Oregon matures into world-class wine and food destination

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story misstated the geographic relationship and topographical similarities between Burgundy and the Willamette Valley.
WILLAMETTE VALLEY, Ore. — Oregon Pinot Noir has been riding a rising wave of popularity in the USA as well as around the world and there’s no better time than now to plan a visit to the new wine country USA.

Oregon has been called new American home of Pinot Noir.

The region is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first planting of Pinot Noir grapes this year.

With its marine-climate influence, the Willamette Valley — cradled between the Cascade Mountains that forms a ridge to the east and the Coast Range that forms a ridge to the west towards the ocean — has summer temperatures in the 90s during the day, but then drops to the 60s at night.

The breaks in the Coast Range allow the cool air from the Pacific Ocean to fill the Willamette Valley at night, giving the valley its cool temperatures that will have you reaching for a light fleece or jacket.

The valley stretches from Oregon’s largest city, Portland, to the north, all the way down to Eugene to the south. And dotting the valley are more than 400 wineries and close to 650 vineyards that draw tourists from all over the USA, and increasingly the world, to their tasting rooms.

“In the past few years … the Willamette Valley has greatly improved its public tasting rooms, accommodations and restaurants for visitors. With a more approachable and sophisticated infrastructure, visitors can stay in Willamette Valley now more easily than before, when they were pretty much limited to day trips from Portland or Salem,” said Harvey Steiman, editor at large at Wine Spectator magazine.

The atmosphere in the tasting rooms is friendly and casual and you’ll often rub elbows with winemakers or owners who are glad to explain their operation and their wine-making philosophy to you. Exploring wine country means getting off the interstate, as most wineries are dotted throughout the back country easily reached by Highway 99W, which passes through quaint towns and scenic farmland filled with hazelnut orchards, cherry trees, blackberry brambles and blueberry bushes.

The wine industry in Oregon contributed $3.35 billion toward the Oregon economy in 2013, the latest years that statistics are available, according to Michelle Kaufmann, communications manager for Oregon Wine Board. And the state’s biggest wine region, the Willamette Valley, attracted 5.2 million visitors in 2013, according to Linea Gigliano with Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism commission.

Another boon to the new wine country USA is that besides the claim-to-fame Pinot Noir, the climate and soil in Oregon is also suited to many other cool-weather grape varietals such as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Munier, Gamay Noir, Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Grüner Veltliner.

So a whole variety of high-quality white wines as well as other reds are made here alongside the famous Pinot Noir.

“Unless you are completely new to the world of wine (in which case, welcome, it’s going to be a fun ride) you will of course know that the offerings from the state of Oregon and in particular the Willamette Valley are rising rapidly in the world rankings,” said Food Network star Simon Majumdar of Cutthroat Kitchen, who was recently in the Willamette Valley to promote his new book, Fed, White and Blue.

“But, it is not until you actually visit the place and add terroir to taste, that you realize quite why this area is so special. It’s beautiful, of course, but then most wine areas are. However, it is the people who really make the the Willamette Valley so appealing, combining their considerable wine making skills with the down-to-earth nature of the Pacific Northwest and a friendliness I have found in few other places around the globe.”

Five must-visit wineries

From wine-country chic to contemporary, tasting rooms across the Mid-Valley offer a variety of atmospheres for the visitor with one common denominator: friendliness. Wine is not served with a side of attitude here.

1. The Eyrie Vineyards: Jason Lett now carries on his father’s legacy with outstanding wines that showcase terroir, with organically-certified vineyard principles and minimal intervention in the wine-making process. What you taste is truly an expression of the vine. Lett’s father, David, is widely credited as being one of the founders of the Oregon wine industry, planting his first 3,000 vines of Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley in 1965. Lett, who died in 2008, earned the nickname “Papa Pinot” because of those first vines. In 1979, it was an Eyrie Vineyards 1975 South Block Pinot Noir that stunned the world in the Wine Olympics in Paris and again the following year in Beaune. With these two tastings, Oregon won its first recognition as the New World home for Pinot Noir and eventually brought the Burgundian winemaker Robert Drouhin to Oregon to purchase land and establish the first French-owned vineyard in Oregon, Domaine Drouhin Oregon. The Eyrie Vineyards’ hours are noon until 5 p.m. daily, with a $15 tasting fee. 935 NE 10th Ave., McMinnville; (503) 472-6315; eyrievineyards.com.

2. Ponzi Vineyards: With Maria Ponzi overseeing business operations and her sister Luisa Ponzi as winemaker, the duo are carrying on the work started by their parents, also pioneers in the Oregon wine industry. Visitors can sip newly released wines and take in the beautiful views with food pairings and relax on the terrace or try a game of bocce ball. Taste featured flights for $15 to $20 per person or make reservations for a progressive tasting and tour and explore the state-of-the-art, gravity-flow winery and sample Ponzi wines as you visit each stage of production for $30 per person (by reservation only). Open 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. 19500 SW Mountain Home Road, Sherwood; (503) 628-1227; ponziwines.com.

3. Sokol Blosser: Another Oregon wine industry pioneer, Susan Sokol Blosser, has passed on the torch to her daughter Alison, who runs the business side, as well as her son Alex, the winemaker. The beautiful views from the hilltop tasting room stretch across the valley for miles on a clear day. Sokol Blosser’s lineup ranges from excellent sparkling wine to one of my favorite Pinot Noir Rosés, plus Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Müller-Thurgau and a delicious Riesling dessert wine. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Tasting fee is $15 or complimentary for Cellar Club members. 5000 Sokol Blosser Lane, Dayton; (503) 864-2282; sokolblosser.com.

4. Argyle Winery: Oregon’s best-known and most-recognized sparkling wine producer is located right in the middle of Willamette Valley wine country in the bustling hamlet of Dundee. Argyle’s sparkling lineup includes the 2011 Blanc de Blancs, 2011 Brut Rosé, 2011 Argyle Black Brut (a must-taste sparkling red) and 2011 Argyle Vintage Brut. The winery also makes excellent Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay. The tasting room is located in a charming historic farmhouse in downtown Dundee, but a new tasting room is under construction at the site and expected to open at the end of July. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Guests can enjoy three different tasting flights at $15 each. 691 Highway 99W; (503) 538-8520; argylewinery.com.

5. Brooks Wines: One of Oregon’s most beloved wine stories, Jimi Brooks built Brooks Wines on his passion for Riesling and biodynamic farming. Brooks died suddenly from an aortic aneurism in 2004, just as the grapes were about ready to be harvested. Those who knew him around the Willamette Valley felt so moved that they stepped in to make what would be Jimi’s last vintage. They donated their time, harvesting, pressing, making and bottling that 2004 vintage. His sister, Janie Brooks Heuck, is now at the helm of the winery. Chris Williams, who worked with Jimi at Maysara and WillaKenzie, is now the winemaker. The year-old tasting room has a wine-country chic feel and the incomparable views from the deck on a clear day stretch from Mount St. Helens to Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson along the ridge of the Cascade Mountain Range. Brooks is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Several tasting flights are available for $15 each. 21101 SE Cherry Blossom Lane, Amity; (503) 435-1278; brookswine.com.

Five places to stay

From ultra-luxurious wine country resorts to vineyard farmhouses and suites, options for your stay in wine country abound. You can simply pick one place to stay and make it your home base as you travel the back roads to visit wineries.

1. The Alison Inn and Spa: Considered Oregon’s premier wine country resort, this hotel has luxurious accommodations and a fantastic restaurant with a wine list that has been called one of the best in America by Wine Spectator magazine. It also boasts a host of full spa services from custom facials and massages to a 30-minute detoxifying soak in their signature grape seed body treatment. 2525 Allison Lane, Newberg; (503) 554-2525; theallison.com.

2. Inn at Red Hills: For those who prefer to be right in the heart of things, the Inn at Red Hills offers contemporary lodgings along Dundee’s main strip within easy access of many of the top wineries in the Willamette Valley as well as nearby restaurants. 1410 Highway 99W, Dundee; (503) 538-7666; innatredhills.com.

3. Chehalem Ridge Bed & Breakfast: If a bed and breakfast is your style, wake up to amazing views of wine country from this modern and well-appointed B&B located on the Chehalem Mountain ridge overlooking the Willamette Valley. 28700 NE Mountain Top Road, Newberg; (503) 538-3474; chehalemridge.com.

4. Stoller Family Estate guest houses: If a vineyard guest house is more your thing, wake up amidst the vineyards in one of Stoller Family Estate’s guest houses. Pick from the newly renovated three-bedroom Estate House, complete with vineyard views and within walking distance of the tasting room, or try the Wine Farm House with a well-appointed master suite and four other bedrooms, surrounded by the vineyard and nearby farmland about a mile from the winery and tasting room. There’s also the quaint Cottage, perfect for a couple, family or small group of good friends. 16161 NE McDougall Road, Dayton; (971) 545-0015 (ask for Betsy Hannaford for lodging inquiries).

5. Willamette Valley Vineyards Winery Suites: Enjoy a quiet getaway at one of two Winery Suites at Willamette Valley Vineyards featuring master bedrooms that overlook the estate vineyard, comfortable living areas and butler kitchens with refrigerators. Both suites have a private patio with a cozy fireplace to enjoy the evening sunset views. Suites come with a private winery tour and wine credit to be used on your favorite wines. Willamette Valley Vineyard is located with easy access of Interstate 5. 8800 Enchanted Way SE, Turner; (800) 344-9463.

Five wine-country restaurants

Choices abound with restaurants that focus on farm-to fork cuisine and local ingredients.

1. The Joel Palmer House, with a menu that revolves around wild-gathered mushrooms and Oregon truffles, serves the best that the Willamette Valley has to offer with seasonal produce and world-class wines. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday beginning at 4:30 p.m., reserve a table at joelpalmerhouse.com/reservations. 600 Ferry St., Dayton; (503) 864-2995.

2. Nick’s Italian Cafe is a James Beard Award-winning standard-bearer serving Italian cuisine with a Northwest flair and an amazing Northwest and Italian-focused wine list, open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. 521 NE 3rd St., McMinnville; (503) 434-4471.

3. The Barlow Room is a casual spot with a comfortable and historic feel and a menu inspired by Northwest cuisine and local ingredients and a bar that focuses on showcasing Oregon spirits in classic or distinctive cocktails. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. 306 Ferry St., Dayton; (503) 714-4328, thebarlowroom.com.

4. Thistle Restaurant and Bar serves up wine country classic fare in a dressed-up farmhouse setting in historic downtown McMinnville, open at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. 228 NE Evans St., McMinnville; (503) 472-9623; thistlerestaurant.com.

5. Ruddick/Wood is a casual restaurant with new-American fare along with craft beer, wine and cocktails in a renovated 1920s garage in downtown Newberg with an atmosphere that will give you a case of hipster envy. Open 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. 720 E. First St., Newberg; (503) 487-6133; ruddickwood.com.

Victor Panichkul is food, wine and beer columnist for the Salem (Ore.) Statesman Journal and author of TheTasteofOregon.com.