Crafting an Ideal Willamette Valley Itinerary
If you’re an oenophile or experiential wine traveler with a passion for cooler climate varietals, lush green countryside, unique boutique accommodation and delicious eats, the Willamette Valley wine region is sure to accommodate your travel desires.
The Winederlusting team has spent the past couple of months focusing on exposing some of the best Willamette Valley wineries, restaurants, hotels and things to do in the region. We went out and spoke with regional experts, winery owners and certified wine professionals in an effort to help our readers craft a Willamette Valley Itinerary tailored to their tastes.
Willamette Valley is producing some of the finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the world…
Wine Spectator recently rated a Chardonnay produced by Domaine Serene in Willamette’s Northern sub-region of Dundee Hills as the #2 Chardonnay in the world. This area is arguably one of the starting points for Oregonian wine production, where it was discovered that cool climate varietals such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir would thrive.
Just behind Domaine Serene, Wine Spectator again chose a Willamette Valley wine — a Pinot Noir crafted by producer Beaux Frères — as their #3 pick for best wines of 2016. Beaux Frères also grows vines within the Northern reaches of the Valley. But while these two producers may have clenched the #2 and #3 spots, there are dozens of other Vintners throughout the Valley that are producing world class wines that are also worth exploring.
Willamette Valley offers travelers an opportunity to explore a unique landscape and diverse visuals dependent upon seasonal preferences…
Whether you’re a fan of the colors of autumn foliage, prefer the lush green colors of the summer months with minimal humidity, or you’re simply trying to escape the heat wave pounding South Florida in mid-December — Willamette has something for everyone.
Take a laid-back country car ride through the rolling hills, stop at boutique cellar doors for wine tastings, pair local wines with local cuisine or take a horseback ride through the vines.
Explore a vast and diverse wine culture and landscape…
Willamette Valley offers wine tourism enthusiasts an opportunity to explore the quintessential wine region of Oregon. Being Oregon’s largest AVA, the valley spans over 5,000 square miles between Oregon’s Coast and the Cascade Mountain Range. With over 500 wineries within its borders, no matter what kind of experience you’re looking for – you won’t be bored.
Within the low-lying valley areas, you can witness beauty beyond the grape vines. Hazelnut and berry crops dot the region at lower elevation, with picturesque vine-scapes caressing the hillsides. Given Willamette’s proximity to the Coastal Mountain Range, you can also get some great views of Hood and Adams Mountain – visible from some special wineries such as Stoller Family Estate and Red Ridge Farms.
With so many things to do, the following Willamette Valley itinerary is designed to help tourists narrow down their options in terms of wineries, routes, hotels, restaurants and activities.
Touring Willamette Valley by Wine Style
Dixie Huey is a local sommelier and has worked with a number of Willamette Valley wineries since 2008 through her company Trellis Growth Partners and also through the ¡Salud! The Oregon Pinot Noir Auction. For those travelers looking to sample wines based on their preferred style, she offers some insight into what to keep an eye out for.
“The overall style of wines made in the Willamette Valley tends to be balanced, in terms of fruit, acidity, structure. Given the climate here, we do not tend to have very ripe, higher alcohol wines and focus on growing cooler climate varieties such as Pinot Noir, Pinot gris, Chardonnay and Riesling. These wines are particularly beautiful for a versatile range of food pairing. In my opinion, the culinary compliments are the most special stylistic attribute of wines grown here.”
The Best Seasons to Visit Willamette Valley
This really comes down to personal preference. However, we’ve asked some of the local experts what times they think are best to visit the region.
According to Jeff Knapp, Executive Director of Visit McMinnville — one of Willamette’s sub-appellations — Winter may be the most opportune time for a visit.
“The most popular time to visit is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The weather is the sunniest and the vineyards are waking up. In my opinion the best time to visit is in Winter. Our winters are mild. Traffic at this time of year is slower. You are more likely to spend time with the owner or winemaker at wineries that you visit. If you love eating, Oregon has year round access to locally grown produce. In fall through spring we have stellar seafood like dungeness crab, native Oregon truffles and mushrooms to be foraged and on and on. It is a food lovers’ mecca.”
For those who are okay with a little bit more foot traffic, the Summer and Early Fall can also make for ideal seasonal visits.
While Willamette has unfortunately received a reputation for being a rainy region, this isn’t entirely true. Dixie notes that Willamette really doesn’t receive much rain during the Summer and Early Fall. So if you’re looking to enjoy warmer (but not oppressively hot) weather, the Summer is actually a great time to visit.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to be more immersed in the harvest season, early Fall offers wine fanatics an opportunity to witness and in some cases be involved with the harvest and wine production process. It’s also a beautiful time of year as the leaves are beginning to change color.
Recommendations for Exploring Willamette’s Sub-Appellations
Wine tourism doesn’t need to be complicated. Luckily for travelers visiting the area, each sub-appellation offers some pre-packaged routes tourists can embark on.
Regions such as the Dundee Hills are ideal for first time visitors given that they’ll be more likely to recognize some of the bigger Oregonian brand names.
If you’re an experienced wine traveler, you might be more inclined to visit the Eola Hills and or Ribbon Ridge since these regions are a bit more off the beaten path. Not only are these areas more secluded, they also offer some of the best Terroir in the world – specifically, the dirt – for growing Pinot Noir.
Want to try something unique? Consider touring Willamette Valley by Helicopter. Tour deVine, operated by Precision Helicopters offers wine tours throughout 5 of Willamette’s AVAs. For only $399, your group can tour the region by air, enjoy pre-flight festivities, experience 3 unique wineries, have a delicious lunch, get all tasting fees included and more with this special, immersive experience.
One particular route and activity that is a must for any visitor to Willamette is The McMinnville Wine Walk. The walk offers a great perspective of the charming and historic downtown McMinnville area. Once you’re done tasting, try out some of the local restaurants on foot and continue to sample the local wines from fantastic producers on the wine lists. Jeff Knapp of Visit McMinnville notes that there is a printed map for the Wine Walk available at any tasting room in McMinnville, or visitors can download the Wine Walk App.
Exploring Southern Willamette Valley
For those planning on spending time within the Southern reaches of Willamette — Lane County offers opportunities to try a diverse range of New World and Old World styles of Pinot Noir. In fact, the entire area is roughly on the same latitude as Burgundy, France — famous for Pinot Noir (aka Red Burgundy).
We asked Travel Lane County’s Stephen Hoshaw what his recommendations were for traversing South Willamette:
Travel Lane County and the South Willamette Wineries actually designed a program to help visitors explore our wineries called Pinot Bingo. This fun game offers prizes for different rows (including things like an Oregon Pinot Glass, wine art and more), and really does a good job at pointing to different routes to explore.
A drive down the Territorial Highway (also known as our Territorial Wine Trail) journeys straight through our wine country. Including over 17 wineries in the South Willamette Wineries Association; this route is a superb way to explore the scene here.
After that, visitors can travel toward the Eugene metro area to tour the Urban Wine Circuit with six tasting rooms. In the metro area and dotted along the route to the Territorial Wine Trail, visitors will find an array of culinary options for lunch, dinner or snacks. Several of these are identified on Pinot Bingo as “pairings” options travelers can earn additional stamps at!
Stephen also notes that tastings in Southern Willamette are relatively cheap, if not free. It’s not uncommon to find $5 – $10 flights here, with many tasting fees waived when a purchase of a bottle is made. He says that visitors can expect a great value, with a number of tourists claiming that it’s a great spot to begin a premium quality wine collection without breaking the bank.
If you’d like a crash course into Pinot Noir, Stephen also suggests exploring Pfeiffer Vineyards, where winemaker Robin Pfeiffer hosts a Pinot Clinic, taking tasters through a full evaluation on everything from the aroma to the finish of a glass of Pinot.
There are also free hourly winery tours at King Estate — a spectacular way to see one of the largest wineries in Oregon.
Many of the wineries offer incredible views, but Sarver Winery offers a phenomenal look at hills through the valley and into the mountains in the Cascades.
In general, Willamette as a whole offers a number of settings where travelers can simply relax outdoors at any number of the wineries that have outdoor patios and picnic areas. Many of the local restaurants also offer outdoor patios to enjoy the beautiful weather.
If you’re looking for an active itinerary throughout the valley, you can tour the region by Hot Air Balloon, go Horseback Riding or explore the region by hiking trail. If you happen to visit Willamette during the Winter season, you can actually go snowshoeing to a number of the waterfalls in the area. During the warmer months, you can fish the McKenzie River.
Golf enthusiast? Stephen suggests playing the incredibly scenic Tokatee Golf Club near the McKenzie River, or challenging yourself on more difficult courses like Ocean Dunes or Sandpines in Florence. There’s a golf course for any level of expertise throughout Lane County.
Along the Oregon Coast, Florence is actually home to one of the godfathers of Sandboarding and the dunes there make it a natural home for the sport!
The small town of Oakridge in the Willamette National Forest is known as the Mountain Biking Capital of the Northwest with over 300 miles of single-track trail.
The Best Wineries to Visit in Willamette Valley
Stoller Family Estate — One of the most highly recommended wineries to visit is Stoller Family Estate according to many regional experts. Not only is Stoller a winery, it also has guest homes and epic vistas. It’s also the world’s first LEED Gold Certified Winery – a leader in sustainability. There’s also a disc golf course on the property, seasonal running races, a tire swing and a large food garden.
Coeur de Terre Vineyard – Family-owned, the views here are incredible.
Domaine Serene – This posh-styled winery recently won #2 Chardonnay in the world per Wine Enthusiast. That in and of itself is worth checking out.
Carlton Winemakers Studio – This is a co-op, where a number of producers work to produce premium Oregonian wine. A good opportunity to taste the breath of Willamette.
Cristom Vineyards – A modern tasting experience and premium producer making great Pinot, but also wonderful Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. A true expression of Willamette Terroir capability. Located in the premium Pinot Noir region of the Eola-Amity Hills.
The Grape Varieties of Willamette Valley Oregon
Pinot Noir reigns king in Willamette. As we mentioned earlier, one producer is being ranked at #3 for this varietal – in the entire world. That being said, believe or not other grapes do grow here and taste great.
Experts advise keeping an eye out for some of the white grapes as well. There is an abundance of Chardonnay, but many will also advise sampling the excellent Viognier, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris of Willamette.
In terms of red wine outside of Pinot Noir, make an attempt to ask Vintners if they produce any Syrah and/or Gamay. If you’re able to access it – it may be a library wine – you won’t be disappointed. Wine professionals also advise seeking out unique red wines within the Rogue Valley for a breath of fresh air.
Jeff Knapp also notes that the Willamette Valley’s predominantly planted grape varietal is Pinot Noir, followed by Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling. Willamette growers also experiment with and produce hundreds of other grape varieties as well.
“The Willamette Valley’s hillsides, ancient soils, coastal influence, mild summers and wet winters set the stage for world-class wine production. The climate here is perfect for growing food-focused wines with high acid and delicate complexity.
The Pinot Noir of Willamette Valley
Keith Wallace is the Executive Director of Vinology – the Wine School of Philadelphia and has been an Executive Chef and Winemaker in both California and Italy. He’s also a well-known journalist and writes a popular wine column for The Daily Beast. He had a few things to say regarding Willamette Valley’s Pinot Noir:
“There are two basic styles of wine grown in the Willamette. Some wineries like Beaux Frères make lush and voluptuous Pinot Noirs, similar in style to California. There are others like Evening Land, who aim for ethereal elegance, which look toward Burgundy for inspiration.
Willamette is a very special place because of its affinity for Pinot Noir. Pinot can be a brutal mistress, and most winemakers and most regions cannot make it well. There is really no such thing as a decent bottle of Pinot: It’s either excellent or it’s garbage. And there are only a handful of places on Earth where Pinot Noir is excellent. Willamette Valley is one of those places.”
Where to Stay in Willamette Valley Oregon
Depending on your budget and desired travel style, there are an abundance of hotel options throughout Willamette.
If you’re looking for a luxurious experience, the Allison Inn and Spa is a great option. For a more immersive wine travel experience, check out the guest homes at Stoller Family Estate and Red Ridge Farms. For a unique and lower cost experience, checkout The Vintages – which is a trailer resort located in the Dayton area.
Within McMinnville, check out Third St. Flats – each “flat” is designed differently, so each time you return you can expect a different stylistic experience.
For a unique hotel experience, McMenamins Hotel Oregon is a quirky hotel that includes a number of different bars and restaurants. There’s also a rooftop bar that offers visitors a beautiful view of the McMinnville area and the Willamette Valley as a whole.
Bed & Breakfast and motel style accommodation can also be found throughout the Newberg and McMinnville areas.
Chehalem Ridge Bed and Breakfast in Newberg is a quaint, 4 bedroom B&B with some stunning vistas of Oregon wine country. Some rooms also come with fireplaces, balconies and jetted bathtubs. 60 wineries are within a short 20 minute drive of its location. This is a great inn to explore if you’re looking for a private, romantic getaway.
If you’re looking for another unique experience, such as staying in a lodge, cabin or resort nestled beside giant Douglas trees, sweeping sand dunes, scenic lakes and rushing rivers — there are a couple of options. Big Bear Campground and Retreat Center and Eagle Rock Lodge offer this style of accommodation complete with nearby nature trails, hot mineral spring pools and kayak launching areas.
Cottage Grove, Eugene and Junction City are all towns that offer hotel options very close to wine country in South Willamette. Per Stephen Hoshaw, options that are within wine country include the Blue Rooster Bed and Breakfast (which is nestled close to King Estate and Iris Vineyards) and Territorial Bed and Breakfast (nearer to the north end of the drive close to Benton Lane, Brigadoon and more). Both are excellent options for those looking for a bed and breakfast experience with wine to pair.
Cottage Grove’s Village Green Resort is just a short drive from the south end of the Territorial Wine Trail, and thus a popular option for folks looking to tour the South Willamette Wineries.
If you’re just arriving to Portland and need a place to stay on your first night, or you’re planning to explore Portland and take a day trip to Willamette — we recommend the Kimpton Hotel Vintage. The 117-room boutique property is a wine-themed hotel and underwent a major renovation. Each of the guestrooms is partnered with an award-winning Willamette Valley Vintner, such as Adelsheim, Ponzi, Rex Hill (really, 117 of them), after which the room is named. Photos from that winery and/or vineyard adorn the walls and they also provide two bottles of exceptional wine in-room for guest purchase. If someone prefers a bottle from another room’s winery partner, they can order it from the hotel’s expansive wine list. Not your average mini bar. Hotel Vintage also hosts an evening social hour, a free amenity for all guests, at which the winery partners come and pour – a new local winery and multiple wines, often rare or tasting room-only wines, every night.
Where to Eat in Willamette Valley
We left these recommendations to the experts, given their length of tenure here. Jeff Knapp was kind enough to offer our readers a hefty list of some of his favorite restaurants within the McMinnville area.
Thistle — This small restaurant, which sources its entire menu from farms within 20 miles of McMinnville, was named Restaurant of the Year by the Oregonian. It has an excellent wine list and the top cocktails in the county.
Nick’s Italian Cafe — This historical restaurant was established in 1975, and was a gathering place for early Willamette Valley winegrowers. In 2014 Nick’s was named a James Beard American Classic Award Winner.
The Barberry — Focusing on farm to fork dining, this newcomer to the McMinnville restaurant scene offers incredible dishes and amazing service. They often feature a custom curated wine list of independent, small production wines that are hard to find anywhere else.
The Joel Palmer House — This outstanding restaurant focuses its menu on wild truffles and mushrooms. It is a favorite wine country destination.
Pastorcillos Taco Truck – A well-known eatery in the area. So good in fact that this is a favorite for wine makers themselves to come and enjoy a taco paired with a glass of Pinot Noir.
Other great options in the area if you’re looking for fresh and authentic cuisine include:
JORY Restaurant – Fine dining located at the Allison Inn & Spa – offers authentic Pacific Northwest Cuisine with great views of Willamette Valley. Universally this is one of the best known and admired fine dining establishments in the state.
The Painted Lady in Newberg is Oregon’s only Forbes four star and AAA Four Diamond dining restaurant.
Recipe – Local produce, a great wine list and a highly rated seasonal menu with Victorian aesthetics.
Bellhop Restaurant in Corvallis prides itself on creating farm to table food with locally sourced ingredients. Can’t beat them for comfort food at its best.
If you have time to plan a bit in advance, don’t miss Dinners in the Field. Attendees are greeted by a glass of wine and given a tour of the farm before relaxing into six courses celebrating locally farm- grown produce and wine. Since 2014, dinners have even been offered March through December, with “barn dinners” during inclement-weather months.
Tina’s – Located within the Dundee area, a seasonal menu but with more New American-style cuisine in an intimate setting complete with a fireplace.
Community Plate – If you’re looking for an up-beat atmosphere, this restaurant offers great beer and cocktails in addition to a great wine list. Great for American style breakfast and lunch plates at modest price points.
Lane County & Southern Willamette visitors can play Pinot Bingo which includes 12 “pairing” locations. Visitors playing Pinot Bingo can get up to 3 “pairings” stamps on their cards, so it’s a great method for exploring the culinary scene by grabbing breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout a wine tour in the valley.
Also in Eugene, French-inspired Marche is an excellent option for any meal. Farm to table is no fad with head chef and owner Stephanie Pearl Kimmel, who is a James Beard Award nominee. Marche is also an Oregon Wine A List restaurant.
The Oregon Electric Station is a gorgeous choice that offers top-rate service with a great party menu, fun bar and historic environment in the lobby of a 1910 Oregon train station.
How to Get Around Willamette Valley
Local experts – myself as well – recommend renting a car to get from Portland into Willamette.
Renting a car is also a great method of transportation if you want the freedom to explore this beautiful region. From boutique wineries tucked away in the hills, to fantastic photo opportunities road-side, having flexibility is nice here.
However, if you’re new to the area and/or have a low tolerance, it’s best to consider hiring a tour company as you’ll likely catch a decent buzz throughout your trek. Regional guides also note that using services such as Uber and Lyft are not worth relying on given that their presence hasn’t really permeated the region just yet.
If you’re touring Lane County or South Willamette Valley — visitors are encouraged to drive by rental car from Benton Lane on the north end to Chateau Lorane at the very south end. The entire route only takes about 50 minutes, and the drive through the rolling hills is beautiful.
If your entire crew wants to taste through the trip there are several great wine tour options as well.
Other Things to Incorporate into Your Willamette Valley Itinerary
There are a plethora of things to do and places to see away from wine tasting in Willamette:
- Olive Oil tasting is also favorite thing to do for both locals and new-comers.
- Oregon Olive Mill is the only Oliotecca within the entirety of the Pacific Northwest which can be found at Red Ridge Farms.
- The Evergreen Space Museum
- Downtown Shopping in McMinnville
- Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose in McMinnville
- Housed in the Evergreen Aviation Museum, home to an amazing array of historically significant aircraft
- Wings & Waves Waterpark – Oregon’s largest indoor waterpark. Look for the 747 on the roof, and try out the 4 waterslides indoors.
- Biking Riding
- Live Music
- Lawrence Art Galley
- Live Theater
- Listen to Speakers at Linfied College
Tips for Planning and Touring Willamette Valley
If you’re traveling on a budget and/or looking to keep costs down – consider visiting some of sub-apellations that are off the beaten path. Elk Cove and Kramer tend to have lower cost tastings and tours.
Tasting fees are typically comped when you purchase bottles of wine, and you can also get case discounts.
Try to book your flight out of Willamette Valley with Alaska Airlines. They have a program dubbed “Wines Fly Free,” where travelers who are part of the Alaska Mileage program can put wine in their checked baggage and not be charged a baggage fee.
Wineries throughout Willamette can be very spread out. Do your research ahead of time and calculate distances with Google Maps.
Pack rain jackets for your visit. Depending on the time of year, it’s recommended that these jackets are relatively heavy as the rain can come down hard.
Expect to taste more Pinot Noir than you ever have (it’s the regions #1 grape variety).
Willamette Valley offers a friendly, laid-back atmosphere. A stark contrast from a region such as Napa Valley.
Don’t load your itinerary with too many tours. Local somms recommend taking your time, relaxing and walking the area to get a feel for the local vibe. Willamette is a place to relax and take a load off. Leave your stress at home.
Visiting Red Ridge Farms is also ideal if you’re looking for a place to stay and want to incorporate Olive Oil Tasting.
Jeff Knapp notes that many wineries throughout the region will offer complimentary tours with a paid wine tasting arranged in advance. You can also get tasting refunds if you choose to purchase a bottle at many of the wineries or tasting rooms.
Holiday Weekends, such as Memorial Day weekend and Thanksgiving are popular for tourists. During these weekends, a number of small production, boutique wineries only open their doors to tourists on those dates.
Many wineries allow visitors to walk between the vines. Wear shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty or muddy.
In terms of what to wear — layers of clothing are a good idea as chilly mornings can ultimately turn into beautiful, warm afternoons.
Touring Willamette’s main concept is “slow travel.” Take time to smell the vines, relax and enjoy the moment. The “small town” feel here is special. Jeff notes that there’s often a good chance the person sitting at the table across from you made the wine you’re drinking. Don’t be afraid to start a conversation, ask questions and put a smile on your face!