While Napa Valley and Sonoma are renowned for their world-class wines, tasting trips there generally come attached to luxurious digs, spa treatments, $25 tasting fees, Hummer limos and standstill traffic — and all the “no picnicking” pretension that goes with that.
And so we headed north to Oregon, not to the well-known Willamette Valley in the state’s northwest, but about four hours to its south.
We found a relaxed, blossoming wine country with empty roads and crowd-free tasting rooms — some surrounded by strip malls, others by sparkling rivers — pouring excellent versions of an impressively wide range of varietals.
“Oregon is not all pinot,” said Liz Wan, nodding to the persistent misunderstanding that Oregon wine means not just Willamette, but its best-known grape.
Wan is a walking Wikipedia of wine knowledge who serves as the de facto spokeswoman for a vast wine country without one.
Bordeaux varietals like chardonnay and cabernet franc thrive in the dry, hot Rogue Valley; pockets of the Umpqua Valley, which is spread across a fault line, excels in Spanish varietals like tempranillo; and throughout, you'll find albariño, viognier, malbec, gewürztraminer, syrah and, yes, more pinot noir.
“The best thing about southern Oregon wine is that you don’t just taste the same grape over and over again” is a refrain I heard from local winemakers, over and over again.
For visitors, though, an under-the-radar wine country without a recognizable “brand” can be a boon, offering more accessibility and affordability than you’re likely to find elsewhere.
Ten years ago, there were 49 wineries in southern Oregon; today there are more than 150, according to Wan. And as the number of tasting rooms increases and word continues to spread about the quality of wine being made here, the swilling tourists are just beginning to arrive.
We pulled into Troon Vineyard, at age 42 the area’s oldest, updated with bocce and hammocks. “It’s snowballing,” said Herb Quady, a scruffy-bearded, second-generation winemaker who consults at Troon in addition to making his own wine. Quady is a California transplant, having moved here in 2003 after working at the Santa Cruz winery Bonny Doon.
“I used to think it was all lightweight Willamette pinots,” he admitted. “Then I did my research on the microclimates and the soil and the season length, and I was, like, wow. I could make some good wine here.”
Not just good, but really good, we realized as we continued cruising the valley. We visited ramshackle garagistas like Devitt; new rustic-chic Red Lily on the river; Schmidt, an old-timer with acres of blooming gardens; and Quady North, Quady’s tiny brick tasting room in downtown Jacksonville, a charming Old West town.
Something else struck us about these wineries: They were actually welcoming to children. Everywhere we went, there were crayons and coloring books and toy bins. Grassy lawns beckoned families to spread out a picnic blanket, enjoy a wood-fired pizza and stay awhile. We made our way back down south along the Umpqua River, detouring off Route I-5 to sample spicy tempranillo at Abacela from Earl and Hilda Jones, pioneers of this Spanish varietal in America.
The next day, back in the Applegate, we sought out one last vineyard, Cowhorn. We tried four richly flavored Rhone-style wines and met the owner, Bill Steele, a former Wall Street equity analyst turned longhaired biodynamic winemaker. He said that southern Oregon shouldn’t worry about its branding, but “just keep continuing to raise the bar.”
Back in Ashland, we headed up a winding mountain road to Grizzly Peak and our home for our last night: Willow-Witt Ranch, a 440-acre off-the-grid farm run by a couple of 60-something women. The ranch was stripped of all conventional luxuries, lacking even a front desk. But we had a wheelbarrow to cart our stuff, a communal outdoor kitchen (and noncommunal outdoor shower) and a canvas tent with two comfy beds for $125 a night.
By the light of our lantern, we made a fire in the wood stove and lined up our loot on the table: a tempranillo from Abacela, Quady North’s syrah, a viognier from Cowhorn, Schmidt’s albariño. As the kids dozed off, we uncorked one, and then another.
Del Rio Vineyards (52 N. River Rd., Gold Hill; 541-855-2062; delriovineyards.com) offers a bright and balanced syrah and a creamy chardonnay, plus hikes and zumba classes amid the vines.
At Kriselle Cellars (12956 Modoc Rd., White City; 541-830-8466; krisellecellars.com) you can hike to Upper Table Rock before hitting the new tasting room for lunch and spicy plum-tinged tempranillo.
RoxyAnn (3285 Hillcrest Rd., Medford; 541-776-2315; roxyann.com) pours its signature claret in a century-old barn turned tasting room, where workers from the nearby medical center gather for happy hour.
Cowhorn (1665 Eastside Rd., Jacksonville; 541-899-6876; cowhornwine.com) is a biodynamic cult favorite among chefs from San Francisco to New York.
Dancin Vineyards (4477 S. Stage Rd., Medford; 541-245-1133; dancinvineyards.com) has a good pinot, wood-fired pizza, picnic tables — and chickens.
At Quady North (255 E. California St., Jacksonville; 541-702-2123; quadynorth.com), Herb Quady makes killer viognier, syrah and cabernet franc.
Red Lily Vineyards (11777 Highway 238, Jacksonville; 541-846-6800; redlilyvineyards.com) is a lovely riverside spot with rich tempranillos and crisp verdejos.
Schmidt Family Vineyards (330 Kubli Rd., Grants Pass; 541-846-9985; sfvineyards.com) offers gorgeous gardens and views, an amazing albariño, a focus on Bordeaux varietals, and flatbread pizzas and burgers, too.
Serra (222 Missouri Flat Rd.; 541-846-9223; serravineyards.com) has a modern hilltop tasting room often staffed by an assistant winemaker, Liz Wan, who will tell you anything you want to know about Southern Oregon wine.
Troon (1475 Kubli Rd., Grants Pass; 541-846-9900; troonvineyard.com). Dick Troon was one of the first to plant grapes here in 1972. Try the signature zinfandel and vermentino.
The tempranillo at Abacela (12500 Lookingglass Rd., Roseburg; 541-679-6642; abacela.com) alone is worth the haul up Interstate 5.
Brandborg (345 First St., Elkton; 541-584-2870; brandborgwine.com) is the star winery of the newly established cool-climate Elkton AVA — and proof that not all great Oregon pinot noir is from the Willamette.
WHERE TO STAY
In the woods: Willow-Witt Ranch is a wild, wonderful off-the-grid mountaintop farm with three canvas tents and two cabins if you prefer a real roof (willowwittranch.com; $125 a night for wall tents or pitch your own for $40. The winterized studio is $180; three-bedroom cabin, $225).
In town: Historic Jacksonville offers easy access to wine tasting in the Applegate Valley. The newly redone McCully House Inn (countryhouseinnsjacksonville.com; from $129) is cute and directly across the street from Quady North and comes with vouchers for breakfast in town. The renovated Lithia Springs Resort (lithiaspringsresort.com; from $159), three miles from downtown Ashland, is chic by Southern Oregon standards. But if you want to be able to walk to restaurants and Shakespeare, stay in Ashland proper.
On the river: The Weasku Inn (weasku.com; from $199) in Grants Pass is popular with families and not far from the Applegate.