An Afternoon Touring the Wineries of Lane County (Southern Willamette Valley)
The mild winter sun shone brightly down on me as I gazed past the peacefully dormant vines on the slopping hills overlooking the lush Briggs Hill Valley. It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon and I was with fellow Travel Oregon cohort Michelle and our good friends from the Convention and Visitor’s Association of Lane County Oregon (CVALCO) Natalie and Josh at the Sweet Cheeks Winery (yes, there’s a story to the name…but you will have to read on), located approximately 20 minutes outside downtown Eugene.
When it comes to wine, place matters. And when you think Pinot noir, no place is probably more famed than Oregon’s storied Willamette Valley. On this particular afternoon, Natalie played tour guide as we toured some of the Southern Willamette’s finest wineries for an afternoon of swirling, sipping and savoring!
Sweet Cheeks Winery: We uncorked the tour at Sweet Cheeks Winery. Lorraine Normann, the gregarious general manager at the winery met us at the cozy tasting room adorned with vaulted ceilings, tumbled stone floors and an elegant fireplace. As we started tasting their wines, (we began with the oaky ’05 Chardonnay), Lorraine explained the subtle differences of the wines produced in the region.
While the Southern Willamette Valley is very similar to its northern counterpart, it’s generally a bit warmer and drier; therefore, the wineries in this region typically produce diverse varietals with bigger, fruitier flavors and slightly more alcohol content. Indeed the ’03 and ’05 Pinot noirs both lived up to expectations and offered complex, fruity flavors and finished memorably.
Silvan Ridge/Hinman Vineyards: Our next stop was Silvan Ridge/Hinman Vineyards, directly opposite the hillside from Sweet Cheeks. But before we hit the tasting room here, we HAD to spot the “cheeks” that gave the name to the winery at our first stop. The photo to the left offers a view of the hillsides adjacent to Sweet Cheeks Winery; notice the “gentle sway” of the twin peaks? There’s your answer to how the winery got its name
Silvan Ridge is Lane County’s oldest winery and they pride themselves on operating a “European style” winery with immaculately landscaped grounds that make for a great picnic spot. We were met at the winery by Cynthia Nickle, sales & marketing manager, who gave us a tour of the remodeled facilities including the beautiful vintage style banquet room (popular with wedding parties!).
We ended the tour by sampling some of the wineries’ finest vintages, including the intensely fruity ’05 Syrah, the elegant Pinor noir reserve, and the chocolaty (yum!) ’04 Merlot.
Iris Hill: Next stop on the tour was Iris Hill. Named for the wild Douglas Irises that adorn the hillside meadows and woodland edges surrounding the vineyard each spring, Iris Hill is a family-owned winery that produces small quantities of hand-crafted, award-winning Pinot noir, Pinot gris, and Chardonnay.
We were met by the charming Pamela Frye who welcomed us into the tasting room and gave us the inside story on how living in Europe really ignited a dream to start a winery. Pam and her husband returned home to Oregon and found a parcel of heaven in the bucolic Lorane Valley. The couple planted their first vines in 1999 and the rest, as they say is history!
We sampled their estate grown vintages—the exquisite ’05 Pinot noir (round, rich and balanced) and the ’05 Chardonnay (crisp and tangy)—and were absolutely blown away by the complex aromas and flavors. Michelle made her fist purchase of the day here!
King Estate: We undoubtedly saved the best for last. French-chateau like King Estate is a majestic property located about 3 miles south of Iris Hill and is clearly the crown jewel of the Lane County wine scene. The tasting room sits on a magnificent hill overlooking more than 1000 acres of picturesque rolling vineyards, orchards and organic vegetable & flower gardens. My wife and I first visited this winery during Oregon Bounty two years ago, and were awestruck not just by the vintages but by the panoramic birds-eye view of the surrounding hills.
We were met at King Estate by our dapper and energetic host and tasting room manager, Quentin Ranson. Quentin, a recent transplant (less than one year!) to Oregon, first came to the Lorane Valley on a wine tasting vacation with his fiancé a few years ago. After a few days of touring and visiting area wineries however, they both realized that Oregon wine country was their calling and ended up leaving their jobs and moving to Oregon shortly thereafter.
We started off with a winery tour – Quentin took us through the wine making process from harvest through (see video). One of the more interesting tidbits highlighted on the tour was the fact that despite it’s size, King Estate is devoted to sustainable winemaking; the winery has more than 400 acres of organic vineyards and its winemaking process is certified organic.
After the tours, we ended back in the tasting room where we sampled vintages from both the Signature series and also Domaine Series (made exclusively from organically grown estate grapes). My favorite would have to be of course the ’05 Pinot noir (a ruby tinted, oaky full-flavored wine with rich raspberry and cherry flavors), and the ’04 Domaine Pinot noir that provided long lasting, complex flavors. My personal favorite, however, was the private label Pinot noir of winemaker John Albin. His ’04 was an exquisite vintage laced with delicious fruity flavors, balanced acidity and complex tannic structure. Needless to say, this ended up being my purchase for the day.
And that is, alas, where our bottle of Pinot ran empty and our tour ended. As we drove back to Eugene through the rolling green hills of Lane County, I couldn’t help cracking a contented smile when I realized we live in a place where you can actually drop in on a small winery, sip on handcrafted vintages and actually talk to the winemaker!
Cheers! ~ mo
about author Mo Sherifdeen
Mo is Travel Oregon's content publisher and loves to hike the forests and mountain trails of Oregon with his wife, daughter and dog. He is also known for getting lost inside a maze of books at Powell’s, sipping an IPA (or two) and seeking the best fish 'n chips along the Oregon Coast.
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