Wine lovers seeking a flight of offbeat with their sipping road trip will want to head to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a gorgeous, 150-mile swath south of Portland. Laced with some 500 wineries, Oregon’s wine country is one of the world’s premier pinot noir–producing regions. And it’s only been at it since the 1970s.
There is a deep vein of entrepreneurial pluck that runs through the smaller, mostly family-run vineyards that start to show up less than an hour from downtown Portland.
Chances are you’ll meet the winemakers as you wander. To these hardworking folks, business is personal, and their wine is a point of great pride. Slick and polished isn’t the idea; friendly, approachable and high quality is what they go for.
Although it’s called the Willamette (rhymes with “slam it”) Valley, it’s the verdant hills, volcanic soils and mild climate that make pinot possible. The Valley also happens to radiate from the 45th parallel, something the region has in common with Burgundy in France. Add in stunning mountain views, and a road trip through this wine country is downright spectacular.
Closest to Portland
Forest Grove is your first stop at the northern end of Willamette wine country, about 40 minutes from downtown Portland. Home to a handful of wineries, it is also the landing spot for SakéOne, one of only six sake distilleries in the U.S. and definitely worth a stop. Before you continue south, be sure to see the two largest giant sequoia trees in Oregon, rising majestically from the grounds of the historic Hinman House in town.
At lovely Ponzi Vineyards, sisters Anna Maria and Luisa continue a half-century legacy of winemaking excellence and innovation. Founded in 1970 by their parents Dick and Nancy Ponzi, Ponzi Vineyards was instrumental in putting Willamette Valley on the map as a world-class wine region. Today, Ponzi continues to deliver luscious pinot noir and full-bodied chardonnay, with a lovely tasting room and veranda for taking in the vineyard views.
For more pinot noir, pinot gris or rosé sipping, pass by Montinore Estate, another local pioneer, to taste delicious biodynamic wines on a breezy patio overlooking the vines.
Expect to meet winemakers John Compagno and Gail Lizak at the lovely Ardiri Winery & Vineyards, a dog-friendly spot with an oversized patio looking out toward Mount Hood. Like so many Willamette Valley vintners, Compagno and Lizak take an active role in making their award-winning vin.
For a memorable meal, reserve a table at the Painted Lady, a high-end French restaurant with an emphasis on seasonal farm-sourced ingredients, fine local wines and European-style service. Chef/owner Allen Routt’s tasting menu is spendy at $110, with another $110 for wine pairings, but you are guaranteed nothing short of wow throughout your leisurely evening.
Ease on Down the Road
About 20 miles south, you’ll find McMinnville, home to the Valley’s first commercial winery, the Eyrie Vineyards. McMinnville is a sweet, Main Street kind of downtown, with quality winemakers, including Matello, Domaine Serene and Sokol Blosser nearby.
For still more wining, follow Highway 99 southward for dips into small boutique wineries, including the hippie-themed 3 Fools, Emerson Vineyards and Pfeiffer Vineyards, one of the oldest in this part of the valley.
You’ll pass lush pastures of grazing cows and lavender fields along the way, bucolic scenes that seem a world, not less than two hours, away from the city.