There’s a little-known secret about wine tasting in Oregon: One of the most scenic routes to visit pinot noir vines is by water. Which is why this weekend, we skipped the highway for country roads. In the past half-hour, we’ve cruised by mountains of green hop vines, pockets of hazelnut orchards and hand-painted signs for U-pick berries. Our first destination: the Wheatland Ferry.
One of our winemaking friends from the husband-and-wife owned Walter Scott Wines told us about this slip of a boat that’s slightly hidden between the towns of Newberg and Salem. He also told us to look for a nearby osprey nest, where on early mornings and evenings you can spy a white-tufted raptor soaring along the river. We wait a few minutes under the shade of cottonwood trees—peering into the blue sky for wings in flight, before sliding onto the nine-car ferry.
The historic boat, about the size of a large dance floor, drifts breezily across the Willamette River. It’s just enough time to snap an Instagram-worthy photo. And then our adventure begins. We pass farmlands, horse stables and fields speckled with sheep. Eventually, rows of grape vines unfurl across hillsides. A sign welcomes us to the Eola-Amity Hills AVA (American Viticultural Region) and our first stop is Bethel Heights Vineyard.
The second generation now runs this small-production, family-owned winery with roots that date back to 1977. In addition to earthy, silky pinot noirs, winemaker Ben Casteel produces a supple estate grown chardonnay—a varietal that is emerging as Oregon’s newest star. (It’s also the perfect pairing for Oregon Dungeness crab). As we sip the estate chardonnay, I remember Mimi Casteel, the vineyard manager for Bethel Heights, calling the grape a “transparent wearer of beauty” at the Oregon Chardonnay Symposium (now the Oregon Chardonnay Celebration).
A few miles away at Cristom Vineyards, we continue on our pinot pilgrimage for a taste of place—or what the French call terroir, sampling four distinct single-vineyard pinot noirs. Steve Doerner, the winemaker for Cristom, is renowned for his graceful pinots. His popular Mt. Jefferson Cuvee, made with a blend of grapes from each of the estate vineyards, and select neighboring vineyards pays homage to the second-highest peak in Oregon. From the tasting room, we can see the snow-capped dome glittering in the distance.
Next, we swing by Witness Tree Vineyard to sample their crisp pinot blanc, and then hike a trail that winds from the tasting room up to a magnificent Oregon White Oak that’s more than 250 years old. Standing sentry over the 100-acre estate, the ancient oak tree was used as a surveyor’s landmark in 1854. In 2010, the great oak was designated an Oregon Heritage Tree (there are more than 50 heritage trees across the state). We take shade under the leafy canopy, watch clouds waltz by, and savor the beauty of a slow-paced day.
A lunch recommendation leads us to The Blue Goat in the tiny town of Amity, where the husband-and-wife team (Cassie and Dave VanDomelen) run a wood-fired cookery. The pièce de résistance of the restaurant is a seven-foot-diameter earthen oven designed by natural builder and artist Kiko Denzer. Our waiter tells us that the hand-built structure is made from all natural elements and even integrates the surrounding Eola Hills clay. We split a cob oven pizza and an order of the wood-fired fish tacos—topped with an earthy, smoked tomato salsa and house ricotta cheese.
We wind towards the tiny town of Dayton (population 2,542) for a final tasting at Oregon Olive Mill, the only estate olioteca in the Pacific Northwest. We reserved a tour ahead of time so meet the miller, Paul Durant, for a short walk through the silvery-green olive grove. “Our grand experiment,” says Durant as he surveys an ocean of shimmery leaves turning and tilting toward the sun. He and his father Ken planted more than 13,000 olive trees in 2005, the first step toward their vision of creating a culture of olive oil in the Pacific Northwest.
Durant left a career in engineering to return to his family farm in the Dundee Hills, where their land knits together vineyards, olive groves and specialty nursery plants and herbs. “It’s where I always wanted to be,” he says. “The more I learn, the more rewarding it is,” he says. “Plus, I get to work in this beautiful place.” From where we stand in the middle of the olive grove, Mt. Hood enchants, snow-drenched, sunlit and aglow.
In the compact mill (the first in the state of Oregon), we sidle around stainless steel tanks and Durant explains the process from tree to table. We then head upstairs for a guided tasting of their four estate-milled EVOO oils. Olive oil ambassador Libby Clow meets us in a in a chateau-like room that overlooks the olive grove. Clow studied food culture and communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy and specialized in cured meats, wine, cheese and olive oil. (She’s the perfect dinner party guest!)
As Clow approaches each olive oil snifter, she sounds like a food poet. The Arbequina oil evokes fresh cut grass. (It’s also the oil used in a namesake Salt & Straw ice cream). “And this is like running my hands through a tomato plant in summertime,” she says of the Koroneiki oil. The Tuscan brings to mind woodsy mushrooms. Clow suggests a drizzle of the Tuscan over cured meats and salami. “It doesn’t hide the flavor of a delicately cured meat,” she says.
We leave the mill with a trio of oils to try and an eagerness to embark on our next venture, which is a night at The Allison Inn & Spa. Lodge-like, but with a sophisticated twist, this luxury hotel is set on 35 acres of hillside property in Newberg. Comprised of wood and stone, with elegant earth tones and natural elements, the overall design brings the beauty of the outside in. We walk by windows that stretch from floor-to-ceiling, framing a canvas of evergreen trees and estate pinot noir vines.
Since we have time to spare, we pick up a guide from concierge that narrates the extensive art collection throughout the resort—there are over 500 original works from 100 Pacific Northwest artists. We seek out a large-format painting by James Frey, the owner-winemaker of the nearby winery Trisaetum—he often incorporates vineyard cuttings and vineyard soil into his large-scale tactile pieces. Then we encounter a landscape photo of the Nestucca River by Portland resident and wine photographer Andrea Johnson.
We continue our art tour in the most unexpected of places—with a dip in the infinity edge swimming pool. While swimming the backstroke, we take in the striking “soil scape” painting titled Slackwater Terroir. This monumental piece was created with soil gathered during the excavation of The Allison Inn & Spa site by scientist and artist Jay Noller. Since the spa is next door (and who needs and excuse for spa time…), we further explore the art of relaxation with one of the signature treatments. (If you can’t decide, go for the Divine Wine facial).
Dinner is at JORY restaurant (named after the native surrounding soil). We opt for the chef’s counter with a front-and-center view of the kitchen. Luckily, executive chef Sunny Jin is working, and he leans over a few times to chat about gardening and mushroom foraging. The chef, an alum of The French Laundry and ElBulli, can be found meandering the onsite garden most mornings for inspiration, a small spiral-bound notebook in hand to jot down impromptu recipe ideas.
His celebration of Oregon ingredients is tasted in the dishes we order—cedar plank Oregon salmon with fresh garden tomatoes and pan-seared halibut with nasturtium soup, braised celery root, and matsutake mushrooms. Then there’s the wine. (Pinot noir enthusiasts, take note: the robust wine cellar is one of the best in the valley, with over 8,000 bottles from Oregon and 40 wines poured by the glass). We raise our respective glasses—one Argyle brut and the other a Bethel Heights pinot noir—and toast this perfect place, where you can revel in the delicious bounty found only in the Willamette Valley.
Editor’s note: This is part one of an itinerary that stretches from the Willamette Valley to Walla Walla. Continue with part two here.
For more information and to plan your trip in the Willamette Valley, go to OregonWineCountry.org.