Fall in Love with Oregon’s Boozy, Laid-Back Wine Country
You don’t need to be a wine snob to have a blast in the Willamette Valley.
The vineyard-covered landscapes of Northern California have become synonymous with “wine country,” and with that fame comes a bit of notoriety. Everybody knows about Napa and Sonoma, leading to a reputation for snobbery, overcrowding, and expensive tastings. But a full immersion into US wine culture doesn’t need to be stuffy or prohibitive: You can still pair your world-class wines with a surprisingly chill experience amid rolling hills and gorgeous scenery. You just have to point your compass north.
Situated between the urban sprawl of Portland and Salem, Oregon’s Willamette Valley is a place where grape-spotted hills meet mighty evergreens and misty mountain views, all ensconced in a lush river valley just 30 minutes from Stumptown. Here, a 100-mile wine trail (vast, compared to Napa’s densely-packed 30 miles) boasts more than 25,000 acres of vines, making Oregon second only to California in terms of number of wineries. And while the Willamette is famous for its wealth of famously finicky pinot noir, you’ll also find outstanding chardonnay, pinot gris, riesling, sauvignon blanc, gamay, pinot blanc, and more.
It’s a place where hops grow like weeds, small town charms belie big city-caliber food scenes, roadside art is everywhere, and natural beauty unfolds around every bend in the road. Here’s how to best enjoy the Pacific Northwest’s boozy, laid-back, wholly unique answer to wine country.
Sip your way through one of the country’s greatest wine destinations
Of the roughly 900 wineries in Oregon, nearly 700 can be found in the Willamette Valley (the Hood River Valley to the east is another hot spot). Though the Valley is classified as one big region by the American Viticultural Area, it’s carved up into sub-regions whose varying terroir—weather, soil, altitude, etc.—results in a vast variety of flavors and styles.
Navigating the regions is surprisingly simple by car, meaning you can explore the unique flavors of the Chehalem Mountains near Southwest Portland and the Eola-Amity Hills outside Salem with relative ease. Still, it helps to have a tentative plan of attack lest you get lost in the farmland.
The first essential stop is 12-acre modern marvel Amaterra, the newest jewel in the valley’s shimmering portfolio. Currently set to open this fall in the West Hills outside Portland, the winery specializes in gravity-flow techniques, meaning it uses gravity to move wine through the different phases of production: a gentler process for the grapes and far more energy-efficient to boot.
Due west, the idyllic small town of Newberg is home to women-powered Adelsheim, the oldest winery in the Chehalem Mountains whose beautiful outdoor nooks make it a necessary visit, and Et Fille Wines, whose Champagne-style sparkling wine is a winner, though the STEM & Root Pinot Noir that raises funds for STEM education helps you feel extra philanthropic when ordering a second flight.
Next up, tiny Dundee is considered the heart of the Willamette scene. Sparkling fans should make haste to Argyle right on the main drag for flights and charcuterie. Drive into the hills looming over the town and down a seemingly sketchy gravel road to Holloran for this writer’s all-time favorite sauv blanc (so much apricot goodness). The label also produces multiple pinot noirs and rieslings from their pretty, private hilltop locale.
For a quieter taste of the Willamette, head to up-and-coming Dayton and the serene, exclusive experience of Durant’s private cabanas. The wine flight here offers a lower price point for those not in splurge mode, and with a large outdoor patio, there’s still plenty of space to spread out. Don’t forget to pick up some olive oil while you’re there: the property is also home to Oregon’s only commercial olive mill.
Nearby is another must-visit small town, McMinnville, home to the tasting room for The Eyrie Vineyards, which both the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have declared a can’t-miss experience. A bit south, riesling lovers should flock to the Eola-Amity Hills for Brooks Winery, which crafts over 20 of this type of versatile white grape varietal.
Get a taste of Oregon’s legendary beer scene
While the Valley is best known for wine, Oregon is world-famous for its breweries, and Willamette has established itself as a premier destination for hop heads, too, thanks to its ample hop farms and innovative beer makers.
In Newberg, make haste for one of Oregon’s best breweries, Wolves & People. This farmhouse-style operation has a huge beer garden tasting area, and is known for expressing Oregon terroir with their small-batch, artisan brews. McMinnville is also home to great German-, Czech-, and Cascadia-style handcrafted lager at local favorite Heater Allen. This family-run spot features a founding father and brewmaster daughter team and is especially known for their flagship Bohemian Pils—just be sure to check the status of the tasting room if you plan to drink on site.
Over in Dundee, you’ll find Barn Door Brewing, which has rebel Prohibition brewing roots and the unique charm of fourth-generation family ownership. Squeeze the Lemon stands out as a summer stunner IPA, while the hearty Muddy Creek Porter warms in the winter.
Further south in Mt. Angel, you’ll find a singular experience with roots in ancient brewing traditions. Benedictine Brewery builds upon centuries of monastic beer tradition. With a focused, quiet taproom, this spot is one of the only breweries owned and operated by monks in the entire United States. Try their flagship Black Habit Ale for a truly religious beer experience.
Gorge on some of the best dishes in Oregon
Like nearby Portland, the Valley’s culinary scene is overflowing with inventive eateries laser-focused on the bounties from local farms. This region was living by a farm-to-table ethos long before it was trendy. The plates served up at small-town mom & pop joints, far-flung dining destinations, and tasting rooms are top-tier, ready to hold their own against anything you'd find in Napa.
The European-style Carlton Bakery in downtown Carlton is a prime breakfast spot thanks to their apple-cider French toast, while over in Dundee, Red Hills Market’s excellent charcuterie board and wood-fired pizzas make it great for lunch. (For a dressier dinner iteration, stop at sister restaurant Red Hills Kitchen inside the chic and boutique Atticus Hotel.)
In historic downtown McMinnville, new-school and old-school flavors live in harmony: Thistle takes its focus on local and seasonal ingredients to obsessive levels with an ever-changing menu highlighted by foraged greens and inventive offal, while Nick’s Italian Cafe’s no-fuss/big-mess Italian red sauce cooking earned it certification as a James Beard American Classic. For an incomparable fine-dining destination, book Newberg’s The Painted Lady, whose ever-changing tasting menu (think miso-glazed shrimp from the nearby coast and cheese plates from local creameries like Black Sheep) is served within a historic Victorian home.
On the other end of the spectrum, jaunt over to Woodburn for some of Oregon’s best tacos: It’s home to a massive concentration of multigenerational Mexican restaurants and a huge Dutch-style tulip farm (it turns out birria and wooden shoes pair beautifully).
Explore stunning nature and unexpected art
Much of the Valley’s allure comes from its sprawling, oil-painting landscapes: With snowy Mt. Hood looming in the distance, the deep-green coastal range, and the sweeping valleys, this is very much the green and misty Pacific Northwest of your dreams.
A great day trip about 90 miles from the epicenter of wine country is Silver Falls State Park, considered by many to be the crown jewel of Oregon’s state park system. Escape the crowds with 35 miles of back country trails, or get back to the wine faster with the show-stopping “Trail of Ten Falls”, a roughly seven-mile loop. Those seeking a shorter trip can head to Molalla River State Park near the town of Canby, which has a mostly flat three-mile loop where three rivers meet.
For an even more immersive day trip, the rugged Oregon coast can be reached in less than an hour. But considering that hour is spent winding through a densely forested mountain pass overloaded with waterfalls, swimming holes, and hikes for any skill level, it’s best to take your time and stop often. Further south near the college town of Eugene, the Spencer Butte Trail offers a moderate to challenging loop that really impresses during the spring wildflower bloom, offering some of the state’s best Cascade Mountain views.
Or, you could just traipse into the woods and look for mushrooms. No need to go to Italy for the hunt when Oregon truffles are a thing, as four native truffles grow in the area and can be harvested from about November until May. Try Prestige Wine Tours or the North American Truffling Society for guided hunts (recommended) for these “millionaire’s mushrooms.”
Since the Beaver State has more scenic byways than any other, visitors can also completely skip the exercise portion of their trip and see the sights by car instead. Winding roads through ripening vineyards, mountaintop views, and steely blue rivers are just some of the offerings travelers can enjoy Kerouac-style via the open road. There’s even an actual route called Over the Rivers and Through the Woods that makes for an easy drive packed with beauty.
Keep your eyes peeled when you’re cruising around the area: The Mid-Willamette Valley is known for its so-called “Fifty Miles of Art'' trail, which stretches from McMinnville to Corvallis along Highway 99W. And if you’re an aviation nerd (like my pilot husband), McMinnville is home to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, one of the country’s best collections of old planes, including Howard Hughes’ massive Spruce Goose.
Where to stay in the Willamette Valley
While there are plenty of traditional accommodations throughout Willamette, the most exciting development in hospitality terms is the slew of new farm-lite rentals. Agritourism is really having a moment here, with tons of farm-adjacent tours and experiences popping up in recent years.
Start with a stay at the chicest Airbnb ever, The Farmhouse at Tabula Rasa Farms, which comes with a complimentary farm tour of the biodynamic property. If this Scandinavia-inspired escape is booked, at the very least visit the nearby farm stand for a taste of Oregon terroir.
The aforementioned Durant Vineyards is part of Red Ridge Farms, whose prized rentals—Stoneycrest Cottage and the Garden Suite—are both situated on the 165-acre parcel, complete with a specialty nursery and gift shop, nature trail, olive trees, and lavender fields. (There’s a whole lavender trail in Newberg, too, if you’re really jazzed about this particularly aromatic plant).
For traditionalists, a classic, upscale option will always be the Allison Inn & Spa, a five-star beauty with sprawling gardens, a modern lodge aesthetic, a massive spa, and a convenient location in Newberg. And for those who prefer to be closer to the center of it all, The Vintages is a funky airstream resort and the most Instagrammable accommodation in the area. Come for the glamping, but stay for the s'mores, best enjoyed at the communal fire pit with friends both old and new… and with wine, of course.