One of the first forays into our Pacific Northwest trip last month was Willamette Valley, sprawling out just south of Portland. It was a beautiful stretch of rolling hillsides, valleys, farmland, easily escapable territory from the urban cityscape in less than 40 minutes. (Having lived in Chicago for 15 years before migrating to a smaller city, I appreciate every time the speed at which you get to countryside in smaller urban environments.) It doesn't hurt that you've got the mountainous terrain in the horizon as you weave up and down the dusty roads -- it's peak west coast picturesque.
But First, the 'Fruit Loop'
Before we hit wine country, though, we did a circular jaunt around what's referred to as the 'Fruit Loop', a trail of farms and orchards (and some vineyards) that run up along the Washington-Oregon border, mainly running a southern trail from Hood River. I won't write like I know anything about this area, but... it was a very pleasant drive along the massive borderline trench that is the Columbia River -- truly stunning, and worth the drive alone.
The Fruit Loop itself was slightly underwhelming, apart from Mt. Hood lurking in the distance and a few pretty farm scenes at the two stops we made (Draper Girls for cider, and Packer Orchards for a milkshake and crackers). We appreciated the strong Oregonian agritourism present and thriving at these farms, and if anything else, this short trip functioned as a teaser to Willamette Valley.
Willamette Valley Wine & Hospitality
I don't know what I was expecting with a proper wine valley excursion, but I definitely loved what it was: dozens of vineyards weaving in and around lovely spots like the Dundee Hills and charming towns like Newberg, McMinnville, and Carlton (obviously calling out the ones we visited). There's just nothing like this out in the midwest (and yes, we have vineyards out here).
From the little knowledge I have of wine regions, Willamette Valley is highly concentrated (and perfect for) Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, much of what this region is known for. I've over-indexed on heavier wines in my diet, so this was certainly going to be an exploratory experience for my taste buds. And I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and depth of what I had erroneously dismissed as lighter fare — there is plenty to love here.
Abby Road Farm, Argyle, Domain Serene
Our first stay was Abby Road Farm, a multi-acre beauty accessible by dirt road that reused three silos to fit in a half dozen or so very comfortable rooms. Pigs, chickens, goats, birds (even peacocks!) roamed the campus, which also included dining patio, wine tasting room (with their own wine, which also is complementary with a stay), and plenty of well-designed settings to explore where they host weddings and other events.
It was remarkably well-tended, and notably served an excellent multi-course breakfast that shouldn't be missed. We spent time wandering around the campus, visiting animals, tasting wine, taking a few Polaroids, and enjoying the sunset. The night we stayed here was preceded by a few vineyard appointments, so we were feeling delightfully buzzed.
Our first stop had been Argyle, cabbed in by an Uber driver who also happened to have worked the reception at Argyle prior. This place felt corporate right off the landing: bustling with patrons, well-run operations, tightly curated menu, but overall, the tasting felt rushed and without much guidance or attention (which was fine to start out our foray into tastings).
We were placed in a nice corner spot and tried four glasses of bubbles, only a couple of which popped off exceptionally well — the other two came off a bit flat (but I argue my crappy taste buds aren't exactly forgiving, so bear with me).
We picked up a couple bottles to go before getting scooped up by our friend, who proceeded to take us to Domain Serene.
As we approached the Tuscan-inspired clubhouse at the summit of a Dundee hill, we felt this place much better reflected our vision for what wine country would feel like (comparatively... Argyle, as nice as the facility was, is seated on a bustling street in downtown Dundee).
Admittedly, this place was an amazing, much more attentive experience. Extraordinary wines, the sommelier (Alex) was perfectly on point for walking us through pairings (two at a time, gave us context, let us taste ourselves). We moved through several (several) glasses of wine accompanied by kumamoto oysters and house-made potato chips, a near-perfect combination.
Afterwards, we wandered the surrounding campus, sipping a glass (I can't rightly remember what of) before heading back to Abby Farm Road.
The Black Walnut, Roco Winery
The second stay in the area was the up-high, breezy Black Walnut, a stately grouping of a dozen or so units atop one of the highest Dundee hills overlooking a swath of wine county. Quite a different vibe than Abby Farm Road, but not in any way more ostentatious — it flexed a broad courtyard dividing the primary hotel housing from a steeped double-unit building (in which we stayed), flexed plenty of seats and a fire pit overlooking a vista view in the back, and a sizable dining area instead with seat-yourself casualness in the mornings for breakfast.
And breakfast here was equally great: choose what you want from a tight menu of farm-focused meals, or set a time for a tasting menu (lunch/dinner), which unfortunately wasn't available during the days of the week we were there. Though it's stated in the name of the place that it's a vineyard, they don't actually produce wine at Black Walnut, but rather supply the grapes to a sister winery, The Four Graces.
Next, we visited Roco Winery as our only appointment for the day, but we really liked this one. A much smaller, but exceptionally genuine spot that had a "visiting your neighbor's vineyard" feel. A few tables out on a cozy patio under a perfect afternoon sun was the right way to spend a few hours.
After roving through a solid set of tastings, we scooped up a couple bottles (including a favorite Pinot called The Stalker), and headed out to prep for the evening dinner over at Earth & Sea in Carlton, following by enjoying a bottle of Roco bubbles up top the hill at Black Walnut while the sun set.
Willamette Valley was enjoyed a tremendous amount more than we anticipated, and setting wine appointments in the future as part of our vow for more intentional traveling is going to play out nicely, though it'll be key to ship back the bottles we get instead of draining them all on the trip as we go, but...