I feel sorry for my husband, the designated driver on this day of wine touring in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. And, let’s be clear: Oregon wine tasting definitely needs a DD. In this delicious valley that follows the Willamette from the Columbia River north of Portland to Eugene, you’ll find highly affordable tastings with healthy pours. My husband indulged at only one winery before leaving the rest to me. Poor guy.
But the good news for me was plentiful: I really love these wines, especially the pinot noirs. The weather here — cool, mild and mostly rainy — seems to suit these grapes. They’re easygoing reds, smooth, often with black cherry notes and some earthiness, but not too much.
I’ve also become a fan of crisp pinot gris from Oregon. This white has more character than your typical pinot grigio, but it’s still light and crisp with fruit notes that play well, say, on a balcony or porch with a good view.
Even more good news: Willamette Valley wine tasting costs about what Fredericksburg wine tasting costs — $15 to $25 a flight, compared with $50 or $60 at most Napa wineries. The flights are often six tastings and the pours generous. I’ve had wine tasting pours literally as small as a thimble in other places, but many wineries we stopped at in Oregon offered pours around 2 ounces, sometimes more.
And the best news? If you take that Alaska Airlines nonstop flight from Austin to Portland International Airport (PDX) and keep your boarding pass, your tasting is free at more than 350 of the some 500 Willamette Valley wineries. What’s more, if along the way you assemble a case of Oregon wines, Alaska will fly it home free. No kidding. I was afraid these perks wouldn’t work, but they did. Technically, you must also show that you’re a member of Alaska’s mileage club, but your mileage club number will be on your boarding pass, so you need no additional documentation.
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You can base in Portland and drive out to these wineries or stay anywhere along the way. Rest assured, even if you don’t go wine tasting in the countryside, you’ll run into plenty of good Oregon wines. We were served a refreshing A to Z pinot gris at Norma’s in Seaside and a delicious King Estate pinot noir at wine hour at the Mark Spencer Hotel in Portland.
But wine tasting in the countryside is always fun, so do it —with a DD. Let me mention just a few of the winery visits I particularly loved for very different reasons:
Domaine Drouhin: This was the most dramatic wine tasting I enjoyed and also had some of the best pinot noirs — so good that I slipped my husband a taste. In a chalet perched atop a hilly estate up a gravel road past an olive farm, Drouhin offers a lovely deck overlooking its vineyards. You can have your wine poured there or inside at the tasting bar, where you can take off with it and wander the property, returning for more wine. Lovely experience. My own favorite here was the 2015 Roserock Pinot Noir Zephirine ($60 a bottle), with just a bit more complexity than many Oregon pinots offer. Tempted though I was to get a glass and just sit around all afternoon, I had to move on.
Argyle: You get only four tastes here, but they’re lovely wines and very healthy pours. Here, the entire flight is poured at once while you’re sitting out on the patio in comfy chairs, and someone from the winery sits with you to explain the wines. Take your time. If at the end of your tasting you have a hankering for something else, they’ll pour extra tastings. I was not a fan of the oaky chardonnay, so I was brought an additional sparkling wine. Argyle is especially known for its sparkling wines, and I was quite taken with the 2014 Spirit Hill Vineyard Blanc de Blancs ($50 a bottle).
Eola Hills: This is the winner for value. Six healthy tastings are just $15 (or free in my case, because I had my trusty boarding pass). Stand at the tasting bar and look at all the barrels behind in the warehouse. These are affordable wines. The whites are just $14 a bottle and lovely for an afternoon on the porch, but I liked the pinot noirs better. We left with a bottle of 2016 Reserve Pinot Noir ($36).
One more advantage of Eola Hills is that it opens at 10 a.m. Most tasting rooms don’t open until 11, so if you want to start early, here’s your mark. But if you do start early, you’re going to want lunch soon. You’ll find it about 45 minutes north at the Horse Radish.
In an adorable town called Carlton (I was tempted to shop, but I had wine to taste), the Horse Radish offers soups, sandwiches and a flavorful three-cheese quiche. Of course, there are Oregon wines you can enjoy while you eat, but I had a long day of tasting ahead of me, so my chosen beverage here was the old faithful: water.