Sip. Savor. Repeat.
Blame the volcanoes of the Northwest that sent so much lava roaring through this valley about 16 million years ago and set the stage. Or blame the glaciers of Montana for forcing floods, about 14,000 years ago, that carried in so many tons of rich dirt.
Or you could just blame David Lett. He was the 25-year-old who rolled in from California 43 years ago with a trailer full of vine cuttings and a crazy dream about something called Pinot. And now the Willamette Valley is never going to be the same.
After spending most of the 20th century as a haven for hazelnut growers and turkey farmers, this territory, about an hour’s drive south of Portland, now belongs to the Pinot grape and those who admire it.
Stand on high ground in the Dundee Hills and you see the trained vines march across the landscape, row by row, like a green invading army or the cast of China’s Olympic ceremony. About 275 wineries do business here, joined by burgeoning numbers of tasting rooms, restaurants and lodgings.
The nuts and birds are still around -- in fact, Oregon still produces most of this country’s hazelnuts, also known as filberts. But ever since Lett and fellow Pinot pioneers, including Dick Erath, Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol Blosser, started winemaking here in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the way of the grape has been ascendant.
For anybody accustomed to California tasting rooms, this is a different sort of wine country -- cooler than the vineyards of Napa or Sonoma or Santa Ynez or San Luis Obispo County; more suited to small-volume operations; and without a single big, fancy hotel.
Here for three weekdays in September, I paid $55 a night for a tiny hotel room (bathroom down the hall) and $20 a day for a rental car (Thrifty, at the Portland airport). I dined without reservations at several well-regarded restaurants. I drank a lot. And one morning, I spent two hours on the back of a Tennessee walking horse, gliding down those vineyard rows and ducking under filbert branches with guide Jake Price. Twice we stopped, tied up the horses and sauntered into a tasting room for a nip.
The Willamette Valley is about 100 miles long, with six sub-appellations, each offering its own microclimate. It is not quite nirvana -- not with such cold, wet winters and not with such congestion on the area’s main artery, Oregon Highway 99W, around the town of Dundee.
And if you’re bringing along somebody you want to impress, a $55 room at McMenamins Hotel Oregon isn’t the ticket. But the commanding views from the 5-year-old Black Walnut Inn in Dundee ($295 and up) or the 18-year-old Wine Country Farm in Dayton ($130 and up) will do the trick.
This is a destination coming of age, with enough charms and quirks to satisfy serious wine people and the rest of us too.
This is “the next Napa, no doubt,” says John Stuart, the owner of Abbey Road Farm who arrived from Las Vegas five years ago and raised a few eyebrows by building five luxury guest suites inside three old grain silos.
Of course if you ask a longtime Oregonian about the Napa thing, you’re likely to get an earful on how this will never be another Napa but something kinder, gentler and more concerned with substance than style.
But the rest of the world is certainly here, including the French. Domaine Drouhin Oregon, a satellite of the revered winemaking Drouhin family of Burgundy, has run vineyards and a winery here since 1987. Its tasting room opened in 2004, and it’s gone Oregon eco-native: In August the winery added a large array of solar panels.
Meanwhile, new lodgings are rising.
For careful spenders, Comfort Suites opened in McMinnville in October with 66 rooms. For others, construction has begun in Newberg on an 85-room, 35-acre upscale resort called the Allison Inn & Spa, expected to open in August with rates beginning at $295. And a controversial plan to build a 50-room boutique hotel among the vineyards between Dundee and Dayton has run into opposition from winery owners who say the project doesn’t belong on farmland.
If you get here this month, you may catch the last of the year’s warmer, drier weather, and you’re bound to get a glimpse of the grape harvest. At Thanksgiving, you’ll find the valley buzzing with wine-soaked special events. Then again, if you wait until spring or summer, when most visitors arrive, you’ll have the comfort of milder weather and extended tasting-room hours.
In any event, if you treat the Willamette Valley as a day trip from Portland, you’ll miss a lot.
I based my wanderings in McMinnville, the seat of Yamhill County. Amid the eateries and shops in the city’s old downtown, the McMenamin brothers, creators of a brew-pub empire in Oregon and Washington, have playfully rehabbed the 1905 Hotel Oregon into a raffish hangout with bar and restaurant below, 42 rooms above and a bar and patio on the roof. Rates start at $50, but for a private bath you’ll pay $90 or more.
The biggest attraction in McMinnville proper, by many measures, is probably the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum (open daily), which has an Imax theater and scores of aircraft, including the Spruce Goose, the enormous wooden plane built by Howard Hughes in the 1940s. If you never managed to see it during its years neighboring the Queen Mary in Long Beach, here’s your chance.
From McMinnville you also can make a day trip to the coast (Lincoln City is about 50 miles southwest of McMinnville), hike in Silver Creek Falls State Park (53 miles southeast of McMinnville), book a balloon ride, take a daylong wine-country tour, gamble at Spirit Mountain casino in Grand Ronde (about 18 miles southwest of McMinnville) and browse for garden wares and nursery items at Red Ridge Farms in Dayton.
But if you’d rather tuck into Northwest foodie history and a five-course meal heavy on local ingredients, head to Nick’s Italian Cafe, which has been a sort of winemakers’ clubhouse since it opened in 1977. The dining room is devoted mostly to five-course $49 meals. (You can order a la carte. But if you want a more casual meal from a shorter menu and without reservations, head for the comfortable bar area in the back.)
For every taste
OK. The first tasting stop is a not-especially-scenic former poultry plant on Northeast 10th Avenue in Dundee. This is where Lett and his wife, Diana, founded Eyrie Vineyards in 1966. David Lett arrived in Oregon by way of UC Davis and planted the first Pinot Noir and the first Pinot Gris grapes here. In those first years, he paid the bills with his day job selling textbooks, while his wife worked as a teacher.
“Back then,” says son Jason Lett, 38, who took over Eyrie when his father retired in 2005, “you could borrow money for a prune evaporator, a walnut-drying barn or a turkey shed” -- but not to open a winery.
Now so many winemakers have followed Eyrie’s lead that the neighborhood is known as the “Pinot Ghetto.” Two years ago Eyrie opened its modest tasting room. It holds about 20 people, and tasters pay $5.
(How deeply is Eyrie admired around here? Among the 90 or so Pinot Noirs on the wine list at Nick’s, the costliest is a bottle of Eyrie’s 1976 South Block Reserve, priced at a cool $650.)
If Eyrie is Yamhill County yin, then the yang must be the palatial Domaine Serene in Dayton. Owners Ken and Grace Evenstad arrived in Oregon in 1989, invested millions in making and promoting their estate-grown Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, and in 2005 they opened a tasting room on grounds as grandiose as Eyrie’s are humble. The cost to taste is $15.
Just a short stroll from Domaine Serene stands the Wine Country Farm, which includes a bed-and-breakfast with nine rooms. This is where Price, owner and chief guide of Equestrian Wine Tours, begins his $50-an-hour trail rides.
McMinnville (population about 30,000) and Newberg (about 22,000) are the two biggest cities outside of Portland in the Willamette Valley, but if you’re out tasting, you’ll soon find yourself in Dundee and Dayton, whose slopes hold many of the area’s most coveted vineyards (including those of Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene and Eyrie).
Some of the region’s best food and drink can be found in Dundee, in a huddle of upscale tasting rooms (Ponzi Vineyards, Argyle Winery) and restaurants (Tina’s, the Dundee Bistro) flanking the most congested, one-lane-each-way stretch of 99W.
For years, a civic debate has simmered over whether to widen the highway, build a bypass or do neither. If you find yourself crawling through Dundee, my advice is to pull over and start drinking. And eating.
The Ponzi family was among the area’s winemaking pioneers beginning in 1970, and Argyle has won much acclaim with the sparkling wines it makes from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. And at the Dundee Bistro (owned by the Ponzis), the golden corn beignets with Oregon Bay shrimp made me very, very happy.
In your tasting-room rounds, you’re likely to pass through Amity and Yamhill and Carlton too. In Carlton -- which since 2003 has grown from a handful of tasting rooms to 18 -- I tasted a few wines at the recently opened Cliff Creek Winery tasting room on Main Street, and then a few more at the Carlton Winemakers Studio, where nine wineries offer their wares at the edge of town in a 2002 building full of green features.
I never did find time to make that day trip to the coast, nor did I get to all the wineries and restaurants I wanted to. But really, on a trip like this, that’s exactly the problem you want. So thank you, volcanoes; thank you, glaciers; and thank you, Mr. Lett.
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
If you go to Oregon
THE BEST WAY
From LAX, Alaska and United offer nonstop service, and Southwest, US Airways and United offer connecting (change of plane) flights. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $198.
WHERE TO STAY
Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard, 9600 N.E. Worden Hill Road; Dundee; (866) 429-4114, www.blackwalnut-inn.com. Nine rooms on 42 acres. Doubles from $295.
Wine Country Farm Bed & Breakfast & Cellars, 6855 Breyman Orchards Road, Dayton; (800) 261-3446, www.winecountryfarm.com. Nine rooms. Doubles from $130.
McMenamins Hotel Oregon, 310 N.E. Evans St., McMinnville; (888) 472-8427, www.mcmenamins.com. Forty-two rooms. Doubles from $50.
Abbey Road Farm B&B;, 10501 N.E. Abbey Road, Carlton; (503) 852-6278, www.abbeyroadfarm.com. Five rooms built into three old silos. Doubles from $195.
WHERE TO EAT
Nick’s Italian Cafe, 521 N.E. 3rd St., McMinnville; (503) 434-4471, www.nicksitaliancafe.com. Dinner only, Tuesdays through Sundays. Focus is on the five-course meal, $49, but you can order a la carte.
Crescent Cafe, 526 N.E. 3rd St., McMinnville; (503) 435-2655. Breakfast and lunch, Wednesdays through Sundays. Prices up to $12.
Cuvee, 214 W. Main St., Carlton; (503) 852-6555, www.cuveedining.com. Dinner, weekend lunches in summer. Dinner entrees $19.75 to $22.
Dundee Bistro, 100-A S.W. 7th St., Dundee; (503) 554-1650, www.dundeebistro.com. Lunch and dinner daily. Dinner entrees $13 to $22.
Tina’s, 760 S.W. Highway 99W, Dundee; (503) 538-8880, www.tinasdundee.com. Dinner nightly, lunch Tuesdays to Fridays. Dinner entrees $22 to $36.
TO LEARN MORE
Wineries and tasting rooms: The Willamette Valley Wineries Assn., (503) 297-2962, www.willamettewines.com; the Dundee Hills Winegrowers Assn., www.dundeehills.org.
Horseback riding through vineyards: Equestrian Wine Tours, (866) 864-5253, www.equestrianwinetours.com.
The area: Yamhill Valley Visitors Assn., (503) 883-7770, www.yamhillvalley.org.
McMinnville Downtown Assn., (503) 472-3605, www.downtownmcminnville.com.
To see a video of the vineyard ride and more photos of the area, go to latimes.com/oregonwine.
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