Willamette Valley in Oregon is quickly becoming one of the most note-worthy New World wine regions in the world. Not only is Willamette Valley a great region to go wine tasting (especially for Pinot Noir), it also offers a landscape of sheer rustic beauty, great cuisine and a laid-back atmosphere.
In addition, it’s only a short one-hour drive from PDX (Portland Airport — recently ranked best airport in the United States). Vintners throughout Willamette have been known to casually greet travelers at their cellar doors and welcome them inside for private tastings and tours.
For 2016, Willamette Valley also earned the prestigious title of Wine Region of the Year from Wine Enthusiast.
If I haven’t already sold you on a visit, we’ll highlight several more reasons throughout this article as to why Willamette Valley wine country should be next on your list of epic travel destinations to visit.
A Brief Overview of the Willamette Valley AVA
Willamette is the largest AVA within Oregon. It spans over 5,000 square miles and is wedged between the Oregon Coast mountain range and the Cascade Mountains. Over 500 wineries reside within the official boundaries of the AVA.
The positioning of the Valley offers ideal and consistent terroir for growing wine grapes. During the summer, temperatures rarely rise above 90 degrees, and the mountains help shield the valley from excessive moisture. During the winter months, the weather is not excessively cool, but rather mild and somewhat wet.
The Pinot Noir is Fantastic in Willamette Valley
Pinot Noir is one of those grape varieties that is notoriously difficult to grow. It requires cool climate growing conditions, constant oversight and is vulnerable to a number of diseases and rot. However, if done correctly, it can be one of the most delightful red wine varietals to drink.
Vintners throughout the Willamette Valley have discovered that this grape has the potential to thrive thanks to both the climate and overall Terroir throughout the region.
According to Willamette Valley Vineyards:
“The history of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Wine Region is a story of climate, soil, craft and culture. All these elements converge in a “perfect storm” for world-class Pinot Noir.
The Willamette Valley’s rich soils are the beneficiaries of massive Ice Age floods called the Missoula Floods. Geologists estimate some 40 floods between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago left up to 200 feet of rich fertile sediment on the Willamette Valley floor and hillsides, according to John Eliot Allen and Marjorie Burns’ Cataclysms on the Columbia, a noted book on the subject. “
In addition to the Valley residing along the 45th parallel — considered the most ideal positioning for growing wine grapes around the world — 50% of wine making operations throughout the regional are certified sustainable. While sustainability is an ideal practice for making wine while remaining environmentally conscious, you’ll also find predominantly hard-crafted and artisanal efforts throughout the Valley. All of this further enhances the quality of Pinot Noir throughout the region.
Ride on Horseback Through the Vineyards
While walking, driving and sampling wine throughout Willamette Valley is a treat in and of itself, certain vineyards and tour companies offer another mode of tourism — horseback riding between the vines. Equestrian Wine Tours offers an experience unlike any other. Travel through a number of vineyards along your horse-drawn trail, along with stops throughout the Coastal Mountain Range and even a chance to trot along the Pacific Shoreline and beach.
Here’s an overview of what you can expect on a Willamette wine tour with Equestrian:
“Enjoy all Oregon has to offer by horseback, complete with wine tastings and beach riding. During this riding tour in the Pacific Northwest you will stay in comfortable inns starting in the burgeoning wine country of Willamette Valley, and continue through the Coastal Range mountains to end on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. This is a point-to-point ride that has both adventure and luxury with wine tastings and riding through vineyards, ascending forested mountain trails, and galloping on the beach! The hosts and their horses provide a unique European feel while still maintaining the west coast sense of adventure.”
The Landscape Throughout Willamette is Beautiful
Oregon is one of those states that offers a complete adventure. A location that affords you the ability to experience the coastline with epic beachheads beset beneath dramatic cliff faces, to lush greenland, vineyards and farms. But it doesn’t stop there. Explore two unique and famous mountain ranges — the Coastal Range and the Cascade Mountains. In addition, explore rivers, streams and rich valleys replete with wildlife, wildflowers and fantastic fishing.
Lastly, in some of the more remote regions of Willamette, the clarity of stargazing opportunities are indescribable.
The Food Is Great
Farm-to-table and sustainable practices are an overall theme throughout Willamette. In addition, you can find restaurant owners who have since relocated from famous regions such as Napa Valley in an attempt to pair their recipes with the fine wine emanating from Oregon.
Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal explains:
“In almost everything—from wineries to hotels to dining locales—travelers will find a disarming lack of pretension. Take, for example, my first meal. Hidden among the many shopping plazas in Newberg, a key wine town and one of the northernmost in the valley, the Dos Mundos Food Cart came highly recommended.
When I arrived in the pawnshop parking lot, chef-owner Jesus Hernandez was in the middle of making lunch—a spice-laden menu of tacos, burritos and larger plates. I chose the fish tacos, which were perfectly cooked and replete with vegetables. Mr. Hernandez worked in the kitchens of famous Napa Valley restaurants such as Redd and Martini House before moving to Oregon four years ago, and said he preferred the Willamette Valley because its towns were “calm and small.” He found plenty of appreciative customers; open Monday to Saturday, Dos Mundos often closes early because everything has sold out.”
Watch Falconers Take Care of the Vines
As opposed to employing pesticides throughout their vineyards, wine producers such as Soter Vineyards employ falconers to maintain their properties and vines by eliminating pests in a unique and sustainable fashion. Falcons are a reliable resource and are adept at keeping the migratory birds coming from the South at bay. Witness this practical method of vineyard preservation and these beautiful birds first hard on your next visit.
Wine Tasting in Willamette Valley Can Be Cheaper Than You Think
Because Pinot Noir is such a difficult grape to grow, artisanal and sustainable practices can cost a pretty penny, and therefor tasting costs in some cases can be around $25.
However, it all comes down to what kind of experience you’re looking for. If you want to experience a luxurious, relatively tightly-packed itinerary with private tastings and occasionally a private tour (some with reservations required), you may be spending a little bit more than if you opted to venture into the hills and meet up with some artisanal operations. Our friend Heels First Travel plotted an itinerary of this nature on a Willamette Tour last year.
If you’re wine tasting on a budget, however, remember that the Willamette Valley plays host to upwards of 500 wineries. It’s a big place, and if you plot the right itinerary it can be remarkably affordable. As Dirt Cheap Wine Country notes, plot your route further South in the valley and explore some of the more remote wineries to get the best deals. You’d be surprised that when you stumble on a remote cellar door, you might even be invited to dinner.
The People Are Friendly
This is largely evident just by the sustainable practices employed by the vineyards throughout Willamette. In addition, the region is dotted with small towns where “hustle-and-bustle” is a nonexistent concept. People move more slowly here, they live from a mindful perspective and take the time to not only produce great wine, but wonderful food and conversation as well. Be sure you explore the Willamette Valley with an open mind and open heart, and you’ll feel right at home amongst the locals.