Portland, the Coast and the Willamette Valley Wine Region – Oregon, USA

Oregon is an interesting place, full of opposites and contradictions. Where the forest borders the beach, the green and seemingly all-too-perfect city is plagued with a seedy undercurrent. A vast amount of culture is found where you’d least expect it. I never thought much about visiting Oregon until my husband and I received an invitation from my aunt who moved to Eugene a few years ago. I wanted to take full advantage of our time in the state. I was careful not to plan too much time with the family. I went about organizing our itinerary, which led me to the question,

Why haven't we visited this state sooner?
The state has something to offer everyone. It is a paradise for nature enthusiasts, wine connoisseurs, foodies and coffee addicts. Gourmet restaurants were less expensive than anywhere I’d been (even inside the greater Portland metro area), the beauty of the coast was absolutely breathtaking, and top-notch espresso shops housed in old shacks lined parts of the Oregon beach front.

We flew into Portland, so we figured we’d spend two nights and see as much as possible before continuing on to the Willamette Valley (the 100-mile stretch of land between Portland and Eugene). As much as I liked the cool vibe of the Downtown and Pearl District areas of Portland, my enjoyment was hindered by the aggressive panhandlers roaming about these neighborhoods. We ended up spending most of our city visit in the Nob Hill section, where you’ll find a mix of swanky and eclectic shops and cafes, and the world famous Clear Creek Distillery. Here you can sample their specialty, pear-in-the-bottle brandy. The manufacturing of fruit brandies is very rare in the United States, which makes this destination popular. Unfortunately, they were sold out of the pear-in-the-bottle brandy when we visited; however, our welcoming and informative hostess who let us sample just about anything they had for sale more than made up for the disappointment. Furthermore, there’s no tasting fee.

The next morning, we jumped into our rental car (highly recommended) and headed south to the Willamette Valley’s wine country, home to more than 200 wineries. The ideal climate for Pinot Noir has put this region on the map as one of the world’s best producers of this variety. It started in 1966 when David Lett, founder of the Eyrie Vineyards, planted the first Pinot Noir grapes in the Willamette Valley and the first Pinot Gris in the United States.

The region didn’t receive international attention until the 1979 Spurrier Tasting in Paris. The Eyrie Vineyards 1975 Pinot Noir placed third in the competition, and at a 1980 rematch in Burgundy placed second. Robert Drouhin, Burgundy vintner who had organized the rematch, subsequently purchased a plot of land directly adjacent to the Eyrie Vineyards in 1987. This became the first French winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, otherwise known as Domaine Drouhin.

These wineries are in close proximity to each other, so you can visit both in a short period of time. However, our visit to the Eyrie Vineyards in McMinnville proved disappointing; we were greeted by an unfriendly hostess which soured our experience; the wines didn’t meet our expectations. There is a $5.00 charge to participate in their tastings.

Domaine Drouhin is located in the Dundee Hills section of the valley, and also offers tastings for a $5.00 fee. Although, in my opinion, not the best wine in the state, they had a quality product, the staff was friendly, and the beautiful views from the hilltop make for a perfect place to have a picnic basket lunch. It’s worth stopping by, especially since there’s so many other wineries in the immediate area.

Winter’s Hill Vineyard is a short drive down the road from Domaine Drouhin. The quaint tasting room, situated inside the Lafayette Schoolhouse Antique Mall, ended up being one of my favorites. This is a small, family-owned operation specializing in Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and dessert wines. Tastings are free and they offer seven different samples; the last being an ice wine served inside a chocolate cup. Their 2006 early Muscat was excellent, and their Pinot Noir and Reserve Pinot Noir were the best.

Also in the immediate area are White Rose Wines, DePonte Cellars and Domaine Serene, a favorite among local wine connoisseurs. White Rose charges $7.00 for tastings, which include bottled water. Although the staff was friendly and their grounds were quite lovely, we enjoyed their wines less than other places we had been.

For our last tasting of the day, we decided to go to Ponzi Vineyard’s Restaurant, The Dundee Bistro. They have two tasting rooms, one next to the restaurant in Dundee, and the other on-site at their vineyards in Beaverton. The Dundee Bistro’s menu changes nightly and has some of the best gourmet food in the Willamette Valley, at a reasonable price. We tried Ponzi’s 2005 Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris with our dinner; both were good, and the food was nothing short of dynamite.

Check out The Willamette Valley Wineries website for tours, special events…

Our next morning started out with a drive to the Pacific Coastal Highway, a must for anyone visiting Oregon. Along our drive, we stumbled upon the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, home to Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose, the largest wooden plane ever built. Over 45 British and American planes are also on display, including a replica from the Wright brothers 1903 sustained powered flight. There’s even an IMAX theatre, café, and the Evergreen Vineyards Store and Tasting Room. Complimentary tastings of their most popular Pinot Noirs and Pinot Gris begin at 11:00 a.m.

We continued south to Lincoln City, a coastal town 78 miles southwest of Portland, where we stopped for lunch at Mo’s (SW 51st street off of Highway 101), a cafeteria-style restaurant with oceanfront views. Their blackened shrimp skewers were superb – so was the seal watching next door at Salishan Spit where over 150 of these curious creatures bask in the sun and fish in the Siletz Bay.

The coast becomes even more beautiful as you drive south from Lincoln City to Florence. Our favorite stop along the way was Cape Perpetua, the highest lookout point on the Oregon Coast at 800 feet. Named by Captain Cook on St. Perpetua’s Day, the site boasts 10 scenic trails at various altitudes, tide pools, and a spruce rain forest. Be sure to catch a glimpse of Devil’s Churn, a small fracture in the volcanic rock filled with ocean water. Whatever you do, wear shoes that will allow you to walk trails and climb rocks (you’ll regret wearing flip flops).

We drove along the coast to Florence, where we spent some time at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, a 41-mile-long stretch of sand pushed up from the sea floor millions of years ago. Group dune buggy rides through the park and ATV rentals are available through Sand Dunes Frontier in Florence. For those feeling lucky, the Three Rivers Casino is also in town featuring black jack and over 400 slot machines.

After Florence, we headed inland towards Eugene where we stopped at King Estate Winery featuring a gourmet restaurant with outdoor seating and stunning views. Go for lunch – at $7.00 to $14.00 per person it’s less than half the price of dinner. The bar doubles as their tasting room providing a pleasant and jovial atmosphere with complimentary samples of their bestselling Pinot Gris and Pinot Noirs. The overall experience made this my favorite winery. Make the most of the trek by visiting the nearby Iris Hill Winery. The Blue Rooster Bed and Breakfast is also close by.

We ended our trip at my aunt’s house. I suggest you explore the Columbia River Gorge on your return to Portland. If you like to stay out late, enjoy Karaoke and dancing, a visit to my aunt's is in order. Here's more information on the Columbia River Gorge. (My aunt doesn’t have a website yet).


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