Although there’s an increasing amount of excellent wine made in southern Oregon  and in the Columbia Gorge , Oregon’s wine country is generally thought to include those vineyards west and southwest of Portland  in Yamhill County . This is where the rich soil and long gentle growing season have created conditions that sustain the largest concentration of vineyards in the Northwest.
The slow-cooling fall days engender a complexity in the regional product by inhibiting high sugar concentrations while maintaining the natural acidity of the grape. In summer, Oregon ’s northern latitude makes for long sunny days without excessive heat, a condition that bodes well for the harvest. These factors combine to produce wines delicate in flavor, low in alcohol, and crisp in finish, despite a tendency toward fruitiness.
A good website that focuses on Willamette Valley wines is www.willamettewines.com . Tasting rooms in Oregon range from no-frills makeshift back rooms to relatively grand affairs. Some of the best wineries don’t even maintain regular tasting rooms, but just about every place opens its doors during Thanksgiving and Memorial Day weekends, the two best (though most crowded) times to sample a really wide range of excellent wines. Contact the McMinnville Chamber of Commerce (417 NW Adams St., McMinnville 97128, 503/538-2014, www.mcminnville.org ) or the Yamhill Valley Visitors Association (503/883-7770, www.yamhillvalley.org ) for winery and accommodations information.
The only better opportunity to taste pinot noirs, made from the region’s signature grape, is at the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration (503/472-8964 or 800/775-4762, www.ipnc.org ). More than 60 American and international pinot noir producers are on hand for symposia, tastings, and winery tours. Meals prepared by internationally known chefs are also a highlight.
The three-day event takes place at the end of July on the Linfield College campus in McMinnville . While the cost of registration, $975, is prohibitive for all but the most serious oenophiles, tickets to the final tasting can be purchased separately for $125. Register well in advance; this event always sells out.
Willamette Valley wineries and tasting rooms are generally open 11 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, but if you have your heart set on visiting a particular winery, it’s always a good idea to call in advance to confirm hours and other details. Blue-and-white signs on Route 99W and its offshoots help point the way to such pantheons of pinot as Erath, Sokol Blosser , Yamhill Valley , and Amity .
Good wine and good food go together, which explains the creation of some surprisingly sophisticated restaurants in this very rural area. Wine touring is also popular because downtown Portland  sits a mere 30–40 miles away from the state’s greatest concentration of wineries. Just take I-5 south of the city and go west on Route 99W, and within 45 minutes you’ll find yourself in the midst of filbert orchards and grapevines.
In terms of distance, this might evoke wine-touring routes from San Francisco  to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys , but the similarity ends there. Don’t expect extensive tours of Oregon wineries and on-site restaurants. Nevertheless, as the Oregon wine country grows in popularity, weekend traffic gets worse every year. Hiring a car and driver or a tour company is becoming an increasingly appealing (and safer) alternative for many wine enthusiasts.
If you prefer to leave the driving and commentary to someone else, several companies offer tours by bus or car, particularly for parties of four or more. Prices vary widely depending on the number of people, the amount of customization, and whether or not meals are provided: a full-day tour can range $60–150 per person; half-day tours are also available. Besides the obvious advantage of being able to swallow rather than spitting, traveling with one of these groups can gain you access to small wineries without regular tasting-room hours.
One particularly well-established company is Grape Escape Winery Tours (503/283-3380, www.grapeescapetours.com ). Tours are also provided by Eco Tours of Oregon (503/245-1428, www.ecotours-of-oregon.com ), Insiders Wine Tour (503/791-0005, www.insiderswinetour.com ), and Eco-Wine Tours (503/863-7777, www.eco-wintetours.com ), which specializes in the valley’s many wineries with environmentally sustainable practices.
Want to see the valley from a hot-air balloon? Get in touch with the folks at Vista Balloons (503/625-7385 or 800/622-2309, www.vistaballoon.com , Apr.–Oct., $189).