TRAVEL: A great escape: Oregon’s Willamette Valley

Editor’s note to KTW readers: As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the globe and has placed travel on hold indefinitely, there will come a time when we emerge from this crisis and travel once again.

Kamloops This Week will continue to publish weekly Travel columns, as we see them as a way for readers to escape the daily stress of pandemic coverage. 

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If you need a few days’ break from “real life,” consider heading south into Oregon’s Willamette Valley. 


Sandwiched between the coastal mountains on one side and the Cascades on the other, the valley is the state’s burgeoning wine country, where lush, meandering hills and dales are heavily populated with wineries, the majority of them small family-owned enterprises. I spent the night at one of them — the Black Walnut Inn and Vineyard, a palatial, Tuscan-style inn that sits high on a hill overlooking rows of neatly planted vineyards.


The six-hectare property has expansive rooms, cozy, fireplace-lit nooks and embracingly warm decor, making it a fabulous place to take in the beauty of the region. On my first night, I sat before an outdoor fireplace on the terrace, soaking in the quiet beauty of wine country.


The following morning, my breakfast frittata was presented with edible flowers and herbs snipped that day from local farms. Fueled and fortified, I set out to explore.


The valley is home to 700 wineries and tasting rooms — within a 50-kilometre radius of the inn, there are no less than 250 of them. The wines being produced in the valley are garnering industry awards, international attention and respect for their sophisticated notes. If you appreciate good wine, you can’t go far wrong in this neck of the woods.


To get a sense of the valley’s sheer expanse, I boarded a helicopter and took to the skies for a Tour DeVine. Soaring 800 feet in the air, the land spread before us, its foliage a lush electric green from spring growth. Vineyards ran in comb-like patterns across the land, interspersed with picturesque farm homes where you can just picture a fresh apple pie on the kitchen table. 


Our first stop was Zenith Vineyard for a tasting of pinot gris and a chat with Jenn Stein, Zenith’s hostess. “Our winemakers received a huge confidence boost in 2016, when Wine Spectator named the Willamette Valley wine region of the year,” she reflected. “It gave us the assurance that our wine profiles had validity and could hold their own.” 


Over glasses of Zenith’s auxerrois, pinot noir and tempranillo — all bold, tasty wines with rich flavours — we learned about the 90-acre sustainable wine farm where no pesticides or herbicides are applied. Sustainability is a key word at several of the Willamette Valley’s vineyards.


At a picnic lunch at Maysara Vineyard, Mo Momtazi discussed his biodynamic farming, a series of holistic practices focused on pesticide-free, clean, conscious plantings. “We believe this allows for a superior expression of our terroir in our wines,” Momtazi said. 


It’s certainly reaping results for Momtazi, who planted the vineyard in 1997 and treats his vines with a steeped tea made from stinging nettles. “Consumers are becoming more conscious of what they put into their bodies and starting to realize that not all wine is equal.”


Later, I spent an indulgent afternoon sauntering around McMinville. Once a hub for walnut farming, the walnut groves have been replaced with vineyards in recent years. As a result, the sleepy city of 33,000 is enjoying a renaissance, as brewers and vintners attract tourists to their tasting rooms and become increasingly successful. 


The historic downtown is home to Atticus, a sleek, new hotel and the sweetly old world main street is lined with mom-and-pop cafes, wine tasting rooms, gift shops and boutiques. There’s a wine walk, where you can sip your way through more than a dozen downtown tasting rooms, and a granary district, where outdoor concerts have become a summertime staple with old grain warehouses reincarnated into coffee shops, breweries and cellars. 


This is the place to hang out, enjoy its vibe and people-watch on a gorgeous sunny day. With a cold beverage in hand and a farm-to-fork meal on the horizon, this is a place that makes “real life” feel far, far away.


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