Oregon’s premier wine region, the beautiful Willamette Valley, welcomes about 20 million visitors each year to its nearly 600 wineries. That’s more traffic than the most famous American wine regions, Napa and Sonoma of Northern California, receive! But despite the large amount of tourism, Willamette retains its rustic, low-key, charming vibe and makes the perfect place for a girlfriends’ getaway or romantic weekend escape.
With its host of incredible eateries, world-class vintners, and things to see, do, and drink, Willamette Valley should certainly be on your bucket list. And, after a recent hosted press trip to the region, I have some tips to ensure that your vacation is a smooth and memorable one.
Here are nine things to know about wine tasting in Oregon’s delightful Willamette Valley.
1. The Name Isn’t Pronounced How You Think It Is
First things first: It’s not WillamETTE -- it’s WillAMette. You’ll see the phrase Willamette, Damn it on everything from T-shirts to bumper stickers in the region. For years before my visit, I pronounced the name incorrectly. Thankfully, a friend who had been to Willamette before kindly corrected me in time for my trip.
It may seem like a small thing, but proper pronunciation shows respect for the place you’re traveling. My hosts even noticed, since so many of their guests say it incorrectly. So, start your Oregon journey off on the right foot by pronouncing the name of the wine country the right way. The locals will appreciate it, and you’ll look like a seasoned veteran!
2. It’s Best To Fly Into Portland And Rent A Car
The closest major airport to Willamette is in Portland. The Portland International Airport (PDX) is just an hour’s drive from Dundee, a little longer than that from Salem, and nearly 2 hours from Corvallis. I found that the easiest way to explore the valley was with a rental car; just be sure to plan for a sober driver to ensure safety on the roadways.
3. Pinot Noir Is King
When you think of Oregon wines, pinot noir probably springs to mind. Like Chianti in Tuscany, cabernet in Napa, or Champagne in, well, Champagne, it is synonymous with the region. Of the more than 24,000 acres of vines in the Willamette Valley, 16,536 acres consist of pinot noir grapes.
According to Wine Folly, pinot noir is “the world’s most popular light-bodied red wine… loved for its red fruit, flower, and spice aromas that are accentuated by a long, smooth finish.” Pinot noir is the 10th-most-planted grape in the whole world. And as far as New World wines go, Oregon is considered the best producer of this varietal.
4. There Are Other Excellent Varietals
Just because pinot noir is the clear favorite in Willamette Valley doesn’t mean there aren’t other options. In fact, just about every type of wine drinker will find something to love in Oregon.
Chardonnay is also readily available and grows quite well in regions with pinot noir. According to a winemaker I visited with, 2019 was the first year that more new chardonnay vines were planted than pinot noir vines. Pinot gris is the second-most-prolific grape grown in the Willamette Valley. You’ll also find riesling, gamay, syrah, pinot blanc, and sauvignon blanc aplenty.
One of my favorite wine types was the INOX unoaked chardonnay from Chehalem Winery; simply pop into their Newberg tasting room to check it out. I also loved the sauvignon blanc from Holloran Vineyard Wines, which was hidden deep in the verdant hills. And my favorite effervescent wines came from Dundee’s Argyle Winery.
It’s clear that whatever kind of wine you prefer, you can find it or something like it in Oregon's wine country.
5. The Valley Is Huge, So Plan Accordingly
Before my visit, I had no idea how big the Willamette Valley was. It stretches from Portland in the north to Eugene in the south and is home to about 70 percent of Oregon’s population.
Since it’s so big, I suggest breaking it in half, which can be done at the town of Salem. Anything to the north of that spot can be considered the northern valley, and anything south of it can be considered the southern portion. For best results, I’d focus on only one of those two major sections. Depending on how much time you’ve allotted for your trip, you can then either focus on one area or town or several towns as time allows.
Some of my favorite spots in the valley are Dundee, McMinnville, and Newberg; they’re all in the northern region, where I spent my entire visit. Since this region is closest to the major airport hub of Portland, consider the north for shorter visits and the south for longer stays.
6. There Are Eight AVAs
There are a number of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) located within the Willamette Valley. The helpful folks at Wine Folly define an AVA as “a grape-growing area with unique geographic and cultural features.” The AVA system was established in 1980 and has since expanded to include 24 regions across the United States. Also noteworthy is that for a wine to claim an AVA label, 85 percent of the grapes need to be from that specific AVA.
In the Willamette Valley, there are eight such areas. These include the original Willamette Valley AVA that dates to 1983, as well as the newest AVA, the Van Duzer Corridor, that was recognized in 2019. Other AVAs include Yamhill-Carlton, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains, and Eola-Amity Hills. Each AVA has its own distinctions, so sample wines from them all to learn what makes them unique. The winemakers will be all too happy to chat with you.
7. Cellar Season Is A Great Time To Visit
No matter the destination, I prefer to travel during the off-season. Avoiding peak tourism time means lower prices, more quality time with winemakers, and an overall quieter, less hectic atmosphere.
In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, I suggest embracing the magic that is cellar season. According to my friends at the Willamette Valley Visitors Association, “beginning the first of the New Year and continuing until the onset of spring, this season is both relaxed and vibrant, full of unique offerings to learn, discover, explore, and simply enjoy the glow. Visitors are treated to open country roads, quiet tasting rooms, and casual one-on-one time with winemakers. The holiday rush gives way to irresistible fireplaces and mellow cellars where just-barreled wines come of age. There’s a quiet and contagious energy to the cellar season, from the neatly pruned vineyard rows and moody sunsets to the newly invigorated winemaking community, fresh off another outstanding vintage.”
Special events held during this timeframe include the Truffle Festival, the Oregon Chardonnay Celebration, and the Lange Estate Winter Wine Dinner Series. Cellar season is a lesser-known but no less wonderful time of the year to experience the Willamette Valley.
8. Sustainability Is Key
Another very cool reason to pay attention to the Willamette Valley wine region is its focus on sustainability.
Some environmentally conscious properties to consider are Maysara Winery, Lemelson Vineyards, and Keeler Estate Vineyard. King Estate Winery is another, plus it also happens to be the largest domestic producer of pinot gris. Airlie Winery is a woman-owned spot that is LIVE certified and also dog friendly. A LIVE designation simply means that the vineyard has earned an independent certification for sustainable practices.
Additionally, Illahe Vineyards should be on your list, since it focuses on natural winemaking using a wooden basket press. One vintage,1899, is sourced and supported using only transport powered by horse, bike, and kayak.
9. There’s More To Do Than Wine Tasting
The farm-to-table movement, with its focus on fresh local goods, has long been a tradition in the Pacific Northwest, so there are some excellent dining spots in the valley -- try Tina’s, Thistle, or Jory. And with its abundance of natural beauty, Oregon offers amazing hiking options, too. For even more to do besides wine tasting, check out my other Willamette Valley guide.
It’s easy to see that Oregon’s Willamette Valley deserves attention from both seasoned oenophiles and newbie wine lovers. With so much to see and do in this huge region -- and world-class wines to boot -- I can’t wait to get back and explore even more.