“Violets are good in my book,” affirmed Anna Matzinger, who makes wine along with her husband, Michael Davies, under the label Matzinger Davies Wine Company in McMinnville, Ore., about 40 miles southwest of Portland in the heart of the wine-growing Willamette Valley, as we nosed into a sample of her pinot noir. “I’m looking for fruit, flower, spice and earth in a good pinot noir.”
I was looking for an accessible wine region — in terms of price, transportation and hospitality — when I went to the Willamette, which runs just over 100 miles from the outskirts of Portland to just south of Eugene. Here, in the mid-1960s, pioneering winemakers began growing grapes, particularly the finicky pinot noir variety that has since flourished, attracting more than 750 wineries today, many intimate enough for the winemakers themselves to guide tastings.
“There’s a distinct diurnal change in the Willamette Valley,” explained Ms. Matzinger, noting that an 80-degree day can fall to 40 overnight, a plunge that encourages grapes to retain their acidity. “That makes it nervy-delicious, like the spinal cord of the wine.”
So began my latest vocabulary lesson in wine in the season most associated with sipping: fall. When the weather turns cool enough to suggest earthy reds over chilled whites, the harvest attracts fans to wineries energized by the picking, sorting and crushing of grapes.
Rare among American wine regions, the Willamette Valley is connected to a public transportation system that links Portland to McMinnville, eliminating the “last mile” plague of public transportation systems that tend to strand riders just shy of their destinations. McMinnville is a pedestrian-friendly town of roughly 35,000 that serves as the area’s hub. Taking the bus there would allow me to avoid driving to wineries — a precaution, given my lack of discipline to spit sufficiently at tastings — and to focus on the nearly 20 tasting rooms concentrated in town.
Catching the bus
By westbound light rail and southbound bus, getting to McMinnville is straightforward, if time consuming.
From the Portland airport, I took the TriMet MAX Light Rail Red Line ($2.50) connecting to the westbound Blue Line, which crosses the Willamette River and threads past downtown landmarks to the city’s green suburbs, reaching the last stop, in Hillsboro, in about an hour.
In Hillsboro, I wandered around the station in search of the Yamhill County Transit bus that runs between the suburb of Portland and McMinnville before a TriMet employee directed me to a curb across the street.
“It’s a Podunk little town,” he laughed, when I questioned the lack of signage. “I’m not sure they even charge a fare.”
They don’t. Fares were dropped in the pandemic, according to the driver of the bus, which looked more like an airport hotel shuttle than a standard city coach.
The upside of taking public transportation, aside from the savings, was not having to navigate, allowing me — among four passengers on the run — to enjoy the hourlong ride along rural Route 47 to McMinnville with stops in other wine towns, including Yamhill and Carlton.
‘Tied to the crop’
From the last bus stop, downtown at the McMinnville Transit Center, I walked four blocks to check into the Hotel Oregon, a 1905 revival run by the Portland-based brewing company McMenamins. Hallways filled with vintage photos, folk art and hand-painted tributes to local wineries set a funky tone for guests staying in its 42 affordable rooms (I paid $125 a night for a room with a shared bathroom) and a popular rooftop bar with uninterrupted views of the surrounding hills.
Outside, restaurants, hotels, breweries and wine tasting rooms were within easy walking distance. A Noah’s ark of downtown retailers suggested life pre-Amazon: a record store, organic grocer, bike shop, bookstore (with a table of “banned books” decorated in paper chains) and more enticing restaurants than most small towns could support.
More than 250 wineries lie within 20 minutes’ drive of McMinnville, historically known for walnuts, turkeys and hazelnuts, before wine. (Most of those wineries are not accessible by public transportation, but with so many tasting rooms in town, you probably won’t notice.)
“McMinnville’s history has always been tied to the crop,” said Erin Stephenson, whom I met at her art-filled 36-room Atticus Hotel (rooms from $285) around the block from the Oregon. “Until grapes were planted about 50 years ago, we never had a crop that drew outside interest.”
Cycling wine country
To get a sense of the country in wine country, I rented a hybrid bike one morning from Mac Bike Rentals ($45 a day) for a rural ride with Remy Drabkin, the owner of and winemaker at Remy Wines, founder of the annual Wine Country Pride event and interim mayor of McMinnville, dressed in rainbow-striped sweat socks pulled over black leggings.
Ms. Drabkin, who grew up in the area, told me she wanted to be a winemaker from the age of 8 as we picked up the 14-mile Youngberg Hill loop west of town.
“We’re not the center of the Willamette Valley geographically,” she surveyed, “but in many ways McMinnville has been an incubator for the wine industry.”
As we pedaled past farm fields, orchards and the occasional winery on lightly trafficked two-lane roads, stopping to forage for wild blackberries, Ms. Drabkin described growing up with the children of the founding winemakers of the region, now next-generation vintners. She also explained her interest in the plummy lagrein grape variety from Northern Italy that she grows at her vineyard, which may be more resilient in a warming climate.
At one bend in the road, we stopped to take in a view she called “typically Willamette,” with stands of Douglas fir, hazelnut orchards, haystacks six to eight bales high and patches of vines often planted at vertiginous angles.
I could have ridden to several peripheral wineries, but with almost 20 to choose from in town, I avoided impaired cycling and returned my bike, setting out on foot to reach one of the farthest in-town wineries — just shy of 10 minutes’ walk from downtown — at the Eyrie Vineyards in the Granary District, a former grain storage center newly hosting wineries, breweries, a coffee roaster and an under-construction tiny-house hotel.
A wood-clad former turkey processing plant houses Eyrie, one of the valley’s oldest wineries. In 1965, its founder, David Lett, left Northern California for the Willamette — the Dundee Hills, specifically, roughly 10 miles from town — where he believed, correctly, that pinot noir would flourish.
Today, his son Jason Lett makes Eyrie wines, which are served at the recently reopened winery. Tastings are seated and by appointment ($40), legacies of the pandemic that many believe have improved the experience.
“Some popular places were just throwing wine at people,” said Ed Gans, a longtime Eyrie employee, pouring a splash of the creamy 2020 pinot gris. “It became a better experience for guests and more interesting for the servers. You can have a conversation about wine.”
Pinot noirs came next — complex, intriguing, hard to spit — but as at several wineries, talk segued to other varietals, particularly chardonnay, which Anna Matzinger at Matzinger Davies, my next stop about six blocks away, described as a creative challenge defined more by fermentation and aging choices made by the vintner after harvest and less about agricultural variables.
“It can be more of a blank canvas, more winemaker-y in a way,” she said, as we sipped her version, more taut, refreshing and floral than my grocery-store acquaintance with the varietal. “It’s a wine print or thumbprint to express your style.”
Two blocks south, on the shop- and restaurant-lined 3rd Street, I stopped into Pike Road winery, a town newcomer and sibling brand to the more established Willamette winery Elk Cove. Plans for a tasting room among the grapevines won’t supplant the downtown tasting room, according to Dane Campbell, its director of retail sales.
“There’s so much going on here, we wanted to be a part of it,” he said, pouring a juicy 2020 pinot noir, and extolling the location as a valley hub.
A block down 3rd, at R. Stuart & Co. Wine Bar, one of McMinnville’s pioneering urban tasting rooms, I succumbed to the sparkling rosé recommended by my ebullient server, Nora Angus.
“If I have one wish in life, it’s to be embalmed in Rosé d’Or,” she declared, referring to the wine. “It’s rich, soft, luxurious and romantic, like a velvet teddy bear.”
As the Willamette is to pinot — upstart, refined, approachable — McMinnville is to food, a small player with a big appetite fed by chefs and restaurateurs drawn to the abundance of area farms.
Before my first tasting round, I downed a generous BLT ($14) — with heirloom tomatoes from local Even Pull Farm — about a block from R. Stuart at Community Plate. Later, at the thronged Pizza Capo across the street, I over-ordered with a wood-fired Valley Special pizza studded with locally grown purple potatoes, Calabrian chiles and pesto ($18).
“You can’t show wines without something beautiful to pair them with,” said Courtney Cunningham, a partner in both restaurants. We met the next morning over dark roasts at Flag & Wire Coffee in the Granary District. “I’ve been to plenty of wine dinners where farmers show up, too,” as featured guests, she added.
Tastings, increasingly, incorporate food. The winemaker Evan Martin, who runs Martin Woods Winery, opened HiFi Wine Bar on 3rd Street, last year, which he calls his “Covid project,” a 1916 storefront with vintage-appropriate touches including Prairie Style stained glass windows alongside a custom chandelier made of pinot noir vine trunks and a D.J.-ready sound system.
As John Coltrane spun, we sampled Mr. Martin’s unexpected wines (tastings from $35) accompanied by tinned fish ($13), local cheese ($11) and a Castelvetrano olive tapenade ($11) that echoed the green notes in his syrah.
“Mostly this place is not about showcasing my wines,” he said of his global cellar. “What this community wants is a wine bar.”
“Community” is something of a rallying cry in McMinnville, where winemakers talk about sharing forklifts and chefs praise rivals. At the 10,000-square-foot Mac Market, an all-day restaurant and gathering place in the Granary District (and my farthest walk, at 10 minutes), I met the co-owner Diana Riggs and the chef Kari Shaughnessy, also a partner in the business, over shared plates of thick sourdough ($5), Turkish fermented zucchini fritters ($15), bright lamb curry ($17) and, for dessert, savory fermented cornbread with peaches ($11).
We drank Cho sparkling wine from the only Korean American winemaker in the valley and discussed the partners’ philosophy of low-impact dining, including tap wines, zero-waste butchery and a market on-site to sell excess produce and sauces.
“When we talked about what we wanted, it was full tables, friends eating dinner, full bottles of wine,” said the chef. “That was the goal: community.”
Every thriving community needs a public transit system, and even if my return bus carried only six other passengers from the country toward the city, it’s a sustainable start.
Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column. Follow her on Instagram @eglusac.
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