Three BIG Reasons The Willamette Valley Should Be On Your Bucket List

Portland Oregon was a dream both in the literal sense and the metaphorical sense, both tangible and not—a fleeting affair you want to hold on to but can’t… ~Jackie Haze

When the Willamette Valley Visitors Association/Oregon Wine Country invited several other travel writers and me to visit and learn about everything the valley has to offer, I have to admit that I knew very little. I read up on the area and the places we were to visit, and I have to admit that I was very excited about the prospect of learning more as my previous experiences in Oregon consisted of 48 hours in downtown Portland many years ago and two layovers at Portland International within the past two years. None of those stops really told me much about the state or area, and I will admit that Oregon had not been a place I had considered for vacation. My February trip there changed all that.

Farmland with grazing sheep
Sheep graze at Abbey Road Farms ©chriscutler2019

The Willamette Valley

The Willamette Valley runs 150 miles from north of Portland to south of Eugene. Eight of the state’s ten largest cities are in the valley, and 70 percent of the population lives there. Three mountain ranges surround it, and the Willamette River runs the length of the valley.

You have, perhaps, heard of the Oregon Trail, the old wagon route that connected Oregon with points east. The rich soil and temperate climate enticed settlers and emigrants looking for agricultural opportunities, and the area grew. Today, the Willamette Valley is Oregon’s Wine Country, home to more than 500 wineries and some of the finest pinot noir in the world.

There hasn’t been a day since I returned from Oregon that I haven’t thought about it and the experience I had. I thought I would share a couple of reasons why I feel you should consider a trip to the Willamette Valley.

The Wine

Chehalem Winery’s Rose of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir ©chriscutler2019

As I mentioned above, the Willamette Valley is Oregon’s Wine Country, and with more than two-thirds of the state’s vineyards and wineries, you’re sure to find a wine you like. While I tend to like the lighter rosés and whites, I found that I enjoyed some of the pinot noirs.

In the last 10 years or so, the wineries of the Willamette Valley have increased production of the pinots—both noir and gris—because the maritime climate of the area allows the grapes to build their flavor (the warm days) yet maintain acidity (cooler temps).

We spent an afternoon at Chehalem Winery in Newberg, a winery that produced more than 20,000 cases of wine in 2017. I won’t bore you with the history, but suffice to say that they planted the first vineyard on their land in 1980 (for another vintner), and in 1990, they founded Chahalem and produced their first pinot noirs.

Chehalem label highlights the vineyard ©chriscutler2019

During our time at the winery, we tried both the pinot noir and pinot gris, and we also tried a rosé of pinot noir. Surprisingly (since I prefer whites), my favorite was the pinot noir as it had, in my opinion, good acidiy, fruity undertones, and hint of citrus. I also liked the bright taste of the rosé; the cherry shone through.

Chehalem Winery has a tasting room that is open daily from 11 am until 5 pm, and their wine bar is open Friday and Saturday evenings. They do offer special events and tastings, so be sure to check out the event schedule on their website.

Seared scallops over corn and drizzled with balsamic glaze
Pan-seared scallops @ OES, Eugene ©chriscutler2019

The Food

I like to say I’m a foodie (What is a foodie, anyway?), so I was excited to try new places and foods as research I did prior to the trip showed that Portland and the Willamette Valley are making a name for themselves on the food scene. And, I have to say that during our time in the Willamette Valley, we ate at some darn good restaurants for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Let me give you a snack of each of my favorite venues.

Breakfast

Innkeepers & Chefs Eric Bartle and Sara Kundelius ©chriscutler2019

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the phenomenal food of the talented husband and wife innkeepers and chefs for Abbey Road Farm. Eric Bartle and Sara Kundelius embody the farm-to-table life by using products they have raised, grown, or gathered, and the results are simply delicious.

White polenta, porchetta, & scrambled eggs @Abbey Road Farm ©chriscutler2019

While they prepared breakfast for us both mornings we were at the farm, the white polenta and porchetta Eric prepared the first morning were my favorites. Eric produced the porchetta himself, and while it was not the porchetta I’m used to eating in Italy, it was moist, savory, and delightful. The juices added the right amount of flavor to the polenta, and I could have stopped there. I did try a taste of everything, but I still crave the polenta and porchetta…. and the sweet jams and preserves that Sara made from area fruits.

Lunch

Habanero-spiced rum @ 4 Spirits Distillery ©chriscutler2019

Breakfasts at Abbey Road were so good that I wasn’t in the mood for a large lunch. The day we visited 4 Spirits Distillery in Corvallis, we were able to taste both their spirits and food. The menu is ample yet simple—sandwiches, salads, burgers, and pizza.

Pear & goat cheese pizza @4 Spirits Distillery ©chriscutler2019

I chose the pear and goat cheese pizza. Drizzled with balsamic vinegar, the pizza offers a blend of sweetness and acidity that are more than pleasant. The crust—light and crisp—brought everything together. I liked the pizza so much that I tried to duplicate it at home. I came close, but my crust was not as good as theirs.

Dinner

Candlelight @Subterra ©chriscutler2019

Each of the three dinners we had during our time in the Willamette Valley were so good that I had a hard time deciding which I wanted to highlight before settling on Subterra, a wine cellar restaurant in Newberg. Open seven days a week, Subterra offers a warm and welcoming atmosphere along with great food and drink.

Pork belly with ginger pineapple relish ©chriscutler2019

We had a number of appetizers—pork belly with ginger pineapple relish; breads, crackers, and apples with melted brie and maple bourbon fig jam; and cured salmon with citrus and curry aioli. The pork belly—similar to a thick cut of bacon—was by far the favorite, although we enjoyed everything the restaurant offered us.

I ordered seared sea scallops served with potato puree, broccoli, and carrot puree. The plump scallops had a golden crust on both sides, and the meat itself was tender and buttery. The purees complemented the scallops perfectly without overpowering them.

One thing that I should add here is that while I eat seafood, it is not something I order regularly. Part of the problem, I believe, is that I’ve had a number of bad fish or seafood meals, so I’m hesitant in ordering them. At Subterra, however, I enjoyed the scallops so much that I ate one or two at both the Dundee Bistro the next evening and at Oregon Electric Station the one after that.

I realize that we were guests of these establishments, as well as of Babica Hen Cafe and Marché, but they were all spot-on for food and service. Judging from the service and plates that I saw other diners receive, I would not hesitate to recommend any of them.

The Coffee

Being a gold-card-carrying Starbucks customer, I was quite surprised that I saw only two or three stores during my Oregon trip . After all, Starbucks started in the northwest (Seattle), and I just assumed there would be green and white mermaid signs all over Oregon. Oops. Coffee is big in Oregon, but instead of the big chains, you’re more apt to find smaller, more intimate coffee bars, many of which roast their own coffees. There are more than 40 roasters in Portland alone, and coffee bar and coffee carts (small, often-mobile buildings) abound.

Equiano Coffee Company in Eugene ©chriscutler2019

Equiano Coffee Company in Eugene hosted a coffee cupping for us on our last morning in Oregon. Coffee cupping or cup tasting, is coffee tasting, a procedure used by coffee producers and buyers worldwide to test the quality of a batch of coffee. An official taster is as important to the coffee world as a sommelier is to the wine world. Likewise, coffee drinkers participate in coffee cupping as wine drinkers participate in wine tasting.

Colombian coffee @Equiano ©chriscutler2019

Coffee cupping involves pouring hot water over grounds, steeping, sniffing, and slurping the coffee. All of this measures the body, flavor, and aftertaste of the coffee. Is the coffee oily? Dry? Smoky? Sweet? Acidic? Does it have a fruity taste? Chocolaty? Malty? Medicinal? Coffees carry the characteristics of the regions where they grow, so professional tasters can often identify the origin of coffees.

Okon Udosenata sniffs a Colombian coffee ©chriscutler2019

Equiano owner and roaster Okon Udosenata led us through four coffees (two from Colombia and one each from Brazil and Cameroon) during our cupping. I liked the Brazilian coffee—full of chocolate and nutty notes—best. It was not as acidic and left a creamy, smooth aftertaste.

Bottom Line

Abbey Road Farm silos ©chriscutler2019

I loved my time in Oregon, cold weather and snow aside. One thing I would point out, though, is that the weather really had no effect on our visit. If anything, the weather proved that one can enjoy the Willamette Valley at any time of the year.

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