Willamette Whirlwind

Visiting Ten Wineries in Two Days Offers a Taste of Oregon’s Best

by Michelle Brady

I had a dilemma.

Work had brought me to the Willamette Valley wine region of Oregon, but I had only a couple of days to explore this vast wine country and its wonderful wineries.

I wanted to take full advantage of the limited amount of time my friend and I had there. Armed with plenty of advance research and planning, we set out to visit 10 wineries in two days.

Our research and planning may help you maximize your winery experiences, whether your trip will be as rushed as ours, or will be more leisurely.

As a wine certified Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level Three (WSET III) certificate holder, I began by researching award-winning wineries with Ohio availability. I then sought recommendations from other wine colleagues (a special thanks to Marianne Frantz, founder and president of American Wine School). We set out to visit a minimum of 10 wineries on March 2-3, and we ended up making it to a full dozen. Our approach obviously meant not lingering at any of our stops — but next time, perhaps.

The first thing to learn is correct pronunciation of the valley and wine region. The “Willamette Dammit” rhyme was repeated several times, correcting our initial mispronunciation.

Access: From the Portland Airport, the easiest access is Rt. 5 into Newberg, a central accommodations/services area. A parallel commercial road with tasting rooms and accommodations is Pacific Highway 99. Map an exit closest to your tastings to avoid Hwy 99’s slow-moving retail congestion.

Accommodations are concentrated in Newberg and range from $100 nightly at the chains (i.e., Best Western and newer Holiday Inn), to pricier bed & breakfasts and resorts. If you can splurge on a 5-star experience, check out the Allison Inn (www.theallison.com). The 5-star restaurant exceeded expectations, featuring a cozy open-fire grill and unique steak and fish presentations. Their Toledo, Ohio born staff-sommelier, Kristin Young, entertained us with a perfect wine pairings and area wine education. She also provided winery-visit recommendations which modified our second-day winery plans.

The terrain is reminiscent of rural Geneva, Ohio’s rolling hills and occasional gravel roads leading to wineries. Burgundy, France has significant influence: winery staff freely discuss Burgundy similarities, feature French owners, or are branches of large French houses, such as Domaine Drouhin, which presented wines from both countries.

Many wineries copy old-world cultivation approaches including organic, biodynamic and by-hand harvesting. One example is Beaux Freres (meaning brother-in-law), a partnership with Robert Parker and his brother-in-law, thus the name. They pride themselves on old-world cultivation, biodynamics, old-fashioned bottling equipment, and small 7,000-case production only obtainable through direct order (they can ship to Ohio).

The wineries range from large commercial properties (Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene, and Argyle) with very busy tasting rooms to rustic, small operations available by appointment only (Beaux Freres) to the quaint (Bethel Heights).

Choosing wineries: The easiest approach is to simply visit the more than 20 tasting rooms along Highway 99 in Newberg. These tasting rooms range from simple storefronts (Evening Land Vineyards) to elaborate (Argyle sparkling-wine house). Several share strip mall spaces (Red Hill Inn features four tasting rooms side by side on its ground floor), allowing a leisurely stroll through tasting rooms down one street, reminiscent of Napa’s Hwy 29/Silverado Trail.

Also close to Newberg are many wineries with views, a short drive off Highway 99, such as the hillside properties of Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene, and Penner-Ash. A few wineries require being more adventurous to reach, either because they are farther away from Newberg or located on rustic rural roads.

We fit into our short visit the oldest planted areas of Oregon, 40-60 minutes south from Newberg.

GPS had to find Eyrie Vineyards (pronounced “eye-ree”) in a roadside storefront, the original 1965 location of the second-oldest Willamette winery. Tastings covered decades, including a 1986 barrel-reserve wine discovered after the original winemaker’s death.

Farthest south is Salem, home of the original Oregon planted areas. Eola Hills, founded in 1986, featured a large barn-like structure accommodating 200 for events. It produces more than 20 varietals, including sparkling selections.

Our hotel restaurant’s sommelier recommended Bethel Heights and Cristom Vineyards, and we loved both the sweeping landscape views and the wine.

Tasting menus offer a standard or premium option ranging from $15 to $50, although the fee is often waived with a two-bottle purchase. There were no bargain bottles; we saw only one priced at $20, with most priced at $30 to $55, and premium wines selling for $75 to $150.

Let’s finally discuss the wines! As expected, Oregon offers plenty of bright, fruit-forward citrus Chardonnays and crisp, light cherry/raspberry/strawberry flavored Pinot Noirs.

Not as well known, wineries also produce high-end products with big tannin and potentially age-able structure I likened to the “Cabernets of Pinot Noir.” We loved Penner-Ash’s Aegrina Vineyard, the Beaux Freres The Upper Terrace, Domaine Serene’s Jerusalem Hill Vineyard, and Erath’s Knight’s Gambit and Bishop Creek.

Cristom Vineyards was among the handful of Willamette wineries offering Syrah, and its bottling showed amazing jamminess.

If you like sparkling wines, don’t miss both the main sparkling houses of Argyle (tasting room on Highway 99), and Rocco (launched by Argyle’s original winemaker). Most wineries feature one or two sparkling options.

Shipping to Ohio was not as challenging as California, but still took effort. If you do not ship directly at the winery, shipping choices are available through FedEx or UPS stores at around $65 case.

It was impossible to see all the Willamette wineries in two days, but we left with a strong overview. By the trip’s end, I changed the rhyme “Willamette dammit” to “whammit Willamette,” and I hope to return to Oregon wine country soon.

Michelle Brady blogs her wine experiences at WineSageReview.com.

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