Getaway Guide: Oregon’s Wine Trail
January 2, 2014
It's easy to think of Oregon's Willamette Valley as a distant region that's been making sublime pinot noirs for ages, but the reality is it's not even 90 minutes farther than the Okanagan, and grapes have been growing seriously in both areas for about the same amount of time. That's where the similarities end. In relatively short order, the Willamette (rhymes with "dammit") has established itself as one of the world's capitals for the famed heartbreak grape. In the last year alone, two powerhouses (France's Louis Jadot and the U.S.'s Kendall-Jackson) have made monster investments.
For the visitor, the region — 50 kilometres southwest of Portland, anchored by the troika of Newberg, Dundee, and McMinnville — evokes the Okanagan's relaxed, no-BS approach to winemaking while also capturing Napa's buzz and acclaim. The roads still feature more tractors than Teslas, but there's a feeling that as outsiders move in, Willamette's authentic quaintness may vanish, making it all the more urgent to get there now.
The Allison Inn
In 2009 locals Joan and Ken Austin felt the nascent region needed world-class lodging, so they harnessed the resources of their dental supply company to create a Napa-worthy hotel. Their timing was perfect: their Newberg hotel opened just as wine tourism took off — the biggest problem now is actually landing one of the 77 rooms. The purpose-built spa with its 12 treatment rooms and Zen-like quiet may be the nicest in the state.
Third Street Flats
If the Allison seems a little rarified, these four furnished apartments in cool downtown McMinnville will be perfect. The décor is more funky than swank, but they have kitchens — and they're walking distance from great restaurants (or dig into those bottles of pinot with takeout from nearby Ribslayer BBQ).
Nick's Italian Café
If you're pinot'd out, the McMinnville locals' spot has a killer wine list featuring a great and well-priced Italian selection. Always tightly packed, but it clears out early — like everything else in these parts.
With note-perfect seasonal fare and a relaxed vibe, this Newberg restaurant is correspondingly tough to get into. The price point would be 20 percent higher in Sonoma, 30 in Napa, but the food wouldn't be a stitch better.
Red Hills Market
Dundee's take on Napa's Oakville Grocery (i.e., a corner store with contents seemingly curated by a three-star Michelin chef). The region's best selection of area microbrews and wines, and the best roast beef sandwich in the Pacific Northwest.
The wine is great (see page 71), and it's one of the few places that sells old vintages on-site. But you're coming here for the new rough-hewn-cedar masterpiece of a building designed by hotshot architecture firm Allied Works. It looks like Paul Bunyan hired Richard Neutra to build the place and then plunked it down in Dayton.
It's luxe and large and eschews hipster cred in favour of having the most acclaimed pinot in Oregon. And while it's a popular spot in Dayton, popular is a relative term — a busy day here is like midweek February in Napa.
Smallish operation, biggish wine. You need an appointment, but the team encapsulates the straightforward approach to winemaking that marks this area. Robert Parker Jr. is a partner here, which lends a notoriety (both good and bad) they don't court — they'd prefer the wines do the talking.
By appointment and booked well in advance, but a must due to a unique approach to tasting. Sure, you'll sample the acclaimed pinot, but also grower champagne and other oddities in a celebration of great wine and an attempt to figure out where Willamette fits into the larger wine world.
Fire + Flood
There are a few great collectives where you can taste wine from a number of small producers (the SE Wine Collective, the Carlton Winemakers Studio), but this new spot in Newberg is our choice for its variety and "wall of wine" layout (all of which you can taste) based on the groundbreaking SFMOMA exhibit How Wine Became Modern.