Valley, vineyards, and vistas

Irene Middleman Thomas

Gazing out over acres of lush, emerald-green vineyards, with rippling rows of purple mountains far off in the misty background, a glass of crimson Pinot Noir swirling in my hand, and hearing gentle laughter and conversation from other tables at a comfortable distance, we could almost forget about the COVID-19 crisis. Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the state’s “Wine Country,” offered us the perfect respite from the monotony and isolation we have faced for months.

This past summer, we drove from Colorado through Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and across Oregon,  using our AAA TripTik, to reach the central portion of the state. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley (pronounced Will-AM-ette) we found exceptional COVID safety measures at wineries, in hotels, at restaurants, and even in parks and on beaches—and most folks were masked.

Vintage retreat

More than 100 miles long, and spanning 60 miles at its widest point, the Willamette Valley is situated between the Cascade Mountains and Coast Range, and includes the cities of Portland, Salem, Eugene, Corvallis, McMinnville, and Newberg, just to name a few—each with its own distinct personality.

The Valley’s cool climate and rich soils make it renowned worldwide for its superb wines—particularly its Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris—more than 750 vineyards and about 600 wineries, and earned it the title of Wine Region of the Year in 2016, by Wine Enthusiast magazine.

Wines were not part of the Willamette Valley until 1965, when the first Pinot Noir grapes were planted by David Lett, a visionary whose family now owns and runs The Eyrie Vineyards in McMinnville, Ore. Today, approximately two-thirds of Oregon’s wineries are in the Valley, which was designated an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1983, and now contains seven sub-AVAs. But rest assured, the Valley’s wineries and tasting rooms are not just for those who can talk knowingly about a wine’s  nose, balance, or structure. In fact, during our visit to Willamette Valley Vineyards, our server agreed with me when I admitted, blushing from under my mask, that we often enjoy $10 wines. “So do I,” he said with a laugh.

With new COVID policies, most tasting rooms require patrons to make advanced reservations, then are served tableside by a specific server, allowing plenty of personal attention and time to ask questions.

Julia Crowley, acclaimed Wine Radio Host and Manager of Sweet Cheeks on 5th, serves wines with her face shield protection at the 5th Street Market in Eugene, Ore.. © Mark Rush Photography

“This is actually working very well for us,” says Julia Crowley, manager of Sweet Cheeks Winery’s tasting room and host of a weekly wine radio show for KPNW in Eugene, Ore. “Folks are getting the full experience.”

Culinary delight

In addition to visiting wineries, there is plenty of other things to see and do in the rolling verdant hills, densely wooded forests, vibrant towns, and pastoral areas of the Valley. Typically, a wine culture pairs with artisan dining, hence there are 58 culinary stops on the South Willamette Valley Food Trail, including bakeries, farms and growers’ markets, breweries and wineries, and outstanding restaurants with locally sourced produce, cheeses, and meats.

The Painted Lady, a AAA Four Diamond-designated restaurant about 45 minutes south of Portland, in Newberg, serves up gourmet 5- and 7-course prix fixe meals to a cultivated clientele. Set in a small, restored Victorian house, it is rated one of the 100 most romantic restaurants in the nation. Newberg is home to a wealth of acclaimed wineries, and if you wish to stay the night, I suggest the AAA Four Diamond-designated Allison Inn & Spa, a luxurious destination resort in a spectacular setting.

College-town fun

Eugene's 5th Street Market is full of fountains, flowers, and fun. © Mark Rush Photography

Oregon’s small college towns feature beloved outdoor shopping areas, such as Eugene’s 5th Street Market, with its gorgeous hanging flower baskets, free Thursday evening outdoor concerts, three winery tasting rooms (including the aforementioned Sweet Cheeks), excellent brewpubs, unique, high-end shops, excellent French-tinged cuisine, and the Inn at the 5th, another AAA Four Diamond-designated luxury hotel, is just steps from the Market. Sitting beside the gently spouting fountain, enjoying the music, we felt happily far from the pandemic.

The next morning was cool and drizzly, and we strolled the beautifully shaded Ruth Bascom riverbank path system en route to the Market. We reveled in the glistening raindrops adorning the petals in the 8.5-acre Owen Rose Garden, a paradise of more than 4,500 roses, with more than 400 varieties.

Two-wheeled adventures

The Mosby Creek Covered Bridge in Cottage Grove is just one of the many covered bridges on the Scenic Bikeway. © Mark Rush Photography

Bicycling is big all over Oregon, yet especially in the Willamette Valley. The 134-mile Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway, the first officially designated Scenic Bikeway in the nation, snakes along the Willamette River and winds through the Valley’s vineyards, hop fields, hazelnut and fruit orchards, small towns, and state parks. Misty mountain views serve as a backdrop to the waving meadows of long golden grasses, and blackberry patches beckon alongside charming signposts pointing to wineries in every direction. We were entranced by the ferns, fields of Queen Anne’s Lace and other flowers, as well as enormous leafy trees.

Just outside Eugene, is the historic and nicely preserved village of Cottage Grove. The area is famed for covered bridges. From here, we did another ride along part of the Covered Bridge Scenic Bike Route, which offers a mostly flat rails-to-trails looping path, leading to the 17-mile Row River Trail. This very pleasant and peaceful, traffic-free ride was complemented by impossibly thick blackberry patches tempting us to stop frequently for delicious foraging. We passed by several bridges, all listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and reached Dorena Lake before looping back.

Wild blackberries are everywhere throughout the Willamette Valley—free for all, but best to avoid those by the roadside. © Alamy/Buddy Mays

The final bike tour of our trip was a 6-hour, guided wine and cycle tour with Wine de Roads. We visited three wineries for tastings and a hearty lunch, as well as a fragrant lavender farm and shop. For non-cyclists, you can explore the area by car, van, and limousine tours, and even by helicopter, horseback, or hot air balloon.

After a week of wines, our last night was spent at an authentic Mexican café and celebrating with some excellent hoppy IPAs from one of the Valley’s craft breweries. The Valley is not only wine heaven, it’s beer and hard cider heaven, as well. Ah yes, but there are those delectable Oregon truffles, hazelnuts, and cheeses…but that’s another story!

Irene Middleman Thomas is a Loveland-based freelance writer whose works have appeared in more than 100 publications, including EnCompass, Sunset, and Adventure Cyclist.