When people think of wine produced in the United States, most immediately think California’s Napa Valley. But just up the road is the fertile Willamette Valley of Oregon, which produces some of the world’s best wines, most notably Pino Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. While most wineries are open year-round, the most popular time of year for visiting is Memorial Day weekend, where many wineries lower their tasting fees and offer free niblets and live music. Just a few minutes’ drive southwest of Portland will take you to any wine enthusiasts’ heaven.
The thing about Oregon’s vineyards that set them apart from most in northern California is that they are “mom and pop” owned and operated. Meaning, the owners tend to have a bit more invested in getting their wines from farm to table. The wineries have a shared sense of community. Unlike Napa Valley, with its many corporate-owned vineyards, Willamette Valley wineries are more personable…when you come to visit, most often you will be talking to the owners themselves, as they welcome you with open arms and treat you like family during your tasting experience.
Where to Start?
There are roughly 500 wineries throughout the region, so whether you are visiting for just a day or a week, it’s best to have a handful of vineyards in mind and a loose plan of where you want to go. This leaves room for the spontaneous – as you meander through Willamette Valley, you will no doubt pass by an interesting wine-tasting opportunity you did not notice before in your research.
Keeping in mind that most wineries are open daily from 10 or 11 am to 5 pm, it’s a good idea to check ahead to be sure your vineyard of choice will be open, but most are open daily. And a few wineries are by appointment only for tastings, so it pays to check their website for more information.
Here is a tiny sample of vineyards I have personally visited, and highly recommend.
One of the more historic wineries in Willamette Valley, these guys have been around since 1974. Their primary wines are the Pinot family (Nori, Gris, and Blanc) and Reisling (my favorite white wine). They have a total of six vineyards
Another family-owned operation in business since 1970, with an eye towards sustainability. The second generation currently runs this empire, with a rich history, many awards, and four vineyards. Fun fact: the Ponzi family also founded Bridgeport Brewing Company, Oregon’s first craft brewery in 1984.
Family-owned since 1982, Rex Hill Winery makes primarily Pino Noir. They have a detailed history of their vintages on their website; have a look, it’s pretty interesting.
This is a great ‘catch-all’ site with a map of the region, and a current list of all Willamette Valley wineries. Here you can also see current events and a good section on where to stay/eat. They even have a section on sample itineraries, called ‘loops.’ These are handy itineraries of a handful of wineries close to each other so that each loop can easily be done in a day. Go HERE for more information.
Another great place to continue your wine-tasting tour. Not only does this site offer great recommendations for winery-visiting, here you will also find travel and shopping guides.