Burgundy in Our Backyard: A Weekend in the Willamette Valley

“Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.”
-- Miles Raymond, Sideways, 2004

Pinot noir wine — you either love it or you just don’t. Because the grape requires such unique growing conditions and care, it isn’t a mainstay here in Washington State. But just 30 miles outside of Portland, OR, tucked into the rolling hills along Hwy 18, pinot noir is king. This is the Willamette Valley, a bucolic land of fields, trees, and gorgeous rows of cool-climate wine grapes. Here is Burgundy in our backyard. I simply love pinot noir.

The Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is comprised of seven unique sub-AVAs, and with only 48 hours to explore, I certainly couldn’t visit them all. But if you’re out touring about for a wine weekend, here are a few great spots I can personally recommend.

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If you want to try wine tasting in a tasting room environment, head into the towns like McMinnville, Carlton, or Dundee for quick sips a short walk from your hotel or right off the road. Downtown McMinnville truly is the metropolis of the valley with several notable tasting rooms open nearly every day. We opted to stay there in the historic Hotel Oregon, a McMennamins property that’s close to everything. Rooms are small, often with common bathrooms, but the Rooftop Bar and resident ghosts makeup in charm what the hotel lacks in modern amenities.

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The Eyrie Vineyards tasting room is here, offering classic pinot noir from the library going as far back as 1985. Founded by David Lett (or Papa Pinot, as he’s known here), The Eyrie and Lett pioneered the pinot movement in the valley: both pinot noir and pinot gris do very well in this unique climate.


Insider Tip: You feel like trying wine but your date wants a cocktail? Pop over to Ransom Wine & Spirits in McMinnville where you can have both! Flights of wine include (surprise) pinot noir, but also a charming dry gewurztraminer. For the spirit-forward traveller, you can try a flight of five liquors ranging from Old Tom Gin to Rye Whisky. There’s even a cocktail option.

If you’re like me, you like to try the wine where it grows. Just eight miles outside of McMinnville are the Dundee Hills, carpeted with vineyards, lavender fields, and views to rival Tuscany. Here are the heavy hitters in the world of pinot: Archery Summit Winery with its beautiful natural wine caves and sweeping vistas, De Ponte Cellars known for classic Burgundian-style winemaking, and Domaine Drouhin, a family affair bringing the best in sustainable French winemaking to its Oregon-grown pinot noir and chardonnay wines.

All three estates are near enough to visit in a single afternoon and the staff will treat you like kings and queens, but especially if you call ahead for a reservation. As you’re driving through the hills, look for the blue and white “tourist attraction” road signs that lead you to the various wineries dotting the hillsides.

Insider Tip: Looking for something outside of pinot? Try the Melon de Bourgogne by De Ponte Cellars. This white grape is rarely found outside the Loire Valley, France, but makes for a delicious and refreshing glass of candied lemon sunshine on a warm summer afternoon. Take it with you out to the porch and enjoy, likely in the company of the cellar’s resident calico cat, Missy.  

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On our final day in the valley, before our pinot palettes were completely exhausted, my husband and I found ourselves back in the Dundee Hills at White Rose Estate Winery & Vineyard. Open seven days a week (but again, reservations recommended), this winery offers a truly “pinot geeky” sensory experience: The tasting room has no windows. Off odors like perfumes and food are discouraged. You are prompted to wash your palate with club soda before you even begin tasting the wines. Tasting Room Manager Dago Guillen takes each guest on a journey through the terroir of the vineyards and deep into the flavors in every enormous glass. He knows these wines by heart (his brother is the winemaker) and will expose the secrets to how each vintage is produced. This spot is not to be missed.

Insider Tip: Looking for the perfect gift for the non-drinker in your life? Pop over to Red Ridge Farm, home to Oregon’s Olive Mill. The grounds alone are very pretty, but you can also taste several olive oils ranging from mild to peppery, as well as unique infused vinegars. Candles, soaps, and pretty terrarium plants are all available to purchase as well.

What I really love about pinot noir is that a perfectly balanced bottle can, and should, sit in a cellar for many years to come. When I do someday open them, these precious and pretty wines will provide several opportunities to revisit my Willamette weekend for years to come. Salud!

Amy L. Dickson is a communications professional, freelance writer, and contributor to Rain or Shine Guides. She’s currently training at the NW Wine Academy for her Level 1 sommelier certification. Follow her at @amyldickson75