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.
Approximately 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 the 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!)