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10Best: Oregon for Food & Wine Lovers

Oct 20, 2014

Oregon ignites the imagination and thrills foodies from near and far. To understand the state and its many riches, we recommend spending time with the "stewards of the land"—the hearty and passionate folks who work endlessly on Oregon's farms and vineyards, to bring us the delicious, fresh and seasonal flavors we've come to covet.

The state's bounty ranges from sustainably-caught tuna and crab to hazelnuts, marionberries and of course Oregon-crafted beers and wine. Here, eating (and drinking!) locally is simply a way of life. So many of the region's industrious workers express gratitude for livelihoods that allow them to directly connect with the land and to live by the seasons. We recently discovered the ideal way to hear their stories and savor their products—by following the flavorful trail from the Willamette Valley east to Walla Walla, Washington. 

Start Your Adventure

Start your adventure in Portland, either arriving by an Amtrak train or flying into PDX (oftenvoted the best airport in the country). If you choose to make the city a home base, be sure to look into Evergreen Escapes' scheduled and custom tours. Otherwise, rent a car to cover maximum ground; Hertz allows pick-ups in Portland with returns at the Walla Walla airport. Start your trip off right with a downtown overnight at the Hotel Vintage Plaza, an inviting boutique space that offers a central location, PNW vintage-inspired decor and those famousKimpton perks (we'll cheers to that nightly wine hour!).

To get your palate revved up, take a short taxi ride to bustling SE Division Street. Here, visit the unique Southeast Wine Collective tasting room, followed by dinner at Andy Ricker's lauded Thai eatery Pok Pok, where we promise a potentially long queue will be worth your wait. (Be sure to try Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings; order them fiery if you dare!) Top off the night at nearby Salt & Straw, where ice cream flavors celebrate regional delicacies like Arbequina Olive Oil and Stumptown Coffee & Burnside Bourbon.

Portland proves the perfect jumping-off point for delving into wine country. Since Oregon boasts some of the most diverse geo-climates in the world as well as a great assortment of soil types, vintners here successfully grow high-quality, cool- and warm-climate varieties. Oregon has 17 AVAs, and while many know about the state's legendary production of delicious Pinot Noir, it turns out that's only half the story these days. By all accounts, the 2014 harvest proved particularly fruitful, making the future especially bright for Oregon wine.

The Willamette Valley

Begin the tasting extravaganza at some of the Willamette Valley's 440 wineries (with 17,000-plus acres of planted vineyards). The Willamette Valley, home to two-thirds of the state's wineries and vineyards, has been recognized as one of the premier Pinot Noir-producing areas in the world, yet here you'll also enjoy unforgettable pours of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and sparkling wine. Just forty-five minutes south of the city, time travel becomes a reality thanks to the historic, nine-car Wheatland Ferry which transports passengers to the charming backroads of the Eola-Amity Hills. Call ahead to confirm that day's ferry schedule. (Blink, and you might just miss the brief ride!).   The Willamette Valley's Bethel Heights offers stunning vineyard views.
Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting

Some of this region's tastiest vintages neighbor one another like Bethel Heights, Cristom, St. Innocent Winery and Walter Scott Wines. At mealtime, head to Amity's locally-owned Blue Goat or to Salem's The Crooked House Bistro, where Bernard Malherbe's French-meets-Northwest fare translates to mussels with an Alsatian twist and a steaming cassoulet dish you won't soon forget. Another must-try activity: a Blue Glass Tasting of award-winning Extra Virgin Olive Oil at the Oregon Olive Mill at Red Ridge, the only estate olioteca in the Pacific Northwest.

To complete a day of decadence, spend the night at the luxurious Allison Inn and Spa, a tranquil property that specializes in top-notch wining and dining plus pampering spa treatments and omnipresent art; large-scale sculptures by local talents adorn the resort's landscaped gardens. Dinner at on-site Jory Restaurant & Bar celebrates all things local from Oregon albacore tuna and pan-seared scallops to Pinot-braised pork cheek, served with risotto, local sweet corn, romano beans and garden pepper reduction. The award-winning wine list here includes 800 labels, 40 wines by the glass and, if you're wanting to mix it up, tasting flights spotlighting local legends like Ponzi and ROCO.

Columbia River Gorge

Next up: the Columbia River Gorge. To enjoy great views and awesome pit stops as you move east toward Hood River, curve along the Historic Columbia River Highway. En route you'll pass amazing lookout points and 10 waterfalls accessible from the road—like the postcard-perfect, 600-plus-foot Multnomah Falls and smaller, less-trafficked ones, too. (Find dozens of nearby waterfalls if you feel like hiking in.)

The Columbia Gorge is home to some 80 vineyards and 30 wineries which span both sides of the river. For example, some gems, like Maryhill and Syncline (known for its Rhone varietals), reside on the Washington side. Thanks to the convergence of three climates (marine, desert and mountain) and the difference in rainfall from one end of the valley to the other, the region is said to comprise "a world of wine in 40 miles."

Hood River sits thirty miles north of Mt. Hood, the state's highest peak; here residents coin their quaint, laid-back town a "foodie paradise and adventurer's dream." Credit this distinction to eateries like Nora's Table (motto: "world-wise food, serious pluck") and Solstice Wood Fire Cafe and Bar, a Kickstarter success story that now bustles on the riverfront. Additionally, the town's claim to fame as the windsurfing capital of the world draws adventurous souls who take advantage of the Gorge's gigantic gusts as well as outdoor activities like kiteboarding, standup paddleboarding and whitewater rafting plus, in winter months, skiing and snowshoeing. 

While in Hood River, be sure to taste the region's bounty at inviting spaces like the sleek Analemma tasting room, or, if you're needing a break from all those grapes, at popular brewpubs like Full Sail, Double Mountain (enjoy their hop-heavy Indian Red Ale) and Pfriem Family Brewers. Families might also consider touring the 35-mile, scenic fruit loop, where farms and orchards show off roving alpacas and fragrant lavender fields. For rooms with a view, book a stay at the Columbia Gorge Hotel (or their adjacent villas).

After Hood River, continue the journey east through The Dalles, as the topography grows increasingly desert-like, and bighorn sheep graze in the hills above. Break up the drive with a stop at the Sunshine Mill Winery or the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, and be sure to spot the surreal Stonehenge replica rising on the Washington side of the river.  

Walla Walla Valley

Finally cross over the state border into Walla Walla—meaning "many waters"—a charming cowboy town-turned-wine-Mecca that's home to about 30,000 residents and an increasingly happening food and arts scene. (A direct drive from Portland to Walla Walla takes about four hours.) Lodging options here range from the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel to modern and hip airstream trailers near the airport. Equally varied, the food scene spans from locally-sourced, artisan dishes at Whitehouse-Crawford to tasty "global street food" (think Voodoo Poutine), whipped up inside a gas station. (We kid you not. You will not want to miss the tasty, quirky experience that is Andrae's Kitchen.)

The Walla Walla AVA includes about 120 wineries spread across five regions, and the elevation soars from 400 to 2,000 feet above sea level. Two-thirds of its wineries appear in Washington, one-third in Oregon; most of them are dedicated to heat-loving varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Syrah and Viognier. While an obvious "must" here involves cruising Walla Walla's tasting room circuit (download the mobile app for guidance), also enjoy the throwback charm of downtown's Main Street, hikes in the Blue Mountains, strolls around the art-dotted Whitman campus and history lessons at the Whitman Mission or surprisingly thorough Fort Walla Walla Museum. 

After all that sipping and savoring, when it's finally time to head home from Walla Walla, take advantage of Alaska's Airlines Taste and Tote program, meaning Mileage Plan members fly their first case of wine for free. (Also show your boarding pass at 75 wineries in Walla Walla for waived tasting fees.) You'll no doubt return home full and happy, buoyed by the kind spirits, rich flavors and stunning scenes you've encountered along the way. 

More About the Geography

In Oregon's west, adventurers get lost amid a lush wonderland of moss-draped trees, thriving mushroom colonies, cascading waterfalls and majestic rocks that rise along a jagged coastline. No doubt, something mystical hangs in the fog-kissed air.

In Eastern Oregon, the land turns more arid and the hues more muted; it’s easy to envision early pioneers carving their way west across the beautiful, rugged terrain. Throughout the region—and especially around the Columbia River Gorge— evidence remains of the great, cataclysmic Missoula Floods that swept across the the region at the end of the last ice age, forever changing the landscape.

To truly experience the state's physical beauty, you'll want to explore "The Seven Wonders of Oregon"—from Mt. Hood and the Coast to the Painted Hills and Crater Lake.