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Willamette Valley

A taste of Burgundy in rural Oregon

Mount Hood stands tall over Willamette Valley and its rows of grapevines, many of which are the famed Pinot Noir.
Willamette Valley
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Tim Fish

While Pinot Noir lovers have been trekking to Oregon’s rural northern Willamette Valley for years, upscale travelers have typically made the visit a day trip from Portland, where the hotels and restaurants provide more luxury. Fortunately, times are changing.

Today, northern Willamette is expanding in culinary breadth, as well as approaching its inspiration, France’s Burgundy, in wine focus. There are now enough restaurants to keep wine lovers busy for days, and with the arrival of a high-end boutique inn, the region has come into its own as a fine-wine destination.

Willamette Valley covers a lot of ground—at 5,200 square miles, it’s the sixth-largest American Viticultural Area—but the hotbed for Pinot Noir is the relatively compact north valley. Several big-name producers are there, including Domaine Drouhin, Archery Summit, Beaux Frères, Domaine Serene and Argyle.

The mostly two-lane Highway 99W is the main artery, rambling over waves of hills and past old farmhouses and thick groves of hardwood and pine on a 45-minute drive from Portland. The Cascade mountain range and snowcapped Mount Hood loom in the east as the road finds its way through a series of small towns, including Newberg, Dundee, Dayton and McMinnville. Dundee (population 3,050) is the logical base from which to tour; from there, anything worth doing is no farther than a 30-minute drive.

Dundee may not look like much on the map, but it’s no longer “just a bump in the road,” which was how native Doug Tunnell, owner and winemaker of Brick House, used to describe it. Small luxury accommodations have settled in as well as restaurants focused on quality, seasonal cuisine, many using local ingredients.

Decent accommodations, mostly chain motels, have come to Newberg and McMinnville over the years, but one standout is the Black Walnut Inn just outside Dundee. A modern Mediterranean-style villa, the inn is set on 42 hillside acres facing vineyards, orchards and a mountain range to the east.

Neal and Karen Utz built this seven-room bed-and-breakfast, and son Kris Utz, a graduate of the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, is the resident chef and innkeeper. The rooms are large, and the decor blends contemporary elegance with a well-heeled country coziness. Most of the rooms have dramatic views and private decks or patios.

With the Black Walnut Inn nearby, it’s even easier to explore the small but dynamic dining enclave that is Dundee. Three of the region’s best restaurants—Tina’s, the Dundee Bistro and Red Hills Provincial Dining—are within a mile of one another. Tina’s is the favored hangout for vintners, particularly at lunchtime, although it’s almost impossible to eat at any of these three restaurants without bumping into a winemaker. There’s an easy grace to the decor and food at Tina’s, a poised hominess that not only goes well with wine but also turns customers into friends. The Dundee Bistro has one of the valley’s best-known wine families behind it, the Ponzis, and it’s a fashionable little den that focuses on seasonal local ingredients. Red Hills Provincial Dining features the finest wine list in the area and a menu of hearty dishes inspired by European cuisines.

Tunnell grew up in the area and is amazed at the changes he’s seen in Willamette Valley. “There were no wineries and there were no vineyards,” he says. “It was just wheat and orchards. Dundee was the capital of hazelnuts.” Tunnell developed a taste for wine while working as a CBS newsman in Europe. He recalls when he first heard, in the mid-’80s, that Robert Drouhin had bought land in Dundee: “I said, ‘Are you kidding? My Dundee?’”

The arrival of Domaine Drouhin in the 1980s may have been responsible for focusing the wine world’s eye on Willamette Valley, but the local wine industry had its beginnings in 1966, when David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards planted his first Pinot Noir vines. Erath, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser, Elk Cove, Adelsheim and others soon followed.

The industry has matured along a bumpy path, but Willamette Valley has become a world-class wine region in the process. “In Oregon, there are no two vintages that are even remotely close to being the same,” says Argyle's Rollin Soles. Willamette grapes struggle most years to get enough heat and sunlight, and vintners race to beat the fall rains. But vineyard management has changed dramatically in the past decade, and new clones have made it easier for growers to harvest ripe, mature-tasting fruit.

Willamette Valley became an AVA in 1983, but in the past few years, six subappellations have been approved: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton District. The area certainly has a distinctive terroir.

As you plan your days in Willamette, be sure to check which wineries have drop-in tastings and which require appointments. Many, such as Brick House, are appointment only. But with more than 250 wineries to choose from in the region, wine tourists can be kept busy for days on just a walk-in basis.

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