Nestled in a pastoral Oregon valley between the Cascade Mountains and the Coastal Range lies some of the best cool-climate wineries in North America. While some would say the terroir of the Willamette Valley rivals that of Burgundy, that claim can only be tested when tasted.
There are seven American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the Willamette Valley and these diverse areas are home to over 800 wineries with the vast majority in the hills of the north. For the most part this region is best known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varietals with a growing reputation for Pinot Gris, all of which enjoy great structure derived from the soils and micro-climates that make the valley a benchmark for cool climate wines.
To get the best feel for what the pinnacle of Oregon wines can be, there are three different properties that stand out as distinct reflections of their terroir and the highest dedication of both viticultural acumen and winemaking skills. These are the top destinations for discovering the synergy of fine wine and culinary excellence. Let’s start from the north.
An hour’s drive through the countryside from Portland lands you in the corridor between Newberg and Dundee where copious tasting rooms await thirsty visitors. Serious wine aficionados must arrange for a comparative tasting at the iconic Domaine Serene right in the heart of the Dundee Hills sub-AVA. And for those who are seeking a unique experience, Domaine Serene has something special in mind.
The 45th parallel tasting program is designed to compare the wines from Oregon and Burgundy when presented with a variety of delicacies. The chef prepares small plates ranging from salads to sweets and each offering is accompanied by a wine from the Oregon portfolio and one from the Burgundian properties owned by Domaine Serene. Anyone partaking of these pleasures will quickly gain a better understanding of wine and food matching principles and how different terroir using the same varietals can enhance the dining experience.
Apart from this particular tasting there are other offerings that will please the palate, all served in a grand Tuscan-style clubhouse that overlooks the surrounding countryside. Artwork and artistry in winemaking are found in abundance here.
Time to head southward and immerse yourself in the sub-AVA of Eola-Amity Hills, but a slight detour through the most interesting town of McMinville is well worth the slight effort.
There is a distinctly laid-back feeing to this tiny town in the middle of Yamhill County. Even though it is the county seat and bills itself as the largest city in the region, don’t let that fool you into envisioning a bustling metropolis. This is a town with flair for food and is simply one of the most hospitable destinations along the wine route. Top restaurants line the main street (La Rambla and Bistro Maison are two of the best) and the historical Hotel Oregon presides over the center of town making it easily accessible for all visitors.
Willamette Valley Vineyards
The hillsides get steeper the further south your travels take you and arriving at the gates of the Willamette Valley Vineyards, you climb along the lane amid the stretched terraces of estate plantings. At the summit the tasting room awaits within meters of the wine-making facility and vines.
Inside, warm fireside seating is almost as popular as the extensive stand-up tasting bar. Dining options include a terraced patio, inside seating overlooking the sunset through massive windows and seating for a bespoke chef’s wine and dine offering.
The food and wine parings prepared here shine a light on food and wine enhancements presenting “micro-plates” packed with concentrations of flavors such that a little goes a long way. Wine offerings are selected with care to ensure that varietal characteristics are featured in addition to showcasing the winemaker’s skills in crafting distinct WVV labels.
After a delicious repast, many visitors retire to the fireside for one last sip. With so much cozy hospitality, it is difficult to leave this wonderful winery.
At the southern end of the Willamette Valley, north of Eugene, lies one of the best properties in the State for variety, craftsmanship and gourmet dining pleasure. King Estate has one of the largest acreages on a single site and not only produces amazing offerings from the vines set below the winery, but they also bring grapes from other sites owned by the family.
Winding roads and tree-lined lanes mark the path toward King Estate. As the verdant roadways dissolve into agricultural land, an impressive estate emerges atop a massive hillside framed at the entrance with a stone gateway. On the pinnacle of this prominence both wine making and hospitality seamlessly integrate to blend both form and function that accentuates a relaxed pleasure reflecting the nature of the wines and the facilities.
This is the largest biodynamic winery in the United States and this commitment to sustainability and quality shines through on all their offerings. Whether you are tasting a bottle derived from grapes at the doorstep of the winery or one whose grapes are grown in Washington State, there is such a spectrum of superior bottlings, you are bound to discover libation guaranteed to become a life-long companion. And once you’ve met that new friend, etiquette demands that you invite them to dinner.
Fortunately, there’s no need to look further for a fine dining experience. The King Estate tasting room is integrated into one of the absolute best dining facilities in the state. Actually, it may just be one of the best in all of the States where care and craftsmanship entwine gustatory delights with creativity in wine pairings.
These three wineries produce some of the top wines but also provide tasting environments rivaled by no other property in the Northwest. For those seeking legendary Oregon experiences beyond the grape, this region has become famous for a particular piece of land along the coastal cliffs just south of Eugene. Bandon, sits at the confluence of the Coquille River and the Pacific Ocean and is home to one of the world’s top golf resorts.
When Mike Kaiser decided that a wind-swept stretch of coast would be ideal for a links golf course, he would find the decision to develop a resort here would be a stroke of genius. It has been 20 years since the facility first opened its doors to golf enthusiasts and Bandon Dunes reputation was immediately cemented (it debuted at number 10 on the list of America’s Great Golf Courses). In the ensuing two decades and with the expansion to four 18-hole layouts, this resort is now a mecca for those wishing to enjoy some of the world’s best golf and the fine food and wine program on offer.
Adding to the stable of designs by Tom Doak, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the property will open it’s fifth great track in 2020. Known as the Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch, the new course has a curious history; but a glorious future. In 2001, Tom Doak set out 13 greens along the cliffs just north of the Old Macdonald Course and it was something of an enigma to many since there were no teeing grounds and players simply decided the routing around the landscape that they thought would be the most fun or greatest challenge. Every round was unique but this diamond in the rough would take 15 years to come alive.
Under the careful custody of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, this track will become one of the legendary cliffside courses to rival Old Head in Ireland and New Zealand’s Cape Kidnappers. Unlike other courses that feature a signature hole, it would be hard to select just one hole as the feature icon of the Ranch. A plethora of breathtaking holes crisscross the expanses of sandy cliffs and rolling terrain and fully half of the 18 greens are precariously perched atop the cliffs overlooking the beach and rolling waves that stretch to the horizon.
Most players will notice very quickly that there isn’t a bunker in sight. Perhaps an unusual feature, by no means does this make the challenge any less. Depressions where a body of sand would normally guard greens and fairways still exist, but they are full of native grasses that are likely tougher to escape from than a normal bunker. At least there is no need for any rakes.
Faces rosy from the day on wind-swept fairways, the bar in the Lodge is a popular gathering place before dinner. For those seeking a gourmet dining experience, the Pacific Grill has a menu that focusses on local seafood and other delicacies. The sommelier has selected some of the best Oregon wines to pair with the exquisitely prepared dishes and there is no doubt that the choices proposed are bound to enhance your dining pleasure. Although the fine dining option is resort casual, there is McKee’s Pub for those who want to roll in after 36 and grab a brew and a burger.
Getting to Oregon is the simple part. The Portland Airport is an easy-going modern facility with plentiful airline services while the train station is a well-maintained reminder of civilized travel at a more relaxed pace. No matter how you arrive, the biggest challenge will be to decide on what amazing experiences you’ll have. But for those looking to enjoy the best of what the region has to offer, these four destinations represent the pinnacle of the Oregon experience.
Wine & Travel Columnist, Sommelier
David Skinner’s passion is to share extraordinary food and wine experiences with those in search of flavorful memories. That first led him to the Algonquin College Sommelier Program where he graduated with the Sommelier Award of Excellence.
He then attended master classes at London’s prestigious Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) to build a stronger appreciation for the grape. However, becoming a certified sommelier was just the beginning of a search for a stronger understanding of what the wine and food world has to offer.
Searching for even more challenging wine experiences, he studied at the University of Californian at Davis (UC Davis) to become a certified California wine judge. That experience in the heart of Napa and Sonoma bred a hunger for wine-related travel that continues today.
Travelling the world in search of great wine experiences gives David the opportunity to share his favourite stories of the vine on NatalieMacLean.com as well as in other lifestyle magazines.