Wine tasting in the United States may be synonymous with California’s Napa and Sonoma, but Oregon wine country has just as much to impress – without the crowds.
I visited Oregon wine country, in the Willamette Valley, this past summer on a Pacific Northwest trip, and knew the wine-tasting area had to be on the itinerary. Indeed, what an enchanting part of the U.S it is – amidst the spectacular Pacific Northwest scenery there are lush green rolling hills and vineyards, quaint rustic towns, farm-to-table restaurants, antiquing, farm stands, and a lot of open space.
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Even in the summer, the region never felt too crowded. We were able to walk into wineries and do tastings right away, get tables at popular restaurants with hardly a wait, and wander main street without droves of people.
Oregon wine country, it would seem, is a hidden gem. But more and more people are catching on, so best go now before it explodes! With over 500 wineries and 100 miles of vineyards, there are plenty of wineries to choose from and towns to explore. Vineyards extend from about an hour south of Portland all the way down to Eugene.
Oregon wine country’s biggest claim to fame is its Pinot Noir. It’s highly regarded as having some of the best Pinot Noir in the world. So, if you’re like me and love Pinot Noir (it’s my favorite red wine), then you’ll love the Willamette Valley, for it is everywhere, at every winery. There are plenty of other wine varieties as well, so don’t distress if you’re not a Pinot fan – Riesling, Chardonnay, Syrah and more are all specialties of the region as well.
About wine tasting in Oregon wine country
There is a large selection of wineries, many of them family owned, with incredibly helpful, dedicated staff. We tried a variety of wines and noticed Oregon’s flights are considerably less expensive than a flight you might find in Napa and Sonoma. Typical Oregon flight prices range from $15-25, whereas Napa flights are almost double in price. Another reason to love Oregon wine country. We tried larger wineries, such as beautiful Brooks Winery (if you want a winery with a view, then head here) to smaller, boutique wineries such as Grochau Cellars.
Our visit to tiny Grochau Cellars was an intimate experience, where my brother and I cozied up to the bar and talked to the server for about an hour – about Oregon’s wines, suggested wineries to visit, the area, and suggestions of things to do. We were the only people there, and the kids played in an area off to the side with sofas, and the whole thing was easy and fun.
Brooks winery, on the other hand, was an entirely different experience, but just as wonderful in its own way. It’s larger and more corporate, yet never really felt too corporate. It boasts a stunning outdoor setting, with flowers and vineyards rolling off in the distance, Adirondack chairs to enjoy the view, picnic tables and a chicken coup and games for the kids to enjoy. My brother used to work in the wine business, and one of his contacts told us to go to Brooks, and we were glad for the recommendation. It was a perfectly sunny day and blue skies to spend the afternoon.
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Speaking of weather, it’s important to know that Oregon does not have gray, rainy days all year round. In the summer and fall months Oregon wine country is typically sunny and warm, while the winter has the rainy months. If you really want no people at all and zero crowds, winter is the time to go. But if you want sun and warmth like me, go in the summer – it really is not that crowded! Yes, there are people and tourists, but nothing like Napa and Sonoma.
Other wineries to consider going to (there are so many, so do your research and do what’s best for you), are: for gorgeous scenery head to Stoller Family Estate, Penner-Ash Cellars, and Elk Cove Vineyards where, like Brooks, it’s just as much about the view as it is the delicious wine. But, again, there are so many, and we only went to a few out of the many, that in the end it really depends on your personal taste and what you’re looking for in a winery.
Where we stayed in Oregon wine country – McMinnville
As far as where to stay, we loved staying in the town of McMinnville. It’s the largest, most centrally located town in Oregon wine country, giving you easy access to most wineries. Another brother of mine, who lives in Seattle, recommended it to us, and we could see why. McMinnville is like a town from another era – its old-world Americana look and vibe immediately swept us up.
3rd street, or Main street, is filled with mom and pop shops, independent bookstores, old-fashioned ice cream shops, hotels that look from a bygone era, and fabulous restaurants. This might be the biggest reason to stay in McMinnville – of all the towns in Oregon wine country, it has a plethora of excellent dining options to choose from.
McMinnville is most famous for Nick’s Italian Café, the upscale James Beard award-winning restaurant in business since 1977. Confession: we did not eat here, but by all accounts have heard the food is incredible, with homemade pastas, pizza, bread, and more. We had an amazing meal at Pura Vida Cocina, a low-key Latin American joint with some of the best flavors I had consumed in a long time. It was recommended by our Airbnb host (more on places to stay below), and it did not disappoint.
La Rambla is a lot of fun for Spanish tapas and lively atmosphere, Bistro Maison is great for French bistro, and Thistle is an excellent farm-to-table restaurant. Community Plate serves an awesome, hearty breakfast on long community style tables while the Red Fox Bakery is perfect for croissants, muffins and coffee on the go. These are just a few of the many McMinnville restaurants. Oh, and don’t forget dessert! Step into Serendipity and go back in time at this impossibly charming ice cream shop.
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Sleeping in McMinnville
We decided to go the Airbnb route, as it would be fun for the cousins, and found one of the best house rentals I’ve stayed in to date, called the MAC House. Just a few blocks from main street, with a nice, spacious layout on the inside, and front patio and backyard with fire pit on the outside. If you want the information for the MAC House, please leave a message in the comments below.
Right in town there are a few different popular options. The McMenamins Hotel, AKA Hotel Oregon, is located on Main Street and dates back to 1905. There are several rooms, including a pub and rooftop bar with hand-crafted wines, spirits and ales. Hotel Oregon is an Oregonian institution, with hotels throughout the state. If you want a historic Oregonian vibe, this is the place for you.
The upscale Atticus Hotel, located in downtown McMinnville just off Main street, is for those who want a more posh experience. Each room features a fireplace, temperature control wine fridge, local artisanal wall art and furnishings, and more.
I’ve heard great things about 3rd Street Flats, individual apartments that are all decorated differently in their own funky style. They are located on Main street and come with a kitchen, laundry machine, fireplace and toiletries.
We very much enjoyed staying in McMinnville and thought it was the perfect place to experience Oregon wine country. As a whole, the entire region was both beautiful and affordable, with fabulous food and, of course, drink. We’re already trying to figure out when we can return.