Why do so many artisan producers and talented chefs want to ply their trade in Oregon? Its wine country, coastline crammed with the choicest crab, oysters, and an enviable quality of life could be the answer for the prospectors, says Fiona Sims.
Oregon is a state in the Pacific Northwest region of the US. Time is eight hours behind the UK, and currency is the US dollar. October sees average highs of 18C, and average lows of 6C. Journey time from London Heathrow to Oregon (Portland) is about 13 hours.
Delta flies from London Heathrow to Portland via Amsterdam daily (first leg of journey operated by KLM), taking 13 hours. delta.com American Airlines flies from London Heathrow to Portland
via Chicago daily, taking 19 hours. aa.com
Travel Oregon The official tourist office provides up-to-date information, free guides and maps. traveloregon.com Travel Portland The city tourist board gives suggestions on shopping, events and sightseeing alongside practical advice and local history. travelportland.com
Winemakers of the Willamette Valley by Vivian Perry and John Vincent (History Press, £10). Discover more about the passion and productivity of Oregon’s most reputed wine area with this guide to its people and terroir.
Guardians of the Lights: Stories of US Lighthouse Keepers by Elinor De Wire (Pineapple Press, £9). Spare a thought for those beardy types on Tillamook Rock who once kept ships safe. The tales from across the US make for a storm-soaked yarn or two.
If you are conscious about your carbon footprint when flying to Oregon, then visit climatecare.org where you can make a donation to support environmental projects all over the world, from rainforest restoration to bio-energy schemes. Return flights from London produce 2.24 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £16.80.
‘Keeping it local’ should be a bumper sticker in Oregon. The Pacific Northwest state is fanatical about growing food as sustainably as possible, and just one visit to a farmers’
market will show you that it’s all about the raw materials.
Obsessive food culture isn’t considered eccentric or marginal here, but the norm. The state’s largest city, Portland – a hipsters’ haven – is proof that an urban area can nurture appetites that in turn renew the rural parts around it, which have become a happy mix of agriculture and tourism. Blazing a trail for many other parts of the US, it’s no surprise that this area is attracting many new food lovers, competing good-naturedly for the most handsome squash, or perhaps unearthing a long-lost heritage variety.
Chefs and winemakers work together more closely in Oregon than anywhere else I have ever been. It could well be because the vineyards of Oregon’s most important wine-producing area, Willamette Valley, nudge right up to Portland’s green-fringed city limits; it could well be the friendliness of its people too. Now if you are thinking that this place is much like the Napa Valley, California’s premier wine region, you can think again. Oregon doesn’t do glitzy chateaux. Here, the winemakers themselves are more likely to greet you, as opposed to a clipboard-toting rep; they may even invite you to sample their homemade salami, as happened to us, rather than a corporate video shortly before you exit through the gift shop.
Not that it doesn’t get technical: nearly half of vineyards here have been certified sustainable, organic or biodynamic, and more are on the way. The most eco-minded visitors should check out the area’s eco-wine tours for a closer look.
A day is enough for a taster visit, but it’s much more rewarding if you can spare three days or so to work your way down the bucolic valley, cherry-picking the best producers. Better still, add on a few more days to work your way back up along the coast – Oregon’s other major draw. That was our plan, at least.
Oregon is no small fry – it’s the fourth-largest state for wine growing, and Willamette Valley is head of the pack, albeit in a low-key, friendly sort of way. Located to the west of Portland, it stretches south for about 240km from the towns of Yamhill Valley (with McMinnville the main hub), through to Salem and south to Eugene. It’s easy to see why the first settlers in the 19th century were lured by the pastoral richness, which is echoed in today’s verdant orchards, farms and small towns. The wine pioneers came much later, in the mid-Sixties, among them Dick Erath and David Lett. In 1965, David and his wife Diana ripped up their old prune orchard and planted pinot noir in the marginal climate of the Dundee Hills area of Willamette Valley, calling it Eyrie Vineyard. Their thinking was that the best wines come from places where the grapes struggle to ripen – and their theory paid off. Pinot noir is now the region’s star grape, and one of the best places in the world to grow it, with 5,993ha at the last count.
Since David Lett passed away in 2008, his equally charismatic son Jason now rules the roost and continues to pioneer. We catch up with him at his McMinnville winery and tasting room, measuring the sugar levels in freshly pressed juice.
‘This pinot gris is 21 per cent but I’m looking for 22.5 per cent,’ he frowns. He’s working out when to start picking his vineyard, which has an elevation of 259m. The Eyrie South Block is usually the first to be picked. ‘See, this pinot noir is still a bit too granular, it doesn’t quite have that smooth flow on the palate – rather like flying a plane through the clouds,’ he says with a grin, as he pours a tasting that skips through his vintages to show how they evolve: graceful and elegant, with complex aromas. On the edge of the Dundee Hills, heading north from McMinnville on Route 99W, you’ll find another Oregon wine icon, Susan Sokol Blosser. If you want an account of what life was like here back in those early days, then read her memoir, At Home in the Vineyard. The sleek new visitor centre seems a long way from her tractor- driving days. Susan introduces us to her son Alex, who is busy overseeing the first delivery of grapes.
‘We’re harvesting three weeks later than last year but the numbers look good,’ he says, surveying the grapes as they arrive from the surrounding 35ha vineyard. Susan adds: ‘When we first started planting here, we tried out so many different things, from müller-thurgau to cabernet sauvignon. In the end, we took out everything but the pinot noir. Things have changed here so fast – in just one generation.’ Indeed, there are now over 225 wineries in the Willamette Valley, out of Oregon’s 600.
Maggie Harrison is typical of the new generation of winemakers. After leaving a position as assistant winemaker at avant-garde Californian producer Sine Qua Non, she found herself on an unmade road in the Eola-Amity Hills staring at pinot noir vines that appeared a lot younger than their 20 years.
‘There was this golden sun, fossils under foot, exposed boulders – it was all there. I thought, someone is going to make something special here and that someone should be me,’ she recalls. Maggie’s pinot noir is something else – especially her popular Botanica, with its whiff of violets and spicy fruit, and the plummy, mineral-rich Antikythera. Oregon has more than its fair share of female winemakers and Remy Drabkin is another rising star. While she was still at school, she spent time in the vineyards with local legends such as Dick Erath. ‘I grew up around these pioneer winemakers. It gets into your blood,’ says Remy, who made her first wine in 2006.
And in true pioneer spirit, she is still experimenting, and having surprising success with Italian varietals. Her 2010 Lagrein, originally from Piedmont, has been listed in Portland Monthly’s 50 Best Wines of Oregon. ‘I think lagrein has a real future here,’ she says. ‘The clusters are really open – not like tight pinot noir. And even though it’s been cold and humid this year, there’s no hint of botrytis [fungal disease]. It has a lovely texture and it’s incredibly versatile – even with oysters.’ Having been won over, we buy a bottle (£29), to test out her pairing theory later in the week in oyster hotspot Netarts Bay.
Remy isn’t the only one trumpeting lagrein. Rudy Marchesi is also having success with the grape, along with another northern Italian varietal, teroldego. Rudy owns the 85ha Montinore Estate in the Forest Grove area of the Willamette Valley. The estate is biodynamic, and one of 12 in the state to be certified as such – though many others here follow the principles. We peer into Rudy’s box of magic tricks at the winery – his biodynamic soil preparations, including eggshells from his chickens, chamomile and yarrow flowers.
‘We have a shepherd who brings his sheep here periodically to wander among the vines,’ explains New Jersey-born Rudy, who also makes his own raw milk cheeses and Tuscan-style salamis. Too soon, it’s time to hit the road – and the coast. We load up with Willamette Valley-grown fruit and nuts to snack en route from one of the dozens of road-side stalls and farm shops – Oregon is the country’s largest producer of pears after Washington, while the Willamette Valley grows virtually all of the US’s hazelnuts. It is the second-biggest grower of rhubarb and one of the prime producers of blueberries.
‘Just drive through Carlton and keep on going until you hit the Pacific Coast Highway – it’ll take you no time at all,’ suggests a stallholder, handing over a bag of perfectly sun-ripened peaches for the trip. No time at all turns out to be a two and a half hour meander along unpaved roads, through forests where porcini and chanterelles push up through the earth, along creeks and riverbanks, which conceal campsites and trails, the dappled light broken only by silo- edged meadows with distant farmsteads.
There is a much faster road further north, through the Tillamook Forest, but you’ll get this one all to yourself, save for the odd logging truck and gun-wielding hunter. The blue jays and speckled-breasted birds of prey you’re sure to see are worth the detour alone. The Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH as locals call it, is America’s most famous road, after Route 66. And this stretch north, towards Tillamook, is probably the only motorway where you can snack on oysters rather than burgers at the many pitstops.
We bypass the industrial-looking (and tasting) Tillamook cheddar factory, and whizz past the Air Museum with its gargantuan hangar and hang a left to Netarts Bay – oyster central. The gunmetal grey water of Netarts Bay is home to some of the country’s best oysters, snapped up by top chefs up and down the state and beyond. There we meet oyster fisherman Todd Perman – or rather, we wade out in shallow, low-tide waters through sticky mud and ankle-wrapping seaweed to meet him. We’ve hooked up with Blake van Roekel and her Get Dirty Farm Tours to get a more in-depth story on how Oregon’s food is produced. One of her most popular tours includes a visit to Todd – complete with waders.
‘It’s the cleanest estuary in Oregon. All the oysters in Netarts Bay are hand-harvested,’ explains Todd, heaving a grow bag onto the boat so we can take a closer look. We sample a few, savouring their soft meat and minerally taste – Todd likes them best with a slug of Tapatío hot sauce and a squeeze of lime. Blake then takes us to see Ben Jacobsen at his salt company a little further up Whiskey Creek Road. Top New York chef April Bloomfield once declared this salt her secret weapon – it certainly gives Maldon a run for its money, with its crunchy, pure-tasting flakes harvested from the bay.
‘There’s a higher salinity count here, and lots of seaweed, so that means lots of minerals, and every 12 hours you get a fresh new set of water,’ explains Ben, sending us on our way with a couple of pots. Stomachs now grumbling, it’s late afternoon by the time we reach the Jetty Fishery. Perched on the edge of Nehalem Bay, it is a raucous combination of seafood market, RV park, campsite and fishing hub. It’s best to arrive hungry so you can watch as the Dungeness crabs are hauled from the ocean and tossed into boiling vats, only to land steaming on your lunch tray a few minutes later.
While the Pacific Northwest’s Dungeness crab is prized for its sweet, delicate flavour, Oregon’s Dungeness crab – the official ‘state crustacean’ – is one of only a select number in the world that’s certified sustainable, thanks to a monitoring programme that ensures only mature male crabs measuring over 16cm across the shell can be caught during the crabbing season, from December to mid-August. The first eight weeks sees 75 per cent of the annual catch landed. Recreational crabbing in bays and along the coast is allowed all year round and it’s easy to rent equipment at any local fishing shop. The Jetty hires out crabbing kit, but we prefer to let them do all the hard work. All that’s left is for us to crack the shells and release the sweet meat, sopping up the juice with a hunk of white bread.
The sun is setting over Cannon Beach as we drop down into the artsy seaside town, where the iconic Haystack Rock lords it over a breathtaking stretch of sandy beach. Not unlike the mystical rock formation in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the landmark draws in mesmerized visitors, who marvel at the resident tufted puffins, bald eagles and black oystercatchers that cling to the towering outcrop. Tide pools beneath are stuffed with colourful starfish and green sea anemones, and tiny hermit crabs scurry along in their borrowed shells leaving tracks in the sand all around. As we gaze out to the lighthouse, a seemingly impossible construction, perched nearly 2km out to sea off Tillamook Head, it strikes us that America’s pioneer spirit still very much lives on in Oregon.
Where to Stay
Inn at Red Hills Twenty smart, boutique-style rooms in the heart of Willamette Valley wine country. Most have small living areas, oversized showers and complimentary wi-fi. Be sure to reserve a room away from the busy highway. Doubles from £115. 1410 N. Hwy 99w, Dundee, 00 1 503 538 7666, innatredhills.com
Stephanie Inn This plush, country manor-style address commands a prime position on Cannon Beach’s sandy shoreline. A drinker’s delight, it holds afternoon wine gatherings in the living room, and gives its guests a complimentary nightcap. Do take advantage of the restaurant, which takes foraging and food matching equally seriously, with a strong Pacific Northwest list (also see Where to Eat). Doubles from £306. 2740 South Pacific, Cannon Beach, 00 1 503 436 2221, stephanie-inn.com
Surfsand Resort The perfect laid-back pad to park your surfboard, this hotel is just a few steps from Oregon’s iconic Haystack Rock, and has jaw-dropping views of the wide sandy beach and headlands beyond. Bag an upper room overlooking the water. Doubles from £115.148 W. Gower, Cannon Beach, 00 1 503 436 2274, surfsand.com
The Allison Inn & Spa Willamette Valley is a bit short on smart places to stay but this gorgeous wood and stone-built spa hotel set in 14 fragrant hectares hits the spot, while its Jory restaurant has become a regular winemaker hangout, with Oregon-heavy wines by the glass. Star drops sit alongside great salads and innovative starters, such as sweetcorn soup with ‘weathervane’ scallop wrapped in pancetta with a brioche corn pudding. Doubles from £245. 2525 Allison Lane, Newberg, 00 1 503 554 2525, theallison.com
Where to Eat
Prices are for three courses, excluding wine, unless otherwise stated.
Evoo Part cookery class, part dinner party, run by Bob Neroni and wife, Lenore Emery-Neroni. Join fellow diners who gather round, forks at the ready, to scoff three dishes paired with wines, plus dessert. £95. 188 S. Hemlock Street, Cannon Beach, 00 1 503 436 8555, evoo.biz
Jetty FisheryJ This is the place to come for Dungeness crab, the region’s speciality seafood. With an average size of 900g, this crab makes a fine lunch, washed down with an Oregon wine bought from the shop fridge (just bring your own cups). Crab about £16. 27550 Hwy 101N, Rockaway Beach, jettyfishery.com
Newmans at 988 In a cosy dining room in a cottage one block from the beach, chef John Newman creates dishes like lobster ravioli with a Marsala cream sauce and a dusting of hazelnuts. £36. 988 Hemlock Street, Cannon Beach, 00 1 503 436 1151, newmansat988.com
Nick’s Italian Café Nick’s daughter now runs the show at this wine country stalwart that has been serving up family recipes for pasta and pizza for more than 30 years. £17. 521 NE Third St, McMinnville, 00 1 503 434 4471, nicksitaliancafe.com
Stephanie Inn Dining Room Chef Aaron Bedard makes the best use of local produce in his menus, with fish a particular highlight, including mains such as seared local sea bass with orzo pasta, grilled zucchini and Provençal sauce. £39. 2740 South Pacific, Cannon Beach, 00 1 503 436 2221, stephanie-inn.com
Thistle A winemakers’ hub in the heart of the Willamette Valley. Chef Eric Bechard serves up the likes of beef tongue terrine and tender pork loin; the ingredients locally sourced, the dishes firmly grounded in modern American bistro principles. £24. 228 NE Evans Street, McMinnville, 00 1 503 472 9623, thistlerestaurant.com
Fiona Sims and Gary Latham travelled courtesy of Travel Oregon. For more details, visit traveloregon.com
Photography by Gary Latham
This article was published on 5th October 2015 so certain details may not be up to date.