Drive south of Portland for about an hour and you’ll land in McMinnville, the county seat of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Recognized for a charming downtown studded with shops, cafés and tasting rooms – as well as proximity to more than 200 wineries – McMinnville combines small-town culture with a gastronomic scene the rival of any big city.
Set in verdurous Yamhill County, McMinnville is a welcoming town where food and wine take the spotlight. This small city of about 34,000 brims with engaging people who are as eager to give directions or winery recommendations as they are to chat up a storm about their hometown. Pair the area’s robust culinary offerings with the kindness of strangers, and you have an excellent escape, be it a day trip, overnight stay, or an extended vacation.
After checking in to your hotel, start with a stroll on Third Street – a quintessential American main street. Here, stately maple trees shadow the sidewalks and a string of independent shops anchor low-rise buildings. Browse stores like Mes Amis (522 NE 3rd St) for trendy clothing and accessories, and Third Street Books (320 NE Third St) for new and used titles. Dozens of other local outposts – including buzzing coffee shops, funky eateries, and intimate tasting rooms filled with chatty wine enthusiasts – dot the streetscape of downtown McMinnville.
The Willamette Valley AVA and its sub-appellation, the McMinnville Valley AVA (in the Coast Range Foothills of the Yamhill Valley), provide the wine-curious with an opportunity to taste and sip Pinot Noir to their heart’s content. From biodynamic wineries to off-the-beaten-path vineyards and big-name producers, the Pinot Noir produced in the region – and there’s plenty of it – is known as some of the best in the world, and worth the trip in itself.
The grape takes up over 70 percent of the acreage in the Willamette Valley (Pinot Noir thrives in the mild, cool, and dampish climate). And because of it, this area of Oregon continues to garner attention, attracting both oenophiles and novice drinkers. But Pinot Gris and Chardonnay (calling white wine lovers) are abundant as well, and alternative reds such as Gamay Noir, Pinot’s sibling, crop up in some wineries. While you won’t have to hop in a car or leave downtown McMinnville to sample the valley’s bounty of wine, you’ll be within a 15 or 20-minute drive of several outstanding (and Instagram-worthy) estates for spending an afternoon or at least a few hours.
One to check out is Domaine Serene (6555 NE Hilltop Ln), a Mediterranean-inspired property founded in 1989 by Willamette Valley pioneers, Grace and Ken Evenstad. Set amid the lush sloping landscape of the Dundee Hills just 20 minutes from McMinnville, Domaine Serene produces award-winning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from grapes planted in six individual estates. Beyond wine tastings, foodies should splurge on the 45th Parallel Experience ($125 per person). The two-hour food and wine pairing features side-by-side pours of Old World Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Château De La Crée in Burgundy (in 2015, the Evenstads purchased the winery in France) and the same varietals from Domaine Serene. While the French and Oregon wines are exquisite, the accompanying cuisine is some of the most impressive in the state, if not the Pacific Northwest.
Less than five minutes from Domaine Serene, Durant Vineyards at Red Hill Farms (5430 NE Breyman Orchards Rd) is a five-generation venture whose history is rooted in viticulture, producing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris grapes for some of the leading wineries in the Willamette Valley for more than 40 years. In 2003, the family began creating small batches of wine from the estate’s fruit, hence the birth of the Durant label. Beautifully sited, the well-kept property overlooks the lush landscape of the Dundee Hills, and consists of a winery and tasting room, olive mill, gardens, and overnight lodging. Stop in for an olive oil tasting in the olioteca – the only one in this area of the country – before making your way to the wine tasting room. This Estate Experience costs $75 per person and includes a tour of the Durant Olive Mill.
For understated luxury and personalized service, look no further than Atticus Hotel (375 NE Ford St). With just 36 rooms and suites, Atticus feels a lot like a small inn, and this property’s thoughtful details far exceed what you’d find in most chain hotels. Local artwork and books picked by McMinnville denizens add a touch of Oregon to every room. My favorite amenity was the in-room wine fridge, ideal for storing the purchases selected from the day’s tastings. The cheery front desk team will suggest wineries, help organize transportation and tours, and book tables at the area’s top restaurants, all while whipping up a cappuccino as you wait.
At Atticus’s sister property, 3rd Street Flats (555 NE 3rd St and 219 NE Cowls St), select from 11 individually styled apartments in two historic downtown buildings. Although these rooms are classified as vacation rentals, you’ll experience the hospitality of a bed and breakfast and the perks of a hotel. The 3rd Street Flats can accommodate two, four, or six guests, so it’s perfect for both romantic weekends and group getaways.
Cruise back to 1905 and revel in a piece of McMinnville History when you book a room at McMenamins Hotel Oregon (310 NE Evans St). Choose from King or Queen rooms, some with shared baths and others en suite, but all accommodations are TV-free. Instead of watching the new series of Game of Thrones, you can socialize and imbibe in one of the hotel’s three bars: the spacious first-floor pub, Mattie’s – the cellar bar – and in warm weather, the rooftop bar, which provides a 360-degree view of McMinnville and beyond.
Eat a breakfast sandwich topping all others (eggs, bacon, gremolata, pickled pepper relish on rustic white bread), at Community Plate (315 NE 3rd St), a diner and meeting place serving comfort food at communal tables. This casual daytime spot epitomizes the sense of community in McMinnville (alongside really delicious food). The biscuit & gravy, steel cut oats, and Heritage pork hash round out the morning menu, and the Oregon albacore tuna melt or the mac & cheese made with Tillamook Oregon cheddar work well for a hearty mid-day meal, perfect for lining the stomach ahead of a wine drinking afternoon. Need a dose of caffeine? No worries. Community Plate brews Stumptown coffee.
What started as a catering business expanded to a brick-and-mortar location at Valley Commissary (920 NE 8th St), a laid-back and seasonally open-air cafe that prepares every dish from scratch. The eatery sits in the hip Granary District, off the beaten path from downtown, but only about a 10-minute walk from the main street. Must-try breakfast offerings include the frittata of the day, buttermilk pancakes, and Brie’s Granola (which I watched made fresh as I ate). Lunchtime sandwiches (go for the fried chicken with kale slaw), soups, and salads like beet with avocado mousse complete the afternoon choices.
A loft-like space with repurposed wood, exposed ductwork, crisp white tablecloths, and an open kitchen fuses the rustic with the refined at The Barberry (645 NE 3rd St, #100). Like the decor, the menu reflects a relaxed elegance. Truffle fondito, venison tartare, and roasted chicken breast with seared gnocchi are a sampling of what’s available. The Barberry’s wine list reflects various regions with a heavy Oregon bias, and an extensive bourbon and rye collection – alongside more than a dozen Japanese whiskeys – provide ample opportunities for classics like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned.
If you’re an eater who prefers to know where your food comes from, then dine at Thistle (228 NE Evans St). Chef Eric Bechard strives for a snout-to-tail approach (using every square inch of the animal) when creating the restaurant/bar’s always evolving menu, which showcases dishes like razor clams, radish, cilantro, and coriander; pork terrine, pickles, and mustard, and beef cheek, roots, black truffle, and red wine. Besides an extensive wine list and a selection of beer and cider from the state, cocktails are also a highlight at Thistle. For a pre-dinner libation, try “The Millionaire” – light rum, Sloe Gin, apricot brandy, and lime.
Welcoming staff give anyone an excuse to stop into R. Stuart & Co (528 NE 3rd St). Winemaker Rob Stuart collects fruit from various growers in the valley, then transports the grapes to his winery in downtown McMinnville (just minutes from this wine tasting room). The “Big Fire” wines – R. Stuart calls these the “Tuesday night wines” as they’re the most practical for everyday drinking – are quite popular and also the most affordable, but the reserve Pinot Noirs are more refined and worth the splurge. Wine lovers can partake in a barrel tasting in the cellar at R. Stuart Winery (845 NE 5th St) followed by a tasting in the wine bar for $45 per person. Reservations required.
It’s a collaborative effort at Willamette Valley Vineyards Tasting Room (300 NE 3rd St), a spacious shop showcasing the wines from its eponymous vineyard, Tualatin Estate, and Elton Vineyard. Labeled “One of American’s Great Pinot Noir Producers” by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, WVV is lauded for other varietals including Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Merlot. Try them all, by the fireplace or in warm weather, out on the patio. Open seven days a week, Willamette Valley Vineyards features daily tastings for $10 and estate tastings for $15.
Set in a 1926 brick building that once housed the McMinnville power plant, Elizabeth Chambers Cellar (455 NE Irvine St) focuses on crafting micro-regional pinot noir. Liz Chambers created her labor of love – a chic, barn-like tasting and winemaking facility – over an eight-year period, opening in 2013. The factory’s overhaul maintained the industrial feel but with ambiance – think maroon brick walls, plush furniture and soaring windows allowing tons of light –suitable for an afternoon of wine drinking. Liz Chambers’ legacy carries on as her family now manages the winery and tasting room in which warm and knowledgeable staff offer generous pours of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and rosé. Premier tastings consist of seven wines and cost $25 per person, and classic tastings provide five wines for $15.
Ask any McMinnville native about where to taste wine, and The Eyrie Vineyards (935 NE 10th Ave) will probably pop up in conversation. Trailblazer David Lett helped put Oregon on the wine map. Lett was not only the first winemaker to bring Pinot Gris to the USA, but he was the American pioneer whose Pinot Noir vied with the wines of Burgundy. It was his success which brought the Willamette Valley kudos as a region that could indeed produce exceptional wine. According to Matt Kramer of The Wine Spectator, “You can look at Oregon’s 300-plus wineries and 17,400 acres of vines and trace it to Lett.” At the McMinnville tasting room, sample the Discovery Flight (four wines) for $15 and the Exploration Flight (seven wines) for $25.