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Willamette Valley's Boutique Vineyards

Fall foliage at Domaine Drouhin.

Photo: Steve Kepple

“This isn’t Napa Valley.” Fifteen years later, I can still hear the words of the manager of one of Oregon’s best wineries.

I’d asked, innocently enough, why he didn’t allow visitors. His response was shorthand for all the ways in which the Willamette Valley, a bucolic stretch of rolling farmland that begins some 100 miles southwest of Portland, wanted to distance itself from America’s most successful wine region. Napa had given itself over to wine tourism, lock, stock, and new oak barrels, but grapes are merely one of 225 cash crops in the Willamette. Here, combines and harvesters far outnumber tour buses. Vineyards aren’t vast but small and irregularly shaped, threaded between strawberry patches and fields of ryegrass. Wineries are owned by fledgling grape farmers and self-taught enologists who came here looking for a quiet, comfortable life. To them, Napa was a four-letter word. As for tourism, they didn’t really care if you came to see them or didn’t. They certainly didn’t want to sell you a corkscrew.

But I cared. I wanted to drink the wines, and the ones I liked best weren’t sold in my local wine shops, or anywhere I traveled. The Willamette Valley didn’t have a single producer that could be called large. (Even today, the average annual output of an Oregon winery is just 4,600 12-bottle cases, which means that California’s Gallo, for example, sells more than the entire state.) The best wines were—and continue to be—produced in such tiny quantities that they’re seldom seen outside the state. Really, you have to visit to get them.

So I kept coming. I’d eat at the same handful of restaurants each time and take long walks through vineyards without seeing another soul. I couldn’t find a hotel or B&B worth staying in more than once, so I eventually resorted to staying at Portland’s Heathman Hotel, which would be an eminently desirable option if it weren’t an hour’s drive away.

The wines made it all worthwhile. Burgundy is the benchmark for Pinot Noir, but I actually found the Willamette’s Pinots more consistently impressive. My favorites stimulated not just my taste buds but also my imagination, like friends who are far more than merely pleasant company. And as time went on, I came to appreciate all that made the Willamette different from everywhere else. More and more wine regions were becoming facsimiles of Napa, and touring them sometimes felt like visiting an enological theme park, with tasting rooms instead of rides. The authenticity of the Willamette as an agricultural area appealed to me. So did its resolute determination not to squander all that made it special in pursuit of something bigger, grander, more profitable. Not Napa? That suited me fine.

A few years ago, just as the original generation of Willamette winery owners began passing control to their sons and daughters, I started hearing rumblings of change. Developers had applied for permits and were challenging the strict land-use laws, I was told. There was talk of corporate investment in wineries, even blueprints for luxury hotels. And when one of those, the Allison Inn & Spa, broke ground, I feared the worst.

Yet I was also intrigued—especially after I learned, once the Allison opened, that many of the old-time winery owners who’d vociferously opposed it had become regulars. They’d sip wine at the bar, get massages in the spa, eat dinner there every week. Even more surprising, friends would actually praise the impact it was having on life in the valley.

So I flew in to investigate. I drove past manicured gardens and walked into a sun-drenched lobby. There was no corporate anonymity, just understated hospitality. I still had visions of the Willamette starting down a one-way road toward being just another wine-country destination. But I wasn’t going to miss that long drive back to the Heathman.

The Allison is the first hotel in the history of the Willamette in which the phrase “thread count” comes into play. There are fireplaces and tangerine bath salts in the guest rooms, cascading water and kinesis machines in the fitness center, boutique Steven Smith teas in the lobby. The level of service is remarkable, especially in an agricultural community where a hospitality culture needed to be conjured up from scratch. Drop off an envelope and your boarding pass is delivered to your room. Ask for winery visits and you’ll get a personalized itinerary.

After two false starts, the food at the hotel’s signature restaurant, Jory, has come into focus in the hands of Sunny Jin, a South Korea native whose brief but wildly impressive professional history includes Napa’s French Laundry, Sydney’s Tetsuya’s, and Spain’s El Bulli, arguably the most influential restaurants on each of three continents.

And after spending a few days in the valley, I had to admit that the effect of the hotel has been profound. Not only can sizable groups now plan outings to the area—one recent stay by Texas collectors resulted in the purchase of 650 bottles from area vintners—but anyone who visits the region will reap some benefits, even if they don’t set foot on the property. Perhaps they’ll eat the bread of Portland’s renowned Pearl Bakery, which had steadfastly refused to export to the Willamette until a full-court press by Allison executives, and now sends a truck through each morning. Or they’ll enjoy the fresh fish from the Oregon coast that hadn’t been brought into the valley until recently. “The Allison deserves so much of the credit,” says Paul Bachand, who serves the bread and the fish at his six-month-old American bistro, Recipe.

Most of all, the Allison has attracted the kind of traveler that the Willamette sees as its future. Not the tour-bus-riding, wine-swilling lout that author Rex Pickett has parodied in Vertical, the follow-up to Sideways that he based in the Willamette, but one who appreciates the painstakingly chosen local artwork on the hotel’s walls. “I’m not usually open to visitors unless they’re on our mailing list,” said Maggie Harrison, who makes the wine and runs the business at tiny Antica Terra, a winery in the northwest Eola-Amity Hills that has developed a cult following. “But if the Allison calls and says, ‘I have four people,’ I say, ‘Absolutely.’ They’re exactly who I want.”

But Harrison is New Wave, a California émigré without roots in the region and a winery funded by investment bankers. One afternoon I drove to see Merrilee Buchanan Benson at Tyee Wine Cellars, an under-the-radar property founded by her parents, who first planted grapes in the valley back in 1974. We sat under 400-year-old oaks, ate a picnic lunch, and drank a 1999 Pinot Noir. It was salmon-colored, typical of light-bodied Pinots with some age, and unobtrusive. Yet each time I took a sip, it had gained richness and body and character, as great Burgundies characteristically do. I know people who’d fly across the Atlantic to taste just such a wine, but they overlook the Willamette because bottles like that one never reach their doorstep. And besides wine professionals, the only person I know who has ever visited Tyee, a good 20 minutes from the bulk of the valley’s wineries, is ... me.

Now 37, Buchanan Benson became the winemaker in 2006, after two decades of modest success for Tyee. She’d studied enology and had her own ideas, so she stopped using oak for the Chardonnay to help the fruit shine through, and started harvesting Pinot Noir in three passes to make sure all the berries were ripe. She cut production nearly in half because she didn’t want any grapes that weren’t grown on her family’s property. “I come from this farm,” she said, “and I’m excited about having people experience it.”

But the experience she can offer is tightly proscribed. On-site restaurants, which help make wineries profitable from Pauillac to Perth, are all but banned by zoning laws. Her tasting room is a hut. And making 18,000 bottles a year is hardly financially sustainable. “For a long time, everyone here was trying to prevent us from becoming the next California,” Buchanan Benson told me. “It’s left us as kind of a backwoods, sleepy, rural kind of place, and I like that. I want to preserve it—we’d really benefit from keeping that pace as part of our culture. But we do have to figure out how to make a living.”

As we finished lunch, I imagined how jarring it would feel if a tour group marched past us through the meadow. Then I let myself consider what would happen if the Buchanan family, which has owned the farmstead since 1885, were forced to sell it, and how I’d feel if I could never drink a bottle of Tyee again. I still wasn’t certain how I felt about the first vision, but I knew I didn’t like the second one.

Another sea change has been brought about by a cadre of young chefs, led by Recipe’s Bachand and Thistle’s Eric Bechard, who have decided that the Willamette Valley is the best new place to open a restaurant. It helps that the area is in the orbit of Portland, one of America’s best food cities, and that its bounty of crops has helped attract dedicated farm-to-table practitioners who want to be near farms. “You can’t do this in too many wine regions,” said Bechard of his relentlessly locavore, 45-seat restaurant. “Only 1.4 percent of the crops grown here are grapes. That leaves a lot to work with.”

Thistle lists its ever-changing menu on a chalkboard, along with the names of its purveyors. Its seasonality is so strict that it won’t serve Bloody Marys “until tomatoes are in season,” as Bechard recently told a guest. At Farm to Fork, at the Inn at Red Hills, in Dundee, the menu emphasizes French comfort foods: terrines and rillettes calculated to match the earthiness of the local Pinots. Even Nick’s Italian Café, in McMinnville, which has fed the wine community for two decades, is evolving.

That’s where I met Ben Casteel, who several years ago replaced his father as the winemaker at Bethel Heights. Ben, 34, appreciates that the idyllic Willamette of his childhood may not be sustainable. “I’m not an economist,” he said, “but I know that change is coming.” Actually, he acknowledged, it’s here. Sitting in a banquette at Nick’s, Casteel scanned the options. “This is the first time I’ve seen sea urchin on Nick’s menu,” he said.

The courses emerged from the kitchen like clockwork and were complicated, ambitious, and remarkably good—a halibut crudo with oranges, microgreens, and baby radish; a spicy bean soup with squid. We drank one of Casteel’s single-vineyard Pinots, which is made in a different style than Tyee’s, with broader shoulders and deeper flavors: more basso profundo than tenor. It made me again appreciate the capabilities of a region that can turn out such varied wines from the same type of grape, each recognizable as Oregonian.

Then a man stood to announce that his wife was celebrating a birthday. Immediately, the stillness was broken. A robust rendition of “Happy Birthday” began, picked up steam, and filled the room. It was as if the old Nick’s had come back to life to temporarily reclaim the space. I was happy to learn that Nick’s is still the kind of place where a roomful of diners will set aside their microgreens to mark the birthday of a random diner a few tables away. And I was happier still when dinner ended, and I headed up the road toward my waiting bed, overlooking a vineyard.

Bruce Schoenfeld is T+L’s wine and spirits editor.

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