Pinot Noir, Hops, and Regeneration in the Willamette Valley

One hour’s drive south of Portland, Oregon, lies the Willamette Valley, land of world-class pinot noir, hops heaven, and change-makers who are transforming the future of travel. Towns thrive along the great Willamette River, including Portland, its largest city. It’s also home to Salem, the state capital, and more than half of the state’s population lives here.

My husband and I rented a car and left the big city for country roads and the throwback town of Newberg—the gateway to Oregon wine country. It is cultivated by forward-thinking entrepreneurs, winemakers, brew masters, and restaurateurs with much in common: love for the mighty river, the region’s bounty, and mindful tourism.

Our first stop was the pastoral setting of Nicolas-Jay Winery’s tasting room, a partnership of long-time friends American Jay Boberg, music executive and passionate oenophile, and noted French winemaker Jean-Nicolas Meo of Domaine Meo-Camuzet in Burgundy, France, where producing some of the world’s finest pinot noir is, well, his domain. Wine here is made in the Burgundian tradition highlighting the region’s superior terroir for growing pinot noir and chardonnay, both native to Burgundy.

That morning Boberg took a break from tasting and testing grapes in the vineyards to share with us some delicious pride and joy. From chardonnay made in the style of crisp Chablis to its eight-vineyard pinot noir blend, we got a taste of Nicolas-Jay’s holistic, non-interventionist approach to elegant winemaking where truly pure wines are made in the vineyard.

Rolling into Newberg’s revitalized downtown took us back to its early days as a 19th-century pioneering city energized with 21st-century dynamics. Like our lodging at Yamhill Flats in a historic building rejuvenated into upscale suites. In the heart of town, our cozy private pad was steps from outstanding restaurants, tasting rooms, and shopping.

At Chapters Books and Coffee, an independent bookstore and popular hub housed in what used to be an 1891 dry goods and grocery store, we connected with friendly locals waking up with morning cups of joe.

And across the street at Good Company Cheese Bar and Bistro were sumptuous cheeses and charcuterie. An extensive career as a cheesemonger led Kristen Kidney to open her shop “bridging the gap between artisanal cheese-makers, preserving traditional cheeses, and bringing people good things to eat.”

A few doors away, we stepped into Et Fille Tasting Room and met owner-winemaker Jessica Mozeico. She shared with us how 2022 was the comeback year.

“We had frost at bud break, the wettest and coolest spring on record. We didn’t know when the growing season would start. Then July was hot and dry—and it all came together.”

In 2003 Mozeico, a biotechnologist, joined her software engineer father to start the winery (winemaking was his hobby and she was his right arm). But his untimely passing in 2017 challenged Jessica to continue. Fast forward to 2023, Et Fille, French for “and daughter,” will celebrate 20 years of creating complex and graceful wines honoring the legacy of her father and the future of her daughter.

As the sun set, a 20-minute drive to historic McMinnville for dinner acquainted us with another lively turn-of-the-century town known for its art galleries, gastronomy, wine, and boutiques. At Humble Spirit restaurant a sophisticated vibe, extensive wine list and divine meal turned into a culinary adventure.

Oregon is also on the map as the second-largest hop-growing state in the country. Hop is the plant. Hops are the flowers that give beer its bitter taste and fruity flavors.

Hop is the plant, and hops are the flowers that give beer its bitter taste and fruity flavors.
Hop is the plant, and hops are the flowers that give beer its bitter taste and fruity flavors. (Photo courtesy of Athena Lucero)

At Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery, beer tender Brandon Anderson accommodated my wine-loving tendencies as he introduced a fabulous flight of originally crafted crushed pilsner, florette grisette, oude vat, and Benjamin Plum. It was the vision of founder Christian DeBenedetti to reinvigorate his 1853 family farm into a working brewery where agriculture, including hops, has been cultivated for generations.

An overnight adventure program with First Nature tours took us farther off the tourist path and kayaking on the mighty river in the college town of Independence. Through First Nature’s partnership with the Willamette Valley Visitors Association, the Transformational Travel Council and award-winning Left Coast Winery, we got a taste of a region on the pioneering cusp of regenerative tourism.

Left Coast Winery CEO Taylor Pfaff (wearing the blue T-shirt) talks with stewardship project participants as they prepare to plant white oak saplings in Rickreall, Oregon.
Left Coast Winery CEO Taylor Pfaff (wearing the blue T-shirt) talks with stewardship project participants as they prepare to plant white oak saplings in Rickreall, Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Athena Lucero)

While sustainable tourism protects existing natural and social environments from negative impacts caused by over-tourism, regenerative tourism is the next chapter, inviting active involvement in nourishing destinations for the enjoyment of future visitors.

We dove into this hands-on opportunity at Left Coast Winery, owned and operated by the multigenerational Pfaff family, in the bucolic town of Rickreall near Salem. Here, before a lunch of wood-fired pizza and exquisite wine tasting under the canopy of a magical oak forest, we toured the property’s expansive oak savanna and learned about its significance to the Willamette Valley.

Indigenous to the region, white oaks are fire resistant. Also, vegetation throughout the savanna is habitat for flora and wildlife. Through federal and state grants, the Pfaff family has committed to maintaining the long-term health of this precious refuge. Thanks to the stewardship programs offered through First Nature, we participated in this noble project as we planted oak saplings near the winery.

While breaking bread and savoring every sip of Left Coast’s world-class wines, we toasted to a job well done. Getting dirt in our fingernails never felt so good.

When You Go

Learn more about Willamette Valley:
Nicolas-Jay Winery:
Good Company Cheese Bar & Bistro:
Et Fille Wines:
Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery:
First Nature Tours:
Left Coast Estate:
Yamhill Flats:
Independence Hotel:

Athena Lucero is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at COPYRIGHT 2023 CREATORS.COM

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