Those seeking a more rustic alternative to the wine meccas of California will find what they’re looking for in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Extending about 100 miles southwest from Portland, the valley is nestled between the Cascade Mountains to the east, the Calapooya Mountains to the south, and the Coast Range to the west. Besides providing spectacular views, the mountains buffer the valley from harsh weather and help create ideal growing conditions for cool-climate grapes.
Known for its stellar pinot noir, the Willamette Valley is a young wine market, achieving designation as an AVA (American Viticultural Area) in 1984. Six sub-AVAs were created within the sprawling region in the mid-2000s, ranging from Dundee Hills and Ribbon Ridge to Chehalem Mountain. (Note: Chehalem is pronounced Sha-HAY-lem; and, while we’re at it, Willamette is pronounced Will-AM-it—not Willa-MET. As the locals say, “It’s Will-AM-it, dammit.”)
The valley’s wine industry has really taken off during the past decade or so and now boasts more than 400 wineries. It’s difficult to nail down a precise number, as some are very small, taking up space in a kitchen, barn, or garage. You won’t come across glitzy venues like Francis Ford Coppola’s Sonoma County compound, because the Oregon wineries aren’t owned by Hollywood producers or Silicon Valley tech millionaires but by farmers whose families have likely lived in the region for generations. A number of the wineries are private, accepting visitors only by appointment or referral or during the region’s two annual holiday open houses (Memorial Day and Thanksgiving weekends).
During a recent trip to Newberg, a small town in the northern section of the valley, I visited three wineries: Domaine Drouhin Oregon (run by the well-known Drouhin family of France), Stoller Family Estate (the first LEED gold-certified winery in the world), and Privé Vineyard (a private venue that sells only to its established customer base). Though uniquely different, all three impressed.
Until recently, travelers to the area had to choose between staying in a bed-and-breakfast or a hotel in Portland. Things changed in September 2009 with the opening of The Allison Inn and Spa. The four-story, 85-room resort was developed by Newberg’s Austin family, the clan behind A-dec, the world’s largest maker of dental equipment. The driving force was matriarch Joan Austin, who died in 2013. Her intent was to provide luxury accommodations for families of patients at Newberg’s renowned Hazelden addiction treatment center and, in an interesting contrast, to support the area’s emerging wine industry.
The Allison, which takes its name from a lake that covered the Willamette Valley during the Ice Age, is luxurious without being stuffy. There are a number of nice touches, like fireplaces in every room and two-person bathtubs. The resort also features more than 500 original pieces of art by 100 Oregon artists.
The staff is exceptionally gracious. Managing director Pierre Zreik says it’s the resort that attracts first-time guests, but it’s the service that brings them back. Also setting the Allison apart is its 15,000-square-foot spa, where treatments include four-hand massages, Oregon rain hydrotherapy, and the grape seed cure. Resort guests have access to all spa facilities, including the heavenly eucalyptus steam rooms.
A number of notable chefs have been lured to the Willamette Valley by its bountiful produce, berries, mushrooms, and nuts. Among them is Sunny Jin, executive chef at the Allison’s Jory restaurant, which is named for the rich soil that is unique to the region. Before moving to Oregon, Jin sharpened his culinary skills at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, elBulli in Spain, and Tetsuya’s Restaurant in Australia. His menu at Jory, which changes regularly, pulls from the Allison’s own 1.5-acre garden. Sit at the cook’s counter to watch the chefs at work. One evening I sat next to a man who had returned for a third consecutive night for Jory’s wild mushroom soup. After trying it the next day, I understood the allure.
The menu at the Joel Palmer House in nearby Dayton revolves around wild mushrooms and truffles, down to the candy-cap mushroom crème brûlée. Another fine-dining standout is Painted Lady in Newberg. More rustic options include Recipe in Newberg and Thistle in McMinnville. Red Hills Market in Dundee also is worth a stop; don’t leave without trying the warm filberts with bacon and rosemary. You can also pack up a to-go lunch to take along on a day trip to Oregon’s stunningly beautiful coast.
The narrow, winding roads that meander through the Coast Range make for pure driving pleasure. Surrounded and safeguarded by majestic trees in the coastal rainforest, you’ll also see crystal-clear mountain streams. Once you reach the Pacific, there are a number of roadside areas along Highway 101 where you can safely stop and take in the breathtaking views. Plentiful beach options include Cannon Beach and, farther north, Seaside, the official end point of the historic Lewis and Clark expedition. There, you can also get your seafood fix—halibut, salmon, crab, and prawns—at The Boardwalk, or a host of other restaurants.
When heading back to the valley, leave early enough to avoid traveling through the mountains at night. I found one particularly twisty series of turns to be reminiscent of skiing through a giant slalom course! A ton of fun, but better enjoyed during daylight hours.
Trip provided by the Allison Inn and Spa. A version of this article appears in the July-August issue of D CEO.