Travel Wine Reviews

You Had Me at Pinot

By Shelly Waldron

Is it just me or do you feel like you have been waking up to a perpetual Groundhog’s Day for the past year?  Certainly, the days of last summer seem like a time of freedom compared to the past few winter months.

Perhaps, like you, it’s been eleven long months since taking a trip away from home.  I realize that this exile at home is NO BIG DEAL in the grand scheme of things occurring in the world, but after filling my days and nights with as much virtual excitement as I can muster (or convince my husband of doing!) the need for a getaway was real!  A few nights away from home, doing something different was much needed.  Since the idea of getting on an airplane and passing through airports wasn’t on the top of my list of things to do with Covid numbers spiking, we opted for a closer to home destination by car.  Part of my evening entertainment over these past several months while “staying home and staying safe” has been enjoying virtual wine tasting events (thank you Wildside Wine, Amitie Wine Company and others!).  Yes, I loved them all and I tasted some great wines during these events.  So, when deciding on a place to visit for a two-night getaway we opted for Oregon Wine Country.  We booked a pet friendly VRBO and my husband, my 6-pound yorkie and I packed up our Lysol spray, wipes and other PPE gear needed and headed to McMinnville, Oregon.

McMinnville is a 3 ½ hour car drive from Tacoma, WA where we live.  All the restaurants and wine tasting rooms in Oregon, just like Washington, were closed for inside dining and tasting so the risk was real that this weekend trip could end up a bust.  Since we were going through what I would like to call a case of pandemic burnout from being at home together all these months, we decided it was worth the risk.  The trip to Oregon was an easy and uneventful ride, although my dog Duncan, isn’t much for car rides, we all made it in one piece.  Once we got south of Portland, the road turns from freeway driving to a two-lane roadway and driving through the small towns become a bit more scenic.   As you arrive in the town of Newburg followed by Dundee, and only a few miles from McMinnville, the wine tasting shops start popping up along the roadside which signifies you have arrived in wine country.  Thankfully, we were blessed with a beautiful sunny day and mild temperatures in the month of January.  The outside seating areas were open and inviting.  It gave us the perfect reason to get out of the car to stretch our legs and start tasting some wine!  Our first stop was at Alit wines.  They are known for making natural wines, meaning grapes grown organically, dry farmed and using native wild yeast for fermentation of the wine. With this minimal intervention they are producing some great wines for reasonable prices.

Oregon’s wine growing region is largely located in the Willamette valley, (pronounced Will-AM-it).  The area is situated between the cascade mountains on the east and the coastal range on the west.  This provides a climate which is cool and wet and a shorter growing season.  This area is responsible for nearly 2/3rds of all the wine produced in Oregon.  Although Oregon has excelled in growing many varieties of grapes, the state has placed itself on the map next to Burgundy as one of the best places on earth to grow pinot noir and produces many exceptional and award-winning pinots.

A few fun facts to share about Oregon wine:

  • Oregon ranks as the 5th state for wine production in the United States, which amounts to only 1 % of the total wine being produced. 
  • Oregon lies on the 45th parallel north, which is known for ideal wine growing conditions, also known as the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole.  France and Oregon both lay along the 45th parallel and share similar maritime weather and terroir which is perfect conditions for Oregon’s signature grape, Pinot Noir.
  • Oregon has more women winemakers that California, despite being significantly smaller.  Women account for nearly 10% of winemakers in the state.
  • Oregon has the strictest wine labeling laws of any U.S. state.  The wine must contain 100% Oregon grapes and at least 95% of the grapes must be from the named place printed on the label, although 5 % can be from another area within Oregon.
McMinnville Sidewalk Flair

The town of McMinnville has a quintessential small-town atmosphere to it that is both charming and friendly.   The main street, being 3rd street, has plenty of wine tasting rooms, restaurants, art galleries, and all the shops you would expect to see including McMenamin’s Hotel Oregon in the middle of town.  Our weekend rental was a few blocks from all the action and an easy stroll through town with no driving necessary.  As I mentioned, the inside dining and tasting rooms were closed, but due to the exceptionally nice weather, a sidewalk café flair was felt all over town.  For dinner, we ate outside on the sidewalk with a heater positioned above our head to keep us toasty warm.  Of course, the glasses of wine also contributed to our warmth.

The next day we headed out of town to explore the outlying area.  A few miles outside of McMinnville, down a beautiful country road, dotted with vineyards and old farmhouses, is the Town of Carlton.  Although the town is small (3 blocks to be exact), with a population of 2000 people, it was big with places to stop and taste wine.  It was an early hour in the day to begin tasting wine, but as they say, “It is 3 o’clock somewhere” (I don’t know about you but since the pandemic hit, happy hour officially moved to an earlier time than 5 o’clock at my house). The sun was out but much colder than the day before.  I was glad I had brought my Ugg boots to keep my feet warm.  We stopped at two wineries.   Both places had outdoor gas firepits to sit by while the wine was delivered to us to enjoy by the warmth of the fire.  My dog enjoyed all the attention he got, being a dog his size, it comes with the territory.  The first stop was at Ken Wright Cellars, which is in the beautifully renovated Carlton town train depot, which added to the ambience.  The 2nd wine stop was at Tendril Wine Cellars, just across the parking lot from the last tasting spot. Although both places suggested a reservation prior to coming, thankfully there was a spot open for us at the time we showed up, so we lucked out.

Shelly and Duncan

Back in McMinnville for our last evening, we opted for a late lunch and one last roam around town before the end of daylight and the onset of even cooler temperatures.  We headed back to our rental for a nightcap of a glass of one of the treasures we had acquired that day, a little TV and an early bedtime.

Heading home the next day, our car was fuller then when we had left home 2 days earlier.  It was filled with wine, art and other mementos acquired on our trip.  Always a sure sign of a great weekend trip had by all, even Duncan enjoyed the time away with his parents.  The Willamette Valley in Oregon is an easy day trip which we will surely do again in the future.  While there, even with Covid restrictions in place, everything was handled safely, and we felt comfortable in all our situations.   Looking ahead, Oregon wine month is the month of May and it is filled with all kinds of special activities and promotions to enjoy.  With spring around the corner and warmer temperatures following, this may be the perfect time to consider adding a wine trip to your travel plans.  I know it will be on mine again soon! 


1 comment

  1. Thanks for the great story about a trip to Willamette Valley, Shelly. Reading this felt like you took all of your readers along with you on a fun trip! Cheers! 🍷💞


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