My wife and I just returned from a long weekend in the Willamette Valley. When I was planning this trip, I found a lot of the posts here on Wine Berserkers to be really helpful, so I wanted to write up our experiences in case they would be helpful to someone else in the future.
We planned our trip for late September, and it sounds like we got really lucky. In most years, it sounds like our trip would have fallen right in the middle of harvest, and most winemakers would not have had time to accommodate us. But a late bud break pushed harvest back this year, so we were able to schedule our tastings without issue.
If you're planning your own trip, I would suggest that you learn from our near mistake and don't plan your trip for September or October. I'm not sure exactly when the best time would be, but September and October seems like it would normally be the wrong time to impose upon the time of winemakers.
We chose to stay in McMinnville because of its central location. It also had enough tourist infrastructure (restaurants, hotels, etc.) to handle a long weekend trip such as this. After visiting the valley and driving through many of the small towns in the area, I'm sure we made the right choice. The small towns surrounding McMinnville (Carlton, Lafayette, Amity, etc.) are cute, but not really big enough to have the services that you need as a visitor. (One possible exception would be Newburg which has the hotels, restaurants, and other services you would need, but isn't as conveniently located as McMinnville.)
When I was looking for a place to stay in McMinnville, the two suggestions that kept popping up were Third Street Flats (McMinnville, https://thirdstreetflats.com) and the Atticus Hotel (McMinnville, https://atticushotel.com). Those suggestions were right on the money. Both are run by the same owner, and are conveniently located in downtown McMinnville, an easy walk to all the restaurants and shops on Third Street. We ended up staying in the Atticus Hotel and we were very pleased by the rooms, service, and staff.
RestaurantsHere are a few restaurants we tried that are worth mentioning:
- Rosmarino Osteria Italiana (Newburg, https://www.osteriarosmarino.com). This was our favorite meal of the trip, and it's worth the drive to Newburg even if you're staying elsewhere. They have an extensive menu of Italian wines, and their food was incredible. If you want to visit, be sure that you get a reservation since they book up 90 days in advance. We got lucky and scored a table as a walk-in because another party had canceled, but it sounds like that's pretty rare.
- Earth and Sea (Carlton, https://www.earthandseacarlton.com). As the name suggests, this restaurant specialized in surf and turf. I had a steak, my wife had fish, and we shared a mussel appetizer. Everything was excellent. Worth noting is their extensive wine menu focused on Oregon wines, all at pretty reasonable prices. This is another place that is worth a special trip.
- Humble Spirit (McMinnville, https://www.humblespirit.love. Humble Spirit is a new restaurant located right on Third Street in McMinnville. The atmosphere and food were both great. The service was a little spotty the night we were there, but I'm betting that it will improve after they have a few more months to iron out all the wrinkles.
- Crescent Cafe (McMinnville, http://www.crescentcafeonthird.com). For breakfast spots, we really liked Crescent Cafe, located right on Third Street in McMinnville. It's a solid breakfast cafe with great food, and no pretense.
Here I wanted to give an idea of the experience at each winery that we visited. There won't be any tasting notes, but hopefully someone can use this information to see if a particular winery has the kind of tasting experience that they are looking for.
Since we were staying in McMinnville, we organized our trip so that we visited wineries to the South on one day, and wineries to the North the next. Our third day was spent in McMinnville visiting wineries in town.
- Brick House (Ribbon Ridge, https://brickhousewines.com). We stopped at Brick House on our drive from the airport to McMinnville since we needed to wait for our room to be ready. It ended up being a great first stop. The tasting consisted of four recent vintages and one library selection, and took place on the deck behind their winery overlooking their vineyard. There were two other groups seated at other tables on the deck with us. The tasting was led by a staff member who was very knowledgeable and able to answer all of our questions. She floated between tables, introducing each wine. After pouring, she moved on and allowed us to taste and the enjoy the wine and the lovely view.
Day 1 – South of McMinnville
- Vincent Wine Company (Eola-Amity Hills, https://vincentwinecompany.com). This was a priviate tasting and was held in the production facility surrounded by barrels and vats. It was conducted by the winemaker Vincent Fritzsche (@Vincent_Fritzsche). Vincent was a wonderful host, and his wines were delicious. He walked us through several recent vintages, explaining his thoughts on each wine and his philosophy as a winemaker. One highlight of the trip was tasting an unreleased wine that was sampled right out of a vat. This was a really great stop.
- Evesham Wood (Eola-Amity Hills, https://eveshamwood.com). This private tasting took place in their small tasting room, overlooking their vineyard. It was conducted by a staff member who was quite knowledgeable and able to answer all our questions. We booked their two hour tasting and tour, and I'm glad we did. This tasting was truly an education. We tasted through eight Evesham Wood and Haden Fig wines (Haden Fig is owned by the same winemaker as Evesham Wood), including two library selections. This was the only tasting during the weekend that poured each wine in a different stem, and it made all the difference. We were able to bounce back and forth between wines, comparing recent vintages of Evesham Wood to Haden Fig, and recent vintages to library selections. Being able to go back and forth like that really helped me taste the differences between labels, and the differences brought on by a little age. After the tasting we took a brief tour of their production facility and wine caves.
- Bethel Heights (Eola-Amity Hills, https://www.bethelheights.com). Bethel Heights was our last stop of the day, and it was a great way to relax after a day of tasting. The tasting took place in their modern tasting facility which has indoor seating as well as an outdoor patio that overlooks their vineyards. There were probably a dozen other groups seated at different tables, inside and out, as well as what looked like a bachelorette party. (Bethel Heights did a good job of placing the large party in a space of its own, away from other groups.) The tasting consisted of five recent vintages, and was led by a very knowledgeable staff member who was able to answer all our questions. She floated between groups, pouring and introducing each wine, and then moved on to let us enjoy the wine and the scenery.
Day 2 – North of McMinnville
- Patricia Green Cellars (Ribbon Ridge, https://www.patriciagreencellars.com). The first stop of the day was Patricia Green Cellars, where we were greeted by Maggie, the dog of one of the PGC staff, who insisted on a belly rub. We were happy to oblige. Our tasting took place on the patio behind their tasting room, overlooking flower gardens and their vineyards. The patio was set for two other groups (at two other tables), but only one of the other groups showed up. The tasting was conducted by a staff member who was knowledgeable and able to answer our questions. He served six recent vintages in carafes on a tray, introduced each wine, and left to let us pour and taste at our own pace, checking in occasionally to see if we had any questions. I probably would have appreciated a little more guidance during the tasting, but I can certainly see how this format would be attractive to some. To his credit, our host was fun to talk to and even offered us an "off menu" wine once he learned our preferences. The wines were great, as you would expect from PGC.
- Domain Drouhin Oregon (Dundee Hills, https://domainedrouhin.com). Domain Drouhin is a huge winery with operations both in Oregon and France, and their visitor center shows it. The tasting took place on the deck behind their tasting room, with a commanding view of the valley and overlooking their vineyards. There were about a dozen other groups on the deck that came and went. The tasting consisted of five recent vintage from Oregon. At the end of the tasting, we were offered two of their French wines after I asked about them. The staff member who hosted us poured each wine, gave a brief introduction, and then floated to the next table to pour for them. Our host was very nice, but her knowledge seemed fairly narrow as was shown when questions wandered too far from the script she was following. Nonetheless, the wine was very good and the view was stunning.
- Durant Vineyards (Dundee Hills, https://durantoregon.com). Durant Vineyards was our only truly disappointing stop during the weekend. The tasting took place on the patio behind their tasting room, surrounded by dozens of other groups, all enjoying wine and soaking in the sun. The tasting menu consisted of four recent vintages that were poured by a staff member. There was no attempt at all at education. The waitress poured the next wine, and then often just moved on to the next table without explanation. The feeling was more like a restaurant or a beer garden, than a winery. There were plenty of groups around us who were clearly enjoying themselves, so this format seems to be filling a need in the market. It's just not the experience my wife and I thought we were signing up for. Additionally, the wine was nothing remarkable. I know that other wineries make excellent wine from Durant fruit, so maybe they just weren't pouring the good stuff for the public. I'm not sure.
Day 3 – In McMinnville
- Violin Wine (McMinnville, https://violinwine.com). Our first tasting of the day was a private tasting with Violin Wine, and it was hosted by the winemaker Will Hamilton (@Will_Hamilton) in his home there in McMinnville. We tasted through four recent vintages. Will indicated that he usually offers more wines during tastings, but that he had fewer wines on offer at the moment because of the smoke that affected Willamette Valley vineyards in 2020. So if you taste with Violin in a future year, it's likely that you'll have a wider array of wines to taste. Despite that, it was great tasting Will's wine and talking to him about winemaking, especially the business of winemaking and his experience as a small producer.
- Goodfellow Family Cellars (McMinnville, https://goodfellowfamilycellars.com). Our tasting at Goodfellow Family Cellars was a highlight of the weekend. It was a private tasting that took place in the barrel room of their production facility in McMinnville. We were hosted by winemakers Marcus Goodfellow (@Marcus_Goodfellow) and Megan Joy (@Megan_Joy), who switched off during the tasting. It sounds like they had been running the press for about 24 hours and everyone was tired, so we appreciate them making time for us all the more. When we first walked in, we bumped into two other Wine Berserkers from Minnesota who were finishing up their tasting, but I'm afraid that I can't recall their names. (Say "Hi" if you see this!) I believe that they had eight wines set up to taste, both current and library selections. And then Marcus pulled a few more when he arrived because he remembered my wife's fondness for whites. Both the wine and the conversation were excellent. It was a lot of fun talking to Megan and Marcus about their wine, future plans, and the direction of the industry.
- Mellon Meyer (usually in Dundee Hills and Portland, but today in McMinnville, https://www.mellenmeyer.com). This was planned to be our last tasting of the trip, so I wanted to cap it off with something completely different from all the Pinot Noir that we had been tasting over the weekend. Mellon Meyer exclusively makes sparkling wines, so it was just the ticket. Our private tasting was hosted by the winemaker Bobby Rowett (who I don't believe is on Wine Berserkers), in the Goodfellow production facility (where he happened to be helping that day). Bobby selected three recent vintages for us to taste and walked us through his wines, how he got into winemaking, and the traditional method of making sparkling wines.
- Martin Woods (McMinnville, https://www.martinwoodswinery.com). Our tasting with Mellon Meyer finished sooner than expected, so we decided to pop into HiFi Wine Bar for a tasting of wines from Martin Woods. HiFi Wine Bar has a wide selection of wines available, and you should definitely plan to stop in at some point if you're staying in McMinnville. HiFi is owned by the same people who own Martin Woods Winery, so that's where their tastings are held. For our tasting we were seated at the bar, where a couple other groups were also seated. We were served six or so wines by our bartender, who was engaging and knowledgeable.
As we enjoyed all of our tastings over the weekend, we of course picked up some bottles of wine. The problem was how to get them home. The consensus of everyone we spoke to was that Newburg Mail Room (Newburg, https://newbergmailroom.com) was where to go, and they were completely right. Newburg Mail Room seems to ship wine for everyone in the North Willamette Valley, so they have a lot of experience with packaging wine. They sold us shipping boxes with packaging (each box holds 12 bottles and costs $9.00), and would have handled shipping wine home for us as well. (It cost $80 per case to ship from Newburg to our home in Indiana.) Instead of shipping, we decided to check our boxes as checked luggage with our airline. The packaging held up well, and all our wine made it safely home.
This was a really fun trip, and I'm glad we took it. Looking back, we did a couple of things right that I would encourage others to think about as they plan their own trips:
- We visited a variety of wineries: small, medium, and large.
- The wineries we visited offered a variety of experiences. Some tastings were a private conversation with the winemaker (Vicent, Violin, Goodfellow, Mellon Meyer), others were educational (Evesham Wood), and still others were relaxing (Brick House, Bethel Heights, etc.).
- We chose some wineries that offered more than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I love a good Pinot or Chardonnay, but it was nice to give our palettes a break by occasionally trying a Riesling, Pinot Blanc, or Pinot Gris.
- We grouped our wineries geographically to minimize driving. It would be really easy to accidentally schedule tastings that had you driving all over the Willammete Valley, from Salem to Ribbon Ridge. By scheduling our days so that wineries were close to each other, we minimized driving and as a result, I think we were less tired by the end of the trip.
Thanks everyone who hosted us while we were in Oregon, especially the winemakers we met. We had a fabulous time and look forward to returning.