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Oregon Wine Country: Tasting Eugene and the South Willamette Valley

Photo by John Baker

Opulent, eclectic, mom 'n pop, exotic wineries in Oregon

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At the southern tip of the Oregon Wine Country’s Willamette Valley, the river of the same name emerges from a confluence of the Coast and Cascade ranges and spills into the state’s second largest city. Eugene (pop. 156,000) has long fancied itself as the world capital in many pursuits: Track and field capital, gymnastics capital, grass-seed capital, allergy capital and even anarchy capital. Eugene immodestly calls itself “The World’s Greatest City of the Arts and Outdoors”. The emergence of the University of Oregon’s football program on the national stage has fuelled the chest-puffing.

Yet the Emerald City does it with an earthy charm. The eclectic community is a highly progressive mix of ‘60s refugees, loggers, athletes and suburbia.  Think Berkeley or Madison. Natural-food markets seemingly dot every intersection. The Saturday Market is the first of its kind in the country.

Eugene stops short of declaring itself Oregon’s wine capital, but the vinifera scene certainly is a microcosm of the community. Opulent, eclectic, mom-and-pop, exotic wineries and tasting rooms — they’re all in the Eugene area. It’s also creative. In an effort to liven up the wine scene, many Eugene wineries remain open late on Friday nights with twilight tastings. These typically involve food, music and perhaps even a movie night in the vineyard.

The area’s rural wineries form a semi-arc swinging from south of the city along Interstate 5 to the lush foothills northwest of town. Because it is slightly warmer and drier here than in the north, Pinot still prevails but other grapes also have a fighting chance. This itinerary of our top choices is based on diversity and consistency of quality. We encourage you take longer than a weekend to visit them, planning according to your stamina, pace and interests. After all, you might want to add one or more of the other fine wineries in the area to your exploration.


Morning

To feel like a local, fuel up with an omelette or the Farmers Delight Eggs Benedict at the homey Studio One Cafe under the walnut trees on East 19th Avenue. If you’re looking for a less traditional breakfast, Cornbread Cafe offers more than cornbread — most notably a breaded, deep-fried seitan sausage on a Belgian waffle, smothered with cashew gravy and agave/maple syrup.

Downtown wineries don’t get hopping until later in the evening, so head south and make your first stop at the area’s most congenial winery, Silvan Ridge, also the county’s oldest (1979). Across Briggs Hill Road, Sweet Cheeks is naturally our sweetest setting for its wonderful views, marvelous wood stove and outside ambiance.

Next up, continue south through lush forests and fields for a study in contrasts: King Estate, our most opulent winery, and Chateau Lorane, a relaxed setting with the most diverse lineup not only in the Eugene area but perhaps the entire state.


Lunch

Time your stops to enjoy vineyard views and lunch paired with estate wines at the King Estate Restaurant. Or consider skipping a midday meal because Sarver Winery just south of Veneta is not only the best hangout, they have the best nosh. At the little crossroads of Veneta, head west toward Domaine Meriwether, where if you don’t have a bubbly personality you’re sure to leave with one after sipping the results of methode champenoise. If you went the BYOP route, spread out on the lush grounds at LaVelle Vineyards, the best place to picnic).

Return to Veneta and turn north on Territorial Road toward two of the more eco-oriented wineries in the region: the colorful and solar-powered Pfeiffer Vineyards, home of the best garden setting, and biodynamic Benton-Lane Winery, the most historic.


Dinner

Returning to downtown Eugene on Oregon 99W, our choice for dinner is Marche, a food and wine lovers’ respite from a long day of touring. Savor Northwest farm-to-table fare in the bar, dining room or bistro tables outside. On the casual and creative side, Party Downtown offers a modest menu of small and large plates for dining on a budget – with an admirable wines-by-the-glass list.

At B2 Bar & Grill, the metro-chic environs aren’t ideal for acoustics or conversation, but the artfully presented tapas, dinners and wide selection of wines atone . A full bar serves more than 40 Oregon wines, microbrews,
domestic beers, cocktails, appetizers and entrees.

When many of the rural wineries are closing for the day, urban watering holes are just getting warmed up. You have a trio of choices: The best place to chill is the Oregon Wine LAB, the best hipster vibe is at Territorial Vineyards & Wine Company in the eclectic Whiteaker neighborhood, and Eugene Wine Cellars’ tasting room on Madison Street.

For additional dining choices, fresh fish and Oregon are synonymous, and that includes fresh sushi. The place to go in Eugene is Mame for an extensive and ever-changing menu in a decidedly casual atmosphere. A vibrant south-of-the-border menu featuring tapas and raciones beckons at Membrillo Latin Kitchen.

On the more traditional side, watch the Willamette River meander past while dining and sipping Oregon wines by the glass at SweetWaters in the Valley River Inn. It’s a little pricey, but you can’t beat dining al fresco to the tune of a river. Ox & Fin is a stylish and intimate little place that emphasizes Northwest cuisine.


Pillow Talk: The best lodging in Eugene.

Eugene offered little more than nondescript chain hotels and motels until the stylish Inn at the 5th opened downtown a few years ago. The boutique-style hotel is within walking distance of many attractions, including 5th Street Market. A longtime staple is the 245-room Valley River Inn, where some rooms are dedicated allergen-free (we weren’t kidding about the allergy capital thing) and have balconies overlooking the lazy Willamette River.

For the B&B set, McKenzie Orchards Bed & Breakfast is in a pretty country setting on the marvelous McKenzie River. It’s only eight miles from Eugene, it’s pet-friendly and it even has a Tesla charging station for electric cars. The Campbell House Inn & Restaurant at the foot of Skinners Butte is an 1892 home restored to feel like a luxury boutique hotel. It’s within walking distance of many of Eugene’s attractions but maintains a quaint country feel.


Explore another Oregon Wine Country Itinerary

Oregon Wine Country: Columbia Gorge … Experience ‘A World of Wine in 40 miles’ your way in Oregon, from Albarino to Zinfandel
Oregon Wine Country: Sipping the Willamette Valley’s Route 47 … Fine wine and scenery on “The Road Less Traveled” in Oregon, perfect for a Sunday drive
Oregon Wine Country: Tasting Trails of McMinnville and Central Willamette Valley … Explore where the Oregon Pinot revolution began


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