Explore Oregon’s world-class wine region while using the valley’s charming towns as a base.
The Willamette Valley is vibrant 100-mile (160-km) stretch between Portland and Eugene that is teeming with life. There are lakes and rivers full of fish, woods full of deer and wild turkeys, orchards, vegetable farms, and mile after mile of vineyard. A farmer once told me that the ease of growing things here made him lazy. While he certainly wasn’t, the bounty of the valley is not to be understated and is at least partially responsible for Portland’s reputation as one of the US’s best food cities. But if you enjoy bucolic charm, there can be no better place to stay than in the valley itself. It’s dotted with restful little towns such as McMinnville, Newberg, Dundee, Carlton and Amity, where you’ll be able to eat well and wake up to birdsong.
The Willamette Valley is extensive. With 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres), 11 sub-AVAs, and 781 wineries, drive times can stack up. Locating yourself centrally and clustering your visits by AVA can be helpful but, depending on your needs, walkability and availability of dining options is also important. Dundee and Newberg are your most central options. However, McMinnville (where I live) offers the greatest walkability and numerous dining options. As an added bonus, on weekends during the summer months our high street is roped off to through traffic to cater to alfresco diners.
Timing your trip
Pacific Northwest winters are infamous for rain. If this is going to bother you, I recommend coming between the last week of May and the first week of October. If you decide you’d rather come in off-season, pack your raincoat and your wellies.
While there are a number of wine events in Willamette Valley that are worth checking on, there’s one which could merit planning your whole trip around. The International Pinot Noir Celebration takes place at Linfield University in McMinnville during the last weekend in July (tickets are on sale now and sell out EARLY – buy them now). Started in 1987, the event has grown to accommodate around 1000 attendees each year. Pinot Noir winemakers of all types (rosé, still and sparkling) fly in from around the world to pour their wine and to sit on educational panels. The official start to the event is Friday morning (though pre-IPNC dinners can be bought for Thursday night). Each day starts with an elaborate breakfast spread, followed by classes taught by the best speakers one could hope for (Jancis was MC in 2009) visits to wineries, and lunches and dinners catered by star regional chefs. If $1,695 for two days is too much but you’d like to taste the wines, the $150 walk-around tasting on Sunday provides you with that opportunity. If you’re just there for the party, an outdoor dinner and don’t mind a more eclectic selection of wines, the $250 Salmon Bake ticket on Saturday night is what you’re looking for.
The Oregon Chardonnay Celebration takes place at the end of February (the next version is scheduled for 24 and 25 February 2023) and is hosted at the Allison Inn and Spa. While the scope isn’t international, the line-up of Oregon Chardonnay producers is impressive and it is well worth attending if you’ll be close by (I profiled it here). The website currently has information about this year’s event but I am told it will be updated with new details when the tickets go on sale this month.
Getting there and around
You’ll fly into Portland International Airport.
Getting to the Willamette Valley is a touch tricky. Portland’s public transport south of the city can test your patience. It takes well over two hours to catch the MAX red line from the airport, connect to the blue line to Hillsboro, and then board a Yamhill County Transit bus to McMinnville, one of a handful of towns you could base out of.
Renting a car and putting together your own agenda (the Willamette Valley Wineries Association has a map of wineries here) is an option but makes drinking dangerous. If you decide on this, know that spittoons are available at every winery, just ask. Another possibility is to hire a driver or tour company to pick you up, drive you around and drop you at your accommodation in the Willamette Valley. Many of these companies will even schedule the winery visits for you.
Wine-O-Palooza does an excellent job coordinating wine-tasting tours or simply taking you to the wineries you’d like to visit. They have a five-hour minimum, charge per hour, and can accommodate up to four guests in their ‘Pinot Prius’ or up to seven in their ‘Chardonnay Shuttle’. Tel: +1 (503) 864-7133
Where to stay
On the very edge of Newberg, well away from downtown, Allison Inn and Spa was the first luxury accommodation in the Willamette Valley and remains the most comprehensive. It is an excellent option for those who like everything they need to be in one location. They have a wonderful restaurant called Jory, offer a full menu of spa services and private yoga classes, can arrange biking, golf, equestrian tours, hot-air balloon rides, winery visits, and often schedule live music at the hotel. However, the property has, like most resorts, tucked itself away from the rest of the world. You’ll need to plan ahead for outings. 2525 Allison Ln, Newberg, OR; tel: +1 (877) 294-2525
If you want a charming, walkable area with cute shops and many dining options, head to McMinnville. The Atticus Hotel is located downtown and has the best service of any hotel I have been to. Employees are warm, gregarious, and staff turnover seems refreshingly low. Depending on the time of day, the front desk will likely greet you with a glass of bubbly or the offer of a cappuccino. Fireplaces in every room, local tea and coffee, and proximity to the bookstore make this gem especially attractive in winter months. As well as having its own excellent restaurant, it’s close to numerous dining options and has bikes available if your journey is more than a few blocks. 375 NE Ford St, McMinnville, OR; tel: +1 (503) 472-1975
If you’re staying for longer, the Atticus’s sister property, Third Street Flats, has lovely self-service, pet-friendly flats. 219 NE Cowls St, McMinnville, OR; tel: +1 (503) 857-6248
Apart from these three properties, the Willamette Valley Wineries Association has several recommendations for accommodations.
Where to eat
If you’ve decided to base yourself in the charming town of McMinnville, wake up and head to Flag and Wire for locally roasted coffee and a rotating selection of pastries stocked by Ø Horizon Provisions. Open seven days a week, these folks have the best coffee in town. 755 NE Alpine Ave, Suite 100, McMinnville, OR; tel: +1 (503) 857-8066
If you’re looking for a heartier breakfast, also in McMinnville, Community Plate serves classic American breakfast and lunch all day. From homemade breads and jams, eggs your way, biscuits and gravy, and buttermilk pancakes, this food will give you the stamina to keep tasting. 315 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, OR; tel: +1 (503) 687-1902
If you’ve hit the road early to taste in Yamhill-Carlton AVA, or are staying in Carlton, Carlton Bakery has crusty bread and pillowy pastries. Get any of their toasts or sandwiches. They’re open for lunch too. 245 W Main St, Carlton, OR; tel: +1 (503) 852-6687
If you’re looking to grab a bite on your way to tastings in the more southernly Eola-Amity Hills AVA, The Common Cup, tucked into a shared space on the main road, is your spot for waffles and strong coffee. A word to the wise, leave yourself at least half an hour if you’re ordering food, this is a local thoroughfare and people like to linger and chat. 516 S Trade St #103, Amity, OR; tel: +1 (971) 261-9592
Lunch is a meal to plan for in the Willamette Valley. The distance between wineries means that you can end up far from any decent restaurant. Depending on where you plan to be, you may want to schedule your afternoon tasting at a winery that offers either light food pairings with their wines, such as Soter Vineyards or Antica Terra (though this second one is located near dining options in Dundee), or a food menu you can order from such as the one at Brooks or Left Coast Cellars.
If these wineries aren’t on your list, ring your afternoon appointment and see if you can picnic on their lawn, then swing by Mac Market in McMinnville and pick up a sandwich, a thick slab of Detroit style pizza, or a grain salad. This expansive warehouse space also has one of the best dinners in McMinnville with an inspired cocktail selection and hyper-seasonal dishes. 1140 NE Alpine Ave, McMinnville, OR; tel: +1 (503) 687-3606
If you happen to be in Dundee or passing through with plenty of time on your hands, there are two excellent lunch options. Red Hills Market has been a favourite since they opened in 2011. Sandwiches, soups, salads and wood-fired pizzas are all top quality, and the wine and beer selections are filled with Pacific Northwest gems. You can order from a limited carry-out menu to grab on your way to your next destination but it’s worth remembering that even take-out needs to be ordered in advance if you’re in a hurry. 155 SW 7th St, Dundee, OR; tel: +1 (971) 832-8414
Trellis is best enjoyed on property. Down the street from Red Hills Market, they too have a variety of sandwiches that you could, technically, order to go … but then you would miss the oysters, clams, and cheese-topped fries to start your meal. The wines offered by the glass are almost entirely Pacific Northwest and the list is excellent at featuring new small producers. If you like duck, the duck confit salad can’t be beat. 110 OR-99W, Dundee, OR; tel: +1 (503) 538-1716
In 2021, Evan Martin of Martin Woods Winery did the wine community of Willamette Valley a favour and opened a wine bar for locals. Because many good winemakers abide by Nigel Greening’s advice ‘don’t drink your own wine’, the focus is not on local wines. And while I have yet to see New World wines outside of the US featured in any depth, they boast a strong selection of Old World wines and delicious small plates. The décor is beautiful and a bit funny, the pool table is fun (after all, how often do you get to drink an outstanding Furmint while playing pool?), and the music is always on point. For a pre-dinner glass of wine, you could hardly ask for more. As a resident and MW student, I’m to be found here on Thursdays for their two-wine blind flight. 711 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, OR; tel: +1 (503) 376-8285
If you’re done with wine for the day and would like a beer, head to the Bitter Monk. Their 16 rotating taps and street seating make it a local favourite. 250 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, OR; tel: +1 (503) 379-9559
If you listen to people in the wine industry talk about visiting McMinnville the story usually starts with, ‘We were sitting at Nick’s…’ Nick’s Italian Café has been around since 1977 and is so loved by the local wine community that Vogue called it, ‘the town’s unofficial clubhouse for local winemakers’. In 2014, the James Beard Foundation named the restaurant one of America’s Classics. The menu is crammed with local produce in Italian dishes which is fittingly complemented by a wine list that champions Oregon and Italian wines. 521 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, OR; tel: +1 (503) 434-4471
Pizza Capo started as a wood-fired oven and a pitched tent outside a brewery. Back in 2018, we harvest interns knew we were getting too good a deal. The pizzas rivalled back-alley pizza from Florence. To nobody’s surprise, when Capo moved into their own space on 3rd Street in 2019 it was a roaring success. Order whatever seasonal arancini and panzanella they have, keep the pizza simple, and grab a panna cotta for dessert. 318 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, OR; tel: +1 (503) 472-8040
Atticus Hotel’s Red Hills Kitchen is open for dinner with a classic American/European menu that includes a couple of curveballs such as duck wings in chimichurri and paella. They consistently have the best cocktails in town, an excellent selection of local and imported wine, and a library selection of their wine list. 530 NE 4th St, McMinnville, OR; tel: +1 (503) 883-9199
McMinnville’s newest edition is a restaurant called Humble Spirit. Fresh and locally focused, it’s owned by a company called The Ground which also owns both Tabula Rasa Farms and Source Farms which supply the restaurant. While the albacore confit and pork terrine are very good, I envied my table neighbours their sizeable cheeseburgers topped with a farm egg next to thick-cut fries. 411 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, OR; tel: +1 (503) 472-6148
Finally, I feel I would be remiss not to mention that Shaun Kajiwara and Katie Jackson of Jackson Family Wines recently opened both a hotel, Tributary, and restaurant, ōkta, on 3rd street. I have not been to the restaurant (prices are steep at $800 for two with wine pairings) but I’ve heard only good things. I look forward to the opening of their Cellar Bar, under ōkta, this month. I toured the hotel and, nice as it is, I feel the Atticus offers better value. That said, I’ve not had the breakfast spread from ōkta delivered to my bedroom! 610 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, OR; tel: +1 (503) 376-5200
Main image of Willamette Valley credit: Ron Kaplan.