Sample a flight at WillaKenzie Estate on an overcast afternoon, as mist rolls across the vine-laden hills of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, and you’ll be in on a vintner’s secret: Winter is one of the best times to visit Oregon’s wine country. After the final grape clusters are plucked from the vines, the whole tempo slows down. The days may be short and the rain may drizzle, but the gray months between the emptying of the last harvest bin and the first bud break offers a chance to experience another, more intimate side of the Willamette Valley. Throughout cellar season, winemakers stoke fires in their tasting rooms, pop open a few prized vintages and even host a range of special tastings. So summon up a little bit of pioneer spirit, throw on an extra layer and get out there. From north to south, here are just a few wineries keeping their lights on all winter.
R. Stuart & Co.
Housed in a converted granary in McMinnville, a small city at the center of the North Willamette Valley’s wine scene, R. Stuart & Co. sources the lion’s share of its fruit from vineyards within 30 miles of its downtown winery. Reserve a cellar tour and tasting to get a behind-the-scenes look at the production spaces and enjoy a terroir-driven tasting of its pinots. Winemaker Rob Stuart’s shows off a deep love of Champagne with his signature sparkling wines — perfect Oregon bubbles to cheer the New Year in their nearby wine bar.
Lady Hill Winery
For a dose of frontier Oregon, stop in at Lady Hill Winery, located on a 1,500-acre farm Jerry Owen’s family has tilled since the 1850s. In addition to estate fruit, Owen and his wife, Elaine, source grapes from other parts of the Pacific Northwest in a nod to regional solidarity with the land that once made up the enormous Oregon Territory. Like many wineries in the Willamette Valley, Lady Hill Winery throws open its doors the weekend after Thanksgiving, releasing new wines and welcoming visitors with an extra dose of holiday cheer.
Left Coast Estate
This family-owned, 490-acre estate boasts 360-degree views of vineyard as well as a major stand of old-growth white-oak forest, one of the rarest habitats in the Willamette Valley. Much like grape vines, winter strips oak of its foliage, leaving gnarled trunks standing like sculptures against the bone-white sky. Left Coast Estate serves snacks all week and delicious wood-fired pizza on the weekends — just the thing to pair with lush estate pinot and silky chardonnay.
One of Oregon’s most beloved producers, Brooks, in the heart of the Eola-Amity Hills, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. A special dinner on December 1 honors the other winemakers who helped complete the 2004 harvest after founder Jimi Brooks unexpectedly passed away. If you can’t make the dinner, Brooks’ homey tasting room is wrapped in a covered porch for enjoying the views and food pairings with a glass of one of Brooks’ crispy rieslings or vineyard-specific pinot noirs. There’s live music on the last Sunday of every month all through the winter.
At more than 1,000 acres, this self-described pinot king — noir and gris — is the largest biodynamic vineyard in the nation. An on-site vegetable farm, orchard and apiary supplies its restaurant with produce all winter long. Make a reservation for lunch, dinner or weekend brunch, then stay for a flight at the tasting-room bar. Even if it’s not a classic winter wine, don’t miss King Estate’s flagship pinot gris; it put Oregon on the map for this particular varietal. Interested in a look behind the scenes? Daily free tours are held on the hour until 4 p.m.
J. Scott Cellars
Rain is one thing, but when icy roads make getting out of town impossible, urban wineries like J. Scott Cellars bring wine country to you. It’s part of Eugene’s Westside Warehouse District, a collective of brewers, winemakers and distillers on the city’s west side. Founder Jonathan Oberlander once managed vineyards, giving him the inside line on top-quality fruit. Grapes sourced from around the Northwest mean a larger selection of bigger, meatier reds like cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot, all atmospheric pairings for dark, drizzly days. Look for special pairing events during the Oregon Truffle Festival in January and whenever crab season kicks off.
Check ahead — During winter, many wineries cut back on hours and pare down food programs. It’s often a good idea to call ahead to confirm. The same goes for restaurants and lodging. With fewer options, things can fill up fast, so advance reservations are key.
Visit TripCheck.com — With the valley’s varied elevations and topography, road conditions can change in a single drive. Be sure to check ahead to ensure the route is clear, and avoid setting out in inclement weather.
Celebrate the holidays — Holiday weekends get busy in wine country, especially Thanksgiving weekend, when wineries throughout the area have special events aimed at celebrating the season and helping you stock on up gifts. Plan for the fun by making advance reservations.
Dress for it — There’s no getting around it: Winter in the Willamette Valley can be wet, but that doesn’t keep adventurous Oregonians inside. Bring a raincoat, water-resistant footwear and, for extra points, a spare pair of socks — you’ll be outfitted for rain-or-shine wine tasting and seasonal hikes too.
Book a tour — If no one in your group wants to be the designated driver, book a guided tour. Having a driver takes the stress out of wine tasting and lets everybody get in on the fun. Backcountry Wine Tours and A Great Oregon Wine Tour leave from Portland. From Salem try Prestige Wine Tours or Valley Vineyard Tours. Eugene Wine Tours and Cork and Barrel Wine Tours cover the South Valley.
Plug & Pinot — The Willamette Valley’s robust network of EV charging stations makes it easy to tour wine country with an electric car. The Willamette Valley Bounty Electric Byway winds through the fruitful northern stretches of the valley. Find more EV trip ideas here.
For more cellar season tips, visit OregonWineCountry.org.