Spring is the start of an exodus of urbanites fleeing — for a few days at a time — the congestion of cities as they head for rural roads that lead to respites in idyllic territory. Increasingly, farm country in North America is being rebranded as wine country. Few destinations on the continent offer the mix of charm, value, convenience, and quality as the Willamette Valley.
The viticulture region known as Oregon Wine Country begins about one hour by car south of Portland and boasts more than 500 wineries. They’re spread across a deep stretch of territory surrounded by Cascade Mountains and dotted with attractive towns and small cities. One of the most lovely is McMinnville. Its historic 3rd Street is the focal point for what is sure to be a pleasant visit that reveals the appeal of the wine region. McMinnville has artisan shops and boutiques as well as wine bars and wine-tasting rooms — including six on 3rd Street alone — where visitors will be able to sample some of the Pinot Noir for which the Willamette Valley is renowned. More than 250 wineries are within a 20-mile radius of McMinnville and well-regraded restaurants in town champion them. Thistle, located on the ground floor of a vintage home, is a good choice to get to know the flavors of the Willamette Valley. The restaurant, which has a reputation for stellar cocktails, fills its menu with ingredients sourced from Oregon’s farmers and fishermen.
Perhaps the most enchanting business in McMinnville is the city’s lovely new boutique hotel, The Atticus. Owned by local entrepreneurs and dedicated to celebrating the wine region, The Atticus features spacious rooms and decor that is fitting for a stately manor house. The lobby level includes a secret blue room where private events, including wine tastings for guests, take place. Each of the property’s 36 guest rooms is unique and decorated with artwork from regional artists as well as historical items about Oregon. The dedication to its home is so fierce that even the mattresses at The Atticus are locally made.
Nearby is another treat, the Americana-inspired diner, Community Plate, serving huge breakfasts and many healthy menu options. It is a magnet for diners from McMinnville and once you have a taste you’ll be just as drawn to the flavors as the residents.
One of the Willamette Valley’s best attributes for visitors is the number of wines that can be sampled without having to drive from vineyard to vineyard. Along with tasting rooms in towns like McMinnville, there is also a one-stop shop for more than a dozen of Oregon’s smallest, most innovative wineries. Carlton Winemakers Studio is only a few minutes away from downtown Carlton, a cute little town home to good restaurants and what may be the smallest weekend farmers’ market you ever encounter. (It takes place on a little lot between two storefronts on Main Street.)
The producers operating at the winemakers studio all have access to the same equipment but they each put their personal touch on the grapes they’ve cultivated and harvested on their respective farms. A single visit will reveal the range of Oregon Pinot Noir as well as the state’s other varietals, particularly Chardonnay, whose stature is blossoming.
Like McMinnville, Carlton’s Main Street also features tasting rooms, in case the winemakers’ studio offerings weren’t satisfying enough, and a number of restaurants that are popular with locals. Take a seat at The Horse Radish for charcuterie plates and sandwiches that will satisfy your cravings.
A half-hour south of Carlton is the capital of Oregon, Salem. Although it’s larger than the tiny towns in its vicinity, it’s still small compared to Portland and Eugene, the state’s two largest cities, and that smallness gives it a sense of easygoing amiability. There’s quite a bit of quality here too. Arguably the best coffee in the area can be found at Archive, an eye-catching and inventive spot that is cafe by day, bar by night. It features towering ceilings full of book shelves, giving it the feeling of an elegant library. Among its lavish concoctions is the chilled Bee’s Knees, made with espresso, cream, honey, rosemary, lavender, black pepper, and simple syrup.
A couple of those and you’ll be re-energized enough to continue exploring Oregon Wine Country, a region that is sure to tempt you to extend your getaway from the city. There’s no doubt that the further you indulge in its richness of culture and quality, the more of it you will want.
MORE ABOUT VISITING OREGON WINE COUNTRY
Getting There: Portland International Airport is the gateway to the Willamette Valley. Once you’ve picked up your rental car at the airport kiosk, drive south on Interstate-5 toward McMinnville and Salem.
Where to Stay: The Atticus is a delightful property that achieves what a boutique hotel should, as such it is very popular and its rooms book up fast. Room rates for a weekend night are usually around $400. Website: atticushotel.com. Telephone: 1-503-472-1975.