MCMINNVILLE, ORE. — Blame the volcanoes of the Northwest that sent so much lava roaring through this valley about 16 million years ago and set the stage. Or blame the glaciers of Montana for forcing floods, about 14,000 years ago, that carried in so many tons of rich dirt.
Or you could just blame David Lett. He was the 25-year-old who rolled in from California 43 years ago with a trailer full of vine cuttings and a crazy dream about something called Pinot. And now the Willamette Valley is never going to be the same.
After spending most of the 20th century as a haven for hazelnut growers and turkey farmers, this territory, about an hour's drive south of Portland, now belongs to the Pinot grape and those who admire it.
Stand on high ground in the Dundee Hills and you see the trained vines march across the landscape, row by row, like a green invading army or the cast of China's Olympic ceremony. About 275 wineries do business here, joined by burgeoning numbers of tasting rooms, restaurants and lodgings.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 08, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Willamette Valley: Sunday's Travel article about Oregon wine country said McMinnville and Newberg were the largest cities outside Portland in the Willamette Valley. Several cities are larger, including Salem and Eugene.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 12, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Willamette Valley: An Oct. 5 article about Oregon wine country said McMinnville and Newberg were the largest cities outside Portland in the Willamette Valley. Several cities are larger, including Salem and Eugene.
The nuts and birds are still around -- in fact, Oregon still produces most of this country's hazelnuts, also known as filberts. But ever since Lett and fellow Pinot pioneers, including Dick Erath, Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol Blosser, started winemaking here in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the way of the grape has been ascendant.
For anybody accustomed to California tasting rooms, this is a different sort of wine country -- cooler than the vineyards of Napa or Sonoma or Santa Ynez or San Luis Obispo County; more suited to small-volume operations; and without a single big, fancy hotel.
Here for three weekdays in September, I paid $55 a night for a tiny hotel room (bathroom down the hall) and $20 a day for a rental car (Thrifty, at the Portland airport). I dined without reservations at several well-regarded restaurants. I drank a lot. And one morning, I spent two hours on the back of a Tennessee walking horse, gliding down those vineyard rows and ducking under filbert branches with guide Jake Price. Twice we stopped, tied up the horses and sauntered into a tasting room for a nip.
The Willamette Valley is about 100 miles long, with six sub-appellations, each offering its own microclimate. It is not quite nirvana -- not with such cold, wet winters and not with such congestion on the area's main artery, Oregon Highway 99W, around the town of Dundee.
And if you're bringing along somebody you want to impress, a $55 room at McMenamins Hotel Oregon isn't the ticket. But the commanding views from the 5-year-old Black Walnut Inn in Dundee ($295 and up) or the 18-year-old Wine Country Farm in Dayton ($130 and up) will do the trick.
This is a destination coming of age, with enough charms and quirks to satisfy serious wine people and the rest of us too.
This is "the next Napa, no doubt," says John Stuart, the owner of Abbey Road Farm who arrived from Las Vegas five years ago and raised a few eyebrows by building five luxury guest suites inside three old grain silos.
Of course if you ask a longtime Oregonian about the Napa thing, you're likely to get an earful on how this will never be another Napa but something kinder, gentler and more concerned with substance than style.
But the rest of the world is certainly here, including the French. Domaine Drouhin Oregon, a satellite of the revered winemaking Drouhin family of Burgundy, has run vineyards and a winery here since 1987. Its tasting room opened in 2004, and it's gone Oregon eco-native: In August the winery added a large array of solar panels.
Meanwhile, new lodgings are rising.
For careful spenders, Comfort Suites opened in McMinnville in October with 66 rooms. For others, construction has begun in Newberg on an 85-room, 35-acre upscale resort called the Allison Inn & Spa, expected to open in August with rates beginning at $295. And a controversial plan to build a 50-room boutique hotel among the vineyards between Dundee and Dayton has run into opposition from winery owners who say the project doesn't belong on farmland.
If you get here this month, you may catch the last of the year's warmer, drier weather, and you're bound to get a glimpse of the grape harvest. At Thanksgiving, you'll find the valley buzzing with wine-soaked special events. Then again, if you wait until spring or summer, when most visitors arrive, you'll have the comfort of milder weather and extended tasting-room hours.
In any event, if you treat the Willamette Valley as a day trip from Portland, you'll miss a lot.
I based my wanderings in McMinnville, the seat of Yamhill County. Amid the eateries and shops in the city's old downtown, the McMenamin brothers, creators of a brew-pub empire in Oregon and Washington, have playfully rehabbed the 1905 Hotel Oregon into a raffish hangout with bar and restaurant below, 42 rooms above and a bar and patio on the roof. Rates start at $50, but for a private bath you'll pay $90 or more.