by Allen Cox | Photo © Visit Washington County
Historically, this region is farm country; small agricultural towns pepper the landscape. Today, many of those towns house restaurants and bakeries serving local bounty. More than 50 farms open their gates to visitors. Washington County occupies the northern reaches of Willamette Valley and is home to nearly 30 wineries and tasting rooms. Nature preserves and wetlands attract not only wildlife but also visitors who are into wildlife spotting, birding, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. This is a countryside meant for exploring, with surprises around every bend.
A lively, centrally located home base for a weekend getaway is McMenamins Grand Lodge in the town of Forest Grove. True to form, McMenamins acquired a vintage structure—in this case, a Masonic retirement home and orphanage—and transformed it into a lodge, restaurant and entertainment hub extraordinaire that exemplifies the uber-whimsical McMenamins vibe and pays homage to the building’s origins. If you’ve never experienced a McMenamins property, you’re in for a real treat. The brand is original and distinctive. Spaces, public and private, are adorned with original art and design elements that evoke vivid flashbacks of the 60s and 70s, especially nostalgic for those of us who experienced those decades. But it’s not only boomers who groove to McMenamins—the generations since, up to millenials, dig it as well.
You’ll be tempted to spend the entire weekend never leaving the lodge, but don’t cave to temptation. Sure, the practitioners at McMenamins in-house Ruby’s Spa deliver one of the best therapeutic massages you’ll ever have, the 102-degree soaking pool will make your cares melt away, and the choice of three distinctive bars will lure you into sampling McMenimins own brands of beer, wine and spirits. But make a point to get out and explore what the rest of Washington County surroundings have to offer.
Perhaps the best way to see the sights is to follow the Vineyard and Valley Scenic Tour Route. You can start this 60-mile self-guided tour through Tualatin Valley at either end—in Sherwood in the south or Helvetia in the north. Many of the county’s best attractions are along this route. (McMenamins Grand Lodge is near the middle of the route, so you could detour to the lodge to check in en route, and then finish the tour.) Highlights of this scenic rural drive include wineries, farms, historic sites, historic country taverns and general stores, shopping, plenty of dining choices, wildlife areas and scenic viewpoints.
You’ll pass several wineries along or near the route, and if you’re a wine lover, you’ll want to visit a few. Before you make your first tasting room stop, it’s a good idea to visit a farm stand or a country store to stock up on some tasty provisions in case one of the winery settings is so enticing you’re compelled to picnic. Gaston Market at 222 Front Street in Gaston is a one of the best bets for a nice selection of gourmet products fit for a special picnic. (Tip: Buy wine at the winery where you picnic.)
A locally produced food to seek out, whether at the source or a local market is Quail Run Creamery cheeses. If you are traveling in a small group, call ahead and inquire about an appointment for a tasting. It’s worth it to sample all of their cheeses, hear from the cheese makers and visit the adorable Nigerian dwarf dairy goats that produce the rich and delicious raw ingredient.
Since visiting wineries and driving don’t go hand in hand when the driver wants to imbibe, a handful of good tour operators can come to the rescue. Grape Escape Wine Tours is one of the best for their knowledge of the region and its wineries; they can pick you up at Grand Lodge.
If you fashion your own wine trail, here are some suggestions. David Hill Vineyard has some of the oldest vines in Oregon; at the tasting room in the picturesque vineyards, you’ll sample varietals typical of the region: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürtztraminer and others. Stop at Montinore Estate to experience a family-run certified biodynamic, organic winery. Take a slight detour off the route to visit Elk Cove Vineyards (just over the county line in Yamhill County); here, at the tasting room in the middle of the scenic rolling vineyards, you’ll find a variety of single vineyard Pinot Noirs. Kramer Vineyards is a small, family-run winery with vineyards surrounded by forest, producing some exceptional wines, notably their selection of bubblies including a methode traditionnelle Brut made from estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. (Tip: pair at home with truffle-butter popcorn; recipe on Kramer’s website). Near the south end of the loop, Ponzi Vineyards Winery has opened a stylishly modern new tasting room that is a must-stop, not only to sample their award-winning wines, but to enjoy the stunning architecture as well.
A sharp left turn from grape wine is rice wine. If your experience with sake is the warm liquid served in some Japanese restaurants, you’re in for a pleasant education at SakeOne in Forest Grove. They are the leading brewer of craft sake in the nation. Their tasting room serves an array of sakes made on site, each one distinctive. Ask for a tour of the brewery, or kura, to learn how it’s made, before you settle down for tastes.
Washington County is not all about fine wines and food. The wineries and towns are surrounded by nature, large tracts thankfully set aside for wildlife. Near Forest Grove, Fernhill Wetlands is an 800-acre nature preserve that attracts a wide variety and number of wildlife. This is a world class birding destination, and spring is an active time to spot many species, so bring your scope. A few acres have been set aside as Fernhill Gardens, a tranquil, Asian-inspired sanctuary perfect for a soul-soothing stroll.
Back at Grand Lodge, play a friendly game of disc golf on the lawn and, in the evening, tap a foot to the live music at The Garage Door in the basement. In the morning, before you check out and head home, enjoy one of the best breakfasts in the county at the lodge’s own Ironwork Grille.
Resources for when you go:
>> Washington County information & map: oregonswashingtoncounty.com
>> Lodging: mcmenamins.com/GrandLodge
>> Wine tour operator: grapeescapetours.com
>> Cheese, wine and sake:
>> Forest Grove & Fernhill Wetlands: