My fiancé and I learned to love red wine together, a few years after we started dating. Regular local wine tastings expanded our palates beyond the cloyingly sweet white wines that we initially favored. Today, we love nothing more than opening a bottle of Malbec, Tempranillo, or Cabernet Sauvignon with friends, alongside an expansive charcuterie plate.
But we’ve also learned that wine can transport us, and we enjoy incorporating tastings into our travels. Every time we open a bottle of Pinotage, we’re taken back to a wonderful afternoon we spent at La Residence in Franschhoek, South Africa — wishing we could stay there another couple of days. We’ve made side excursions for wine on trips from San Francisco to northern Michigan to Argentina.
So, when our family vacation this year took us to Portland and the Oregon Coast, we jumped at the chance to spend several days in the area’s premier wine region, the Willamette Valley. (To sound like a local, remember the correct pronunciation with the rhyme, “It’s Willamette, dammit.”)
Anchored by the Willamette River, this fertile valley runs north-south for roughly 150 miles, from Portland to Salem. The region grows several varietals, including Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Gris. But the real standout here is the Pinot Noir, which has truly put the Willamette Valley on sommeliers’ maps.
So many choices
We focused our efforts in and around the lovely, progressive town of McMinnville, Oregon, located less than an hour’s drive southeast of downtown Portland. Along with nearby towns such as Carlton, Newberg, Yamhill, and Dundee, there are hundreds of wineries to visit here, many with tasting rooms amidst the rolling hills. Three of our favorite wine stops were Lemelson Vineyards, Flaneur Wines, and Coeur de Terre Vineyard.
Lemelson Vineyards is run by Eric Lemelson, an environmental attorney who puts his money where his mouth is, with an extensive solar array installed next to the winery. A tri-level deck affords plenty of outdoor space to sample a flight of wines; ours included a Riesling, Chardonnay, and three excellent Pinot Noirs, including one named after Lemelson’s father, Jerome. (Interesting side note: Jerome was a master inventor, creating such things as the propellor beanie hat, Hot Wheels track, and barcode scanners!)
The vibe here was relaxed, with soft jazz playing in the background and a very happy dog enjoying a nap right near our table. Outside food is allowed, and the location, which overlooks one of seven vineyards that Lemelson owns, is very picnic-friendly. The staff even keeps blankets on hand for families with little ones — who’d rather be crawling on the grass than stuck at a table.
Flaneur Wines gave a vastly different experience, with its tasting room located in a former grain elevator, the tallest structure in cozy downtown Carlton. The structure has been extensively remodeled inside and out, and now boasts a stunning and warm space amidst enormous wooden beams. Sit at the bar, on couches, or at tables to enjoy the five-course flight of wines. We grooved to a memory-inducing Beatles mix as we sampled everything from sparkling wine to (of course) some delicious fruit-forward Pinot Noirs. Flaneur also offers tastings at its 100-year-old Blue Barn in nearby Newberg.
At Coeur de Terre, we sat on the winery’s big wraparound porch on Adirondack chairs, joined by the owners’ dogs, CC and Blue. Our sommelier, John, was incredible and explained not just the taste structures of each pour, but added in some chemistry, as well as history and food pairing ideas. For example, he described how Chardonnays grown in cool and warm climates have differing amounts of sugar, meaning that winemakers must choose different paths to their end product. Oaky and buttery taste profiles, as well as more acidic ones, make so much more sense to me now.
With so many options in this valley, the best way to experience it is to make a single reservation earlier each day, and let happenstance take you where it will. You may hear from a winemaker or other guests about a unique place to go for a tasting, or a special event happening later on. Or sometimes, your host will make a call to a friend, and before you know it, you’ll be tasting something new and surprisingly different in an up-and-coming vintner’s garage. But that’s the speed and vibe here — more laid back than Napa and decidedly less formal. Here, you’re visiting the farm and meeting the families that work the land and shape the wine’s profile.
Bring on the food
McMinnville’s downtown is bustling, and it seemed like every other shop was flying the new progress Pride flag when we visited. There are numerous art galleries, cute shops, and bars, but there’s plenty of food, as well. After all, nothing goes better with an excellent wine than good food, and we found plenty of options for everyone’s taste buds.
Mac Market, a few blocks from downtown, is located in, of all things, a renovated shoe grease factory. The cavernous space has a funky feel now, with hanging lights, an assortment of seating on two levels, and different stations. There’s a small plates station, a cocktail bar, a wine/beer bar, a store with snacks and fresh produce, and more. You can eat a delicious meal here — and also stock up on supplies for your next home (or Airbnb) meal at the same time. The small plates here were probably the best food we had on our whole trip, including the salad and charcuterie plate. But everything here is fresh and locally sourced, so the menu changes constantly.
On the main drag in town, Third Street, the downtown association closes off several blocks of the street on weekends, May through September, to allow for additional outdoor dining in the street. The result is a delightful, fun party atmosphere all along the tree-lined avenue.
Try Pura Vida Cocina for a rainbow of Latin American flavors, with cuisine from Costa Rica, Argentina, Cuba, and more. We enjoyed arepas, quesadillas, and tacos. Or head to Pizza Capo for some incredible Neapolitan-style pie, as well as salads, calzones, and desserts. And to satisfy your sweet tooth, check out Mac Daddy Donuts or Serendipity Ice Cream, both right on Third Street. If you’re feeling just a bit more health-conscious, the McMinnville Farmer’s Market runs a block off Third Street on Thursdays from Noon to 6 P.M., May through October.
You may think the Willamette Valley competes for travelers with California wine regions such as Napa or Sonoma, but the vintners I spoke with disagreed. Each valley has its own special attributes. Willamette is a slower-paced, very approachable area and we found that it boasts a delightfully casual vibe. Any wine and food lover will find this Oregon gem well worth exploring.
Paul J. Heney is a travel writer who focuses on LGBTQ+, hospitality, family, luxury, and design. The father of two is a global correspondent for ManAboutWorld.com and president of TABPI. Follow him on Instagram or Twitter.