Half the fun of exploring wine country is rambling down rural roads and following tasting room signs with the anticipation of new discoveries. Sampling those discoveries—in some cases not available outside the tasting room—completes the experience.
In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, with more than 500 wineries, discovering the undiscovered isn’t difficult. Here is a trail of four outstanding boutique wineries that will take you to three of Willamette Valley’s distinct wine regions, and provide a weekend of wine-tasting fun. The predominant varietal in the region is pinot noir, and the common growing and winemaking thread among these four wineries is minimal intervention. You’ll experience hand-crafted fine wines with a personal touch. Of all wine regions in the world, Wine Enthusiast named Willamette Valley “Wine Region of the Year” in 2016.
To begin your wine trail, start at Youngberg Hill Vineyards (youngberghill.com) just outside McMinnville. Besides being an estate winery, Youngberg Hill is also a bed and breakfast, a perfect place to bed down for your wine country getaway. Vineyards stretch down the hill with a panorama of the valley below and the Coast Range foothills beyond. Once you see the view, resist the temptation to just hang out on the inn’s deck for the remainder of your trip. You still have a few days of tasting world-class wines ahead of you.
After you check in, head to the winery’s tasting room to sample estate pinot noirs and one with fruit from a nearby wine region. The winery also makes a pinot blanc and a pinot gris. Winery owner Wayne Bailey characterizes his wine-growing philosophy as “unmanipulative.” He has learned to rely on Mother Nature to do what she does best, but he keeps a close eye on her to make sure he is in sync with her timing.
Breakfast at Youngberg Hill is a delicious event with recipes documented in their cookbook (available on site). After a leisurely breakfast, it’s time for a country drive to your next winery: Ghost Hill Cellars (ghosthillcellars.com) in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA.
Long-time farmers Mike and Drenda Bayliss saw the light when many of their neighboring farmers converted their acreage to vineyards. The Bayliss family had been farming this land since 1906 and planted vineyards in 1999. When you visit this unpretentious winery, you’ll know you are on a century farm. Ask about the winery’s name, and you’ll hear the tale of the ghost of an old prospector said to roam a section of the farm at the top of the hill. Here you’ll taste phenomenal, complex pinot noirs, some having received critical scores as high as 94.
Also in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, Lenné Estate (lenneestate.com) is a small-production winery on land that owner/grower/winemaker Stephen Lutz describes as having all the right elements for excellent fruit: the right exposure, the right elevation and pitch and the right soil depth (or lack thereof). Here, roots reach deep for nutrients in this nutrient-poor soil, producing small clusters and berries packed with flavor components for some nuanced pinot noirs unique to Lenné’s terroir.
End your wine tour in the Chehalem Mountains AVA at Vidon Vineyard (vidonvineyard.com). You’ll probably meet winemaker/owner Don Hagge, who long ago fell in love with the wines of Burgundy. After several successful and impressive career iterations, from prominent NASA physicist to Silicon Valley, Don and his wife, Vickie, are now living their dream of growing and producing their own pinot noirs and other varietals. A visit to this small tasting room is a rewarding and entertaining trip into the world of small-batch winemaking, including learning about a wine dispensing machine that Don invented and uses in his tasting room.
After a full day, head back to McMinnville for dinner at one of this wine-country town’s many restaurants, then to Youngberg Hill to settle in for a relaxing night. You’ve just scratched the surface of a complex wine region, and you have about 500 more reasons to return