I live in the gorgeous wine country of Healdsburg and Sonoma County. I love our wines and wineries, but I am just as excited to try other wine regions. The Willamette Valley is huge but has unique pockets of geography and climate and equally unique pockets of interesting people. Many French winemakers have arrived here, comparing the region to Burgundy, where beautiful pinot noirs and chardonnays are produced.
The many little towns and villages of the area have unique personalities and it is easy to find either a pub with a good burger or a fine dining restaurant open and lively, even in COVID times. I have been to Willamette about a half-dozen times, sometimes on my own and sometimes hosted by one of the sub-regions, and, each time, I discover someplace new and find myself not wanting to leave because there is so much to explore.
Pro Tip: The Willamette Valley is a huge wine-growing region with many microclimates and diversity. Like many areas that have grown and have a significant variety of wineries, the region is broken down into smaller, geographically unique AVA, or American Viticultural Areas.
Atticus Vineyards, Yamhill
Taste elegant pinot noir with the winemaker at Atticus. One of the most unique and intimate experiences in the Willamette Valley. The Atticus Vineyards are tucked away in the Yamhill-Carlton sub-AVA. Make reservations far in advance because you will want to be able to spend time with winemaker Ximena Orrego and her husband, Guy. They have been producing excellent pinot noir for 15 years and remain under the radar. There is no sign so look for the address and the winding road to their hilltop house overlooking rolling vineyards.
Tastings are conducted by the winemaker herself in Spanish or English and include not only beautiful glasses and silver but a unique and delicious spread of local cheeses, meats, and fruit. Their entry-level pinot noir is so good and well-priced, it’s hard to believe the wines just get more elegant from there. Salut!
Brooks Winery, Amity
Brooks Winery has a place in the heart of everyone who has ever visited the Willamette Valley. They even made a film called American Wine Story about the late Jimi Brooks and his dedication to planting riesling and pinot noir in this then-unknown area. Felled by a heart attack in his prime, his sister Janie took over as his son grew up learning the business.
Brooks made riesling and other wines that were not popular at the time, so he basically put the Eola-Amity Hills region on the map for these varieties. They have an irreverent approach to wine, and it works. The winery also has a world-class restaurant and is so busy that reservations are highly recommended. The tasting flight allows the taster to enjoy a full range of wines made solely from their estate grapes or those of neighboring vineyards.
Pro Tip: Ask about the elevated tastings if you enjoy exploring a vertical (several consecutive years) of the same wine and, if dining, order the brussels sprouts and scallops.
Yamhill Valley Vineyards, McMinnville
Women run the show at Yamhill Valley Vineyards. Drive into Yamhill Valley Winery and be greeted by winemaker Ariel Eberle’s dog, India. Like the koi fish swimming in the pond in front of the charming winery building, India is part of the team. Make a reservation and take a seat outdoors under the winery’s massive oak trees to experience Ariel’s magnificently crafted rose, pinot gris, pinot blanc, chardonnay, riesling, and pinot noir.
Yamhill Valley Vineyards, now under the guidance of second-generation Jenny Burger, was an early adopter of sustainability and environmental responsibility. Winemaker Eberle says she listens to the earth and to the vines and they indicate what destruction she should take in making the wines you will enjoy in this intimate setting.
Lingua Franca Wines, Salem
I had long heard of Lingua Franca and their beautiful Burgundian interpretation of chardonnay and pinot noir. A partnership between star sommelier Larry Stone and French winemaker Dominique Lafon, with wine made by Lafon protege, Thomas Savre. The wines draw from meticulously planted vineyards and the light touch of Savre.
During this ongoing pandemic, Lingua Franca has generously offered Wednesday webinars about a number of subjects -- from winemaking techniques to the life cycle of a grapevine -- to anyone who tunes in. I have loved these webinars and got to know the winery’s caliber online and through wines I ordered, so my visit was a highlight of my Willamette trip. This is truly a working winery and you will taste wines without fanfare, but in beautiful stemware that brings out the exquisite aromas. The excellence of the wines speaks for itself. Reserve far in advance and, although pricey, the wines are worth it.
Argyle Winery, Dundee
A must stop as you get into the Willamette Valley is the sparkling house of Argyle Winery. Easily accessed when driving through Dundee, it is one of my favorite ways to begin a tasting trip in Oregon.
Argyle put Willamette on the map for sparkling wine and winemaker Nate Klostermann continues to evolve the sparkling program with extended tirage and vintage wines. Extended tirage, meaning extra aging, is rare in domestic sparkling houses, and Argyle’s wine has ranked among the highest for new world bubbles. Argyle also makes an array of still wines like chardonnay and pinot noir and the wines, across the board, are excellent examples of the variety.
Argyle’s Tasting House and exterior areas are huge and patrons can easily social distance while enjoying these excellent wines.
Where To Stay In Willamette Valley
Abbey Road Farm, Carlton
Abbey Road Farm and the Silo Suites Bed and Breakfast is one of the more unique properties on all of the Willamette Valley. This magical place is a true farm, complete with donkeys, sheep, pigs, and chickens. It is organic and biodynamic and, under the close and creative eye of winemaker and vineyard designer, Abbey Road Farm not only has vineyards with traditional grapes like chardonnay and pinot noir but the new plantings will include an array of 19 varietals including exotic Spanish and Italian varieties. The tasting room features not only the Abbey Road Farm wines -- with whimsical drawings of the farm animals -- but also wines from several other winemakers who make wines there.
The Silo Suites are simply that; a bed and breakfast with luxury suites, built into huge converted grain silos. You have never seen anything like this and, when you put the three silos together, they work amazingly well as a trendy lodge. Every night a fire pit is lit for guests to gather around, there is a social room for games, drinks, and food, but the best part is breakfast. The chef on staff prepares a truly unique multi-course breakfast with fresh-made caneles and granola parfaits. Then, the chef brings out a salad and a main course -- which may be chicken and waffles or pressed duck. Gourmet is an understatement. And the staff can cater to dietary needs.
Abbey Road Farm has huge indoor and outdoor event spaces and hosts dozens of weddings a year (when safe), as well as business retreats and meetings in their stables and indoor arena.
Youngberg Hill Inn, McMinnville
The views from Youngberg Hill Vineyard and Inn would be a good enough reason to stay at this comfortable 8-room inn with comfy beds and plenty of balconies and places to read, chat, and enjoy wines. A bonus at Youngberg Hill, which resides in the McMinnville AVA, is that the owner is highly regarded winemaker Wayne Bailey. The Youngberg Hill Wines are available to guests as well as the first-floor tasting room, which offers a range of wines from sparkling roses to chardonnay and an array of single-vineyard pinot noirs named after the three Bailey daughters. Wife Nicolette manages the inn and the entire family helps take care of the farm animals including the Scottish Highland calf named Nutmeg.
Pro Tip: Make reservations well in advance for both the inn and tasting room. Great views from the Martini Room but all rooms are well-appointed with views and many have jacuzzi tubs. Breakfast is delivered to the room in times of COVID but normal operations offer a multi-course gourmet breakfast.
McMenamins Oregon Hotel, McMinnville
If you haven’t heard of McMenamins hotels, breweries, restaurants, and attractions in the Pacific Northwest, then you’ve been hiding under a rock. The McMenamin brothers have turned the hospitality business upside down by turning decrepit, abandoned yet usually historic buildings into unique places to stay, dine, and celebrate.
These structures are unique and whimsical with beautiful grounds and many activities. In the town of McMinnville in the Willamette Valley, McMenamins has restored the Oregon Hotel, built in 1905 to be a centerpiece of the town, with 42 guestrooms, a rooftop bar for a 360-degree view of the Valley, and a pub at street level.
The Vintages Trailer Resort, Dayton
The Vintages Trailer Resort is actually many pieces of history grouped together in a magnificent display of Americana through the history of recreational vehicles. From 1947 to 1999 models, the variety of classic trailers is fantastic. In their own tree-lined neighborhood, each of these trailers is a dog- and kid-friendly small home with the privacy and social distancing necessary during these times. Two bikes are parked behind each trailer for cruising around the area.
Located midway between McMinnville and Dundee, two perfect wine country towns with plenty of restaurants, shops, and tasting rooms, The Vintages is also close to the popular Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum and dozens of wineries. Check the website for special packages that include The Vintages-produced wine, snacks, and spa accessories.
The Allison Inn And Spa, Newberg
The Leed Gold Certified Allison Inn and Spa is the ultimate in luxury retreats in the Willamette Valley with huge 500-square-foot rooms and a restaurant that reflects the bounty of the region. JORY is open for breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner, and is considered one of the best in the Valley.
The indoor pool and huge Allison Spa completes the picture with a range of spa treatments from massages and facials to hair and nail services. The Allison is not inexpensive but well-located in Newberg, near 200 wineries, and definitely worth the splurge. Service is exquisite.
Pro Tip: If the price of a room is too steep, enjoy brunch or lunch at JORY Restaurant and get a chance to walk the hotel and grounds.
Here’s everything you should know before wine tasting in Willamette as well as helpful information about the other fun things you can do in the area. Happy sipping!