Wine Country Eats: Willamette Valley

Posted on Dec 20, 2023


 

Willamette Valley Oregon

Willamette Valley views.

People who know us, know that we are unabashed fans of Oregon wine country. We have been making annual trips there for almost two decades and have built more than our share of itineraries for friends on where to sip, stay, and eat when visiting.

Sadly, the region was no more immune than anywhere else to the industry-crippling global pandemic that was particularly challenging for the tourism and hospitality sector. As a result, the foodie scene has changed significantly from when we visited the region pre-COVID19.

The good news is that as the world re-opened, so have several new spots that, along with some mainstays, are once again providing exciting options for visitors.

Iris Vineyards Wine Bar & Cocktails (Springfield)

Southern willamette valley wine bar

Be sure to visit the first and only wine bar in Springfield.

When people talk about the Willamette Valley, they’re usually referring to the northern end of the valley as that’s where the majority of AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) and wineries are located. But the southern end of the Valley is starting to get more attention thanks to wineries like King Estate, Benton-Lane Winery, and, as we recently discovered, Iris Vineyards.

In June of 2022, Iris Vineyards opened their Wine & Cocktail Bar in Springfield, just 20 minutes south of Eugene, and the first of its kind in the city.

Housed in a heritage building from the 1860s, the interior takes full advantage of its original character with exposed brick walls, a long wooden wrap around bar, and a large courtyard complete with fire pit for those wonderfully long summer evenings.

Southern willamette valley

A visit to the wine & cocktail bar in Springfield.

The clean, rustic design is perfectly suited to making visitors, local or not, feel right at home.

But this isn’t just any wine bar. Alongside the terrific Iris sparkling and still wines offered by the glass, flight or bottle, we recommend trying a wine cocktail courtesy of winemaker Aaron Lieberman. While we rarely drink spirits, Aaron made us a delicious gin and tonic with the gin made from his white wine which he refermented up to about 25% alcohol and infused with herbs and botanicals. The result was a deliciously light and refreshing cocktail that we would highly recommend.

HiFi Wine Bar (McMinnville)

Located on the main street of McMinnville’s historic downtown, HiFi is the Martin Woods Winery tasting room by day, and popular wine bar by night.

McMinnville Oregon

HiFi Wine Bar.

Someone finally figured out the ideal concept built to withstand the seasonality of tourism while simultaneously managing to appeal equally to visitors and locals alike.

This is a wine bar in the truest sense featuring one of the most exciting and interesting wine lists we’ve come across (particularly in a town with a population of 35,000). It includes an impressive list of international wines by the glass that changes weekly along with bottles that are hard to come by even in large metropolitan cities.

After being introduced to Wine Director Ben Denton, it’s clear that HiFi walks the talk.

McMinnville Oregon

Wine Director Ben Denton.

Rather than tell us what we should order, he asked thoughtful questions to understand our palate and then made some suggestions that were both surprising and delicious.

The menu is equally well-curated with recommended pairings by the glass for just a light bite or enough to order several share plates that will easily satisfy as the main event for dinner. Add to that a DJ spinning anything from John Coltrane to Sade to Prince and you can see why this has quickly become an absolute must visit whenever we are in the northern Willamette Valley.

Whether you’re an oenophile or a neophyte, the objective here is to delight the senses…more importantly, your senses.

McMenamin’s Hotel Oregon (McMinnville)

In 1983, Mike and Brian McMenamin opened their first pub in Portland, Oregon, followed by their first brewery and first hotel in 1985 and 1990, respectively.

McMenamins Hotel Oregon in McMinnville

Hotel Oregon.

Today, they own and operate more than fifty properties throughout Oregon and Washington, all of which are renovated historic buildings.

McMenamins have carefully built their brand and their customers’ loyalty around a fairly straightforward business plan. They offer casual, unpretentious settings that serve quality food and beverages at very fair prices. Their plan has been executed consistently and brilliantly for over thirty years with the addition of a pioneering spirit and some very unique features that truly set them apart.

Art on the bannister

Every surface is a canvas at McMenamins.

The McMenamins signature is very distinct: old institutional buildings that have been renovated into hotels, restaurants, and pubs, simply but comfortably decorated, and adorned with paintings and decorations that evoke an eerie but still friendly nether-world feel. There is something mystical-looking about the two-dimensional characters painted onto walls, ceilings, pipes and what-have-you. They are weird, but not creepy; they take you back to the turn of the century, a time when most of these structures were built. Ultimately, they just add a lot of whimsy and a lot of charm, and make each converted schoolhouse, former Masonic Hall or Poor Farm a uniquely McMenamins experience.

Hotel Oregon sits on a corner in the heart of McMinnville’s historic downtown centre and has enjoyed many lives since it was built in 1905 including a greyhound bus station, a restaurant, a soda fountain shop, and beauty parlor. A pint of their award-winning craft beer or cider on their rooftop bar is often our first stop when we arrive at McMinnville after several hours driving down to get there.

Earth & Sea (Carlton)

Earth & Sea in Carlton has emerged as a gastronomic gem in the northern Willamette Valley.

Carlton Oregon Restaurant

Rustic elegance inside.

Drawing inspiration from the diverse landscapes that surround it, Earth and Sea celebrates the bountiful offerings of Oregon’s fertile earth and abundant coastline. The restaurant’s ambiance reflects a harmonious fusion of rustic charm and contemporary elegance, welcoming guests with an inviting warmth that perfectly complements the culinary delights that await.

Local, seasonal produce takes center stage, beautifully woven into dishes that reflect the changing rhythms of the year.

 

Carlton Oregon restaurant

A new favourite restaurant in Oregon.

From vibrant heirloom tomato salads in summer to comforting root vegetable stews in the cooler months, each plate exemplifies a true farm-to-table ethos.

Earth and Sea boasts an extensive wine list to accompany its culinary offerings that pays homage to Oregon’s world-renowned vineyards. From the rich Pinot Noirs of the Willamette Valley to crisp Chardonnays from the Columbia Gorge, the wine selection truly elevates the dining experience.

Humble Spirit (McMinnville)

Tucked away on a quiet corner of McMinnville, Humble Spirit emits an understated charm that belies the gastronomic treasures it houses within.

Mcminnville Oregon restaurant

Welcome to Humble Spirit.

Stepping inside, a serene ambiance envelops patrons, where soft hues and rustic decor coalesce, offering a sense of tranquility and belonging. It’s an embrace of simplicity, drawing diners closer to the essence of the culinary experience.

At the heart of Humble Spirit’s allure is chef Brett Uniss, whose ever-evolving menu pays homage to Oregon’s rich agricultural tapestry, showcasing the region’s finest produce, thoughtfully procured from local farmers and foragers.

While the food captivates the palate, the wine selection at Humble Spirit forms an exquisite symphony of Oregon’s terroir.

McMinnville Oregon

Source: Humble Spirit

With a curated selection of Pinot Noirs from renowned Willamette Valley vineyards and hidden gems from the emerging wine regions, the wine list complements the cuisine, enhancing every nuance and subtlety of flavor.

What sets Humble Spirit apart is the unwavering commitment to hospitality, the essence of which lies in its name. The team welcomes guests with genuine warmth, fostering an environment where diners feel like cherished friends sharing a profound culinary journey.

Hayward (McMinnville)

McMinnville Oregon

Seasonal menu paired with Big Table Farm Chardonnay.

Located within the bustling Mac Market, Hayward Restaurant is more than just a dining destination; it’s a sensory journey. The restaurant’s open-concept design allows guests to witness the magic unfold in the kitchen while enjoying the market’s vibrant energy. The ambience is chic yet inviting, with an understated elegance that complements the culinary experience. It’s the perfect spot for a leisurely lunch or an intimate evening, where the charm of McMinnville’s local market adds to the overall allure.

McMinnville Oregon

Mac Market [source: Visit McMinnville].

This spot was recommended by one of the winemakers we interviewed and it was largely locals dining there which is always a positive sign. Chef Kari Kihara is well known locally for her culinary prowess and offers both delectable small plates that beg to be shared along with delicious main courses. With a strong focus on sustainability and the finest local ingredients, the menu continually evolves, offering a delightful surprise with each visit. Noteworthy highlights include the duck confit salad, the braised hen dumplings and the Merguez sausage over green lentils.

The only disappointment was that the wine list was surprisingly small and only featured a few local wines. When we visit a wine region, particularly one as good as the Willamette Valley, we make it our mission to eat AND drink locally. A greater selection of local wines would be our only critique.

Pizza Capo (McMinnville)

Mcminnville oregon

Pizza Capo [source: Visit McMinnville].

A common question that everyone can relate to in terms of go-to wines is “what’s your favourite pizza wine”? While the wine is the focus, you still need great pizza and Pizza Capo is one of the best we’ve had anywhere. Recommended by a local winemaker last year, it’s now on our regular must-visit list when we are in McMinnville, particularly when we have a great bottle of wine we want to open but want to eat in.

If you’re a fan of traditional, wood-fired thin crust pizza, you’ll be suitably impressed. Full disclosure, after 3 dinners, we’ve yet to make it past their Margherita or Mushroom pizza with a side of mixed greens because they are THAT good. Of course, they have more than pizza including handmade pasta, calzones and arancini but we’ll have get to on a future trip…!

*Authour’s note* – Two more restaurants that were recommended were Cypress and OKTA. Sadly, we ran out of time before we could try them, but they’re top of the ‘research’ list on our next trip down. If you’ve got any insight into these restaurants (or any of the ones we’ve listed or not visited yet), please comment!

6 Comments

  1. toureatdrink@gmail.com'

    Okta is a must-visit for a special dinner!! I had one of the top, best meals of my entire life there. (For reference, I am in the wine and restaurant business, and have eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, and Okta is among the best!)

    I also live in the Willamette Valley, and I agree with you on the places on your list that I have been to! (While McMenamins is solid, I can recommend a lot of other places to spend your money on dinner…I would say lunch there would be a good idea.)

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    • Hi Timothy, noted re: OKTA and it’s definitely on our must-try list (more so after your recommendation). Lucky you to be living in wine country with so many great options available daily…cheers!

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    • Seriously…it’s SO good!

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  2. martindredmond@gmail.com'

    These all look like great recs! Saving for our next trip to WV (hopefully in ’24!) Wishing you both a wonderful holiday season filled with love, joy and of course…WINE!

    Post a Reply
    • Thank you Martin and likewise! Hoping 2024 is the year that finally brings us together to share some wine in person…cheers!

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