An old ferry, a unique hotel, new tasting rooms await visitors to the vineyard region southwest of Portland.
WILLAMETTE VALLEY, Ore. —
Next time you drive south to tour Oregon’s world-class wine country, you can drive the most direct route, crawling through traffic in Portland’s sprawling suburb of Tigard, maybe zipping on to the new bypass highway of which they’re proud, and staying in McMinnville’s unique new boutique hotel. It’s not a bad choice.
Or, if you have time, continue farther south on Interstate 5 and peel off at Exit 263. Meander on sleepy two-lane roads through a land of hop farms and hazelnut orchards to catch the hardworking little nine-car Wheatland Ferry, which battles sometimes-fierce currents to make a 2-minute, 580-foot crossing of the Willamette River.
From there, drive north 15 minutes to The Vintages Trailer Resort, centrally located in wine country, for a fun lodging experience in one of more than 30 classic travel trailers from the 1940s to 1960s.
Firs, hawks and oaks
This rambling vineyard country is a stark contrast to Washington’s arid wine districts east of the Cascades. Here, instead of adjoining sagebrush hills, vineyards edge fir-crowded ridges populated by deer and raccoons. Hawks wheel on updrafts above savannas of gnarled oaks.
In the center of it all, blue road signs point the way to wineries by the dozen. The encompassing Willamette Valley has 554 wineries in seven designated viticultural areas snuggled up to the east side of Oregon’s Coast Range, from Portland to Eugene.
Among almost 22,000 acres of vineyards, you’ll find pinot gris, chardonnay, riesling, pinot blanc and more. But almost three-quarters of grapes grown here are the valley’s trademark pinot noir, making famed wines that are juicy, berry-bold, sometimes chocolaty, often as satisfying as a big slab of cherry pie.
It had been a few years since my last visit, and I found some good new places to visit and people to meet within minutes of our high-end trailer park located halfway between Dundee and McMinnville:
Dominio IV Winery
At Dominio IV winery I climbed a hillside with ginger-bearded winemaker Patrick Reuter, inspecting a vineyard recently planted above a lovely old white farmhouse built in 1916 and newly converted to be his winery’s tasting room.
Reuter and his wife, Leigh Bartholomew, are both graduates of the famed wine school at University of California at Davis. They founded their winery from modest means (more gumption than capital) in 2002. Their recently opened farm and tasting room on Intervale Road, near Carlton in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, is the fruition of years of work and ambition.
This is also home to their new estate vineyard. They previously relied on grapes from the Columbia Gorge and other vineyards.
Here, 50 miles from the Pacific, soils quickly change from sedimentary to volcanic clay to windblown silt, each contributing different characteristics to a wine.
“You get little mesoclimates the size of this hillside,” Reuter said, looking out as his teenage son helped to plant a labyrinth using nine different clones of pinot noir, while the winery Labradoodle, Smoochie, romped past an old red barn.
In the tasting room, Reuter poured one of the star wines: a rosé made from the florally fragrant viognier grape with uncrushed, whole syrah grapes floated on top to impart color and subtle flavor.
“We wanted to explore what these genetically similar grapes would do together,” Reuter said. “It’s one of those things that’s a little nerdy but very approachable.”
I would happily approach it any old time. Sit in the cozy living room of the old farmhouse or grab an Adirondack chair on the wide veranda and sip to your heart’s content.
More info: dominiowines.com.
Lange Estate Winery
Don and Wendy Lange came to the Dundee Hills in 1987 to start one of Oregon’s early-day wineries. She had worked in tasting rooms in Southern California, and Don was an accomplished folk singer and songwriter. Now their winery atop a 750-foot hill, at the end of a gravel road, makes some of the world’s better Burgundy-varietal wines. The general manager, and an active leader in the local wine industry, is their son, Jesse Lange.
This month they’re celebrating the grand opening of one of the region’s classier tasting rooms, including a deck that takes in a lovely panorama of Northwest Oregon and Mount Hood.
The relatively remote setting is one allure of a visit. The modern, cathedral-ceilinged “Grand Tasting Hall,” as it has been dubbed, perches on the edge of a sloping vineyard and puts sippers almost within arm’s reach of estate vines, which are limited to pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot blanc.
“It’s quite a view,” said Don Lange. “This is where the Willamette Valley ends and the Chehalem Valley starts,” which also leads to some good stormwatching when the season is right.
“This is kind of ‘Lange Winery version 4.0,’ ” said Jesse, noting that the winery started in his parents’ basement. Jesse is 40; his winemaker father is now 72.
“We started small,” said Wendy, who oversees the tasting room. “We figured that with our (lack of) proximity to paved roads we wouldn’t see many visitors up here. But Oregonians are very adventurous — and persistent.”
One of Lange’s specialties: pinot noir bottlings from each of the region’s three distinct soil types, so aficionados can compare how the dirt around a vine’s roots affects the wine made from its grapes.
“It’s wine geeky, but it gets us going!” Don said with a chuckle.
As long-timers, what changes have they seen for visitors to Willamette wine country?
“One of the biggest changes is the proliferation of wonderful, first-class, world-class restaurants,” Don said.
Among nearby favorite eateries, he and Wendy name Painted Lady, in Newberg (“They’re small plates, but like little works of art,” she says); Jory(named for one of the area’s famous wine-growing soils), at Newberg’s Allison Inn; Recipe, also in Newberg; and Tina’s and the Dundee Bistro, both in Dundee.
More info: langewinery.com.
More modest but with plenty of charm is the art-filled old farmhouse, circa 1900, that is the new tasting room near Dayton for Remy Wines, which spotlights old-world Italian varietals such as Sangiovese and lagrein.
Meet the winemaker, Remy Drabkin, or her assistant, Erin Butler, and enjoy learning about the artful labels Drabkin has designed, including for her “wine without rules” label, Three Wives. (The name derived from a funny family story in which her father had taken her mother and two of her female friends along on a fishing trip in Alaska, and the locals gossiped about the fisherman with three wives.)
I sipped a lagrein from the Lone Madrone vineyard, seen out the back door of the farmhouse. It’s a highly tannic red but, at just 10 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), it won’t numb your taste buds.
“It’s very versatile with food — I’ve had it with everything from Thanksgiving dinner to beef chili,” Butler told me.
More info: remywines.com.
Lodging choices grow
Almost 20 years ago, downtown McMinnville got a boost when the McMenamin brothers renovated an old hotel to become the 42-room Hotel Oregon. Now comes the town’s next Great Leap in the tourism world: the April 2018 opening of a luxury boutique lodging with a locavore ethic for sourcing art and furnishings, the $8.5 million, 36-room Atticus Hotel. The four-story building, 375 N.E. Ford St., has a distinct historic look but it’s all new construction (atticushotel.com).
The owners are local, too, with prior experience running 3rd Street Flats, a collection of renovated downtown apartments. They took guest feedback to create a hotel with offbeat, intriguing features.
“We don’t have a front desk; we have a welcome bar,” where guests are handed a glass of bubbly when they arrive and can get an espresso day or night, co-owner Erin Stephenson said.
There’s a fancy penthouse suite, but there’s also the Luxury Bunkhouse, with a king-size bed and a wall of cozy, recessed bunks, perfect for big families or a friends getaway. A hidden panel off the lobby opens to a secretive “Drawing Room,” decorated with silhouettes of local luminaries. Peak-season lodging rates: $290-$590 a night.
Or you can stay in the trailer park, with nightly rates in the range of $200-$300 on summer weekends (the-vintages.com). Cook on an outdoor grill. Dine in a cozy banquette. Go for a ride on a classic coaster bike (a pair comes with every trailer). Just one question to resolve: What wine goes with Cheetos?
We found a nice pinot goes smashingly.
Brian J. Cantwell recently retired as Seattle Times travel and outdoors editor. Email him at email@example.com.