The back roads of Oregon’s fertile valley reveal lush scenery, small-town appeal, and sophisticated pleasures.
For 25 years I’ve been traversing the Willamette Valley from my home in southern Oregon to Eugene or Portland. I usually take the freeway, blasting up I-5 “without seeing a single thing,” as John Steinbeck wrote about interstate system users in Travels with Charley. From the freeway, you get glimpses of the gentle hills that rise above the valley’s western edge, some 20 miles away. That’s where many of its nearly 400 boutique wineries are located—and you can’t get there on I-5.
To reach the heart of the valley’s wine country, you want 99W, the old highway that the inter-state bypassed in the 1960s. Once on it, slow down and take back roads into those hills.
Why is the Willamette Valley such a destination for gourmets? In short: pinot noir, both the grape and the red wine fermented from it. As a group of wine-makers discovered in the mid-1960s, the variety’s notoriously difficult-to-grow vines thrive in the valley’s moderate climate and volcanic soil.
But you don’t need to be a wine wonk to appreciate the valley’s good life. The rustic agricultural area, with its lavish greenery, small-town atmosphere, and abundant outdoor recreational opportunities, remains true to its roots, unlike certain other regions that have sprouted faux châteaus and haute airs. Even so, the Willamette’s attractions now include swank inns, ambitious restaurants, a multitude of tasting rooms, and a rising tide of artisanal bakers, cheese makers, chocolatiers, and craft brewers.
Begin your wandering in Newberg, 26 miles southwest of Portland, at the cozy farm-to-table restaurant Recipe, housed in a handsome Victorian. There the curry-scented Willapa Bay oyster stew is soothing, the salad’s roasted beets are fresh from the kitchen garden, and the wine list features a tempting lineup from the surrounding Chehalem Mountains and Dundee Hills, two of the valley’s six viticultural subregions.
Newberg’s historic district centers on First Street, with a growing array of tasting rooms and wine bars, restaurants and delis, and the Art Elements Gallery, which showcases Oregon artists and curated a collection at the nearby Allison Inn & Spa, a deluxe base for touring the valley.
From Newberg, a 15-minute detour northwest takes you into the Yamhill-Carlton viticultural subregion and the WillaKenzie Estate. The former cattle and horse ranch takes its name from a particular blend of marine sediments that originated eons ago in the Willamette River and its tributary, the McKenzie. The glass-and-steel tasting room makes an idyllic spot to enjoy a flight of pinot noir and other varietals—perhaps including a fruity, floral pinot meunier—and to educate your palate. Different taste characteristics, you’ll learn, arise from different soils: black fruits such as black currant from WillaKenzie sediment, red fruits such as cherry or pomegranate from the volcanic Red Hills of Dundee.
The estate is a world away from Carlton, 15 minutes south. With a population of just over 2,000, Carlton claims more tasting rooms than any other town in Oregon: 21 and counting. Pass an epicurean afternoon on and off Main Street in the shadow of the town’s abandoned grain elevator (set to become another tasting room) sampling pinots at Ken Wright Cellars, nibbling handmade chocolate caramels dusted with sel gris at Honest Chocolates, and savoring small-batch condiments at Republic of Jam. Carlton ended up with so many tasting rooms because “it’s charming and original,” says winemaker Wright. “It hasn’t been franchised to death.”
Heading southeast instead of northwest from Newberg, you’ll reach the Champoeg State Heritage Area along the broad, meandering Willamette River. The town of Champoeg was destroyed in a flood, but the 615-acre park, its visitor center, and the nearby Butteville store (circa 1863) remain as a living his-tory museum of frontier life. The park also features camping, boating, and hiking and biking trails.
Champoeg marks the tip of the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway, which runs south to Eugene. The 132-mile route winds past vineyards, wildlife refuges, hazelnut orchards, and hop and flower farms that bloom in spring. Canoeists and kayakers can explore the landscape on the Willamette River Water Trail complete with stops at riverside and island camp-sites, eateries, and taprooms.
Less ambitious boaters may prefer a launch on the river minutes from downtown Dundee, itself a blink from Newberg on Highway 99W. Spring can be chilly on the water, but take a coat and a kayak to explore the mouth of Chehalem Creek or circle Ash Island, a haven for hawks, beavers, and herons (Starting in mid-June, the Chehalem Paddle Launch rents kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards.)
Dundee’s central business district concentrates on food and wine. Restaurants include such well-respected standbys as the Dundee Bistro and Tina’s. For more elemental victuals, Red Hills Market offers a selection of picnic supplies as well as crisp wood-fired pizza topped with, say, spicy lamb sausage, diced squash, and arugula.
A drive into the Red Hills of Dundee wends up Worden Hill Road, where you can make out Mount Hood beyond acres of vineyards and the sprawling valley below. During the last ice age, 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, titanic floods burst out of Montana’s ancient Lake Missoula when its ice dams collapsed, repeatedly inundating the Willamette basin. Roaring down the Columbia River, the waters spilled into the valley and formed a deep lake. One legacy of those silt-laden floods proved to be the valley’s abundance.
Two festivals toast that plenty in McMinnville, 12 miles from Dundee. The grandest is the summertime International Pinot Noir Celebration at Linfield College. A simpler and more affordable event, the McMinnville Wine & Food Classic, will be held March 7–9 this year in the enormous hangars of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum.
McMinnville is a busy city of 32,000, but Third Street retains a small-town ambience, with its landmark brick buildings, one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants, and canopy of trees. During the UFO Festival (May 15–17 this year), parade-goers dress as aliens to commemorate the day in May 1950 when Evelyn Trent went to feed her chickens and saw a big metallic disk in the sky near town.
Beyond McMinnville, 99W turns due south. The vineyard-covered hills recede, and the valley seems more pastoral—given to hazelnut orchards, berry patches, and grass-seed and hop farms. An hour along lies Corvallis, with a riverfront bike-and-hike path and an adjoining row of restaurants, bakeries, and gastropubs. You might consider lunch at Flat Tail Brewing or take the Mid-Valley Sip Trip, which makes a circuit of craft breweries, cider houses, meaderies, and distilleries. One stop, 2 Towns Ciderhouse, pours eye-opening ciders made with cherry, rhubarb, ginger, or marionberry. Next door, Nectar Creek Honeywine ferments local honey, fruits, and berries into effervescent meads such as a fuchsia-tinged raspberry.
From Corvallis, you could head east to I-5 or south to Eugene, passing another 40 miles of rural beauty strewn with a few wineries, a couple of small towns, and a national wildlife refuge. It would be easy to drive for days up and down 99W, finding happy surprises around every bend. In truth, there is a lifetime of tasting—and seeing—to be done here.
The Willamette by Interstate
Taking I-5 through Oregon? Don’t miss these sights in three lively cities along the way.
Spring is the time of awakening and renewal in the Willamette Valley. Swollen by snowmelt and rain, the Willamette River rolls north through downtown Eugene, meandering up to Albany and Salem. The river has shaped the cities’ history and industry, and the cities in turn have created riverside greenbelts that embellish the urban scene.
Eugene The city’s downtown core and Whiteaker district are undergoing vibrant makeovers that last year alone added more than 20 new businesses. The trend is perhaps best exemplified by the swank Inn at the 5th and its neighbor, the Fifth Street Public Market. At the market you’ll find victuals that include artisan burgers and pan-seared duck breast; shops for kitchenware, flowers, jewelry, and wine; and a day spa. It’s a short walk from there to the Hult and Shedd performing arts centers and to the revitalized Broadway corridor. But the jewel of downtown remains Eugene’s network of parks. The Ruth Bascom Riverbank Trail System proffers 12 miles of paved paths. Pedestrian and bike bridges join acres of green space, playgrounds, wildlife habitat, and running trails. Hendricks Park, an 80-acre woodland garden, boasts some 6,000 varieties of rhododendrons that reach peak bloom during April and May. eugenecascadescoast.org.
Albany The founding brothers of Albany, Walter and Thomas Monteith, came West from New York in 1848. Their two-story wood-frame house and general store is now a history museum. A carousel with 52 animals that are being carved and painted by volunteers will one day live near Monteith Riverpark on the Willamette. You can tour the workshop on First Avenue, then stroll to First Burger for a Samaritan General Hospital: a pound of organic beef, plus bacon, ham, cheese, and, the menu brags, “not a single vegetable!” Or find fine dining across from the carousel museum at Sybaris Bistro, where the chef, Matt Bennett, was a 2011 and 2012 semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation Award as the Northwest’s best. albanyvisitors.com.
Salem Like Eugene, Oregon’s capital prides itself on its waterfront greenbelt, which includes the 1,000-acre Minto-Brown Island Park wildlife sanctuary. Riverfront Park is kid friendly and peaceful, with a volunteer-carved carousel that, unlike Albany’s, is already twirling. At the nearby capitol gardens, cherry trees blossom in spring. The capitol building features marble sculptures and Depression-period murals that depict pivotal events in Oregon’s history. Climb 121 steps to the observation deck and stand beneath the 23-foot, 8.5-ton statue symbolizing the state’s pioneer spirit. Local foodies extol the tiny Word of Mouth Bistro, upscale-dineresque Wild Pear, and chic Orupa. Ditto the desserts at the Little Cannoli Bakery in the restored Reed Opera House. Originally a stop on the vaudeville circuit, the renovated Historic Elsinore Theatre serves up classic films as well as a full menu of performing arts, from ballet to stand-up comedy. travelsalem.com.
This article was first published in March 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.