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Oregon Wine Country - via AAA

In the golden West, an hour's drive from Portland, there's a redolent valley that wears its thousands of acres of vineyards like a vast green corduroy jacket. Here the soil, the weather, and the once far-fetched ambition of young winemakers meet on the rolling oak and fir hills of Yamhill County to produce some of the best wines in the United States. On the map, this sprawling haven for wine lovers is called the Willamette Valley, but many people these days call it "Pinot Noir Heaven."

A smattering of tiny farming towns—Carlton, Dundee, Dayton, Lafayette—dot this bucolic landscape. Only their neighbor, McMinnville, is big enough to host a college, the world's largest wooden airplane, and, in July, the famous and fairly exclusive International Pinot Noir Celebration (tickets for the three-day event are limited and will set you back $795 apiece). There's so much here, in fact, that the best wine country getaway is no longer a California dream, but a ramble around the environs of this proud old mill city, the center of the state's booming young wine industry.

McMinnville, along with nearly every town in the Willamette Valley, began life as a farm village. It was populated initially by folks like founder William Newby, who arrived by wagon in 1843, built a gristmill, and named the new settlement after his hometown in Tennessee. Mills and farm buildings still punctuate the cityscape, as it were; but now, a former walnut-processing building in its new incarnation as Walnut City Wineworks produces pinot noir rather than packaged walnuts

Today's savvy traveler would be hard-pressed to resist McMinnville's many other enticing attributes. A handful of chefs, such as Nick Peirano, are creating a buzz with their masterful use of edible local flora and fauna. Peirano displays his two passions—food and jazz—at Nick's Italian Cafe, his namesake restaurant. There's the historic wood-and-brick Hotel Oregon, lovingly restored by the McMenamin brothers who, bless their hearts, created a glorious open-air pub on its rooftop. And there are the delightfully romantic lodgings, from the tiny Gahr Farm cottage to the grand Youngberg Hill Vineyards & Inn, that float like boats among the waves of vineyards flowing out far beyond the town limits.

Protected from coastal wet, wild weather by the thickly forested Coast Range and defended from icy east winds by the vaulting Cascade Mountains, the valley remains one of the world's grand agricultural treasures. The soil here is so rich and deep—sometimes more than 100 feet thick—that it provides much of the nation's grass seed as well as most of its annual hazelnut crop. In summer, roadside fruit and vegetable stands sell tons of blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. But the most intriguing local crop these days—with all due respect to the hops that feed Oregon's noted microbreweries—is Vitis vinifera, the grapevine.

Planted in Oregon by the first white settlers about 150 years ago, these vines produced no renowned wines until 1965, when a visionary young man named David Lett grew Willamette Valley's first pinot noir and chardonnay and the first pinot gris in the United States. Forty years later Lett—now called Papa Pinot in the valley—is hailed as the growling, grinning godfather of the state's wine boom. His Eyrie Vineyards on 10th Street in McMinnville is the literal and figurative epicenter of more than 10,000 acres of vineyards stretching for miles in every direction: Northeast to the Red Hills of Dundee, where the passionate pinot pursuer could be tempted to spend a week at Lange, Domaine Drouhin, and Archery Summit alone. North to tiny Carlton, where 10 young winemakers have embraced the spirit of co-operation and employ green principles to produce the high-quality wines they showcase at the Carlton Winemakers Studio. South to Amity, for a sampling of crisp, spicy rieslings and gewürztraminers. And finally east, on the way back to Portland, let us say, for a quick stop at tiny, rustic J.K. Carriere Wines, to taste Jim Prosser's elegant and rare pinot noirs.

Why does pinot noir perform so well in the valley? "Rare soil and perfect pinot climate," says personable young vintner Jesse Lange, who with his father, lead winemaker and folksinger Don Lange, creates wonderfully dark, rich pinot noirs on their hillside in Dundee. "The pinot noir vine is a touchy creature, hard to grow well. And these hills have just the right mix of ingredients: hot, clear summer days; cool, crisp nights; well-drained soil; and winemakers who are not at all convinced that the vineyards of Burgundy necessarily make better pinot noirs than we do. We all learned from the pinot pioneers here, David Lett and Dick Erath, that the dream of making the best pinot in the world wasn't crazy. It can be done. It's being done."

There's far more to do in and around McMinnville than just sample wine, of course. Hikers will delight in the immense, eminently visitable fir forests in the nearby hills of the Coast Range. Vibrant Linfield College plays host to several concerts during the summer, and in July the hilarious Turkey Rama grips the town. This three-day street festival pays homage to the area's once-thriving turkey industry with the annual Biggest Turkey contest and thousands of roasting birds. And finally, there's the enlightening and highly educational Evergreen Aviation Museum, home of Howard Hughes's prodigious flying boat, the Spruce Goose. That's still the biggest thing in the county—except for the wildly energetic wine industry, where, with a little judicious effort, you just might find the best pinot noir in the world.

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