Forget pretentiousness, grand villas, celebrity wineries, and snobbish waiters -- this is not Napa Valley. Oregon wineries, for the most part, are still small establishments. Even the wineries right on Ore. 99W (wineries that seem calculated to provide beach-bound vacationers with a bit of distraction and some less-than-impressive wine for the weekend) are still small affairs compared to the wineries of Napa Valley. Although in recent years more and more "corporate" wineries have been opening with the sole purpose of producing high-priced pinot noir, many of the region's wineries are still family-owned and -operated and produce moderately priced wines.
Forget about cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and zinfandel while you're here. The Willamette Valley just isn't hot enough to produce these varietals. With the exception of southern Oregon wineries and a few Willamette Valley wineries that buy their grapes from warmer regions (the Columbia Gorge, southern Oregon, California, and Washington's Yakima Valley), Oregon wineries have, thankfully, given up on trying to produce cabs and zins to compete with those of California. The wines of the Willamette Valley are primarily the cooler-climate varietals traditionally produced in Burgundy, Alsace, and Germany. Pinot noir is the uncontested leader of the pack, with pinot gris running a close second. However, Gewürztraminer and Riesling are also produced, and with the introduction of early ripening Dijon-clone chardonnay grapes, the region is finally beginning to produce chardonnays that can almost compete with those of California. Other wines you'll likely encounter in this area include Müller-Thurgaus (usually off-dry white wines), muscats (dessert wines), and sparkling wines (often made from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes).
Wine country begins only a few miles west and southwest of Portland. Approaching the town of Newberg on Ore. 99W, you leave the urban sprawl behind and enter the rolling farm country of Yamhill County. These hills form the western edge of the Willamette Valley and provide almost ideal conditions for growing wine grapes. The views from these hills take in the Willamette Valley's fertile farmlands as well as the snowcapped peaks of the Cascades.
Between Newberg and Rickreall, you'll find dozens of wineries and tasting rooms that are open on a regular basis. There are concentrations of wineries in Dundee's Red Hills and in the Eola Hills northwest of Salem, and if you head north from Ore. 99W, you'll find another dozen or so wineries near Carlton, Yamhill, Hillsboro, and Forest Grove. Each of these groupings of wineries makes a good day's tasting route, and they have been organized here so that you can easily link them together as such.
Most, but not all, wineries maintain tasting rooms that are usually open between 11am or noon and 5pm. During the summer, most tasting rooms are open daily, but in other months they may be open only on weekends or by appointment. Wineries located right on Ore. 99W are usually open throughout the year. Many wineries also have a few picnic tables, so if you bring some goodies with you and then pick up a bottle of wine, you'll be set for a great picnic.
For anyone simply interested in tasting a little Oregon wine, the wineries along the highway are a good introduction. If you have more than a passing interest in wine, you'll want to explore the wineries that are located up in the hills a few miles off Ore. 99W.
Many of the best wineries, however, are open only by appointment or on Memorial Day and Thanksgiving weekends. If you're serious about your wine, you might want to make appointments to visit some of these more exclusive wineries or plan a visit to coincide with Thanksgiving or Memorial Day weekend. Oenophiles, especially pinot noir fans, are likely to uncover some rare gems and discover a few new favorite wineries this way.
At most wineries, you'll be asked to pay a tasting fee, usually $5, but this fee is often waived if you buy some wine. In the past few years, as pinot noir prices have risen into the $40 to $60 range, tasting-room fees have also been creeping up. At some of the more prestigious wineries, you may have to pay a tasting fee between $10 and $20. Many wineries have celebrations, festivals, music performances, and picnics throughout the summer, and during these celebrations there is often a fee to cover the cost of the appetizers and wine that are served. The Memorial Day and Thanksgiving weekend tastings usually carry a fee between $5 and $20.
For more information about the Oregon wine scene, including a calendar of winery events, pick up a copy of Oregon Wine Press, a monthly newspaper (available at area wine shops and wineries), or contact Oregon Wine Press, P.O. Box 727, McMinnville, OR 97128 (tel. 503/883-6266; www.oregonwinepress.com). Willamette Valley Wineries, P.O. Box 25162, Portland, OR 97298 (tel. 503/646-2985; www.willamettewines.com), a regional wineries association, publishes a free map and guide to the local wineries. You can pick up a copy at almost any area winery. You can also find out about new wineries and double-check tasting-room hours at a few winery-association websites: Dundee Hills Winegrowers Association (www.dundeehills.org), Chehalem Mountains Winegrowers (www.chehalemmountains.org), North Willamette Vintners (www.northwillamettevintners.org), and Sip 47 (www.sip47.com).
Taster's Tip -- Although few Oregon wineries have regularly scheduled winery tours, if you're interested and there is someone on hand to show you around, you're usually welcome to tour the facilities.
The Twice-a-Year Wineries -- Harvest season aside, Memorial Day weekend and Thanksgiving weekend are the two most important times of the year in wine country. On these weekends, wineries often introduce their new releases and sometimes offer barrel tastings of wines that haven't yet been bottled. Many wineries stage live music, and most serve some sort of food, often exotic cheeses, to accompany the wines they have out for tasting.
Many of the area's best boutique wineries are open to the public only on these two weekends. So if you're serious about wine, you won't want to pass up a Willamette Valley wine tour on one or the other of these holidays.
For information on what wineries will be open, contact Willamette Valley Wineries, P.O. Box 25162, Portland, OR 97298 (tel. 503/646-2985; www.willamettewines.com), or the Washington County Visitors Association, 11000 SW Stratus St., Ste. 170, Beaverton, OR 97008 (tel. 503/644-5555; www.visitwashingtoncountyoregon.com).
Leave the Driving to Us -- If you're interested in learning more about Oregon wines, contact Grape Escape (tel. 503/283-3380; www.grapeescapetours.com), which offers in-depth winery tours of the Willamette Valley. All-day tours include stops at several wineries, appetizers, lunch, and dessert, and pickup and drop-off at your hotel. Call for rates ($120-$275 per person). For people with less time, half-day afternoon trips take in three wineries ($75 per person). Oregon Wine Tours (tel. 503/681-9463; www.orwinetours.com) give similar all-day tours that stop at four or five wineries. These tours cost $165 each if there are just two of you. If you've got a group and want to tour wine country in a 1959 Chrysler stretch limousine, contact Classic Tours (tel. 503/297-2824; www.classictoursusa.com).
The McMinnville Area
For a selection of area wines (several of which can be tasted on any given day), visit NW Wine Bar, 326 NE Davis St., McMinnville (tel. 503/435-1295; www.nwwinebar.com), which is affiliated with the NW Wine Company, a winemaking facility operated by Laurent Montalieu, one of the area's most acclaimed winemakers. Also check out Wednesday Wines, 250 NE Third St., McMinnville (tel. 503/857-5665; www.wednesdaywines.com), a small shop selling wine, cheese, and other gourmet picnic items.
The Yamhill & Carlton Area
At the end of 2009, no fewer than 18 wineries or tasting rooms lay within a 6-block area of the tiny town of Carlton, which gives this town the distinction of having the highest density of wineries and tasting rooms in the state. Many of these tasting rooms seem to serve as testing rooms; if the wines do well, the wineries move into other, larger facilities. Consequently, although I have had some excellent wines at many Carlton tasting rooms, I hesitate to recommend by name any of the smaller wineries because they may have moved on by the time you visit. However, rest assured that a walk around Carlton will provide ample wine-sampling opportunities.
If you're searching for rare and expensive boutique wines from the area, stop in at The Tasting Room, 105 W. Main St. (tel. 503/852-6733; www.pinot-noir.com), which specializes in wines from wineries not usually open to the public. Most wines featured here are from wineries in the immediate vicinity of Carlton. The Tasting Room is open Thursday through Monday from noon to 5pm. Also here in Carlton, you'll find the Carlton Winemakers Studio, 801 N. Scott St. (tel. 503/852-6100; www.winemakersstudio.com), which represents numerous wineries, including Andrew Rich Wines and Hamacher Wines. This tasting room is open daily from 11am to 5pm.
The Gaston & Forest Grove Area
In downtown Forest Grove, you can sample a wide variety of local wines at Urban Decanter, 2030 Main St. (tel. 503/359-7678; www.urbandecanter.com), a wine bar that is open Sunday and Monday from 3 to 7pm, Tuesday through Thursday from 11am to 9pm, and Friday and Saturday from 11am to 10pm.
Saké It to Me, Baby -- When you've had it with fruit-forward pinot noir, crisp pinot gris, and oaky chardonnay, why not try a little sake? In Forest Grove you'll find Saké One, 820 Elm St., off Ore. 47 (tel. 800/550-7253 or 503/357-7056; www.sakeone.com), which is the world's only American-owned sake brewery and produces premium sakes that are meant to be served cold. Saké One also bottles fruit-flavored sakes that are made with, among other flavorings, Asian pear and raspberry. The tasting room is open daily from 11am to 5pm, excluding major holidays. The tasting fee ranges from $3 to $10.
The Eola Hills Area
Some people claim the best pinot noirs in Oregon come from the Eola Hills, northwest of Salem. Why not decide for yourself?
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.