The first thing you should know about visiting Oregon’s Willamette Valley is how to pronounce it: It’s “will-AM-et.” Rhymes with “Dammit.”
And it’s a beautiful and still developing region, offering a wide range of tasting experiences and gorgeous landscapes. We’re here to give you some basic tips for planning a trip to sample some of the best new world pinot noirs in production today.
When to go
Many producers open their tasting rooms for visitors and appointments from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Opening Day celebrations on Memorial Day weekend or “pick up” days in June and July for newly released, pre-ordered wines are a fun way to visit properties and meet winemakers. And don’t forget International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) every July—except for this one—which brings visitors to the area from all over the US and Europe for tastings and classes.
If flying to the area, Portland is the best option. The heart of the sub-appellations are at least a 45-minute drive southwest of Portland, so you’ll want a car. Plus, you’ll need transportation for getting to and from your winery visits.
Where to stay
You could stay in Portland (I’ve done it), but it’s a long commute down to Newburg, Mcminnville, and even Salem. Current headlines notwithstanding, Portland is a wonderful place to visit, with elevated cuisine and a design-forward sensibility; you’re smart to consider a day or two extra on either end of your trip.
To do wine country, choose a hotel in the area such as the Allison Inn & Spa (pricey, but a great place to make your home base) or even budget options in McMinnville like the Best Western or Red Lion Inn. The Atticus Hotel in McMinnville is a stylish newcomer with an excellent restaurant and bar. Many visitors choose from the plethora of bed and breakfasts; some are connected with wineries and offer on-the-ground insights and help with setting up visits.
Tasting rooms in the Willamette tend to be much less formal (and are much less common) than in Napa. It’s always best to email the property well in advance of your trip and schedule an appointment.
The wine growing region is quite large, and if you want to go deep it’s best to break your tastings into days, ideally based on geography. There’s an excellent map here, showing the eight major AVAs that comprise the valley.
Try one day centered around Newburg including the Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge, and Dundee Hills AVAs. Then try another one closer to Salem to cover Eola-Amity Hills and the Van Duzer Corridor.
We honestly have a hard time narrowing the choices down; the wineries of this area offer their own unique pleasures, from intimate, rustic spots like Walter Scott (currently closed, alas) to elegant, established rooms like Adelsheim. But here are a few names to know.
- Patricia Green Cellars (Yamhill-Carolton). Even since the passing of its legendary namesake, this house under winemaker Jim Anderson makes a wide range of top quality, single vineyard and estate Pinots.
- Bergström Wines (Chahalem Mountains). A classic producer, making wine here since 1999, Bergstrom is known for its high quality, ageable pinots.
- Domain Drouhin (Dundee Hills). This 235-acre estate overlooking the valley is one of the most consistent producers in the area. An outpost of the great Burgundy maker, they make no secret about their French origins.
- Cristom Vineyards (Eola-Amity Hills). The gorgeous pinots from this well-known maker can be found on better wine lists across the country. The tasting room here is newly remodeled.
- Van Duzer Vineyards (Van Duzer). The proprietors here were among the first to choose the foothills at the mouth of the windy Van Duzer Corridor to create their family estate in 1998. The AVA is less than two years old.