Last year we spent four days in the Willamette Valley region of Oregon, which is best known as being the largest wine producing area in Oregon. Willamette (which rhymes with “Dammit”) is about an 1.5 hours south of Portland via car. The valley runs north to south so we stayed in the northern section of Willamette and visited the AVAs of Ribbon Ridge, Carlton-Yamhill and Dundee Hills. The region mostly produces cool climate pinot noir and chardonnay.
We rented a VRBO that was located right on a vineyard a few minutes outside the tiny town of Yamhill and loved its quiet, peaceful location.
Steve and I flew into Portland, Oregon on a Thursday morning, picked up our rental car and got our friends from their hotel in downtown Portland as they had arrived a few days before us. We hit the downtown Portland Whole Foods for groceries and then drove to the Valley. Along the way, we stopped at our first winery, Penner-Ash, which is located in the Ribbon Ridge AVA.
An AVA is an American Viticultural Area, which means it has its own unique geographic features, soils, microclimate or other factors that makes wines grown in that particular area different from wine grown anywhere else. Willamette Valley itself is one large AVA and then there are six smaller AVAs within Willamette Valley known as sub-appellations.
One thing to know about wines in Willamette is that they are “cool climate” wines. This typically translates into much lower yields than you will find in warmer wine regions like Napa Valley and Central Coast where you see big, fat grapes on the vines. In cool climate, the clusters and the grapes are smaller and produce less juice. Less juice means less wine produced and if you’ve taken high school economics, you know that less supply and increased demand for wine results in higher prices. That was probably my biggest surprise – while I found the pinot noirs here to be much more nuanced, velvety and softer than their California counterparts, they were also far more expensive. We had a little sticker shock the first few days. I would say your average bottle in this area was selling for over $40 per bottle.Reserve and aged wines were priced well above $60 at most places (and this is the retail cost so they would typically be 2 or 3x that cost in a restaurant).
As I mentioned, we rented a 2 bedroom, 2 bath VRBO that can be found here. The owners live on the property in a home nearby so they are close if you need them but you don’t see them and they are very unobtrusive. They are also incredibly interesting and nice people – they invited us over for a glass of wine one evening and we really loved them. I have even emailed with the owner a few times after we left and she is a real gem. They have also planted a vineyard and make their own small batch wine and the house sits right on it and has a view of the entire valley. This house is about 10 minutes from Yamhill which is super tiny and there isn’t much there except a small school, fire station and a funky country store. The biggest village with some restaurants in it is over 20 minutes away so we would go wine tasting during the day and then prepare dinner back at the house to avoid drinking and driving. I don’t think you will find uber in these parts either.
Our second day was my favorite tasting. We booked a reserve tasting with food pairings at Soter Vineyards near Carlton. Soter is located at the top of a large hill and has converted their old barn into the tasting room. When we arrived, the first thing they did was press a champagne flute of sparkling rose into our hands. I was skeptical that this could be any good but it was one of the best sparkling wines I have had anywhere. It also retailed at $65 per bottle which is why I haven’t ordered a case but I wish we had sometimes. We sat outside on a covered patio while they poured us multiple tastings and then we shared a large food tray that served as lunch. The wine-food pairing option was around $60 per person and I highly recommend. You can also just visit the winery and do a regular tasting as well.
After Soter, we drove into the very cute, rustic town of Carlton and did a few tastings at Ken Wright Cellars (meh), Ponzi (very good) and De Ponte (awesome).
Our third day, we drove over to a different AVA called Dundee Hills. Dundee Hills is at a higher elevation than Carlton-Yamhill and is known for its red, volcanic soil so the wines have a little more minerality to them and the grapes get more sun so they have a little more punch as well. One of our favorites this day was Domaine Serene, which has a large property and tasting room in the Hills. We ended up joining their wine club (the only one we joined on the entire trip), and have been very happy with their wines, even though they are at the high end of our wine budget but we only get 2 shipments a year so I can rationalize it to myself.
We also visited Domaine Drouhin which is owned by a well known French family that produces Burgundy wines of the same name. I had high expectations for this winery and while I loved their view and tasting rooms, I wasn’t impressed with the wines. They just seemed flat, one-note and boring to me.
We also stopped by Four Graces winery (fantastic wines), Torii Mor winery (not bad and a fun drive to get to down a dirt road) and then Vista Hills winery, which has a very cool “tree house” tasting room and interesting wines.
We mostly ate at our rented home as we cooked breakfast there and cooked our own dinners as well. However, we did eat out for a few lunches and I can recommend The Horseradish Restaurant in Carlton, which has gourmet sandwiches and is very casual and Recipe Restaurant in Newberg, which is a farm to table concept. Another great find was a fishmonger in Newberg that had a huge variety of freshly caught regional/local seafood called Northwest Seafood. We popped in there and purchased fresh langoustines and made a garlicky shrimp scampi with them one night and we also bought some local, fresh caught salmon that we grilled another evening. They also had a variety of smoked salmon, dips, crackers and gourmet sauces and mustards.
Another great benefit of the VRBO we rented was that the owner has a huge vegetable garden and she is kind enough to let you go through it and snip any herbs and pick some fresh vegetables if you like. We ended up using fresh herbs for our salmon and made a salad with the huge variety of fresh tomatoes she had growing. She also raises chickens and gave us a dozen fresh eggs for breakfast and we made frittatas with the eggs and herbs.
We spent our evenings drinking wine, listening to music, having great conversation, walking the property, playing Cards Against Humanity and making gourmet meals.
We have always enjoyed our visits to California and the Central Coast wine region but Willamette Valley became a new favorite destination and we will definitelyr return to the area. For one thing, there were SO many wineries that we simply didn’t have time to visit and we only got to try three of the six AVAs in the area so a return trip is warranted.
Just writing this post makes me wish I was back there right now – especially since it’s 104 degrees in Texas today.