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Road Trip: Searching the Willamette Valley for the Perfect Pinot

 Road Trip: Searching the Willamette Valley for the Perfect Pinot

The Argyle Winery boasts some excellent sparkling wine for summer. (Courtesy: Argyle Winery) 

The plan: To explore as many of the wineries — and as many of the quirky small-town spots that make this region unique — as possible in a four-day trip.

The route: Portland to Eugene, avoiding the highway (in this case, I-5) in favor of picturesque byways.

The car: My usually trusty 2000 Mazda Protege. Downside: Broke down in the middle of my trip. Upside: Broke down in the middle of a wine district that had tasting rooms and a mechanic within walking distance.

In this part of the world, one grape rules: Pinot Noir. This is the wine that Miles couldn’t stop talking about in the movie “Sideways,” and it is indeed the perfect grape for a wine snob. Compared with less-persnickety varietals, Pinot Noir is like a boy king: unpredictable and requiring careful attention but handing out handsome rewards to its friends.

The mild climate, volcanic soils, and gentle hillsides of Oregon’s Willamette Valley — centered around the 45th parallel, just like Burgundy, France — are perfect for growing this most temperamental grape.

You don’t have to be a snob to love the wine that Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon calls “sex in a glass.” And as I discover, the valley is anything but snobby — it’s overflowing with unassuming folks, welcoming towns, and roadside quirks.

salem oregon

Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams are visible in the distance from a hill near Salem. (Photo: Christy Karras)

'Burbs to Country

Before I leave Portland, I stop in at Southeast Wine Collective, which carries a carefully curated selection of wines from the Willamette Valley and beyond. It’s a yummy taste of things to come.

I navigate the ’burbs west of Portland to Forest Grove, at the northern end of Willamette wine country. This little town is home to not only a handful of wineries but also Saké One, one of only six saké distilleries in the United States. (The founders chose this location based on the water quality, which is indeed seriously delicious.) The abundance of nonwine booze will be a running theme along my journey. I’m not complaining.

Highway 47 winds southward, past the tiny hamlet of Gaston, home of Big Table Farm. Napa refugees Brian Marcy and Clare Carver built this tiny winery (open for tastings by appointment) on their farm, inspired, as their website says, “by our desire to grow grapes, make wine, and to have the space for all of Clare’s animals and Brian’s wacky projects.”

Related: All-American Road Trip: 18 Stops on the Pan-American Highway

I continue past the rolling hills that are the key to the Willamette Valley’s success. Although “valley” is in the name, the hills are what make wine possible. They expose the vines to warm-but-not-hot summer sunshine that makes this part of the world perfect for not only wine but also picnics and road trips. Triple win!

Willamette Valley

Mount Hood dominates the northeastern Willamette Valley skyline. (Photo: Christy Karras)

I pull into McMinnville, home to the valley’s first commercial winery, the Eyrie Vineyards. It’s surrounded by high-quality outfits like Matello, a favorite of Portland sommeliers for its carefully crafted wines that bring out the flavors of the soil. The bottles carry an image of a fool to honor the winery’s name, which roughly translates to “a little crazy.”

Oregon’s wineries are still mostly small and family run, and grapes are only one of many crops in an agricultural region that drew thousands of hopeful families along the Oregon Trail almost 200 years ago. You can imagine their great sighs of relief when they arrived at a breadbasket that was everything it had been made out to be.

America’s Favorite Small Town?

McMinnville’s sweet-Americana downtown has earned it many accolades over the years. When I was there, it was in the middle of a campaign to be crowned Condé Nast’s “Best Main Street in America.” Leaflets posted around town reminding everyone to vote competed with posters for appealing events like a “fly-in/drive-in pancake breakfast” (this is a major aviation hub, and Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose airplane is on display at the nearby Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum).

I tour some of my favorite nearby wineries (not drinking at all of them; I promise). Southwest of McMinnville is Youngberg Hill, with its country-style inn perched above rows of organically grown vines. In nearby Dayton, there’s Domaine Serene, holding a slew of Wine Spectator awards, and sustainability-focused Sokol Blosser, which just a year ago opened a spacious modern tasting room. This area produces some of the best Pinots in the business.

Related: Making Friends on the Loneliest Road in America: Highway 50 in Nevada

Hotel Oregon

Rooftop bar the Hotel Oregon. (Courtesy: McMenamins)

I retire to the Hotel Oregon and dine on the multilevel rooftop bar, gazing out over neat rows of vines, fruit trees, and vegetables, all attractively bordered by tall, dark evergreens.

The hotel is part of the McMenamin brothers’ Pacific Northwest food, booze, and lodging empire. All their properties occupy historic buildings decorated with old-timey, slightly steampunk wall art. Each hotel room is named for a person or organization of note. I get one of the more boring names, that of the construction company that helps the brothers renovate their properties, but I take solace in being next door to the UFO room (the hotel has a UFO festival each spring. Of course).

The next day, I stop in for lunch with McMinnville resident, writer, and foodie Emily Grosvenor at the just-opened Barlow Room, the second restaurant from the locavore Czarnecki family, known for delectably savory soup and other mushroom dishes. Emily gives me tips on what to see, describing an ongoing food, wine, and beer confluence that’s “unlike anything I’ve seen.” I’m starting to realize that my biggest problem will be fitting in even a sample of all this.

Argyle winery

Tasting room at the Argyle. (Courtesy: Argyle Winery)

Wine and Rodeo

I head northeast along Highway 99 toward the Dundee Hills region, home to at least 30 wineries, some with tasting rooms right along the highway. 

I stop in at Dundee’s first winery, Argyle, known not so much for Pinot Noir as for sparkling wines — perfect for summer. Argyle’s marketing director, Cathy Martin, tells me, “Things have never been better than they are now.” I sense a theme here.

I hit another of my favorite hillside wineries, The Four Graces (named for the owners’ four daughters), on my way out of town for a few sips of complex, elegant Pinot.

I’m on Highway 219 en route to my next stop, Salem, when I pass through the hamlet of St. Paul. As traffic slows to a crawl, I get the impression that much of the valley’s population is congregating here for a rodeo. The parish church is having a communal chicken barbecue. Mmmm.

Trying to decide whether to turn around for the small-town rodeo, fair, and church dinner — all classic American entertainment — I pull into a farmhouse’s gravel driveway, take out my phone, and look for rodeo tickets online.

As I’m contemplating, loud pops ring from the farmhouse’s backyard. Must be fireworks … no, those are not fireworks. Those are gunshots. I’m sure this family was planning to do some target practice right now anyway … they’re not warning the stranger parked in the driveway, right? Right? As the shots continue, I decide that discretion is the better part of valor and hightail it for parts more urban.

 Civil War re-enactment

The Civil War re-enactment at Willamette Mission State Park. (Photo: Christy Karras)

Back in Time

That night, over a delicious dinner at Alcyone in Salem, I read through the local alt-weekly newspaper. As a sleepy state capital, Salem has a reputation as a sleepy bedroom community, but this place is more interesting than I suspected.

Aside from the usual stuff about politics and local businesses, I discover that along with classic rock, the local community radio station hosts shows called “Aging Without Raging,” “Transgender World 101,” and “Pick Me” (that last is about dating). Across from a tidbit about the Salem Bocce League, I see a description of upcoming events, including a Civil War re-enactment: “Like the elite of Washington, DC, who brought their picnic baskets to the battle of Manassas, you can come out in your finery to watch the Afternoon Battle.”

Related: Travel Into the Past: The Best Historical Re-enactment Sites

I can’t pass this up. And so the next morning I drive through countryside to Willamette Mission State Park, where signs direct me to the Civil War. I check out the Union and Confederate camps, waiting for the next skirmish. Men dressed in wool trousers, vests, and jackets are sipping from metal canteens. I watch women in hoop skirts maneuver their way into portable toilets and feel like apologizing for showing so much skin.

I chat with a few Confederates, admiring the New Orleans regiment’s jaunty blue-and-white striped pants and red-accented jackets — an ensemble that, sadly, doesn’t work very well in modern warfare. Over in the Union camp, I watch a pre-germ-theory medical demonstration. “I’m going to get gross,” the speaker says. “If you can’t handle the gross stuff, don’t listen.”

 Civil War re-enactment

Union soldiers in battle (Photo: Christy Karras)

The battle itself is worth waiting for. On a field normally used for disc golf, rows of soldiers converge on each other as cavalry officers race around the perimeter. Cannon fire booms, and gunpowder blooms into a smoky mist that hangs over the scene. It’s magnificent. (Spoiler alert: The South loses.)

The re-enactment happens only one weekend a year, but back on the road, I notice a sign announcing an upcoming Renaissance fair. You just never know what you might stumble upon amid the beauty of rural Oregon.

Another blast from the past: the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health in Salem, which opened a few years ago in the real-life former mental hospital where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed in the 1970s. While the movie’s portrayal of an asylum is far from rosy, the museum focuses on steps toward more humanitarian treatment over time. Recorded stories from actual patients and a few of the medical equipment items on display make me grateful for how far we’ve come, and an exhibit about the movie reminds me that I should re-watch it. Nurse Ratched!

I check in on a couple of wineries around Salem. To the west, Van Duzer’s hilltop tasting room and picnic area feature an exquisite view of the Coast Range foothills that bring it cooling breezes in summer. I sip a crisp rosé, then forge ahead to Eola Hills, organizer of the “Bike Oregon Wine Country” rides each August. As I leave town, I stop by at Willamette Valley Vineyards, where fun-loving owner Jim Bernau hosts concerts and an annual grape stomp competition during harvest season. (He’s entirely serious about wine, though.)

On to Eugene

(Courtesy: Pfeiffer Vineyards)

The most wine-filled route from here southward is along Highway 99, which takes you past friendly Corvallis (home to Oregon State University’s Beavers) and a healthy handful of boutique wineries, each offering something you probably wouldn’t find anywhere else — friendly Emerson Vineyards, hippie-themed 3 Fools, and Pfeiffer Vineyards, one of the oldest wineries in this part of the valley.

An even more relaxed option is to follow the 127-mile Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway (all on paved roads, so car owners can take it, too). This area has a definite rural feel. The hills are for wine, but the valleys are for livestock and produce. I drive past fields full of cows, berries, veggies, lavender, wheat … and, of course, acres of hops that go into the many terrific local beers.

I arrive in Eugene, a college and beer town (Animal House was, fittingly, filmed here) with a growing wine industry, and check in at the swanky new Inn at the 5th hotel. Conveniently, there’s a wine bar, Route 5, right downstairs.

I taste a few local vinos and walk around the corner to the casual Cornucopia Restaurant, where I belly up to the bar and quickly make a half dozen new friends, all eager to recommend their favorite local wineries and beer makers. I give Eugene kudos for being the easiest place for a solo traveler to meet nice folks, and I go to bed with a fresh to-do list for the morning.

simpsons museum

The official Simpsons couch at the Sprinfield Museum. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Most of the wineries around Eugene are at least 45 minutes out of town. I check out venerable King Estate and the new tasting room at low-key Iris. Recommendations from the night before take me to Sarver Winery, an unassuming little place playing bluesy music at its rustic tasting room perched in the foothills overlooking a sun-drenched valley. 

I end my day with a quick tour of Springfield, which Simpsons creator Matt Groening recently revealed as the inspiration for his fictional quirky town. The Springfield Museum has the Official Simpsons Couch on display (admission is free) and a Simpsons mural will soon grace a building next door.

I grab lunch and a beer at Agrarian Ales, a boutique brewery with a hippie vibe a few miles north of Eugene, then relax on the grass for a while before I head back to Portland. Hey, life isn’t all about wine. Just mostly.

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