Exploring the Willamette Valley wine country of Oregon

Johan vineyards in the Willamette Valley

Dag Johan Sundy of the biodynamic Johan Vineyards

The Willamette Valley is where wine lovers flock to visit boutique and small family-owned wineries and to taste Pinot Noir and other cool-climate wines. We had a chance to get an insider’s look at the Willamette Valley at the 5th Annual Wine Bloggers Conference held last week in Portland, Oregon. We were bused to several wineries and got a chance to meet owners, winemakers, and growers. Back at our hotel we also had a chance to taste and compare many wines from this region. The three days were not nearly enough time, so we shall return again to this remarkable wine country.

Home Base for a Willamette Valley wine country getaway

The wineries are just a short distance from Portland, Oregon, a great city to make as your base for your exploration. Downtown Portland has much to offer in the way of restaurants, shopping, wine bars, and of course Powell’s famous block-long bookstore. If you don’t like the big city atmosphere, another option is to lodge in Salem. Salem is the capitol of Oregon and has a number of places to stay and very easy access to the wineries. It is much easier to maneuver around Salem with a car than it is in Portland. There are also many options for B&B’s throughout the Valley.

Left coast cellars in the Willamette Valley

Willamette Valley hillside - Left Coast Cellars

The Terroir

It is all about the rain, fog, wind, cool temperatures and soil in the Willamette Valley. This is where Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and other cool-climate grapes thrive. There are many small valleys and hillsides, providing unique microclimates. Soil types also differentiate with sedimentary soil and volcanic soil. The area experiences a very long growing season and huge differences in diurnal temperatures. Breezes from the ocean and the Willamette River bring a big drop in nighttime temperatures.

Pinot Noir trimmed

Pruning the shoulder off this Pinot Noir cluster. Will harvest in October

Green Atmosphere

We were impressed with how passionate the wineries and growers are about sustainable farming. 38% of the vineyard lands are sustainable or biodynamic. There is a strong sense of preserving the environment throughout all of Oregon. Solar panel systems are common. Dry farming is also prevalent. You can feel this sense of environmental responsibility throughout the Willamette Valley and all of Oregon. It appears this is one area where the wineries of Oregon are far ahead of many of their counterparts in California.

Piluso vineyards and winery in Willamette Valley

Sandee Piluso shows off a cluster of Tempranillo grapes


Wineries to Visit

There are close to 300 wineries in the Willamette Valley divided into six sub AVA’s. We only scratched the surface with our visit and would love to return soon to keep exploring. Here are the wineries we visited.

Johan Vineyards – biodynamic and very small winery, delicious wines
Left Coast Cellars – 100 acres of sustainably- farmed vineyards
Willamette Valley Vineyards – Winery of the Year, 2011, sustainable farming.
Rex Hill – one Oregon’s largest and oldest wineries, beautiful setting
Piluso Vineyards & Winery – Sandee Piluso makes some wonderful wines. Only 600 cases.

A complete list of wineries and trip planning material can be found at OregonWine.org and WillametteWines.com.

If you are driving up from California, check out our articles on Southern Oregon wineries, beginning with this article on Discovering Wineries of Southern Oregon. A nice stop along the way is Eugene, Oregon. If you are a runner, be sure to take a morning jog along the Steve Prefontaine trail; it is mystical.

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