.oregonwine.org/oregon-wines-fly-free/. If you are planning your trip, take this into account, because sometimes shipping wine can otherwise be expensive; thus if you can just take it with you, I would recommend it.  If you do decide to ship your wines yourself, just make sure you get the right packing material, either from a winery or from the Mail Room in Newberg.

General Overview of the Valley:

For a map of the Willamette Valley and links to a number of other places to visit: http://willamettewines.com/

You can also pre-order a brochure to help you finalize your plans by filling out the form at this link:  http://willamettewines.com/brochure/

To learn more about Oregon wine, make sure to check the Oregon Wine website which is full of events and promotions in the state.

 

Enjoy!  If you enjoyed my recommendations, feel free to share them with others, and let me know if you enjoyed your tour. Cheers!

 

Red wine, White Wine and Bubbles…An Introduction to the Willamette Valley of Oregon

Having been here in Oregon now for about four and a half months, starting with a quick introduction via the Wine Bloggers’ Conference held in Portland in September and culminating with the harvest season, I have had a chance to learn a bit about the wonderful valley that I now live in. While it is not Spain’s La Rioja, with its full-bodied sour cherry and oaky Tempranillos and Grenaches, the Willamette Valley of Oregon has another breed of wine, an American story different from that of California and La Rioja.

Oregon‘s wine country, like its people, is slower-paced, more personal and less pretentious than some other wine regions. Oregon is not a state where you will find extremely large wineries; instead you will find wineries with less than 3000 cases made annually. Oregon is dominated by a mom-and-pop type of mentality and a family-like consensus-driven way of working. Oregon’s wines are mostly hand-grown, hand-harvested, hand-sorted, and hand-made. There are very few mechanically harvested wines in Oregon due to differences in training systems throughout the state. Every step of the winemaking process is touched in one way or another by a human. Oregon is also leading the charge for organic, sustainable and biodynamic viticulture.

Located right at the 45th parallel, the Willamette Valley is considered a cool-climate region for grape growing. This region is primarily known for Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris but has also become home to new varietals such as Gruner Veltliner and even Riesling. The valley is protected by the Coast Range but also benefits from the cool marine air. In Willamette Valley it is believed that a cooler climate is more suitable to Pinot Noir than a warmer one. The valley is also known for its soil conditions and mild temperatures, creating the right terroir for its famed Pinot Noir.

A few good friends from Australia who came to visit me right after the harvest season asked me to give them a tour of the region.  I thought it only made sense to take them to a few places I feel represent this valley for them to see and taste…a little red, a little white and some bubbly.

  1. Eola Amity Hills AVA, to visit Bethel Heights.  We had wanted to make it to Cristom and Saint Innnocent. but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough time. We also toured Willamette Valley Vineyard, which is among the largest in production in Oregon. Ted Casteel from Bethel Heights took the time to talk to us about how they got started in 1977. For more information or to visit them, please visit their homepage at Bethel Heights.

2. Chehalem Mountain AVA, to visit the Ponzi Wine Bar.  Founded in 1970, this is another family-owned business that is now a second-generation-run winery, with Michel Ponzi as the Co-Owner, Maria Ponzi as the Director of Sales and Marketing, and their sister, Luiza Ponzi as winemaker. As there honestly was not enough time to drive all the way up to Ponzi’s main location, I took my Australian friends to the Wine Bar they have in Dundee. We had a bite to eat with a nice tasting of wine to accompany it. I had a chance to try their Dolcetto made from an Italian varietal, which was a nice surprise. They make Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and White Riesling, as well as Arneis and Dolcetto, two rare Italian varietals. Please visit them at Ponzi Vineyards.

3. Dundee Hills AVA, to visit Argyle Winery.  In my opinion, Argyle Winery makes some of the best sparkling wines (i.e., Champagne style) in the valley. I would highly recommend a visit to this winery to try their POP Flight.  They have a number of 90+ point wines highly recommended by Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate. They also happen to be located right across the street from the Ponzi Wine Bar, so you can grab a bite and then head over there for after-meal sparkling delights.  Please visit them at Argyle Winery.

When you are looking to find some other great places to visit, do feel free to send me an e-mail, and I will do my best to give you recommendations.  We hope to see more of you in the region to taste some of the great wines coming out of the Willamette Valley.

Cheers!