Archive for November, 2014

Willamette Valley on a Budget

Updated for 2019!

Nothing says Thanksgiving like pinot noir, the go-to wine for many a turkey day dinner.  And nothing says pinot like Oregon’s Willamette Valley, home of all things pinot noir.  So in the spirit of Thanksgiving it seems appropriate to devote a little time to Oregon.

Wilammette Valley MapApproximately 100 miles long and 20 miles wide, the Valley follows the Willamette river south from Portland to Eugene.  Known primarily for pinot noir, the valley is also home to some truly amazing riesling and pinot gris.

Unfortunately, “cheap” and “Willamette” are two words generally not found together.  Willamette wines, while generally of amazing quality,  sport notoriously high price tags.  And Willamette winery owners in particular have been very vocal in their opinion that tasting rooms should not be free, rather they ought to be seen as premium attractions – and priced accordingly.  (See Tom Wark’s particularly astute rant.)

Nonetheless, I think Oregon should definitely be on your wine trip radar.

The scenery is beautiful, the people are friendly, and the wines are outstanding.  So here are a few tips to take the sting out of your Oregon adventure.

For starters, the region has not been built up as a mega-luxury destination like Napa.  This means you won’t destroy your budget on basics such as lodging and transportation.  Resorts do exist if that’s your thing, but I’d rather take advantage of the regions’ proximity to Portland and find an inexpensive hotel in the city to use as a base camp.  The drive is reasonable enough to make it worth your while.  However if you’d rather stay closer to the action, especially if you’re exploring the southern valley, hotels in the Willamette valley are more reasonable than you’d expect.

Secondly, plan carefully.  Good maps are tough to come by, cell phones can be unreliable in the mountains. While many wine regions feature a “main drag” through the region with WintersHillVineyard-610x365the best wineries lined up like dominoes,  Willamette wineries are scattered about on poorly marked side roads. Though directional signs are plentiful, you’ll still appreciate your GPS in this region.  So save yourself a fortune in time (and gas) from unnecessary driving by spending some quality time with a map.  Willamette Valley Wine is a fantastic tool to get you started.  Also check out the Prince of Pinot’s writeup on the area.

Thirdly, the really expensive stuff is largely concentrated in the northern half of the region.  Head further south and you’ll often encounter more deals and fewer crowds.

Be warned that the Memorial Day and Thanksgiving weekends are HUGE festival weekends in the valley.  While almost all of the wineries will be open that weekend, the crowds and traffic will be very unpleasant.

Tasting Room Deals

Tasting fees in Willamette generally run in the $10-$15 range with a few $5 holdouts remaining.  The scant few free tastings available in the region are listed on my free tasting room guide.   As I mentioned before, getting around tasting room fees in Oregon can be a challenge, but there are a few deals you can take advantage of:

  • “Oregon Wines Fly Free.”  Still THE best deal running in Oregon.  The catch is that you must fly into Oregon on Alaska Airlines AND be a member of Alaska’s frequent flier program. Your boarding pass (and frequent flier card) are the ticket to free tastings at over 300 wineries in Oregon and Washington.  It also waives the checked baggage fee for one case of wine per person.  The deal is ongoing and membership in Alaska’s “Mileage Plan” is free.
  • Oregon Wine Passport.  This tasting passport sells for $90, but often goes on sale for $60.  Valid for two people, it gets you free or 2-for-1 tastings at nearly 80 wineries in Oregon for one calendar year.  At $60 it’s a steal!
  • Groupon.  While Willamette tasting room coupons are few and far between, you can often catch some really good ones in the Oregon Wine Tasting Groupon page.
  • Spend $10 Or Less Tasting at These Oregon Wineries – many thanks to the Salem Statesman Journal for this helpful article!

Good luck, and if you’re an experienced Oregon wine traveler with great travel tips, leave them in the comments.  We’ll add them to future revisions of this guide (and give you credit of course!)

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Winery Guest Houses – Are They Worth It?

Hotels are so 2010. Guest houses are the latest trend in wine country lodging – more specifically, winery guest houses. Previously unadvertised and reserved for wine country VIP’s, members of the wine trade and the press, many of these guest houses are now being made available to the general public as wineries search for new sources of revenue.

IMG_0111While never cheap, (rooms rarely go for less than $200/night) in some situations these guest houses may actually be a really good value!  Here’s what you ought to know before you ditch your reservation at the Best Western in favor of your own private wine country cabin.

Winery guest houses (some wineries call them lodges or cottages) are remarkably uniform and there are two preferred setups: either you rent the entire property (your own wine country cabin!) or the house has been sub-divided into smaller rooms or suites that rent individually.

Along with the amenities you’d expect in a normal hotel room (smoking and pets are nearly always prohibited), you’ll generally find a large patio, full kitchen (hopefully stocked with coffee and snacks) and oftentimes a hot tub, fireplace, outdoor grill and picnic tables. Guests are also typically given VIP treatment at the host winery including special tours, free tastings and often a free bottle of wine or two in the room.  We’re even aware of winery that sends the partial bottles from the tasting room up to the guest house at the end of the day!

Rates vary widely – expect to pay between $200 and $1,000 per night plus a cleaning fee.  A 2-night minimum is pretty standard and the rate may vary based on how many guests you have.   Some guest houses are only open to wine club members and their guests, while most others offer huge discounts (as high as 50%!) to club members. There are often off-season and mid-week discounts available and you may even discover a few extra bennies: I know of one particular winery that credits any wine you purchase from them against the cost of your room!

If it were me, I’d only consider a guest house if I was traveling with a group – say 4-6 people. If you can catch one for under $400 per night, it may prove to be a better value than the 2-3 hotel rooms you’d ordinarily rent for that kind of group.  If you have separate bedrooms there’s still plenty of privacy and if you enjoy cooking you can use the kitchen and grill to save on meals.

Lodge-style guest houses (where you’re only renting one room rather than the whole house) are a pretty poor value in my opinion.  I have found some happy-medium arrangements where the house has been split in half. For instance, rather than renting the whole house, you get the entire upper or lower level.  These setups can be a good deal depending on the layout so it pays to ask.

To date, nobody has put together a central directory of wine country guest houses that we’re aware of. So to see if your favorite winery offers one you’ll need to check their web site. It’s usually found in the “visit us” or “wine club” sections.  If it’s club-only, you may have to dig thorough your paper club newsletters for the info. If all else fails, a phone call to the tasting room might turn up an unadvertised room as some guest houses are still kept private. If the winery doesn’t have any official guests in town, they may be glad to let you stay with them!

As much as I hate spending unnecessary money, I’m really a big fan of guest houses – if the price is right.  They’re a bit of a luxury, but a low-key and unpretentious one, and they can be a good value under certain circumstances.  You’ll almost always come away from a guest house visit with great stories, a few new friends, and the feeling that you had a more genuine wine country experience.


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