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Oregon Wine Country vs. California Wine Country (Sonoma)

Girlfriend and I are currently planning a trip for May/June and are deciding between Portland/Willamette Valley and San Francisco/Sonoma. We have already done a trip to San Francisco/Napa so that is making me lean towards Oregon, but my girlfriend is a big chardonnay fan so she is leaning towards Sonoma.

Any suggestions? If any one has been to both I would love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. Do Oregon, and introduce your girlfriend to the beauty of Oregon Pinot Gris, Semillon, and Chenin Blanc, among others. Don't forget the Yamhill region, and the Chehalem region, where the grapes get a bit riper than the rest of Oregon.

    Also, bear in mind, the difference between the regular release wines and the reserve wines in Oregon is striking, among the biggest I've ever tasted. Pay any extra and taste the reserves.

    PS. I'm from Napa Valley.

    2 Replies
    1. re: maria lorraine

      Thanks for the advice....will definitely need to try the reserves

      1. re: tkuppens

        Yeah, especially if you go to King Estate outside of Eugene.
        As we went up the quality/price ladder with their Pinot Gris, the difference was amazing. Had a nice tasting and you can do lunch which was tasty and didn't break the bank. It is in the middle of nowhere, so you have to drive for a while, but it's worth it.

    2. Take the road less traveled . . .

      There are some great Chardonnays in Oregon, too, but many are in a "leaner" style than found in California due to the cooler climate. That said, Pinot Gris is the "star of the show," as far as whites are concerned.

      Now, if the two of you *hate* Pinot Noir, it would be a good idea to skip Oregon. Then again, you might want to skip Sonoma, too, as a number of excellent Pinot Noirs from from Sonoma. But Sonoma is filled with small wineries that make loads of different types of wines: Cabs, Zins, Sauvignon Blancs, sparkling -- the list goes on and on.

      I much prefer Sonoma to Napa -- and not only for the wines themselves It's more diverse; it's not as crowded or touristy; it's not as "nouveau riche." Then again, I've been visiting both Napa and Sonoma since the early 1970s, and spent 40 years in the wine trade -- including working for a Napa Valley winery and living in the town of Napa.

      On the other hand, I've only been to Oregon a few times. It's even more relaxed, more casual, less touristy, etc, etc. And the wines are wonderful.

      ML is right about the Reserve wines -- make sure you taste those!

      1 Reply
      1. re: zin1953

        Luckily we both like Pinot Noir, but I do like the idea of getting some good variety. I appreciate the help!

      2. I've been to both and I prefer both over Napa. Tells us where you decide to go and I can make some specific recommendations as long as she doesn't like oaky chardonnay.
        There's plenty of good chardonnay in the Williamette Valley.

        5 Replies
        1. re: SteveTimko

          Any preference between Sonoma and Willamette?

            1. re: zin1953

              Well he said he has been to both, so wondering which he prefers overall. My primary interests in the trip are good/fun wine tastings, good food, nice convenient lodging, and that is about it.

              1. re: tkuppens

                Any number of us have "been to both" . . .

                1) Wines are stylistically very different; both regions, however, produce some superb wines.

                2) Sonoma wins for food, IMHO, but -- once again -- good food can be found in both places.

                3) Sonoma is more relaxed and casual, and perhaps "fun," compared to Napa Valley; Willamette is more relaxed and casual compared to Sonoma.

                4) Sonoma is more diverse, and has a wider variety of hotels, etc., etc. Willamette is smaller than Sonoma, but -- no offense -- define "convenient." Do you want a cozy (albeit expensive) place in the middle of two dozen wineries? That's Napa, and you won't really find that in Sonoma or Willamette. Want to stay at a spa? Again, Napa, and to a certain extent Sonoma. Don't mind a bit of driving? Either place fits *that* requirement!

                1. re: zin1953

                  As usual I agree with your points zin. We were in the Willamette Valley most recently in 2010. My wife and I enjoy driving, so we tended to do a lot of it. Since I try to visit small wineries when I travel, we didn't go to some of the places that I would recommend for the first time visitor like Domaine Serene or Argyle. Both make pretty good Chards, if like you say, in a leaner style, which I happen to enjoy. Obviously, Pinot Noir is the draw in both regions, and the styles are very different.

                  I have to admit, our visit with Jim Anderson at Patricia Green, and Tom Mortimer at Le Cadeau were highlights of our trip, but we had a blast.

                  As I noted in my earlier post, if they have not been Portland is a great city to visit, especially if the weather is good. Powell's Books, dining from the food trucks, shopping amongst the hipsters (which was interesting for this old man) and in general enjoying a city that is very different than those here in the east. I even managed to drink a lot of craft brews while I was there, something I don't normally do. We enjoyed the city very much and will go back.

        2. If you have never been to Oregon, I'd say go there. If for no other reason, to go to Portland (be sure to see the Japanese gardens) because it is an interesting city. My wife and I have been to both, and we love Sonoma (and go every time we visit friends in SF), but had a wonderful time in the Willamette Valley. It reminds me of Napa Valley from 40 years ago in many ways. Definitely rural and small cities. There are lots of wonderful places to visit, some great B and Bs to stay at, and some fantastic restaurants. It is not nearly as scenic as being in Sonoma (there is just something about driving along the coast in Sonoma that is fantastic) but it has it's own charm.

          1. that's a really hard call as I love both places. If it's only the Chardonnay that's holding you back from Oregon, I'd say don't let that worry you. Plenty of amazing chardonnays being made in Oregon. Brick House and Chehalem come immediately to mind...

            Both regions are VERY different from Napa, as they are much less commercial, folks are more laid back, restaurants are more casual (in general).

            As far as I'm concerned, you won't go wrong with either choice.

            1. So we decided to go to Portland/Willamette Valley....Any suggestions for hotel, wineries, restaurants, etc.?

              4 Replies
              1. re: tkuppens

                It depends on how much you want to spend. We stay in B&Bs, but they tend to be pricy. It also depends on how "hip" you feel when you stay in Portland. I loved "The Nines" but it was expensive. So the next time we went, we stayed at the Courtyard. If you want something historic, the Benson Hotel is very nice and close to Pioneer Square, the Pearl District, and downtown.

                Dining in Portland is varied, exciting, and ever changing. You need to try the food carts, and some of the little out of the way places that are tucked in some of the funkier shopping streets. For shopping, if you are there then, you need to go to the Saturday Market, it is a real blast. NE Alberta Street, between NE 15th and NE 25th was fun, as was shopping along NW 23rd starting at Burnside, as was exploring the boutiques along N. Mississippi Avenue.

                If you like mushrooms, you need to try Joel Palmer House in Dayton (in the valley).

                One of our most memorable meals was at Bistro Maison in McMinnville, not for the food which was excellent, but because of the wine and what happened while there. Chef owned, Deborah (his wife) runs the front room. They have a superb wine list. I ordered something and Deborah asked if I would be interested in trying something that she thought was better for the same price. She brought me a bottle of a 2008 Aubichon Reserve. It was wonderful. She asked if I was familiar with the winemaker. When I said I wasn't, she asked for my phone, made a call and the next thing I knew I was making an appointment to visit Tom Mortimer at Le Cadeau the nest day.

                Another place I can recommend is Patricia Green, but I warn you, you will end up tasting a lot of wines.

                If you have never been to the valley before, you might want to visit some of the established places like Domaine Serene, Argyle, or Chehelam. If you want to visit some of the wineries, check to see if they have regular hours or if you need to make an appointment.

                1. re: tkuppens

                  As far as a hotel goes, I travel cheap. I've stayed twice at the Travelodge in Newberg and I can recommend that. It's clean and relatively new.
                  For wineries that make chardonnay:
                  Belle Pente has some of the best values for wine in the New World. If you want to buy wine, and not just taste, this is the place to go. It's open by appointment only. They make a couple of whites, including chardonnay, riesling and I think pinot blanc. They no longer make gewurtztraminer. The riesling is pretty good, too. And the pinot noir is quite nice. Be forewarned, though, this is not a formal tasting room. You taste either in a shed/barn or on a table outside. The first time I went there a llama stood at the fence, giving me the whole alpha male eye as if to say, "Come over here and I'll kick your ass." I like that. People who like fancy tasting rooms may not.
                  Scott Paul: A wine importer and winemaker has a tasting room in Carlton near Belle Pente. Call ahead to see if they are tasting any whites. They might have white Burgundy.
                  Stoller: The best white wine I tasted in Willamette Valley on my last trip was a Stoller chardonnay. They have old vines and young vines versions as well as pinot noir. Plus, it's a beautiful estate. This does have a nice tasting room.
                  Domaine Drouhin: A French winemaker opened a winery in Oregon. Elegant wines. You drive up a road to get to Drouhin. At the bottom is DePonte (not to be confused with Belle Pente). They make a wine from melon de bourgnone, the grape in Muscadet, but I didn't think much of it when I tasted it. You make a right turn to get into Drouhin. You make a left turn to get into Domaine Serene. The Domaine Serene wines are big wines, not typically Oregon. I used to like them more before they got so expensive. Since you're up there, it might be worth a stop.
                  Brick House: The best red wine I tasted on my last trip was the Brick House pinot noir named after the winemaker's mother. They also make a chardonnay. Again, a restrained, elegant wine.
                  Ayres: They only make pinot noir, not chardonnay, but it's in the neighborhood of Brick House and the wine is great and a good value.
                  St. Innocent: Their pinot blanc is probably better than their chardonnay. It will give your girlfriend a chance to try both.
                  Evening Land: The guy behind Evening Land is a Hollywood producer. He got the owners of a prominent vineyard to either sell it to him or give him exclusive rights, taking it away from St. Innocent. This generated some bad publicity at the time. He makes wine in Oregon, Sonoma Coast, Burgundy and I think Santa Barbara County. I tasted his wines, including his Oregon wine, in the Lompoc wine ghetto and I was impressed. If the Dundee tasting room is run the same way as the Lompoc room, you'll get a chance to taste a wide variety of wines.
                  Chehalem: Coowned by the people who own Stoller.
                  Antica Terra: Haven't tried it but it has a good reputation.
                  Brooks: No chardonnay here, but an wide range of riesling (dry to fairly sweet). Good riesling and good pinot noir. Again, it would give your girlfriend something to try.

                  This is where Sonoma wins easily, as JBL said.
                  On my first serious trip to Willamette Valley, I had a fantastic meal at Tina's in Dundee. It was exceptional, a destination kind of place. My next trip, it was ordinary. I've had several good meals in Willamette Valley, but since that first meal at Tina's, nothing to rave about.

                  1. re: tkuppens

                    For Portland, go to Portland board. There have been many outstanding & detailed reports the past couple months. Read a few reviews and post your questions there, you'll get more response.

                    Suggest you zero in on a very specific area, as Willamette Valley is a vast region. If you don't plan accordingly, you could end up doing way too much driving.

                    What others have said regarding wineries. Additional musts: Eyrie, Bergstrom, Adelsheim, Sokol Blosser.

                  2. We love Orygun. (Note pronunciation.). While Portland is a wonderful city, we also love the coast. For funky and cheap with awesome breakfasts I like the Historic Anchor Inn in Lincoln City. The Blackfish Cafe in Lincoln City has lovely food and a good selection of reasonably priced Oregon wines. If the weather is good the deck at the Cafe at Hawk Creek in Neskowin is a great place to linger over an Oregon PN and pizza or a Pinot Gris and oysters. It is really not that long a drive to McMinnville.

                    1. Oregon!!! The wineries are more friendly…and charge less (or nothing for tasting), the wine (especially the pinot noirs) are wonderful, the restaurants are great (but less formal and much less expensive than in the Napa/Sonoma valleys), and you are on your way to the Oregon coast which must be one of the most beautiful areas in the entire country. Definitely look at the Channel House B & B in Depoe Bay!! It's right on the ocean, romantic, perfect for whale watching and very close to the wonderful little town of Newport. Great food in Lincoln City (Blackfish Cafe, Bay House, etc.) and many funky little spots with very good food. The Channel House folks own the much more upscale Whale Cove Inn which also has a very good restaurant..Restaurant Beck.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: josephnl

                        If OP's raison d'etre for the trip is wine tasting, the coast is not close to the Willamette Valley. Although your suggestions sound interesting and tasty, they might well distract from the info they're seeking.

                        1. re: ChefJune

                          Both are easily combined in a single trip which I have been doing at least annually for several years. We spend 2-3 days in the Willamette Valley, then drive a little over an hour and we're on the coast where we spend an additional 2-3 days. It's much like combining San Francisco and the Napa Valley (but actually a bit closer) into a single trip…but much more casual and laid back. Since the op has already done the SF/Napa Valley trip, I think that the Willamette Valley + Oregon Coast is a great alternative. And…if you have the time, Portland is also wonderful, perhaps the best food city of its size in the country!

                          1. re: ChefJune

                            From Neskowin to McMinnville is way under an hour. I guess since I live in Texas and we have cities that take longer than that to cross, it didn't seem like a big deal. Heck, I used to ride my bike to the coast from Salem! Plus some of the local places on the coast have close relationships with the wineries. To me it is all one big package.

                            1. re: tim irvine

                              Agree completely. It's a totally different experience than the SFO/Napa Valley...but every bit as fun, more scenic (if you include the coast) and much more casual...and Portland is the most underrated Chow-worthy city in America!

                        2. No one here has said anything about how wonderful Sonoma is.... and just as laid back as the Willamette Valley. It's so totally different from Napa Valley -- much more farmland, and casual ambiance, as opposed to the traffic and commercialism of Napa Valley.

                          And there's no question the wines are superb. There are quite a number of B&B's to choose from in the various areas, and the prices vary a lot. We stayed in a lovely place north of Healdsburg last August that was beautiful, comfy and reasonable. The name is escaping me at the moment.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: ChefJune

                            Knowing both Sonoma County and Napa Valley wine country extremely well, and Oregon somewhat, I must say that if you get off the main roads of Napa Valley and onto the back roads, the one-lane exquisitely charming country roads where vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see, Napa would not appear "commercial" or overly-commercial in comparison to Sonoma or Oregon at all.

                            Of course, Napa Valley's state highways might seem commercialized with winery big-hitters, but you don't judge an agricultural region's farmland by its highways. That would be like judging Sonoma County's wine country from Highway 101 or 116, or Willamette's from 99W or Highway 18, or the quality of region's restaurants by those found on an interstate. Any estimation of an agricultural region's commercialism without thoroughly exploring its back roads and vast agricultural acreage seems erroneous to me.

                            The tasting room experience used to differ more than it does now -- Sonoma and Oregon tasting rooms were a bit more laidback than Napa Valley's, but that difference is much less now. Each region now understands marketing, and the need to sell wine through tasting rooms to remain profitable, and that translates to what happens in the tasting room.

                            I do agree that the back roads of wine country, of Sonoma, of Napa, of Oregon, with their vast expanses of green, always seem the most sweet to me, and I urge others to take the time to find them.