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Willamette's demure is its greatest appeal
by Elizabeth Willoughy

Not as famous as America's Napa Valley wine producing region in California, Willamette Valley in Oregon embodies a "slow and steady wins the race" philosophy.

Just 32 kilometers south of downtown Portland, Willamette Valley enjoys the same latitude as Burgundy in France. Home to over 400 AVA wineries, its flagship wine, Pinot Noir, is what Oregon is ideally suited for, however Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling also do well here, and heartier red wines have been making an appearance, both from locally-grown grapes and those brought in from nearby states.

Though the wine here is excellent, this fertile region is good for more than just grapes. The valley's nuts, berries, scenic countryside and family-run B&Bs also attract visitors who, even if they don't know the proper pronunciation (it's will-AM-it), prefer the down home, historic small town charm to the snobbish arrogance and industrialization that has reared its ugly head in some of the more developed regions.

Willamette Valley is about farm to table, sometimes served in multi-course meals in the very fields where the produce is harvested. It's about organic, it's about restaurants using locally sourced produce and it's an agricultural labor of love. It's also about craft beer. And movie sets, apparently.

It may be difficult to imagine a downside to cruising the beautiful rolling countryside going from one enthusiastic vintner's tasting room to the next, then a lunch stop at a high end winery restaurant, but here's the rub: someone has to do the driving, which means no wine sampling for that person.

It can be the same problem for dinner: Bed & Breakfasts are not restaurants, hence the one lonely meal in the name. If you're overnighting in a rural B&B, either someone opts for bubbly water at a restaurant before driving back to your accommodations, or you picnic at the B&B on the wine, cheeses, and other fresh produce goodies that you've collected throughout the day's meanderings.

There are several communities that make great home bases from which to do wine tasting day tours. Eugene, at the southern end of Willamette Valley, is one of them. It's an easy train ride from Portland by the way, and the university town offers everything else besides wineries, namely great restaurants, craft beers and a movie location.

What to do in Eugene:
• Eugene Ale Trail: Pick up your 'passport' at the tourist office at 754 Olive Street. Visit the various craft breweries in Eugene and get the back story from the server on duty. Once you have eight different brewery stamps from a possible ten, mostly walkable throughout Eugene, bring your Ale Trail passport to the Adventure Center in Springfield to pick up a 16 ounce amber growler. Do not picture a big jug with a handle on it or you will be disappointed by what looks more like a medicine bottle from the 1800s. Nevertheless, it's fun to chat with the different brewers and sample their products.
• Check out several Animal House movie scene locations throughout the University of Oregon. Think toga party, the food fight scene, the parade scene, ...
5th Street Market Place: 296 East Fifth Avenue. Shop at a fun selection of unique boutiques and specialty products, cafes and eateries, with seasonal festivities created for the local community.
Day trip to Brownsville: A historically important town, Brownsville is also where several scenes of cult film Stand By Me were  filmed. Here's what to do in Brownsville.

Where to stay:
Inn at the 5th is a boutique luxury hotel at 205 East Sixth Avenue, which has managed to keep its urban roots alive and well, while supporting local talent and interests. This urban oasis is perfectly located in downtown Eugene. You'll want for nothing, as service is impeccable. Inn at the 5th also has a driving service to wineries so that no one need be deprived of wine tasting.

Where to eat:

  • Delicious, ample vegan breakfast at Morning glory Café Bakery: 450 Willamette Street. There will be a lineup — could be 25 minutes on a sunny Sunday. Don't shy away because it's vegan. There is a reason for the line up. Add your name to the list, enjoy the banjo player's renditions, and take advantage of the less noisy outside to chat with your friends while you wait for your name to be called to the next available table. Fresh, homemade breads and treats, and organic, locally sourced products from ethical producers are also available to purchase.
  • • Lunch at 1st National Taphouse: With blue grass Devil Makes 3 music from Pandora Radio, this rustic, all Oregon microbrewery at 51 West Broadway offers serious comfort food, such as shrimp gumbo, nachos or mac and cheese. More important are the 28 beers on tap, with names like Viking Maelstrom, Planktown Hobbit's Habit and Occidental Dunkel.
  • • Fine dining at Marché: 296 East 5th Avenue. In addition to its creative, seasonal, high end cuisine and creative cocktails, one night near the end of each month there is a culinary Tour de France at Marché. Find out if it will be taking place during your visit when you call to make reservations. You could find yourself dining on cuisine from Normandy, Paris, Provence or Alsace, to name a few possibilities.

This article was originally published in November 2015 here at Examiner.com.

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