Is wine country calling you? If so, you must answer. For the ultimate hygge weekend of wine tasting and winter feasting, look no further than Oregon Wine Country. Willamette Valley, Oregon’s biggest wine-growing region, about four hours away from Seattle by car, is a world-class producer of exquisite Pinot Noir, among other varietals. We went to Yamhill County, in the heart of the valley, for a winter retreat a few weeks ago, when cellar season was just starting.
When we visited last month, with wintry mist and twinkling lights everywhere, Willamette Valley was like the enchanted woods. While our focus was on wine tasting, the long weekend was a true sensory delight. Sampling an area’s wines is truly connecting with the land, and provides a glimpse into the way of life there. We sniffed, swirled and sipped some incredible wines with picturesque views of the Cascade Range. We sat with winemakers who told us local winemaking secrets and folktales. We scrounged for truffles around the fir trees with truffle hunting dogs that picked up the scent of these rare culinary gems. After that, we feasted on delicious grilled cheese sandwiches shaved with some of these very truffles. This was farm-to-table at its finest.
Our vacation was all about the great outdoors. We passed wild horses roaming about the grasslands, we saw an antique Roman olive mill and rows of evergreen olive trees. With sheer wonder, we waited in silence in the dead of the night, as a family of elk crossed the street in front of our car. The best thing to do in Willamette Valley is just live in the beauty of the moment.
The Valley is a smorgasbord of wineries, vineyards, nut orchards, rivers, hiking trails, and eateries. To truly experience the warmth and bounty of the wine country, you’ll need more than a day. Here is how we spent an ideal long weekend exploring and tasting.
There are jaw-dropping properties sets in vineyards, stately mansions, ranch houses or farms to stay in. Check out Oregon Wine Country’s curated itineraries to find your perfect digs. Airbnb is another great option for charming local lodgings.
Our home base for the weekend was Southfield Cottage, an urban oasis set amidst rolling vineyards and farmland. The idyllic cottage, with its plush couches and ambient lighting, is perfect for winter. But we’d imagine it to be just as picture-perfect in any other season. With stunning patio views, watching panoramic sunsets with a glass of vino was one of our favorite things to do. The cottage marries countryside charm with modern amenities. With its huge french windows, it brings the outdoors inside.
There are horses grazing in the field next door, sleepy sheep lazing right outside and the friendliest sheepdog, Fetch bounding about the trees. It is just a hop, skip and jump from state-of-the-art wineries. Domaine Divio, one of the region’s best wineries, is just a five-minute walk away. You can literally bike your way from one winery to the other, and enjoy the fresh bracing air. After a day on the wine trails, you can curl up with some more wine on a cushioned rocking chair, and soak in the real charm of wine country.
It is the small, thoughtful touches that will make your stay truly memorable. Need a beater to whip up that delicious omelet after a morning trek? It’s there, in one of the kitchen drawers. Want some chamomile tea to unwind after a hectic (Haha!) day of wine tasting. Check. Want to feel appreciated? Fetch, the sheepdog will make you feel like the most important person on planet earth, with his enthusiastic wagging.
The food isn’t just local – it is hyperlocal. The chefs are inspired by the land’s very own flora and fauna. The food culture here has something quintessentially Oregon about it, with a layer of international flavors – french, greek and Italian to name a few. There are some clear European influences at work here, with wood-fired pizza, truffle-laced pasta, fat stuffed peppers, and fresh burrata salad drizzled generously with olive oil.
The restaurants here double up as de facto tasting rooms for local wines, and servers are like wine stewards with remarkable knowledge. They will indulge you with a cool recommendation, or even an engrossing conversation about the Valley’s handcrafted wines and grand heritage.
The Horse Radish
The Horse Radish is a restaurant, wine, and cheese bar located in the storybook town of Carlton. This casual eatery with its outstanding farm-to-table cuisine is a local favorite. Munch on their famous quiches for lunch, or their spaghetti carbonara with house-cured pancetta for an indulgent dinner. Don’t miss their baked brie – oozy, melted cheese with cranberries and hazelnuts. For libations, they serve Marshall Davis Wines, craft beers on tap, a European bottle list, cocktails, and cider. They also have foot-tapping live music on Saturdays!
A winding staircase strung with fairy lights takes you to this underground restaurant. Subterra, a wine cellar restaurant, seems like a secret place of sorts. The first thing you’ll notice here is the celebratory feel. This is the place to book for date night. With elegant stemware, thoughtful service and a flickering candlelit ambiance; this place checks all the boxes for a romantic evening.
They serve European comfort food, with a focus on fresh and regional produce. Dinner here is an intimate, classy affair and expect to dress for the occasion. We tried their Potato Wrapped Halibut and the Pan-Seared Duck Breast Served on Hazelnut Wild Rice. The fish came in a Pinot Noir butter sauce, and the duck with a lip-smacking Oregon Huckleberry Reduction. We loved the use of indigenous produce to highlight the best the region has to offer.
Red Hills Kitchen at the Atticus Hotel
Two words: Truffle fries. But not just any truffle fries. These are probably the best truffle fries you’ll ever eat. Think extra crispy potato fries, sprinkled with Jacobsen truffle salt, herbs, parmesan Reggiano. This simple, delicious snack captures the essence of what this exciting eatery is all about. The Red Hills Kitchen calls itself ‘an Oregon-style restaurant spinning the best elements of Red Hills Market into a new iteration.’ You’d find regular bistro culprits on the menu, but with an inventive take on them.
Their fall bounty risotto is elevated with the addition of stewed Baird family apples, adding a sweet bite between cheesy morsels. Their first wine list is powered by suggestions from Cody Wright of Purple Hands Winery, and changes seasonally with a new winemaker-mentor! They also have a locally-focused, carefully procured retail section, where we spotted bottles of glistening Durant olive oil, truffle oil, pickled peppers and handicrafts amongst many other things. We’d highly recommend a stroll outside post-meal to explore downtown McMinnville. You can work off those delicious fries and shop for an artifact or two.
There’s nothing like a farm-style breakfast to kickstart a day of exploring and frolicking. Babica Hen is one of the best breakfast spots around here. Brunch classics (smoked salmon with avocado, blueberry Brulee french toast, pork schnitzel) make the perfect menu to pair with wine. You’d see families brunching happily on a Sunday, digging into huge platters and clinking glasses of Pinot. Yes, Pinot Noir for brunch.
It’s never too early to be drinking wine around here, and brunch wine is not limited to whites or rosé. Salty, buttery breakfast foods like eggs Benedict actually make a delicious pairing with robust, red wine. This is also a great spot to get caffeinated! Babica Hen is where the locals are at, and enjoying a meal while soaking it all in here provides a great lens into the quality of life here.
Wine country is as much about gastronomic delights as it is about wine. At Ruddick Wood, it is impossible to miss their impressive pickle collection, which doubles up as interesting decor. As a pickle lover, I was happy to try pickled watermelon rind, blueberries, rhubarb, and celeriac root. In addition to wine, you can enjoy some local beer too, made with Willamette Valley hops and barley. Besides yummy flatbreads, we ate a delicious salad with beets, goat cheese, and fresh, aromatic herbs, all from nearby farms. Here, we took a departure from Pinot and paired our meal with some buttery Chardonnay. Our server played a balancing act in bringing great food and wine together, creating a superlative meal.
With the start of a new decade, remind yourself of what truly matters in life. A getaway is a lovely way to introspect. Wine country, with its oak savannas and vine-covered hills, is a great place for quiet contemplation. With opportunities to hike up to waterfalls, go winery-hopping on horseback or float over the valley on a hot air balloon; adrenaline-seekers have their share of adventure too. Pro-tip: When you’re taking a breather from wine tastings – you can have a look at the world’s largest airplane, the Spruce Goose.
Red Ridge Farms
At Red Ridge Farms, Paul Durant and his family consider themselves to be stewards of the land. There is genuine love for the fruit of the vine here. Besides the great commitment to the grape, they have created an artistic retreat. Paul Durant’s sprawling estate consists of olive trees, an Italian olive mill, lavender bushes, a plant nursery, a charming B&B, a gift shop, a tasting room, and a patio with possibly the best view in the valley.
Paul Durant gave us a pleasant tour of the expansive, historic estate and took us through their process of making phenomenal wines and EVOO. Spanning five generations since 1973, the Durants started off with nut orchards – English Walnuts, Hazelnuts, Italian Prunes, and Cherries. They were among the very first pathfinders in Oregon to attempt growing wine grapes in the Dundee Hills. They planted olives in 2004, establishing one of the first orchards in Oregon. The farm became home to the first (and to date, only!) commercial olive mill and Oleoteca in the Northwest. Durant Olive Mill, with 17 acres of olive trees planted on the family’s 120 acres, believes in the fine old-school methods of olive oil production.
The Durants have a lofty vision – that olive oil will follow the same trajectory as Pinot Noir in the valley. We did an olive oil tasting of their estate-milled olive oils. They also have infused EVOO and basil-infused is particularly yummy. I’d gladly drizzle it on my pasta, soups, salads and almost everything. This felt like a unique greek experience, without ever leaving the U.S.
A wine tasting followed, where we tried estate Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Rose. The Pinot Gris was my favorite – peppery and earthy, a perfect complement to the rainy weather. Red ridge winery definitely makes a strong case for whites, even in the middle of winter. We took our glasses of Pinot Gris outside and sipped under their wisteria-clad pergola. We watched an incredible sunset set against undulating vineyards. Evenings are magical here. But no matter what the time is, you must have some wine in the patio area, and feel your stress and worldly worries melt away.
There are artistic elements infused throughout the estate – a koi pond, a calming zen fountain, terrariums, sculpture gardens and bucolic beauty everywhere. Smitten by the whimsical property, one might not want to leave. Well, you don’t have to. There are lodging options right here; a Red Ridge Garden Suite perfect for a couple, and Stoneycrest Cottage that could house a family or a bunch of friends easily. Their greenhouse-like gift shop has so many treasures too – fragrant pouches of dried lavender, garlic sea salt, a piece of rustic property and their estate EVOO make for fabulous gifts.
Contact Red Ridge Farms to schedule your complimentary tour or book your stay here.
“Truffle, truffle! Go, get the truffle!”, Lisa Brosnan of The Truffle Underground directed her fiesty truffle hunting dogs, ready for some adventure on a foggy morning. These elusive, edible fungi (black, white and brown) have a symbiotic relationship with the Douglas fir trees. There is a wealth of these buried delicacies hiding away in the hills of Willamette Valley.
Delicacies, medicinal, aphrodisiacal – Truffles are essentially high-end cousins to the humble mushrooms. They taste of the earth, and it is their intoxicating smell that makes truffles so coveted. Wildly expensive ($900 per pound!), authentic truffles are rare to find, insanely difficult to farm and impossible to store for long periods of time.
To unearth these little gems, you need a veritable army, of the four-legged kind. Lisa’s dogs, the Italian Lagotti Romagnoli, Maeva, and Crimini sniffed out these exotic delicacies in return for lots of petting and doggy treats. The truffles aren’t much to look at, resembling warty baby potatoes. But oh, the addictive aroma. Research has proven that smelling truffles actually releases bliss molecules in your brain.
This one-of-a-kind experience had an extremely yummy ending. Will, who’s a certified sommelier paired the freshly harvested truffles with food and some spectacular Pinot Noir aptly called, ‘Truffle Hill’, at Left Coast Cellars. There’s nothing quite like enjoying the fruits of your own labor. We tried these truffles with a luxurious grilled cheese, washed down with some pinot noir. The truffles were ‘moreish’ and definitely left us wanting more. You could enjoy them with some simple, homespun fare or elaborate gourmet meals. In either case, the star of the meal should be the truffles.
Jan and Feb are prime truffle harvest season in Oregon, with the Oregon Truffle Festival 2020 in full swing. Fresh Oregon truffles await you!
The Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley is the stuff of legend. You have to try it to believe it. With over 500 wineries within 150 miles, the valley makes a whopping 1 % of the country’s wine production.
Willamette Valley’s viticultural landscape offers the best wine tours in a close-to-nature milieu. Circa, half-a-century ago when a group of pioneering winemakers planted Pinot Noir and other cool-climate grapes, including America’s first Pinot Gris. When one of these pioneers, David Lett, A.K.A Papa Pinot, registered his 1975 Pinot Noir against a field of French Burgundian Pinot Noirs and won, the Willamette Valley found its place on the international map. The rest, as they say, is history.
We kicked off our wine tasting at Remy Wines, at their beautiful century-old farmhouse at night. Remy Drabkin’s story is prodigious and inspiring. All of 8 years old, little Remy Drabkin from McMinnville knew that she wanted to be a winemaker. As an adolescent at 14, she was already harvesting her very first grapes. At 17, having completed three harvest seasons, she went abroad to get a formal education in winemaking. Remy grew up around Italian families, and they along with Oregon wine industry pioneers played a big part in shaping her old world style philosophy when it came to winemaking. Eponymously named, Remy Wines is all about non-traditional grape varieties and producing complex Italian varietals grown in the Pacific Northwest.
The daffodil- yellow cabin glowed with pretty lights against an inky blue sky. An evening at Remy wines is like a taste of Italy, without ever leaving American soil. Since 2006, Remy has chosen to focus on Lagrein, Dolcetto, Sangiovese, and Barbera. Diana Schultz took us through a wonderful tasting of these four varietals. The Old World Style wines were paired with delectable tidbits – crisp filberts, sweet Marcona almonds, pickled caperberries, crumbly gorgonzola cheese, and buttery Castelvetrano Olives. It was a mini feast of the area’s best local delicacies. The dessert wine – Beneficio, made from Washington Barbera won our hearts, and we made sure to bring some bottles back.
A getaway, an escape, a retreat. Knudsen Vineyards is high up in the hills, ensconced in the fog. Coming here feels like you have indeed, ‘escaped’. It was difficult to find, even for Google maps! With no cellphone reception, old-fashioned maps and directions sent by the good folks at Knudsen helped us find our way.
The history of the vineyards is deeply entwined with the history of the valley itself. Formerly a walnut grove, the 200-acre vineyard in the heart of Dundee Hills was purchased by Cal and Julia Lee in 1971. With 30 acres of grapes planted by 1972, it became the largest vineyard in the Willamette Valley. In 1975, with 60 acres, they the largest in Oregon. For about 50 years, they supplied high-quality grapes to these two wineries: Argyle and Erath. They introduced Knudsen Vineyards wines in 2014, with a mission to produce wines that embody the essence of the vineyard’s unique terroir.
We went for a wine tasting at their family cabin, which was a very personal experience. A public tasting room is in their grand plans for their future. Noshing on a delicious charcuterie board, sipping delicious wines, and taking a moment to appreciate the flavors seemed to make time go a bit slower. Their Pinot Noir is almost crimson in color, with notes of dark red fruit and wood. The Knudsen Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir is more saturated in color, with an explosion of spices like clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon. It would pair wonderfully with an Indian biryani or Persian pilaf studded with fat raisins, playing up those very spices.
The true star of the tasting was their Chardonnay, a true force to be reckoned with. The smell of freshly-cut oranges and limes hits you at the first whiff. It is super creamy and smooth, with lively acidity for balance. With a bird’s eye view of vineyards and the lush green valley, Knudsen is a true sanctum – the perfect place to stop, stare and sip. A few bottles of their chardonnay is like carrying some of this sanctity back with you.
Domaine Divio, known for traditional Burgundian-style wines, was a short stroll away from our cottage. It was walking distance from our gorgeous cottage in Newberg, and a breathtaking stroll at that! The path was strewn with fallen autumn leaves, and gorgeous apple trees bearing the last of fall’s apples.
We went there on a full-moon night and settled in their warm wood cabin. A huge, crackling fireplace welcomed us. We sat next to it, sipping their 2017 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir. In keeping with their snug interiors, the wine had a toasty, caramelized mouthfeel. It’s warming notes of cinnamon and chocolate were perfect for the freezing night. The focus here is on biodynamic farming without any artificial chemicals. The same respect extends to the wines, which are crafted with minimal interventions, no fining or filtration. Their bold Pinot Noir reminds of why you came to Willamette Valley in the first place. And why you must return.
Red Hills Market
In addition to award-winning wines, the two things that stood us to us were passion and community. The whole valley thrives on sustainability. The regional vintners, farmers, restaurateurs, and local business owners support and uplift each other. Red Hills Market is the busiest place around here, and for good reason. The mantra here is – Buy local, think global. The locals frequent it on an everyday basis, and tourists follow. Red hills market is a hustling-bustling shop that sells your morning french-press, breakfast falafel sandwich, and the cute little souvenirs to take back home. And of course, they sell bottles and crates of local wine too.
At Oregon Wine Country, here are tastings, ramblings, and adventures beckoning out to you. You can casually drop in to taste wines, book yourself a private tasting or bike from vineyard to vineyard, creating your own tipsy trail. Personally, with a new infant on board, we love the idea of choosing wisely and going about things in a relaxed manner. The coolest part? Ultra-customized itineraries! Find one that’s perfect for you here. Remember – What happens in Wine country, stays in Wine Country. Happy winter wanderlust!