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The Other Wine Country: Willamette Valley

Escape to Oregon’s premier wine region for world-class dining, serene surroundings, and killer vino that’s giving Napa a run for its money.


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Stoller Family Estate in Dayton, Oregon.

Photo courtesy of Stoller Family Estate.

Slow down—way down, like, five miles below the speed limit—and settle into a new kind of flow in ​Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Spanning a vast area between Portland and Eugene, the 150-mile-long Willamette Valley (Willamette rhymes with dammit) is best known as the state’s premier wine-growing region.

It boasts a climate similar to California’s Central Coast and has recently gained national and international recognition for its world-class pinot noirs and chardonnays, among other varietals. Although some Bay Area wine lovers may be skeptical of the region’s ability to compete with Golden State vinos, wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties are now sourcing grapes from Willamette.

Building on the valley’s impressive winemaking track record, numerous experimental vintners are introducing new vines to the region. This Oregonian pioneer spirit is not solely limited to the wine industry; it also manifests itself in many of the small towns and enterprising residents throughout the area.

The prestigious vinos—plus the slower pace, lack of traffic, welcoming people, and casually refined atmosphere—are perfect reasons to escape the Bay and embark on a road trip. So power up your favorite playlist, plug in your GPS, hit the road, and unwind on a long weekend in the Willamette Valley.

Each of Stoller Family Estate’s Legacy wines is named after an important woman in the Stoller family. Photo by Mike Haverkate.

 

Day One: Old-Town Charm

Grab the keys to your rental car after touching down in Portland, and head to Dayton for a pit stop at Stoller Family Estate. This turkey farm–turned–vineyard has been in Bill Stoller’s family for three generations. The bright tasting room’s floor-to-ceiling glass garage doors open up to reveal an expansive view of the property, dotted with clusters of old oaks and sprawling vines adjacent to the patio and lawn.

Stoller planted his first vines—half pinot noir and half chardonnay—on 20 acres in 1995 and began selling his grapes to wineries. It wasn’t until 2001 that Stoller decided to create his own label, partnering with young winemaker Melissa Burr in 2003. The estate has since grown to almost 400 acres, with 210 dedicated to wine grapes. While a large portion of the land is planted with pinot noir, Stoller allotted acreage to varietals that are less common in the valley, including pinot blanc, riesling, and syrah.

Despite its relatively young heritage, the winery feels sophisticated with a hint of casual comfort. Proudly pouring award-​winning wines crafted for the entire community, Stoller Family Estate strives to keep its vino approachably delicious. A standout is the rosé: Made with 100 percent pinot noir grapes, this wine—featuring notes of strawberry and watermelon—is refreshing to the palate with a slight bite of acidity. stollerfamilyestate.com.

A 15-minute drive from Stoller leads you to the charming town of McMinnville. This old gristmill settlement was established by Oregon Trail survivor William T. Newby and has held on to its pioneering roots in the best way. The historic downtown consists of just a few blocks along 3rd Street, but it is packed with character. The shaded sidewalks and quaint storefronts invite visitors to stroll and peek into the various boutiques, bookstores, and galleries along the two-lane street.

For a respite, rest your head at the newly opened Atticus Hotel, which oozes elegance and offers a luxurious stay in the most unpretentious way. Though its ambience is thoroughly modern, the Atticus also emphasizes local craftsmanship: Nearly every couch, painting, plant, bath product, strip of wallpaper, and complimentary hazelnuts and walnuts found in the guest rooms are sourced from Oregon artisans and growers. After checking in, feel free to take that complimentary glass of sparkling wine (from a local winery, of course) back to your room, and relax in the signature blue velvet tufted armchairs or in the giant soaking tub. atticushotel.com.

If you’re famished after a day of exploring the valley, satiate your hunger at Thistle. Mixing exceptional locavore dining with small-town appeal, this nose-to-tail American bistro showcases the area’s best and brightest ingredients on a seasonal menu, which is handwritten on a chalkboard hanging on the wall. (Tip: Snap a pic of the board before you are seated at one of the seven tables, since you won’t be given a paper menu to refer to.) The menu is constantly changing, so you may or may not have the opportunity to try the smoked fish served on a lightly vinegared bed of sweet peas, potatoes, and bacon—a creative appetizer that is guaranteed to make you say, “Wow!” For an evergreen entrée, consider the succulent rabbit tenderloin medallions accompanied by sweet and earthy parsnips, Chinese broccoli, and a savory bourbon reduction—it’s a forkful of yum. And it all pairs nicely with a Willamette pinot or a classic Martinez cocktail (gin, dry vermouth, Cointreau, and orange bitters). thistlerestaurant.com.

 

Valley Commissary chef-owner Jesse Kincheloe serves up everything from fried chicken and waffles to pork belly sandwiches. Photo by Jim Fischer.

Day Two: Into the Woods

Before leaving McMinnville, grab a bite at Valley Commissary. A short walk from the main stretch of downtown, this unassuming breakfast and lunch spot is more than meets the eye. Chef-owner Jesse Kincheloe, a Healdsburg native, has an extensive culinary pedigree and is committed to preparing all his food from scratch. (He’s also game to talk San Francisco Giants baseball anytime.) The exhibition kitchen pickles, butchers, roasts, cures, and bakes almost everything served on a plate—highlighting local purveyors and seasonal ingredients in a way that’s approachable and family friendly. Dive right into the breakfast hash. Assembled with slow-roasted pork, sweet potato, braised greens, and a sunny-side up egg, it’s the perfectly balanced breakfast you wish you could have every morning.

And don’t forget about the palm-sized, house-made macarons. The merengue-based confections have just the right amount of crunch, followed by soft chew, with a creamy filling that’s not cloyingly sweet. (The seasonal strawberry macarons are particularly divine.) valley​commissary.com.

A new day in Oregon’s wine country necessitates another wine-tasting pit stop. Head to Amity to discover Brooks Winery, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary with an array of special events in honor of its late founder, Jimi Brooks. A Portland native, Brooks dedicated his career to holistic winemaking and biodynamic farming. After he passed away unexpectedly in 2004, other local winemakers came together to complete the estate’s harvest, crush, and bottling of the vintage in Brooks’ honor.

His legacy continues to this day, and the 20-acre property is still producing exceptional pinot noir and riesling—a varietal Brooks fell in love with and wanted to restore to the area. Guests are invited to savor a wine flight inside the warm, comfortable tasting room or out on the massive deck, which boasts an incredible view of the surrounding valley.

For a fun excursion, hop onto an ATV for the Estate Experience, and learn about the lifecycle of a vine while sampling wines made from those grapes. If it’s available, try the 2011 Ara riesling. The aged vintage mellows out and loses its residual sugar viscosity, transforming into a crisp and citrusy sip completely unlike a typical riesling. A glass of this vino accompanied by chickpea fries with smoky rhubarb ketchup makes for a delicious afternoon snack. brooks​wine.com.

Then it’s off to Philomath (Phil-oh-meth) for a quaint, wooded escape. Once home to a bustling timber industry that has since become defunct, the tiny town has a quiet beauty and an off-the-beaten-path feel that can lead to unexpected experiences.

Take Nectar Creek for example—a meadery that brothers Nick and Phillip Lorenz launched to honor their passion for bees, honey, and their hometown. Wanting to highlight local honey producers and also utilize Phillip’s previous brewing experience, the duo settled on making mead. A slightly effervescent fermented honey beverage, mead—contrary to popular belief—is neither wine nor beer. It’s in a class all of its own, and the Lorenz brothers want to show it off and make it more accessible.

Step into the Nectar Creek taproom in downtown Philomath to get a mead-ucation. (Did you know that one batch of mead can taste different from another based on where the honey was sourced?) Grab a seat at the extensive bar and nosh on a pickle plate as you enjoy a pint. Try Sting: The ginger-laced mead is light and refreshing, with just enough zing to keep things interesting. nectar​creek​.com.

Afterward, head down the road for a relaxing stay at The Little Cabin at Wren Vineyard. Tucked away on Lumos Wine Company’s Wren Vineyard block, the secluded cabin offers a rustic night’s rest on a historic family farm and provides an inviting—and romantic—retreat. As an added bonus, the Lumos tasting room is just up the way if you fancy a flight. Or you can always pour your own glass of wine and watch the sunset from the cabin’s deck. lumoswine.com.

 

Downtown Salem has a relaxed, pedestrian- friendly vibe. Photo by Taylor Higgins.

Day Three: Riverfront Strolls

While it may be difficult to pack up and leave the peaceful Little Cabin, there’s still more to explore. Drive south toward Salem (the state’s capital) to experience its century-old architecture and walkable downtown area. Located along the Willamette River, the city’s Riverfront Park provides locals and visitors the opportunity to get out and get moving. The newly constructed Peter Courtney Minto Island Bridge is an exciting addition that connects downtown Salem to 1,300 acres of parkland and more than 20 miles of off-street trails—making the combined space larger than Central Park in New York City.

Riverfront Park also hosts frequent outdoor events, such as concerts and movie nights, as well as steamboat rides down the river. You can even take a twirl on the hand-carved carousel. Local businesses often commission and sponsor new carousel animals, including the University of Oregon’s duck mascot (sorry, Beavers fans). Be sure to check out the nearby workshop, where a carpenter might be crafting the newest addition. cityofsalem.net.

With its relaxed waterfront vibe and historic buildings, Salem’s downtown is reminiscent of Martinez’s Main Street on a slightly larger scale. Take a walking tour, picnic on the lawn in front of the Oregon State Capitol, or step into any of the numerous shops that line the streets. If you’re not “wined” out yet, there are plenty of tasting rooms sprinkled around the neighborhood—not to mention the many restaurants and bistros that feature Willamette Valley vintages on their wine lists. Check out Bari Restaurant and Bar for an extensive collection of vinos and an eclectic array of global cuisine ranging from Italian to Hungarian dishes. barirestaurantandbar.com.

For some old-school nostalgia and a unique night out, stop by The Coin Jam. A local favorite, this retro bar offers classic arcade games (everything from Guitar Hero to Pac-Man), replicas of movie memorabilia (a cast of Han Solo encased in carbonite), and solid gastropub fare. thecoinjam.com.

Alternatively, sidle up to the bar at Victory Club for a more beer-centric experience. Owned by three longtime friends and Marine Corps combat veterans, the taphouse has an extensive list of brews and ciders from all over Oregon. Dishing out typical bar food (with the exception of beef bulgogi thrown into the mix), Victory Club serves a healthy dose of Americana and often features local musicians on the weekends. If you can't decide on what to drink, the friendly bartenders can offer advice to help you choose. victoryclubsalem.com.

 

Many of Lainey Morse's goats are rescues that were brought to her farm to find a loving home. Photo by Lainey Morse.

Hooved Healers

Willamette resident Lainey Morse provides therapy sessions involving goats.

“I’ve wanted goats my whole life,” Lainey Morse says. But the founder of Goat Yoga—the trendy phenomenon that is now practiced in countries around the world—admits she’d never interacted with a goat before getting her herd. So, to educate herself, Morse did what any sensible person would do: She bought Raising Goats for Dummies and soon became obsessed.

After Morse was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in 2016, she spiraled into a severe depression and found relief only when she was with her loving goats. “My life was a total mess, and there were days where I couldn’t get out of bed,” she says. “But I would try to come out to the barn every day and spend time with [the goats].”

She noticed a sense of calm when she was with her hooved friends, so she began calling her time with the animals “Goat Happy Hour.” “I forgot I was in pain or [feeling] depressed, and [being with the goats] just snaps you into the present moment,” she says.

Morse figured that if being around her goats lifted her spirits, then others experiencing physical and mental illnesses might take solace in them, too. After inviting a few people over for “Goat Happy Hour,” she was approached by a yoga teacher who asked if she would be interested in organizing a goat yoga class. The rest, as they say, is history.

Now, Morse’s herd provides therapeutic relief for people throughout Oregon, bringing a little more peace and happiness into others’ lives. The goat mom-ager also offers traveling goat yoga events around the U.S.—including in the Bay Area—and permanent classes at the Las Manzanitas Ranch eco-village in the Santa Cruz Mountains. goatyoga.net.

 

Harris Bridge Vineyard is named after this local bridge. Photo by Amanda Photographic.

Sweet Dreams

A husband-and-wife team crafts delicious sweet wines and vermouths that are good for the body and soul.

Harris Bridge Vineyard owners and winemakers Nathan Warren and Amanda Sever started crafting vermouth in 2011 after discovering the special qualities that make this old-world elixir unique. Vermouth, which has been around for centuries, was originally used to aid digestion. It’s made with a variety of botanicals meant for healing as well as for social enjoyment.

The dual concept of consuming for health as well as pleasure resonated with the pair. “My mother would always cook with herbs, whether for medicinal use or [for] aroma and flavor,” Sever says. “So, that idea of concocting [botanical-based] recipes was natural.”

After Warren purchased the Philomath property in 1999, the couple began to grow grapes in the small valley. “The site is good for pinot noir and pinot gris because it’s a little cooler, so you get higher-acid wines from the grapes, which fits nicely into sweet wines,” Sever explains. “The acid cuts the sweetness in the wine, and when you add natural botanicals, you get a sweet vermouth.”

Most of Harris Bridge Vineyard’s dessert wines and vermouths are bottled with an accompanying poem or story that reflects an aspect of the vineyard’s terroir. “It’s about making art and making something you believe is beautiful,” Sever says of the poetic additions.

For an easy sipper, try the Reverie—a sweet vermouth with bright notes of orange, honeydew, and cardamom. For a little more bite, go for Timber, which features fennel, plums, and heavy spice tones. harris​bridgevineyard.com.

 

Coria Estates’ tasting room offers 360-degree views of the vineyard and surrounding​ valley. Photo courtesy of Coria Estates.

Family Affair

A young Salem winegrower carries on a family tradition.

Aurora Coria, 32, grew up working on her family-owned vineyard but never imagined she’d eventually become its head winemaker. The self-proclaimed Jill-of-all-trades used to joke with her mom about starting their own label one day. It wasn’t until Coria graduated with a degree in public health and found herself at a dead-end job that the jest turned into a reality.

“My mom called me one day and convinced me to come back to the winery,” Coria says. “So, I enrolled in a [winemaking] course at the community college and absolutely fell in love.”

Coria's father—who was a Christmas tree farmer and reforestation contractor—had no prior experience with grapes. But he decided to give wine a shot and planted the majority of the 94-acre vineyard in 1999 with roughly half pinot noir grapes and half pinot gris grapes. By 2013, Coria Estates had its own label.

When asked about her family’s relatively young winery and its expansion, Coria laughs. “You gotta go big or go home,” she says. Luckily for the Coria family, the winery is home. And with a brand-new facility and tasting room, Coria Estates continues to grow and has become a gathering place for the entire community. coriaestates.com.

 

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