There’s something special about visiting the place where you grew up.Adam and I often marvel about how different our hometowns feel when we have the chance to return to them, how the streets feel a little smaller than they did when we were younger. Some buildings look like they have been frozen in time, and others have been repainted, remodeled, or dismantled. It’s occasionally hard to balance the experiences we have as adults with those we remember having as kids. For me, I always feel a slight sense of bewilderment at how times have changed as I drive from my hometown into Boston. I got my license just before graduating from high school, so while I was no stranger to spending days in the city, I was never the one behind the wheel. When we visit Adam’s hometown near Portland, Oregon, we drive along the roads to which he was no stranger in high school and college—but now they lead us to wineries.
Oregon is a unique place, and by extension Oregon wine is unique, too. More than 1,000 vineyards grow grapes that more than 700 wineries use to produce some truly exceptional wines. While Oregon wine is popping up on restaurant menus and in wine stores around the country, and even the world, the best place to try it is on its home turf. The beautiful Willamette Valley makes it easy for Portland tourists to spend a day wine tasting; just an hour outside of the city, tasting menus provide proof that magic grows from the soil—and talented winemakers know just what to do with it.
If you’re thinking of a wine tasting vacation, or if you’re in need of a great day trip from Portland, here are a few of the wineries where you can try some of the best Oregon wine.
Oregon Wine: An Introduction to Pinot Noir
To understand Oregon wine, you must first understand Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir is a fickle grape. With a very thin skin, the grapes grow in tightly-packed pinecone-shaped clusters; in fact, its name is derived from the French words for pine and black. The dark grapes don’t make it easy on winemakers. Their growing season is short, and they require very specific climactic conditions in order to thrive. Pinot Noir grapes display a sensitivity to heat, so they prefer cooler climates. Soil conditions are important, too; sandy soil just won’t work as well as a soil richer in minerals and nutrients. The grapes are also sensitive to moisture; the grapes grow best in drier conditions or when good soil drainage is possible. With little room for compromise, Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult to grow.Enter Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
The Willamette Valley rises to the Pinot Noir’s challenge when it comes to climate conditions. Oregon’s summers aren’t traditionally as hot as they are elsewhere in the USA, or even the rest of the world, which means soil temperatures have an easier time getting into their most supportive range. The region’s volcanic soil provides the nutrient and mineral-rich structure Pinot Noir loves. Although Oregon has a well-deserved reputation for rainy days, the summers are typically dry, which coincides nicely with the grape’s growing season. By the time the rains pick up in autumn the grapes are already harvested. The trifecta of great temperatures, enriching soil, and just enough moisture have elevated the Willamette Valley’s profile, and that’s why some of the best Oregon Wine you can find comes from that area.
When it comes to Pinot Noir, most wines are light-colored, light to medium-bodied, and full of red fruits like cherries, raspberries, and blackberries. They tend to be easy to drink and easy to pair with food, which makes them a fan favorite and a great introductory red for people who primarily enjoy white wines. As we learned during our California wine road trip, Pinot Noirs have become enormously popular thanks to the movie Sideways—while Merlots fell out of favor, Pinot Noir became synonymous with “wine snobs” and those who aspire to find and enjoy truly well-made wines.
This quick clip showcases what makes the Willamette Valley such an incredible wine region.
Wineries to Visit in the Willamette Valley
Over the years Adam and I have visited numerous tasting rooms to try Oregon wine. Each visit has contributed to our appreciation of Oregon wine and Pinot Noirs, and we often find ourselves putting our suitcases (and TSA’s patience!) to the test as we struggle to safely fit the bottles we buy into our checked luggage. If you are trying to narrow down your choices, here are a few of the wineries we love.
► Domaine SerenePlenty of people dream of owning a winery, but Ken and Grace Evenstad turned their dream into a reality when they relocated to Oregon to grow and produce Pinot Noir wines. They achieved far more than just making great wine; they played an instrumental role in creating Oregon’s luxury wine industry. Today, Domaine Serene focuses on Pinot Noir as well as Chardonnay; Chardonnay grapes are related to Pinot Noir grapes, and it is common to find them growing (well!) together. The tasting experience is unquestionably lavish; from the moment you walk through the doors of the tasting room that overlooks the sprawling vineyard until the last sip of wine is gone, you’ll feel like you are part of something very special.
Our tasting included a rosé, a Chardonnay, two Pinot Noirs, and a Syrah/Pinot Noir blend. The 2016 Les Tourelles Montagny Premier Cru Chardonnay had notes of honeysuckle and the creamy quality many Chardonnay drinkers love. The 2015 Yamhill Cuvée Pinot Noir offered every bit of the red fruits a good Pinot Noir should have, and it was one of the more easy-to-drink wines we sampled. As a fan of blends, I wasn’t surprised that my favorite of the day was the 2015 Grand Cheval, which combines Syrah and Pinot Noir into a delightfully tannic wine featuring blackberries and even a bit of cocoa on the nose and palate. When it comes to Oregon wine, Domaine Serene has certainly elevated the profile of what excellent wine should be.
More Information: DomaineSerene.com
► Winter’s HillOregon’s Dundee Hills is home to Winter’s Hill, a beautiful vineyard that focuses on sustainability just as much as it does producing excellent wine. Since the first vines were planted in 1990, Winter’s Hill has expended to include 35 acres of vineyards on the property. At the tasting bar a quick glance around you will showcase the winery itself; between sips we had the chance to see some of the tools and technology used to produce wine. The tasting experience is educational and a lot of fun; we had a chance to try (and retry!) a few outstanding wines.
We started with the 2016 Ninebark Sparking wine, a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. The wine is loaded with citrus and melon flavors, and it’s a great Oregon wine with a celebratory feel. We also loved the 2015 Pinot Gris Reserve, which is fermented in stainless steel (no oaky flavors here!) with more of the melon notes we loved in the sparkling wine. Of the three Pinot Noirs we tried it was the 2012 Pinot Noir Dundee Hills that rose above the rest—a difficult feat in a field of great Oregon wine! With lots of red fruit like cherries and raspberries, the wine had all of the characteristics we love in a truly well-made Pinot Noir.
As another reminder that a wine tasting experience can be truly special, Winter’s Hill offers roasted Oregon hazelnuts instead of traditional crackers to snack on between sips. They are a great palate cleanser, but you may find eating just one at a time isn’t possible!
More Information: WintersHillWine.com
► Carlton Winemakers Studio
If you are short on time or hoping to sample Oregon wine from as many winemakers as possible during your visit to the Willamette Valley, Carlton Winemakers Studio is a great stop to add to your itinerary. In fact, it could be the only stop you need to make.
As a cooperative winery, Carlton Winemakers Studio features an innovative tasting experience that allows visitors to try wines from multiple winemakers from the region. Instead of a more traditional experience where you may try multiple wines from one vineyard and winemaker, Carlton Winemakers Studio pours wine from 15 different wineries. The cooperative gives winemakers a convenient, sustainable way to make and showcase their wines at the same time it allows visitors to enjoy multiple winemaking styles without having to trek from vineyard to vineyard. Featured wineries change, which means the tasting menu is as fluid as the wine they offer. Carlton Winemakers Studio is a great stop on an Oregon wine tasting day, especially if you are hoping to sample wines from up-and-coming or smaller producers.
More Information: WinemakersStudio.com
► Domaine DrouhinWith more than a century of strong connections to French winemaking traditions, Domaine Drouhin—and especially Robert Drouhin, the third member of the family to operate the winemaking business—helped to establish Oregon’s dominance as a producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Drouhin recognized the similarities in growing conditions between France and Oregon, and Domaine Drouhine emerged as both a champion of Oregon wine and a leader in quality winemaking. The tasting experience is a fantastic introduction to exceptional Oregon wine, and our visit allowed us the chance to chat with their team about what makes Oregon wine special as we relaxed outside.
Our tasting included five wines: two Chardonnays and three Pinot Noirs. The 2016 Roserock Chardonnay was our favorite of the Chardonnays; with a hint of summer fruits like peaches and pears and just a touch of floral notes, the wine wasn’t overly oaky like the wines that give Chardonnay a bad name. The Pinot Noirs stole the show; we especially loved the 2015 DDO Dundee Hills Pinot Noir that prominently featured dark cherries and pepper, giving it an elegant spiciness that lingered on the finish. We ended up with a bottle of the final wine we tried, the 2015 DDO Pinot Noir Laurène. 2015 was a great year for Oregon wine, and the Pinot Noir Laurène features notes of flowers, blueberries, and even a bit of citrus. The 2014 vintage was served at a White House state dinner for French President Emmanauel Macron. When you think about it, a French wine produced in the USA and served to the president of France suggests the wine must be of the highest caliber—and one sip confirms that it most certainly is.
More Information: DomaineDrouhin.com
► Maysara Winery
Owned by the Momtazi family, Maysara was one of the first wineries we visited in Oregon and one of the first great introductions we had to Oregon wine. You won’t find chemicals used within the vineyard; Maysara maintains a firm commitment to growing healthy, sustainable vines without external additives that might impact the grapes. The wines reflect the kind of purity you can only achieve when you focus on using and reusing what the land offers. The tasting experience is an extension of the commitment to get the very best possible from the land, and we were cheerfully greeted and welcomed as we tasted some of the wines available.
Our tasting included a great Pinot Blanc that balanced acidity and a definite minerality from the soil with summer fruits to create a nice, drinkable white wine. We also loved the Jamsheed Pinot Noir, with the characteristic blackberries and even a bit of pepper on the finish. Our favorite of the day was the 3 Degrees Pinot Noir, an earthy, tannic red that we found easy to drink and felt reflective of both the acreage around us and the family’s focus on quality. Oregon wine is certainly made the right way at Maysara Winery.
More Information: Maysara.com
Oregon Wine Tasting Tips
If you are planning an Oregon wine tasting day trip, here are a few tips we have picked up that might help you make the most of your day.Prepare for Pinot. I remember being surprised by just how many Pinot Noirs I tried during my first Oregon wine tasting trip. Every tasting menu heavily favored—or sometimes exclusively offered—Pinot Noir, and aside from the occasional Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc we found very little diversity. Pinot Noir is king in Oregon, and if you only drink white wine or aren’t a fan of Pinot Noir you may find little to your liking in the Willamette Valley. Pinot Noir is an exceptionally drinkable wine, even for those who prefer white wine, so there’s a good chance you will find one you really enjoy. And don’t be surprised when you discover not all Pinots are created equally! Each of them has different characteristics and flavors that create a unique profile, which means even multiple Pinot Noirs from the same winemaker may taste very different. It’s a great way to see just how talented a winemaker can be!
Do a price check. We find wine tastings to be pricey in Oregon, and part of that is the Pinot Noir’s fault. As a challenging grape that requires a significant amount of love and care, it can be very expensive to produce—and prices are often reflective of that fact. Wine tastings average around 20 USD per person, and some were as expensive as 40 USD per person. Check to see how much a tasting will be at the wineries you plan to visit so you can budget accordingly. One great way to get the most for your money is to split a tasting with someone; you may get fewer sips to yourself, but you will taste enough to find a favorite wine or two!
Find a designated driver. The Willamette Valley does not have a public transportation network that connects to Portland, so visiting wineries will likely mean renting a car. Be sure to pick a designated driver for your day trip. Whether you sign up for a wine tasting tour or ask a friend to chauffer you between tastings, safety is key and should be your number one priority—even before having fun and trying great Oregon wine.
After Oregon Wine: A Few More Spots to Consider
When you have had your fill of the wineries, here are a few more spots to consider adding to your itinerary:
► The Spruce GooseLocated at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum and not far from the Willamette Valley’s wineries, the Spruce Goose (also known as the Hughes H-4 Hercules) is the largest wooden airplane ever built. Although it only flew once—and for only one mile—it remains a big part of the USA’s aviation history. Designed by Howard Hughes during World War II during a time when there were major restrictions on typical building materials, the Spruce Goose was an attempt to construct a different kind of plane. Its size played a role in why it only left the ground once, but its legacy lives on. The museum is worth a visit in between or after your visit to the wineries.
More Information: EvergreenMuseum.org
► Columbia River Gorge
If you are looking for some different wines to try, consider trekking to the Columbia River Gorge for a day or two at some more exceptional wineries. We had a great day exploring the Columbia River Gorge; combined with stops at Multnomah Falls and the Maryhill Stonehenge Memorial, a visit to the Gorge is a terrific way to combine wine tasting and nature.
Oregon Wine in the Willamette Valley: Where to Stay
There are plenty of hotels in the Willamette Valley and Portland is a great place to start your trip. We usually find the best deals on Booking.com; take a look below at what hotels are available during your visit.
Enjoy Oregon Wine!
There are some real benefits to getting older, and finding new ways to experience the world is my favorite reason to appreciate every new day. Our visit to the Willamette Valley and our day sipping Oregon wine was the perfect way to learn about Pinot Noir. It’s easy to see why the region has earned its international reputation for wine quality.
If you plan to visit Portland, spend a day in the Willamette Valley and try Oregon wine for yourself. Leave a comment below and let us know if you stop into any of our favorite wineries—and be sure to tell us about the wineries you discover during your travels!
Do you love exploring new wine regions when you travel? Here are a few more posts to check out!
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. This post includes our candid review of our experiences at various locations in Oregon. We selected these locations based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.