It happened. We embarked upon our yearly 9 day road trip. How'd it go? It was magnificent! Last year we traversed the Western United States, beginning in Phoenix & ending in Spokane. We went to so many National Parks, we should have bought an Annual Pass - hind sight is 20/20.... This year we went coastal - well, kind of.... We began in Portland & traveled South, inland until we reached Eugene. Then we rode the coast all the way up to Washington, in/around Olympic National Park. Looping back around to Portland, we covered over 1700 miles!
BOO-YAH. Cheers to adventure. No, cheers to road trips, camping & little slices of luxury along the way. Speaking of "slices of luxury", let's talk about the Willamette Valley (that I want to spell William-ette, because I like to say it wrong). I'm breaking this road trip into a series of #WeekendRetreats & mini road trips! Why? Because that's what this website is all about, travel you can accomplish with a full-time job! So here goes, welcome to William-ette..."It's Willamette, Damn It!" <- Just a little mnemonic device that kept me from saying it wrong the entire trip - thanks Carrie!
1 | Where to Stay
A #WeekendRetreat in Willamette means seeking out a place to stay that gives you 24 hour access to wine. What? I like wine. It's a valley full of vineyards.... Anyways, stay in McMinnville at the 3rd Street Flats. Allow me to save you the time of looking around. It is within walking distance of 15 wineries & tasting rooms. Are you getting in late? Are all the wineries closed for the evening? Who cares, these folks leave a bottle of wine on the counter for your arrival. Pair that with the complimentary sea salt caramels & an evening in front of the fireplace - I imagine you'll sleep pretty soundly on the big comfy bed in your private bedroom. My personal pick is the 11th flat, The Noir, which is in the old McMinnville Bank built circa 1885. Sounds romantic, it is. Still not convinced? Thinking that maybe you need to research a little more, that's fine. You can argue with me, but you can't argue with me and USA Today (well, maybe you can, but that's beside the point). Named "The Best Wine Country Hotel in America", I'm pretty sure we have you covered.
2 | Where to Wine
Did I mean "Where to Drink Wine"? No. Wine is a verb now. This is my website & I've decided wine is now a verb. So where did I choose to get my wine on? Well, two vineyards caught my eye - Rex Hill & Stoller Family Estate.
R E X H I L L
This is where I learned of the clever mnemonic device, "It's Willamette Damn It!" & now I say it every time I talk about this area. So clever. Rex Hill has a lot of history as it began as a fruit & nut drying facility. The tasting room was actually a farm house, once upon time. You can still see the drying area for the fruits & nuts. The first thing I noticed when I hopped out of the car was this extravagant, large front door. I have a weird thing for doors, floors, windows & all things architecture so of course I had to ask about it. Turns out they enlisted a local artist to create the door & that the sculpture out front was actually there before the vineyard!
Once you're inside, you'll notice an "Essence Table", which is basically a table full of wine glasses that house ingredients you may find in wine. That's when I learned that Rex Hill is the perfect vineyard to begin your wine traveling journey with. They are all about teaching/learning & not presuming you are a wine connoisseur. I mean, I am a wine consumer not a connoisseur - I'm definitely not fluent in the speakings of a Sommelier nor can I bring myself to spit perfectly good wine into a bucket... especially not Rex Hill wine! There was a wine glass on the table that housed some vanilla beans. Most people don't know what a vanilla bean looks like so it's a good test. You may be asked to smell the vanilla bean and decipher the scent, we thought it was cocoa (well, Dustin did...I knew what a vanilla bean looked like). It was the perfect example of how we, as people, typically pair a smell with an image. It's hard to tell what something smells like without seeing it, which is why it's hard to pull certain tastes out of wine! See, fun, we're learning!
Back to the vineyard, which actually grows grapes for two brands of wine - Rex Hill & A to Z Wineworks! However, they don’t taste out A to Z Wineworks - not because it’s not good, but because you don’t pay for a tasting so you can try a wine that costs less than your tasting! Buy a bottle if you want to try it, the price point is low so it’s a better deal to just take a few bottles home with you. Trust me, you want to refine your palette & try the higher price point wine! A to Z is made with new techniques & larger equipment, whereas Rex Hill is made in small barrels, with history in mind. They both make for fantastic souvenirs, mind you 😉
We visited this vineyard in early September & were lucky enough to see the first big vat of grapes put in the destemming hopper for A to Z's Pinot! I probably butchered the name of the equipment, but I think you can decipher what I'm talking about. With that we got to meet a lot of the interns. The word "intern" probably has you thinking of a college kid at the ripe age of...maybe 20? No, these are men and women of all ages whom are expanding their knowledge base & finding their way in the complicated world of wine! Greg for instance, was operating the forklift to dump the first grapes of the season into the hopper. He came from the Finger Lakes of New York & is a 5th generation Winemaker. He came to Oregon to learn, & apparently run a forklift like a boss (please see below)!
Basically, don't miss out on this vineyard during your trip. You'll learn a lot & taste some phenomenal wines! A few things I didn't know, you shouldn't decant every single bottle of red wine & that "biodynamic" is the new "organic". I had to Google that one, not gonna lie.
S T O L L E R F A M I L Y E S T A T E
After Rex Hill, it's off to the Stoller Family Estate! You turn off the main road and then roll up to a lane lined by trees - it's like every vineyard you've ever imagined, but never seen. The day we chose to visit, the sun was fighting with the clouds, but it made for a dramatic view of "the tree". That's what I'm going to call it. See, the tasting room is separated from the vineyard by a field with a lone tree in it. From the tree hangs a tire swing & you've never seen anything quite as picturesque as "the tree" with a backdrop of rolling hills filled with perfectly lined grapevines. Even the tasting room itself is picturesque, just take a look at the "green" roof - there are plants growing on top of it!
Stoller was planted in 1995 & was the first LEED Gold certified vineyard in the world. There is actually an Estate House, Wine Farm House & Cottage that are on-site and able to be rented for groups. Did I just say that? Yup, you can stay at a vineyard, among the vines. Estate owner Bill Stoller is actually rumored to have slept in a dresser drawer as an infant at one of these houses. Who wouldn't like to wake up to the sun rising atop a vineyard?!
I don't even know where to start with regards to their wine club or food. I'm kidding, of course I do. The vineyard offers small plates that compliment your tasting, but if you call ahead you may be able to arrange a private lunch made special by Mr. Sean McKee, the vineyard Culinary Director as well as owner of Flavor Memories! I got to have lunch prepared by him & let me tell you, it was the highlight of my trip with regards to food. He's just fantastic & probably in heaven at the Stoller Family Estate because he has access to a garden that is a couple acres large! If there's a wine club to join in the Willamette Valley, this is the one. Not only do you have Sean to cook for special parties or get together's, but you also have access to the Legacy Club Lounge. The lounge has an automated door that is literally an entire wall, you can pretty much enjoy the outdoors without actually being outdoors. That & there are also all sorts of fancy gadgets & gizmos for the geeks like me! There is a television in the room, a large flat screen. If you can guess where it is, you win.
So go, take a swing on the tire, drink your heart out & have one of the best meals you could imagine. Join the club & bring a few bottles home with you - this is a vineyard for the books! It's swoonworthy by every measure of swoon. So wine your heart out! I know I did, I can't lie - I probably left a wee bit tipsy...sorry Betsy 😉
3 | What About When We Aren't Wining?
With the vineyards & tasting rooms you're pretty set on drinks & probably even food - at least we were. What about when your liver needs a break? What then? The Valley has more to offer than just wine, which was good because Dustin doesn't even drink wine! Oregon is made for adventure & McMinnville has a lot of history within its' boundaries.
Between the historic buildings & great local shops/restaurants you could be set for the weekend, but there's more. I feel like I'm selling Oxi Clean, "...but wait, there's more!" May you rest in peace, Billy Mays. The Evergreen Museum is located there! Do you know what the Spruce Goose is? Have you ever seen that movie with Leonardo Dicaprio & planes? No, not that one, the one where he's in court a lot...THAT is the Spruce Goose. When the Spruce Goose was made, there was a restriction on metals due to World War II - so the thing is constructed entirely of wood! What kind of wood? Spruce? No, Birch actually...ironic, I know. There is a lot of aviation history at this museum, so don't miss out on a great learning experience & a break from the vineyards (not that I needed one...).
For those outdoor adventurers, on the edge of the Willamette Valley is Silver Falls State Park. There is a pretty special trail there called the Trail of Ten Falls. It's an 8.7 mile loop trail that the physically fit can complete in ~ 4 hours. What's so special about this special trail? Well, the name probably gave it away, but there are 10 falls on the main trail! You can venture off one of the side trails for some extra spectacular views though. If this is your first taste of an Oregon forest, you won't be disappointed - there is moss dripping from every branch, it's unreal!
I know that this post is specifically about the Willamette Valley, but I'd be selling y'all short if I didn't mention one of the coolest parts of our trip. Camping at the peak of a mountain. It's about an hour from the turn-off of Silver Falls State Park that you'll find Triangulation Trailhead. A 2 mile hike, straight to the top & you'll find yourself above the clouds staring directly at Mt. Jefferson in the distance. There are two spots someone raked out for a small backpacking tent! We were completely alone on our hike - it felt a little scary, but a little awesome to be up there all alone. Mostly though, it felt freeing. Watching the sun set & rise while you are above the clouds is pretty darn majestic. If you make the trip to the peak, you may as well make the side hike to Boca Cave! Don't miss it. Tip: If you want to do this hike, follow the directions in the link provided to find the trail head because Siri will take you the wrong way. Don't ask how I know that.