Oregon wine country, one sip at a time
Napa Northwest: Oregon's Northern Willamette Valley is the gateway to wine country in the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle Times travel writer
If you go
McMinnville is 210 miles from downtown Seattle. Driving time is about four hours. Take Interstate 5 south past Portland to exit 289 (Sherwood/Tualatin), or detour through the Champoeg State Heritage Area by going 18 miles south of Portland to exit 282A. Follow the signs to Butteville, and from there to Newberg and Highway 99W.
Visiting the wineries
• Order a map from the Willamette Valley Wineries Association that lists locations, phone numbers and opening hours for 158 wineries and tasting rooms. Phone 503-646-2985 or see www.willamettewines.com. Winery hours vary. Many are open daily, some just a few days a week or by appointment.
• Be prepared to pay for a tasting: Most wineries charge $5-$10.
• Plan a picnic. Many wineries have outdoor decks and picnic areas with gorgeous views. Some sell cheese, snacks, water and juices, or bring your own. A few sell wine by the glass; others sell only bottles.
Bed and Breakfasts of Yamhill County publishes a brochure with information on 26 B&Bs and inns. Call 503-864-9173 or see www.oregonwineinns.com.
McMenamins Hotel Oregon is a good budget choice in the downtown historic district. Eight of its 42 rooms have private baths. Others share a bathroom between two rooms or one down the hall. Doubles range from $50-$121 per night, depending on the room and the season. Rooftop deck and cellar wine bar. Call 888-472-8427 or see www.mcmenamins.com.
Don't let the small-town ambience fool you. Dinner for two could easily top $100 without wine at a handful of restaurants that win accolades from reviewers. Among them are the Joel Palmer House in Dayton (www.joelpalmerhouse.com), Cuvée in Carlton (www.cuveedining.com) and the Painted Lady (www.thepaintedladyrestaurant.com) in Newberg.
Here are a few lower-priced options:
• The Crescent Cafe, McMinnville. The owners' goal is to sell only what they produce or raise on their farm. Breakfast and lunch, $4-$11. Phone: 503-435-2655.
• The Horse Radish, Carlton. What a wine bar should be. Cozy nooks with couches and comfy chairs. Small bites ($4) and generous pours. See www.thehorseradish.com.
• Red Fox Bakery & Cafe, McMinnville. Come here for coffee, French pastries and picnic supplies. Two could share one of the marinated eggplant and roasted red pepper or Spanish tuna salad sandwiches. Breakfast, lunch, $2.50-$9. Call 503-434-5098.
• Orchards Bistro, McMinnville. Gourmet comfort food. Local wines. Good value. The Pinot Noir burger might be the best use of the wine other than drinking it. Lunch and dinner, $9-$20. See www.orchards-bistro.com.
• Golden Valley Brewery, McMinnville. A favorite with the locals and the place to go when you've had enough wine. Beef comes from the owners' ranch. "Flights" of beer, 10 samples adding up to two pints, are $7. Lunch and dinner, $9-$35. See www.goldenvalleybrewery.com.
Tourist information/upcoming events
Best days to visit are Wednesdays-Sundays. Some restaurants, shops and wineries close Mondays and Tuesdays.
The state celebrates its annual gastronomic extravaganza, "Oregon Bounty," Oct. 1-Nov. 30 with opportunities to meet chefs, vintners, brewers and farmers. Contact Travel Oregon at 800-547-7842 or see www.traveloregon.com. Order a visitors guide from the Yamhill Valley Visitors Association. Call 503-883-7770, or see www.yamhillvalley.org.
Carol Pucci, Seattle Times Travel writer
MCMINNVILLE, Ore. — Portland? Been there, done that. The Oregon coast? Storm-watching only lasts so long.
Consider instead a fall getaway to a place in between.
Nestled in the foothills of the Coast Range mountains between Portland and the ocean beaches, the northern Willamette River Valley is the gateway to Oregon wine country.
Treat yourself to a slice of peach pie at an old-time general store. Stop at a farm stand for a bag of homegrown hazelnuts. Check into a B&B, or book a room in a turn-of-the-19th-century hotel.
Definitely sip some wine.
One-third of Oregon's more than 300 wineries are here in the most fertile stretch of a 100-mile-long wine region that extends through Salem and into Eugene. Just 30 miles southwest of Portland, the area enjoys a climate similar to Seattle's — cool and wet — yet often sunnier, ideal for growing pinot noir grapes and much more.
"This is what the Sonoma-Napa Valley was 20 or 30 years ago," says Michael McKenney, who moved here from San Francisco with his partner, Danny Wilser.
They settled on a 131-acre dairy farm and opened the 10-table Crescent Cafe in downtown McMinnville, where lines form on weekend mornings for the pistachio coffee cake and banana pancakes. No reservations required, and unlike the real Napa, no plane tickets. The drive from Seattle takes about four hours.
The college town of McMinnville makes a central base for exploring the tasting rooms and vineyards near the towns of Newberg, Dundee, Lafayette, Dayton, Carlton and Amity.
Don't be fooled by the traffic along Highway 99W, a busy artery lined with fast-food restaurants and chain stores. Turn left or right, drive a few miles along winding two-lane roads, and you're in rural Oregon.
It was late afternoon by the time my husband, Tom, and I made the drive from Seattle a few weeks ago. We had time for just one tasting (most wineries are open from 11 a.m. or noon to 5 p.m.), so we veered off the highway at Dundee and followed the signs to Torii Mor Winery. Convinced we'd gone too far, we almost turned around when we reached a patch of gravel road. We continued up a hill and saw what looked like a Japanese tea garden.
Experts decide which tasting rooms to visit based on the reputation of the wines. Novices tend to seek out the so-called "destination" wineries — vineyards and tasting rooms with views, picnic areas or interesting locales such as the tasting room for Tyrus Evan winery inside an old train depot in Carlton.
Donald and Margie Olson's 15-year-old Torii Mor would please both types. Borrowing from the Japanese, the word "Torii" refers to ornate gates at garden entrances. "Mor" is Scandinavian for "earth." Pinot noir, the owners believe, is a beautiful gateway to the earth.
We shared a $10 tasting and strolled around the grounds between sips of seven wines, starting with a $16 Pinot Gris and ending with a $40 port. Most of the wineries charge anywhere from $5-$10 for a tasting, but sharing is fine, and most will deduct the price from the purchase of a bottle or case.
Unlike the wineries in Sonoma or Napa, "here you have to work to find them," says Joani Gohn from San Antonio, Texas. She and her husband, Rick, spent several days touring the area recently, with a goal of doing a half-dozen tastings a day. We met them one morning on the deck at Domaine Drouhin, a winery in the Dundee Hills owned by a French family with roots in Burgundy, considered the home of Pinot Noir.
The Texan couple's advice: Gather recommendations from friends and locals, and call ahead to make appointments at some of the smaller wineries that don't keep regular hours.
I checked suggestions on Web blogs and sent away for a touring map published by the Willamette Valley Wineries Association.
One blogger's post led us to Anne Amie, a winery with a Tuscan-style tasting room in a white manor house in the hills above Carlton.
A couple we met at Torii Mor recommended Vercingetorix (VX) in Newberg, a winery named for a Celtic warrior chief credited with saving Burgundy's pinot noir grape in a battle against the Romans. The tasting room was closed, but we followed the owners' signs inviting visitors to drive into the filbert orchards and picnic along the river.
Spotting a sign advertising "Chocolate Sampling and Sales," we found the Brigittine Monastery in Amity, where the monks support themselves by making fudge. Brother Francis, the superior, recommended we stop next at the winery that makes his favorite Pinot Blanc. That led us a few miles into the hills to the family-owned Amity Vineyards, one of the valley's oldest producers with a roster of wines in the $10-$15 range and a casual tasting area in the barrel room.
Thirty-year employee Diana Hrabik leads visitors through tastings with the good-natured hospitality of an aunt whose relatives dropped by for a visit. We sampled 10 wines, starting with the oyster-friendly Pinot Blanc, and ending with a dessert Riesling paired with figs she invited us to pluck from a tree in the backyard.
One of the biggest surprises was Maysara Winery, where 26 years after escaping Iran on a motorcycle, Flora and Moe Momtazi have built a successful business making wine and growing grapes on an abandoned wheat farm in McMinnville.
"Maysara" is the Persian word for a place to drink wine and seek wisdom. Framed poems written in Farsi decorate the walls inside the barrel room. The upstairs tasting room overlooks the vineyards.
The Momtazi family goes a step beyond organic with a technique called biodynamic farming. Plants and herbs nurture the vines, and growing methods take into account sun, moon and planetary cycles.
Bed and dinner
Scattered among the vineyards and backroads are more than 25 B&Bs. But this isn't a poor man's Napa, and rates at many first-class inns with fireplaces and Jacuzzi tubs top more than $200 a night.
The Youngberg Hill Vineyards and Inn atop a mountain overlooking the valley just outside of McMinnville seemed worth the splurge (Rooms start at $180). I pictured us ending the day with a glass of wine on the wraparound deck. But after a day of wine tasting, I also liked the idea of parking the car and walking to a restaurant. The budget traveler in me led us to a $70-a-night room with a shared bath in the 1900s-era Hotel Oregon in McMinnville's Third Street historic district.
Known for taking old schools and theaters and turning them into quirky hotels and brew pubs, Oregon's McMenamin brothers renovated the building in a European style with oak furniture, old photos and murals, one commemorating a UFO sighting in 1950 that the hotel celebrates each May with a festival.
The view from the rooftop bar was of the tops of other buildings, but the parking was free, and the location was handy for walking to a handful of wine bars, cafes and bistros.
We settled on gourmet comfort food at Orchards Bistro, where the tab for two was a wallet-pleasing $30 for a Pinot Noir burger, a sweet-potato shepherd's pie and two glasses of the house syrah.
As for that peach pie, we ate it on the front porch of the Butteville store in the Champoeg State Heritage Area near Newberg. Opened in 1863 to serve French-Canadian prairie farmers, it was Oregon's longest operating general store before it closed in 1998. Now the park service maintains it as a museum with a reading room and old-time cafe.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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