Oregon is a gateway to so much of what is good about the United States. It’s a beautiful, rugged and wholesome part of the country that snows in winter, blooms in spring, shines in summer and turns on a spectacular display of colour as it resets in the fall.
The largest city, Portland, has a distinctively vibrant feel all year round and does the simple things well. It is home to some of the best coffee on the planet and a brand of casual quality dining that draws inspiration from right around the Pacific as much as it does deeper into the States. You can eat just about anything here and count on it being well grown and cleverly executed.
And whatever it is that takes your fancy, quality is at the heart of this place, which famed for its ethos of authenticity and doing things the genuine way. Yes, Portland is also the home of the hipster and is awash with beards, bleached bangs and tattoos. The liberally-minded and environmentally conscious artisan is pretty much everywhere.
Come for the wine
I came for the wine, but I return for so much more. Once I’ve washed the palate into shape with one or two of Oregon’s famously well-made and cleverly esoteric beers (try Von Ebert), I am off in search of great pinot noir. I’m completely obsessed with the stuff.
Pinot outguns every other red wine for the way it combines sheer deliciousness and simple, hedonistic pleasure with the ability to stimulate the mind and heart of the keenest connoisseur.
And if the home of the world’s best pinot noir is France’s Burgundy, then Oregon’s Willamette Valley is clearly the best of the rest. The wines of the Willamette are so lovingly farmed, so intelligently made and so consistently delivered to a point of deliciousness and quality.
Although wine country here is relatively new, it has been a roaring success and the Willamette Valley is now home to almost 16,000 acres or prime pinot noir plantings.
Established as a tiny 35 acres in 1970 with just five bonded wineries, many of the now-legendary names like Bethel Heights, Cristom, Eyrie, Beaux Frères and the like were founded on strong desire and minimal machinery, the long-held tenets of great pinot noir, and continue true to those principles today.
The count now tops more than 550 Oregon wineries and growing fast, and a key to this rapid success is the fact that the artisan spirit has remained a defining factor in Oregon’s winemaking scene.
Yes, the larger winemaking players like Gallo and Kendall Jackson have arrived (who can blame them) but the overwhelming majority of wineries remain family owned and operated and make only as much as they can collectively farm, bottle and sell.
A special experience
This concentration of good wineries is really what makes visiting here so special. as you can cruise from winery to winery, sipping wines as you take in the views around the valley and enjoying the fact that your wine is often being poured by the same hands that made it.
These genuine conversations and experiences are becoming rare in winery tasting rooms today, but in Oregon they are the norm.
And whilst all this is well within reach of a day trip out of Portland, there’s easily enough to keep you busy for a weekend and even longer.
Willamette Valley’s McMinnville is home to some excellent accommodation (try the Atticus Hotel) and there’s some history of good, honest food like Nick’s Italian where you’ll always find a handful of local winemakers out in the back bar at night.
There’s also a slice of Portland out here, with some outstanding ethical dining at places like Thistle, locally roasted coffee and a well-established craft brewing scene of its very own.
Heater Allen, Grain Station and Allegory are all worthy of your beer money and time. You’ll likely leave this place with a few bottles of good pinot tucked under your arm, and an understanding that there’s truth to the theory that it takes a lot of good beer to make great wine!
Five Oregon wineries to visit
Domaine Serene: Incredible wines and an impressive high-end tasting room set up.
Bethel Heights: One of the pioneers, this small operation is producing top quality.
Domaine Drouhin: Burgundy’s Drouhin family have found a home in Oregon.
Cristom: A global benchmark for pinot style and a new hospitality offering.
Lange Estate: Stunning views, quality wines and a true family feel.