Oregon has always embodied the pioneer spirit, and so it is with the wine industry in Oregon Wine Country. It was a pioneering spirit that lured an entrepreneurial Californian named David Lett to the lush, blustery, undulating hillsides of the northern Willamette Valley barely a half-century ago. Shrugging off cautionary tales from his wine-making colleagues, Lett hopped in his pickup truck and headed north with 3,000 grapevine cuttings in his uncle’s horse trailer, dreaming of his own wine Eden at the end of a different Oregon Trail. What followed within a decade shocked the wine world. Turns out western Oregon’s fickle weather and the petulant grape Pinot noir, also known as “the heartbreak grape”, were meant for each other.
Thirteen years after his first planting in the Red Hills of Dundee, Lett’s Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve Pinot noir ranked among the elite Burgundies in a blind tasting at the 1979 French Wine Olympiades. On Lett’s heels came a flood of Oregon wine country explorers and experimenters. Names such as Adelsheim, Sokol, Blosser, Ponzi and Erath put down roots in those same hills, and Oregon hasn’t been the same since.
From such humble beginnings, wine has blossomed into a $200 million a year industry for the state. Oregon wine country boasts more than 400 wineries. Vineyards are rising from fertile soils in suitable parts of the state, replacing hazelnut, filbert, cherry and other orchards.
The nexus of this evolution is the damp, persistently green Willamette Valley, a 120-mile plain sandwiched between the Coast and Cascade mountain ranges. Most of Oregon’s renowned vineyards cling to the cool, damp and rocky foothills and ridges of a valley that extends from Portland in the north end to Eugene in the south.
The wine-centric communities of McMinnville, Carlton, Dundee and Newberg in the north Willamette Valley, and the rural areas surrounding Salem, Corvallis and Eugene in the south Willamette Valley, teem with tasting rooms, wine bars and businesses catering to wine enthusiasts. Adding to the charm are winding, rural backroads connecting communities and tasting rooms of every imaginable type, from the elegant and palatial to mom-and-pops with barns, sheds and otherwise primitive outbuildings. Often the vintner or winemaker are one in the same, doubling as pourer, wine tutor and tour guide.
While Pinot noir and the Willamette Valley remain synonymous in conversations about Oregon wine, you’ll discover that vitis vinifera such as Pinot gris, Chardonnay and Riesling fare equally well. Outside of the Willamette Valley, in warmer climes Syrah, Merlot and even Cabernet grapes are prolific. In fact, the state produces no fewer than 72 varietals in 16 designated wine-growing regions. These American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) are as diverse and varied as the landscapes on which the grapes are grown and boast anywhere from dozens of wineries to just one.
Drive the Columbia Gorge from the moist west end to the more arid east and you’ll discover “A World of Wine in 40 Miles”, from A (Albarino) to Z (Zinfandel). Head south into the Mediterranean-ish valleys of Southern Oregon, where amid a tapestry of oak, fir and Pacific madrone you’ll find wines often associated with northern California. You can even sip while listening to the crashing of waves at a few brave wineries along the spectacular Oregon Coast.
Today, the pioneer spirit that embodies Oregon and its wine industry has even reached into the relatively uncluttered high-desert sagebrush and mountains of arid central Oregon and northeastern Oregon.
For each of these regions, we’ve found myriad tasting rooms — from the exquisite to the down home, from the festive to the quaint, and from spectacular vistas to urban chic. Until recently, tasting at many wineries was complimentary, but that’s now the rare exception rather than the rule.
You could spend a year traversing Oregon Wine Country. Take your time, explore (4-5 wineries in one day is a practical goal) and remember to live by a mantra adopted by the state’s modern-day pioneers: Life is short – drink the Oregon wine first!
Oregon’s reputation for rain, mist and gray is well-earned, though it’s a broad brush. Travel east of the Cascade Range and you’ll find sunshine on par with Arizona.
Nevertheless, the best known of Oregon’s wineries are in the Willamette Valley, where the low marine clouds roll in from the Pacific beginning in October and generally don’t depart until after the Fourth of July. If you want to lay out a picnic basket near a vineyard, it’s best to come between early July and late September, when rain is scarce and temperatures in wine country range from the low 80s in the Portland area to over 100 in Medford’s Rogue Valley.
Two prime times for winery touring in Oregon are during the wet season: The typically blustery Memorial Day weekend and the generally cool and damp Thanksgiving Day weekend.
Nearly every winery in the state – even those without traditional tasting rooms — opens for those two weekends. Memorial Day has a Mardi Gras feel, each tasting room competing for visitors by offering live music, elaborate spreads, pig roasts, barrel tasting, new releases, tours of the grounds, etc. Thanksgiving weekend is all about getting the family out of the house to do some Christmas shopping and wine sampling. Crowds can be overwhelming at both times, but the combination of great wine, delicious food and addictive cheer invigorate the spirit.
Once Thanksgiving has passed, many wineries and tasting rooms take a breather. Many close until bud break again in the spring. If you’re wine touring between December and April, plan accordingly.
January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July (4th): Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day
November (11th): Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December (25th): Christmas
Note: Major wine tasting holidays are noted in bold.
Oregon is in the Pacific time zone (except for a section of the state bordering Idaho, which is in the Mountain time zone).
To check the local time in Oregon, click here.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (on the second Sunday morning of March at 2 a.m.). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (on the first Sunday morning in November at 2 a.m.), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except Hawaii and most of Arizona) participates in this ritual of ‘springing forward’ and ‘falling back.’
Once upon a recent time, tasting at most Oregon wineries was complimentary. With the rapid growth of the wine industry, this norm has become a rare exception.
Expect to spend at least $5 to taste a flight at most wineries and as much as $10 in the more elite tasting rooms. Many of the smaller wineries waive the tasting fee with the purchase of a bottle, though some require a minimum purchase of $50 or more.
Like wine anywhere else, prices vary. You’ll have no trouble finding a great bottle of wine for around $20.
And here’s the bonus: Oregon has no sales tax. The price you see is what you pay.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11–25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $150 for a double
$$ => Rooms $150–$300 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => Up to $15 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $16–22 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => $23 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11–25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Open the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. You need to apply for membership and download the app in advance. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8 to10 per hour; gas and insurance are included. Foreign drivers can apply and you don’t need to pay a monthly fee if you’re an occasional driver (from $25 per year for a membership).
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)
Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day. By the way, when renting in California, there are no additional driver fees by law.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical: Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework; check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions: Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (ten cents) and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.
If you get money from an ATM machine, you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction). Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, U.S. banks will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets let you get a limited amount of “cash back” when paying for your goods — this is an easy way to get cash while on the go.
Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the U.S.
Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card — which doesn’t make sense if it is lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access.
Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill, if you look closely for it.
Most bell staff receive $1 to $2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5 to $10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day and about $5 per day in higher-end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets around $10 to $20 per day. Concierge staff do not normally expect a tip for simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Car valet staff expect $2 when returning your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Sales Taxes, Lodging Taxes & Resort Fees
In Oregon, there is no sales tax.
Lodging tax also varies by location in Oregon, ranging from 5.5% in Multnomah County (Portland) to 10.4% (Bend). This tax applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, or a full-fledged hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” being charged by an increasing number of hotels. Sometimes this fee covers internet access, parking, and a few incidentals, while at other times it’s merely a surcharge for amenities that should be free. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include resort fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.
By plane: Nearly 90 percent of Oregon’s air travel goes through Portland International Airport (PDX), where you’ll quickly discover why it’s been voted America’s best airport three years running in a survey of frequent air passengers.
PDX is clean, easy to navigate and is served by every major airline with national and international connections to every major city. Yet it’s still small enough to be easily accessed via automobile or the MAX trains that bring travelers to its revolving doors.
Regional airports serving Oregon wine country are in Eugene, Medford and Bend.
By train: Technically speaking, Amtrak only serves Oregon roughly through the north-south Interstate 5 corridor. Stations in Eugene, Albany, Salem and Portland bring you into the heart of wine country. Amtrak also hugs the Columbia River through the Gorge on the Washington side, ending in Vancouver.
By automobile: Interstate highway travel in Oregon is basic: Interstate 5 bisects the Willamette Valley and southern Oregon between Portland and California, and Interstate 84 goes east-west from Portland to the Oregon-Idaho border at Ontario. The vast majority of Oregon’s wineries and vineyards are within 30 miles of I-5.
Unlike in wide-open neighboring states, where speed limits range from 70 to 80, Oregon’s highest speeds are 65. While not strictly enforced, we advise not going any faster than 70-72 mph even in vast eastern Oregon.
Another important note: Oregon remains one of two states where it’s illegal to pump your own gas. You just have to sit back and wait for the attendant to do that job.
Most of Oregon’s major wine regions come with pretty, winding two-lane paved and gravel backroads where even GPS systems can be easily confused. Take your time, pace yourself and follow the ubiquitous blue road signs to the next winery along Oregon’s picturesque byways.
Many people like to leave the driving to others, and each of the main wine regions have touring companies at the ready with limousines, SUVs, vans and buses to ensure safe, worry-free tastings. A company we recommend for Willamette Valley touring is Insiders Wine Tours.