It wasn’t what I expected to see in Oregon, but covering the hills were rows and rows of olive trees. Tiny green fruit dotted the branches as we walked along the grove at Durant at Red Ridge Farms.
When my husband Benjamin and I planned our Oregon road trip, we knew we’d be stopping at many wineries. After all, Oregon is known for its wine. Though its wine history is young compared to European wine regions, in the last five decades, Oregon has grown into one of the world’s top wine-producing regions.
If you love pinot noir, you’ve most likely had wine from Oregon. The state also produces other cool-climate varieties, such as pinot blanc, chardonnay, and pinot gris.
But at our first stop at Durant, I saw there was much more to learn about this northwestern state. Unexpected as olive trees in Oregon might be, they’re part of a small, but growing industry. According to the American Olive Producers Association, the United States produces only 5 percent of the olive oil it consumes. Part of that olive oil is produced in Oregon.
“Durant was one of the earliest olive growers in the state and is the Northwest’s only olive mill,” Susan Teague, our tasting host, said as she poured samples of four different extra virgin olive oils into blue tasting glasses.
She explained each olive oil’s subtleties and then paired them with fresh salad and charcuterie.
The tasting is part of the Durant Estate Experience, a two-hour opportunity to taste Durant wines and olive oils and tour the groves and vineyards. Durant is a family-run farm and winery in the Dundee Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The family planted their first pinot noir in 1973 and eventually added olive groves, lavender fields, and even a plant nursery. It has become a top destination estate in the Willamette Valley.
Oregon Wine Country
The Willamette Valley is the heart of Oregon wine country. It’s a 150-mile-long valley that runs from the Columbia River in Portland to the Calapooya Mountains outside Eugene.
It became an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1983 and has seven different appellations within its borders: Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, Ribbon Ridge, McMinnville, Chehalem Mountains, Van Duzer Corridor, and Yamhill-Carlton. Each one has its own unique climate, soil content, and other characteristics, which impart different flavors to the grapes.
With so many wineries to visit, we spent a few nights at The Vintages, a unique trailer resort near historic downtown McMinnville, Oregon. It has 35 fully restored and new custom fabricated trailers, some dating back to as early as 1947. Stepping into our 1972 Airstream felt like stepping back in time, but with luxury touches like comfortable beds and plentiful air conditioning.
With our base at The Vintages, we had plenty of time the next day to visit Adelsheim, a live certified sustainable winery in the Chehalem Mountains in the northern Willamette Valley. We could have spent all afternoon in their lovely outdoor tasting gardens.
As Elizabeth Clark, director of education and experience at Adelsheim, poured tasting samples for us, she explained the unique soils and elevation of the Chehalem Mountains which help to create Adelsheim’s complex wines, including chardonnay, pinot noirs, and others. It was difficult to choose a favorite from the wines we tasted. Adelsheim must be doing something right, as they’ve just celebrated their 50th anniversary.
Et Fille Wines
Et Fille is a small, family-owned vineyard and winery in Newberg, Oregon. Winemaker Jessica Mozeico is one of those people who immediately draws you in. Within minutes of meeting her, we were sitting at her family vineyard, glasses of rosé in hand, swapping life stories.
Mozeico’s story revolves around family. She and her father, Howard, co-founded the winery in 2003. Howard, a software engineer, had started making wine in his garage in 1984, while Mozeico pursued her education and then a career in biotechnology. She had always shared her dad’s passion for wine, though, and learned everything she could from him. Eventually, they both left their corporate roles behind to start a winery together. They ran that winery together until Howard unexpectedly passed away in 2017.
Today Mozeico carries on his vision as winemaker at Et Fille to honor him and to preserve a legacy for her daughter. Et Fille produces pinot noir, viognier, and sparkling wines. The winery has a tasting room in Newberg, Oregon, which is open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
More Wineries in the Willamette Valley
You could spend an entire week visiting vineyards in the Willamette Valley, but we only had time for a few more.
After driving to the small town of Independence, we booked a room at Independence Hotel, a modern boutique property with an enviable location right along the river. Independence is one of those classic Americana towns with small shops and restaurants lining the tidy streets.
From there it was a quick drive to visit Bethel Heights Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA of the Willamette Valley and then Eola Hills Legacy Estate Vineyard, one of Oregon’s largest wineries, which farms over 325 acres of vineyards. By now, our suitcases were filled with carefully wrapped bottles of wine, but there was still southern Oregon to explore.
Into Southern Oregon
As we drove into southern Oregon, the landscape changed, and the pace slowed down even more. The region is known for its mild climate and is dotted with farms and orchards.
We stopped at one unexpected, but delightful attraction along the way. Wild Animal Safari in Winston, Oregon, is just what it sounds like—a wildlife safari. The 600-acre animal park is home to hundreds of animals from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Most are in large, natural habitats, and guests can book an experience with a safari guide or drive through on their own. We met a curious giraffe up close and learned about the park’s well-respected cheetah breeding program. If you have little ones, this is a must-do in southern Oregon.
Grants Pass, Oregon
In Grants Pass, we stayed at the historic Weasku Inn Lodge. Built in 1924 along the bank of the Rogue River, it has been a vacation retreat for many celebrities from Walt Disney to Clark Gable. The historic cabins have been lovingly restored.
The main attraction in Grants Pass is undoubtedly Hellgate Jetboat Excursions on the Rogue River. While waiting to board our four-and-a-half-hour river excursion, we talked with several Oregonians who have been coming every summer since childhood. It seems a local right of passage to cruise the Rogue River at high speed. As soon as we boarded our jetboat, we learned why. The ride was part scenic, part thrill. The boat was fast but smooth, and our driver got our adrenaline pumping with 360s and bow dunks.
Word to the wise: you will probably get wet. And if you sit near the front, you’ll get soaked. It was all in good fun. Our excursion included a stop for dinner at Hellgate Lodge, where we enjoyed dinner and talking with locals about life in southern Oregon.
By now we were on the last leg of our Oregon wine tour. Southern Oregon is home to many award-winning wineries. The Rogue Valley is the warmest and driest AVA in Oregon. Its Mediterranean-like climate has warm days and cool nights, enabling a diverse range of varietals to thrive, from pinot noir to big reds like cabernet sauvignon and malbec to rarer varieties like tempranillo.
There are 22 wineries in Rogue Valley Wine Country. Some, like Schmidt Family Vineyard, are family-run. Three generations are involved in winemaking and running their gardens and tasting room.
At Wooldridge Creek Winery, located in the rolling hills of the Applegate River Valley, a sub-AVA in the Rogue Valley, we met winemaker Steve Grande, who introduced us to some amazing wines and shared his passion for winemaking.
“I love Southern Oregon,” he said, “It’s a winemaker’s playground. We have so many styles and different grapes to work with.”
Southern Oregon has a warmer season than the Willamette Valley, and Wooldridge Creek produces 23 varieties, including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, syrah, chardonnay, pinot noir, viognier, sangiovese, zinfandel, malbec, petit verdot, and tempranillo.
“You want to reveal the grapes’ true nature,” Grande continued. “It’s like raising kids. You don’t want to tell them what to be, but you want to help them be the best they can be.”
While my husband and I love wine and visiting wineries, it turns out that our favorite part of our time in Oregon was meeting the winemakers and those who produce the wine. Hearing their stories—starting with just a dream of producing wine to putting in the hard work and overcoming struggles—are what makes the wine truly special.
And it’s what made our visit something to remember.
The author was a guest of Travel Oregon and Travel Southern Oregon.