The first time I went wine tasting, I could have used some guidance about the mysteries of the experience. I remember observing more experienced guests swirling their wine and lifting their glasses to their noses and inhaling deeply, then discarding wine after a few sips into a little bucket, but didn’t understand why. Many years and tastings later, I can help demystify the process of wine-tasting in Oregon’s storied vineyards for other newbies.
Getting Started with Style
Oregon is best known for its pinot noir, but there are actually nearly 100 varieties grown in the state, including chardonnay, riesling, syrah and cabernet. Part of the fun of wine tasting is that you can get the chance to try a range of wines and see what suits your palate.
Many Oregon wineries have shifted to a reservation-only system. Make your own reservation on the winery’s website, or — even easier — book a guided tour of a wine region. Always make safety a priority by using a designated driver, whether someone in your group or a tour guide.
At the tasting room, you’ll receive a list of the wines you’ll be sampling that day. If you’re asked to choose from the list, feel free to ask for recommendations. The staff will usually describe the characteristics of each wine and its terroir — which refers to the habitat in which a grape is grown.
Most people like to swirl their wine a bit in the glass to enhance the aromas in the glass and examine the color. You can avoid spill risks by placing your glass on a table and then moving it in a circular motion. Breathe deeply inward and notice what you smell, thinking of categories like flowers, citrus and fresh fruit or deeper flavors like blackberry jam or leather. Then take your first sip, slowly, letting the wine linger on your tongue a bit before swallowing. Feel free to pour out wine you don’t want — you won’t offend anyone. Once your glass is empty, your host will stop by with your next pour.
If there’s something that you particularly enjoyed, consider buying a bottle or case. While tasting fees help offset the cost of pours, most Oregon wineries are small, family-owned businesses that rely on sales from in-person visits and wine-club memberships.
Six itineraries for Oregon’s wine regions
North Willamette Valley
With miles of rolling hills blanketed with expansive vine plantings, this wine region looks like it could have been plucked straight from a painting. It’s home to many of the state’s largest wineries from Rex Hill to Argyle Winery, and there are also plenty of smaller tasting rooms worth visiting. Options include the micro-boutique Bells Up Winery — named partly for the melodious sounds of the owner’s French horn — and Utopia, which handcrafts pinot noir and chardonnay. For lunch, make your way over to acclaimed biodynamic farm Soter Vineyards for a food-and-wine-tasting experience, or visit one of the many farm-to-fork restaurants in the cities of Dundee, Newberg and McMinnville.
If you want to experience the North Willamette Valley like a true Oregonian, head out on a cycling and wine-tasting tour with Wine de Roads. When you’re done for the day, retire for a night at Bella Collina Bed & Breakfast atop a quiet countryside hilltop, or rest your head on the pillows inside a restored Airstream at The Vintages Trailer Resort.
South and Central Willamette Valleys
Family Farms and Hilly Vineyards
The hilly terrain continues as you make your way south of Salem, the state capital, eventually opening up into wide-open expanses. This region is home to the massive Willamette Valley Vineyards along with many smaller options, including compact La Chouette Vineyard, which produces small batches of estate pinot noir and chardonnay, and Cória Estates, a Mexican American family-owned winery offering fantastic views with its pinot and chardonnay. Many of the South Willamette Valley’s wineries are located on the outskirts of Eugene, including Antiquum Farm in Junction City, where you can taste their fantastic pinots while learning about the farm’s innovative approach to growing wine grapes.
South of Eugene, King Estate is one of Oregon’s largest and most lauded wineries. A good way to experience the region is by basing yourself in the Eugene-Springfield area and then heading out on day tours with Oregon Vine2Wine. While in town, hit up some of Eugene’s many urban wineries and tasting rooms.
Columbia Gorge and Columbia Valley
Dynamic Land and Great Grapes
This region’s two distinct climates make it ideal for growing a wide range of grapes, from pinots in the cooler western area to merlot and cabernet sauvignon in the sunnier stretch east of the Cascades. It’s not just grapes that thrive here — fruit orchards abound, particularly in the Hood River area, making it prime territory for cideries, too. Wineries include Sunshine Mill Winery — housed in a repurposed historic flour mill in The Dalles — and family-owned Wy’East Vineyards in the Hood River Valley.
For a casual fine-dining and pairing experience, head to Hiyu Wine Farm, where the typical wine-tasting model is turned into a meal with wine pairings. Spend the night at a luxury property like the intimate Sakura Ridge Farm & Lodge or one of the region’s more budget-friendly options. For a guided tour, try Columbia Wine Tours.
The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater
Rich Reds and Volcanic Soil
Part of the larger Walla Walla Valley wine area, this region is named for the small Eastern Oregon town of Milton-Freewater northeast of Pendleton. It’s known for its unusual volcanic terroir, which gives many of the wines a taste described as “minerality.” Try the deep red syrah at Rotie Cellars’ Rocks Estate or the lighter-hued grenache — a grape originating from Spain — at reservation-only Los Rocosos Vineyards.
Waterfalls and Spanish Wines
Known for its forested waterfalls near Roseburg, the Umpqua Valley is worth visiting for its scenery alone. It’s also a well-established wine region, and Oregon’s first pinot vineyard was planted in the valley, at HillCrest, back in 1961. While pinot remains popular in the Umpqua Valley to this day, this region has enough climate diversity to make it equally suitable for warmer-climate Spanish varieties like tempranillo (a medium-bodied red variety) for which Abacela is known.
If you want to sample a range from this region, visit The Secret Wine Society, a cozy tasting room in tiny Oakland where you can learn about a variety of local wines while you snack on artisan cheese and charcuterie. You can visit these spots and more on a private, customizable tour with The Touring Company before returning to Roseburg for a night of rest at the historic John Rast House bed-and-breakfast.
Historic Wineries and Wild Waterways
Known for its mild climate and for the Rogue River — famous for whitewater rafting and year-round fishing — Rogue Valley Wine Country is also a wine region celebrated by Wine Enthusiast as a finalist for Best Wine Region in 2022. Dive in with a tour by Main Street Tours, which will take you out to lovely properties like Cowhorn Vineyard, Red Lily Vineyards and Troon Vineyard. Don’t miss visiting family-run spots such as Foris Vineyards, a valley standard since 1974; Schmidt Family Vineyards, which offers pizza to pair with your pours; and the Catalyst Wine Collective in the small town of Phoenix, where two small-lot producers share a hip, industrial space.
For a bit of history, visit EdenVale Winery to sip syrah, viognier (a white grape variety) or pear cider on the grounds of the first commercial pear orchard in the U.S. before checking into the historic Ashland Springs Hotel in downtown Ashland.