Standing on a hill at the 17th tee box of the Milton-Freewater Municipal Golf Course, a group of visitors is surprised to learn that the green is a 121-yard shot about 60 yards below. With a resounding smack, the first ball soars over the hill, disappears from view and then reappears as it bounces wildly across the green below. It’s just one more surprise from this little town just 30 miles north of Pendleton.
Located in backdrop of the Blue Mountains and just south of Walla Walla, Washington, Milton-Freewater is fertile farm country of orchards and wheat fields. The vineyards here cross state borders to form the Walla Walla American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Oregon and Washington. Wine is just one part of Milton-Freewater’s growing tradition of artisan food and drink. Get the flavor for yourself with a taster’s tour of this northeastern town.
The small, colorful bungalow that serves as Petits Noirs chocolate boutique can keep a chocolate-lover occupied for quite some time. Owners Lan Wong and James Boulanger create handmade truffles, butter toffees, European-style drinking chocolate and all manner of delightful confections. Their love of local wines and the natural beauty of the area drew them to Milton-Freewater — Boulanger’s hometown — from New York. Their chocolates are inspired by the area’s lush orchards and crafted to complement the rich vintages bottled here. Try the bouton chocolate, a crunchy concoction of breadcrumbs, orange peel and ginger encased in a rich chocolate ball. Open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and by appointment.
Like Petits Noirs, Dragon’s Gate Brewery lives by the philosophy that big flavors come in small packages. At their farmhouse nano-brewery, Adam and Jennifer Gregory brew one barrel of Belgian-style beer at a time. Belgian Wit, Belgian IPA and Belgian Triple are among the half-dozen or so beers you’ll find at the tasting room. The Gregorys grow all the hops used in those beers — Centennial, Cascade, Galena, Mt. Hood, Willamette, Magnum, Sterling, Saaz and Hallertauer.
Also capitalizing on Oregon’s craft drinks tradition, Blue Mountain Cider Company grew out of a decades-old family apple orchard and packing business. Blue Mountain’s founders began experimenting with hard cider in 2003 and won awards right off the bat. With Andrew Brown now leading the charge as cider maker, Blue Mountain is enjoying its place in Oregon’s craft cider movement. Blue Mountain offers a range of locally sourced ciders from the dry Estate Winsap to the semi-sweet Eden Ridge and a handful of varieties created with seasonal fruits like peach and cherry. The tasting room is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
It goes without saying that these businesses lean on the popularity of the Walla Walla Valley wine region. With more than 60 percent of the vineyards of the Walla Walla Valley AVA located in the state of Oregon (and 10 of the AVA’s 120 wineries located on the Oregon side), local wineries draw oenophiles from around the world. One of them is Don Carlo Vineyard, owned by Tim Kennedy, founder of Tim’s Cascade Style Potato Chips, and his wife Lori, who started making wine with her Italian grandfather at a young age. In 2014, their 2010 Big Poppa’s Red Vino Rosso won double gold medals at the Seattle Wine Awards and the Oregon Wine Awards. Zerba Cellars’ first vineyard grew out of owners Cecil and Marilyn Zerba’s love for horticulture — they owned a nursery for 20 years before turning to wine. In 2013, their 2009 Wild Z won a gold and silver at the Bite of Oregon and Northwest Wine Summit, respectively. Zerba’s estate vineyards are also focused on sustainability — LIVE certified (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) and recognized by the International Organisation for Biological Control.
When your taster’s tour has got you hungry for a full meal, you’ll be glad you called ahead to Primrose on Main. The catering company can make lunch or dinner for as few as two people in their charming Italianate house just two doors down from Petits Noirs. Owner Sherry Rowan and Chef Jennifer Hartwick serve a menu created from the fresh produce of local farms on Primrose’s garden patio. (Primrose needs 24 hours’ notice to accommodate visitors. 541.938.7331)