For decades, Eugene has been viewed as the southern end of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
However, the federal government did not recognize it as an official wine growing region until 2016, when the Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area was expanded to the south. It meant that important plantings such as King Estate and Iris Vineyards could now use “Willamette Valley” on the label of their estate wines as an important marketing tool.
“Now we can add that our estate wines are from the Willamette Valley AVA,” declared President/CEO Ed King.
Until then, King Estate was restricted to using “Oregon” for bottles that included fruit produced off its own estate beyond 15 percent. And in a roundabout way, that restriction helped King Estate build the “Oregon Pinot Noir” brand because of the widespread distribution of its affordable work, becoming an ambassador for the state not unlike that of Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington.
The AVA effort by the King family officially began in 2013, and the petition to the The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau received support from many leaders in the Oregon wine industry.
While the region’s fame has grown with the rise of the University of Oregon, some view the culture as “Portlandia South.” From a touring perspective, the fact that Eugene-area wineries are within an hour’s drive from the Eola-Amity Hills is an attractive feature to get wine lovers to travel from Portland to the other end of the Willamette Valley.
In a beautiful and majestic way, the South Willamette Valley has an advantage over many other wine country regions in the Pacific Northwest — the presence of a landmark winery in King Estate.
It’s an iconic property that’s a testament not only to the state of Oregon but also to the King family’s enduring belief in the wine industry. They built their empire by developing King Radio, one of the world’s finest avionic companies.
Since 1991, King Estate has become a 350,000-case winery, but its mission of stewardship remains the same. The same year it became part of the Willamette Valley AVA, its 1,100-acre was certified Biodynamic® by Demeter USA.
This year marks the first full year in which King Estate enacted its “living wage” policy of $15 per hour for each of its 150 employees. That’s $4.75 per hour beyond the state’s minimum wage and more than double the federal minimum wage.
“We believe people should be able to earn a livable wage, and we saw that it was within our control to do something about it,” King said. “We hope that others will join us to help raise the living standard for everyone.”
In 2018, they sold their Acrobat Winery brand to Foley Family Wines in what industry experts described as the largest brand transaction in the history of the Oregon wine industry.
New Zealand winemaker Ray Walsh helped put King Estate on the map. Fortunately, he fell in love with the South Willamette. He launched Capitello Wines in downtown Eugene and has a number of clients.
However, there are other families with histories and connections to the Oregon wine industry that run even deeper than the Kings.
Silvan Ridge outside of Eugene now is being operated by the third generation of the Chambers family. And one of the reasons for the South Willamette Valley’s recent increased acclaim is attributable to investments by proprietors Richard Boyles and Pamela Frye, a pair of Eugene natives, and the winemaking of Aaron Lieberman, who together have made Iris Vineyards a true destination.
The University of Oregon graduates made their living in the hospitality management field, and they also offer a special vineyard venue overlooking the Lorane Valley. In fact, their 870-acre property, which includes Chalice Vineyard, shares a fence line with King Estate.
Boyles remembers helping his grandfather in Roseburg make sweet wine from table grapes. It was a long road from then to 2018, when Iris Vineyards earned gold medals at the New Orleans International Wine Awards.
The Boyles changed the name of their winery from Iris Hill to Iris Vineyards in 2006, but perhaps their most crucial move was hiring Lieberman in 2008. His résumé includes Amity Vineyards, De Ponte Cellars and Owen Roe, and the 2018 New Orleans International Wine Awards proved to be a showcase for Lieberman’s wines.
Look for the South Willamette Valley to be further defined. Dieter Boehm of High Pass Winery and the Prairie Mountain Wineries group have petitioned the federal government for the establishment of the Lower Long Tom AVA. It was accepted for review on Jan. 5, 2018 and would include 10 wineries and more than 500 acres of vineyards.
As with seemingly every wine region, a number of wineries — large and small — have chosen not to become members of the surrounding winery association. Fortunately, the South Willamette Wineries Association is spearheaded by Jessica Thomas, a University of Oregon graduate with a background in fashion, design and merchandising and the general manager for Sweet Cheeks Winery. It’s no coincidence that Sweet Cheeks was among the first in the state to be ready to re-open, welcoming guests back on May 18.
Capitello Wines are made by Ray Walsh. King Estate brought him over from New Zealand to lead their winemaking team for its first decade. Walsh, trained by Kim Crawford and Villa Maria, continues to make wines in both hemispheres. He and his wife, Jennifer, operate a Eugene wine bar on Charnelton Street, where they pour and discuss their contrasting styles of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir as well as Rogue Valley Syrah and a fascinating dessert Muscat.
Civic Winery & Wines along 11th Avenue in Eugene features an amphora within its logo, and winemaker Andrew Bandy-Smith shows a level of dedication to earthen vessels that’s quite rare. His time with acclaimed Soter Vineyards and as an assistant for Drew Voit (formerly at Domaine Serene) prompted Civic Winery owner Craig Weicker to hire him. Their adventure includes a Rhone-inspired blend from Cowhorn Vineyard, a Dolcetto, an “orange” Pinot Gris, a pét-nat and a rosé of Dolcetto.
Eugene Wine Cellars blazed a trail as an urban winery on Madison Street in the Whiteaker neighborhood in 1999, and vineyard manager Bruce Biehl launched his family’s b2 brand in 2004. The focus remains on Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.
J. Scott Cellars is the expanding project in Eugene of Jonathan Scott Oberlander. He came to the industry knowing how to sell wine before he learned how to make it, earning a master's degree at University of California-Davis before getting in on the ground floor of Fresno State’s student winery program. He’s been in the Willamette Valley since 2003, when he began making wine for Silvan Ridge. In 2013, J. Scott Cellars created an urban winery in 2013, and recently opened a satellite tasting room in the Fifth Street Market. His program is among the most varied in the valley, featuring the traditional Burgundy varieties while also sourcing Grenache, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and traditional Port varieties from Southern Oregon, Cabernet Sauvignon from the Walla Walla Valley and Albariño from Washington state.
Noble Estate Vineyard & Winery operates three tasting rooms — at the vineyard on Gimpl Hill Road south of Eugene, the bike-friendly Commercial Street spot and on the Oregon Coast in Newport. In addition to Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, there are aromatic whites Muscat and Riesling among owner/winemaker Mark Jurasevich’s 20 offerings from Salmon-Safe vines.
Oregon Wine LAB is Mark Nicholl’s popular winery and lounge on Lincoln Street in Eugene. He’s done well with his own William Rose wine project, which includes a diverse portfolio beyond his work with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris to include Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, plus Primitivo from the Applegate Valley and Syrah from Washington’s Yakima Valley.
Territorial Vineyards & Wine Co., helped establish a template for success on the Eugene urban winery landscape, and awards have followed for the 5,000 cases from grapes grown by Alan Mitchell and made by Ray Walsh. Their success is keyed to their two estate vineyards — Bellpine and Equinox. Bellpine is a warmer site focused on Pinot Noir and featuring the one of rare Jackson clones, attributed to work in California’s Amador County. Equinox is a cooler site featuring Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling.
Antiquum Farm in Junction City has received international acclaim for Stephen Hagen’s natural approach to viticulture, which includes horses to plow the rows and sheep for weed control. He also takes a natural approach to his production of small-lot Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, which are grown at 800 feet elevation, rather lofty for the Willamette Valley. Hagen and his wife are proud of their family farm and winery, but tasting room visits are by appointment only.
Bennett Vineyards & Wine Co. offers two distinctly different experiences with the estate vineyard in Cheshire and an urban tasting room at the Fifth Street Market. Gene and Lisa arrived from San Diego, purchased 85 acres along Bear Creek and put in vines. There’s also a guest cottage available for a getaway. They feature a vertical of Pommard clone Pinot Noir as well as Malbec, Syrah, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling.
Benton-Lane Winery in Monroe joined the growing list of Oregon wineries sold to famous California companies in 2018 when the Girards sold the winery to the Huneeus family of Quintessa in Napa. Thirty years before, Steve and Carol Girard purchased the 1,860-acre Sunnymount Ranch, which crossed both Benton and Lane counties. The ranch now features 142 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, and bottles produced by winemaker Michael Hammond with the distinctive postage stamp label are sold throughout the U.S., Asia and China. The Girards also were the first winery in the state to devote their bottles to screw cap enclosures.
Bluebird Hill Cellars in Monroe attracted more interest from us in 2019 after two of their Pinot Noir bottlings from the 2016 vintage were awarded Double Platinum at the “Best of the Best” year-end judging of gold medal wines. That was just the third commercial vintage for Neil and Sue Shay. While their focus is on Pinot Noir with four examples from the 2017 vintage, there’s also a vineyard-designated Syrah, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, rosé of Pinot Noir. Neil is a professor of food science at Oregon State University. Sue oversees Bluebird Hill Farm B&B and the winery business.
Brigadoon Wine Co., in Junction City is one of the few multi-generation wineries in the South Willamette with Matt Shown making the wines he helps grow with his father, Chris, and Sheree, who spent four decades as an English teacher in the area. Together, they farm their 66 acres organically, producing award-winning expressions of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Riesling.
Broadley Vineyards in Monroe is a second-generation producer whose first vintage was 1986 from vines established in 1981. They farm 33 acres while also sourcing from acclaimed North Willamette Valley sites such as Temperance Hill and Zenith for some of their Pinot Noir.
Five Fourteen Vineyards in Junction City begins with a reference to the first date that Tom and Marie Kokkeler went on, which was May 14, 2003. Their portfolio of estate wines revolves around Alsace — Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Riesling — and they’ve wisely hired Drew Voit to craft those 600 cases for them. The plantings of the 30-acre site date to 1998 as Shadow Mountain Vineyards, but the Kokkelers look back to Memorial Day Weekend 2018 for the opening of their tasting room.
High Pass Winery in Junction City is tucked up against tall timber and ranks among the oldest plantings in the region, going to 1984. The five vineyards across 62 acres produce Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, but the plantings of German native Dieter Boehm include Gewürztraminer and lesser known varieties Bacchus, Comtessa, Gutedel, Huxelrebe, Scheurebe, Siegfried and Silvaner.
Pfeiffer Winery in Junction City dates to 1983, making it one of the oldest in the South Willamette. Robin Pfeiffer, a Spanish teacher in Eugene, talked his father into planting wine grapes rather than raising sheep on the 70 acres. Sixty acres are grown for King Estate. The rest produce about 1,200 cases for Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Muscat. He and his wife, Danuta, who is an author, play host to winemaker dinners in their home for groups of a dozen or more.
RainSong Vineyard in Cheshire features 8 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier that were planted by owner Mike Fix in 1985. With those three Burgundy varieties planted, sparkling wine is a focus. And it's now a two-generation estate winery with his daughters recently taking over the 1,500-case production.
Walnut Ridge Winery in Junction City is the 30-acre estate project of Wendy Golish and Jim McGavin whose work with cool-climate varieties farmed Salmon Safe fits in deliciously with the rest of the South Willamette.
WEST OF EUGENE
LaVelle Vineyards in Elmira is the vision of Doug LaVelle, who spent much of his business career in Texas before purchasing Forgeron Vineyard, which was bonded in 1977. It was rebranded in 1994. His son, Matthew, began working at the winery full-time in 2006. They produce Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and a beautiful rosé of Gamay along with a Cab from Washington and Tempranillo from the Umpqua Valley. Their estate tasting room is west of the Fern Ridge Lake, and wines also are sold at SweetWaters on the River in the Valley River Inn near the I-105 Bridge.
Sarver Winery south of Veneta is the realized Oregon wine industry dream of Chris and Erin Sarver, who own Lake Superior Brewing Co., in Michigan. They purchased 35 acres of Alsatian varieties — Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer — which were planted in the late 1980s and early 1990s as Elhanan Vineyard. David Hook assists Chris with the winemaking.
SOUTH OF EUGENE
Abbelone Vineyard, established in 2002 just 10 minutes south of Eugene, produces Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Syran and a rosé. Surgeon/winemaker Kris Ferry, who named the project as a tribute to his mother, also tends the 5-acre vineyard. The wines are presented at his beautiful chateau.
Chateau Lorane in Lorane began selling its first commercial wines in 1992, a year after King Estate opened its doors less than 3 miles to the north. However, Linde Kester, a retired electrical engineer, offers his guests a chance to taste wines from varieties rarely seen in Oregon, Baco Noir, Huxelrebe, Maréchal Foch, Léon Millot and Melon de Bourgogne. His skill as a winemaker is reflected in his five career Platinum Awards from Wine Press Northwest with more traditional varieties such as Carménère, Mourvèdre and Pinotage from Quail Run Vineyard near Medford.
Iris Vineyards along the Territorial Highway in the Lorane Valley ranks as one of Oregon’s most impressive and unheralded programs. Richard Boyles and Pamela Frye grew up around Eugene and graduated from the University of Oregon. They explored wine country in Europe in the early years of their marriage and purchased 870 acres of forest near King Estate. In fact, they share a fence line with the King family. Their Chalice Vineyard, established in 1996, spans 43 sweeping acres featuring Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. They began as Iris Hill Winery in 2001. Seven years later, winemaker Aaron Lieberman arrived and has earned international acclaim for Iris Vineyards, adding a sparkling wine program along the way to a 15,000-case brand.
King Estate Winery northwest of Eugene understandably bills itself as “Kings of Pinot.” The King family has helped put the stage on the map with its history of success both in the bottle and in the marketplace. Brent Stone’s work with the wine program has been special as their vineyard-designate and sparkling wine programs have expanded while allowing for exploration into the Walla Walla Valley and Washington with red Bordeaux varieties as part of the North By Northwest brand. There’s also their light-hearted yet delicious Pinot Envy bottling with Sigmund Freud on the label. Meanwhile, the Kings remain more committed to being stewards of the land. It’s one of the Northwest’s true wine destinations, combining a noble story and beautiful property with a food-and-wine experience that in some ways is unmatched.
Silvan Ridge Winery in Eugene proudly promotes its history as Oregon’s 77th bonded winery, which it earned in 1979 as Hinman Vineyards. Theirs is a remarkable story as a three-generation project, beginning when Eugene media mogul Carolyn Silva Chambers purchased the winery from Doyle Hinman in 1993. Carolyn’s granddaughter, Julia Stiltner, owns the project, along with husband, Andrew, and they’ve wisely retained Juan Pablo Valot as their winemaker. In addition to Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and perennial favorite semi-sparkling Early Muscat, Valot — a native of Argentina — takes special pride in his Malbec and “Super Rioja” blend of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Elizabeth’s Red is a tribute to Julia’s mother, who died unexpectedly in 2018. The Stiltners still own and operate Elizabeth Chambers Cellar in McMinnville.
Sweet Cheeks Winery & Vineyard on Briggs Hill Road is less than a mile from Silvan Ridge, and its history began to take root in 1978 when Dan Smith planted vines. He grew Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling for others, but it wasn’t until 2005 when he opened an estate tasting room. The first employee he hired for the winery — assistant winemaker Leo Gabica — took over the 2,000-case program in 2013. The following for their wines prompted Smith to open a satellite tasting room in the Fifth Street Public Market, which is managed by Julia Crowley, a longtime media figure in the Oregon wine industry.
NEAR INTERSTATE 5
Hayworth Estate Wines in Coburg is the vision of Russ Hayworth, a fifth-generation grass seed farmer whose interest in wine stems from Gamay Noir and includes Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Among the attractions is a 100-yard football field, complete with hash marks and a 50-yard line, they call Hayworth Field.
Saginaw Vineyard in Cottage Grove is another estate winery with vines well into their third decade of life since they were planted by winemaker Scott Byler. In addition to the Burgundy grapes, there’s an eclectic assortment of Riesling, Cab, Syrah, Maréchal Foch and estate berry wines, including a fortified Marionberry wine and Pepper Jelly wine. The red barn is easily seen from Interstate 5 just south of the Gettings Creek Rest Area.
The Inn at the 5th is a boutique, AAA Four Diamond hotel adjacent to the Fifth Street Market. The Obie Hospitality property features include valet parking, wine on arrival and a day spa. It enjoys a close relationship with Marché Restaurant and is a mile from Autzen Stadium.
The Chicago-based Graduate Hotel group recently took over the 12-story Hilton property and transformed it into one of its own next to the Hult Center.
In the wake of the pandemic, it’s impossible to know which dining options will survive not only the extended closure but also the historic economic downturn and at least short-term restrictions that have come with social distancing. Leaders of the South Willamette Wineries Association would like to see more traction for the Eugene Wine and Dine Week, which traditionally kicks off in May to start Oregon Wine Month.
King Estate’s culinary program and dining room will continue to thrive and deserve to be considered for both lunch and dinner.
Historically, the following earned a reputation for their culinary work that fits in with a South Willamette Valley wine journey. For ambiance, there’s Marché and Novo Latin Kitchen. Those with a culinary program that’s viewed as a nice fit for South Willamette Valley wine tourists include Excelsior Inn Ristorante Italiano, Grit Kitchen, North Fork, Oregon Electric Station and Rye. Steak lovers should look into George and Violets in Springfield. Want something out of the box? Bar Purlieu. For drinks and small plates, there’s Izakaya Meiji. And attracting beer lovers is Ninkasi Better Living Room.
On game day, there’s Track Town Pizza, which is an institution.
For those into Bloody Marys, it’s Sixth Street Grill on weekends. On campus, it’s Glenwood or Studio One. A common recommendation for morning and afternoon is Provisions in the Market District. Brails is also popular in South Eugene.
These options are among the most recommended: Beergarten, Bill and Tims BBQ, Cafe 440 by Oakway/Coburg Road and Tacovore.
Sundance Wine Cellars near Amazon Park boasts a shop with more than 500 Oregon Pinot Noirs. It is owned by Gavin McComas of nearby Sundance Natural Foods. Others to recommend include Authentic, Bo’s Wine Depot and Broadway Wine Merchants.
Beyond the chains, there are a number of unique Eugene coffee shops and roasters. They include Coffee Plant Roasters, Equiano Coffee, Full City Coffee Roasters, Merakai Coffee & Co., Provisions by the Marché Restaurant Group, Tailored Coffee Roasters, Vero Espresso, Wandering Goat Coffee Co., the Washburne Cafe in Springfield.
Three years ago, Food & Wine magazine named Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland among the best in the U.S. Voodoo’s empire now spans nine stores in five states, which includes its Eugene shop on Broadway. Order the Voodoo Dozen, and you’ll get a Bacon Maple Bar.
Among the other local popular providers of treats is Coconut Bliss, Cosmos Creations, Euphoria Chocolate Company, Hideaway Bakery, Noisette Pastry Kitchen, Provision’s Market Hall, and Sweet Life Patisserie. For those gluten-free, there is Elegant Elephant in the Market District. Creswell Bakery also is recommended.
EUGENE ALE TRAIL
Some of the West Coast’s top breweries are found in the Eugene-Springfield area, led by Ninkasi Brewing Co., but supporters of Coldfire and Oakshire would promote those producers, too. Hop Valley features a beautiful patio. Alesong near King Estate is a rising star, thanks to creative brewer Matt Van Wyk. Steelhead Brewery is near the Bennett Vineyards urban tasting room.
It has long been known as Track Town USA, but Eugene also claims to be the mountain biking capital of the Northwest.
A simple but easily enjoyed way to get a sense for the area is a walk around the University of Oregon campus, and there are many walking paths and hiking trails in the region. Spencer Butte is a popular trip. The myriad outdoor options include rafting, skiing/snowsports and rock climbing.
There’s also a trip to the Cascades Raptor Center, which King Estate supports.
During the school year, some of the top student/athletes in the country represent the University of Oregon. During the summer, there are the Eugene Emeralds, members of Minor League Baseball’s Northwest League and an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.
Downtown Eugene is home to the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. On campus, there’s the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
There’s also the “Official Simpsons Mural” — designed by Matt Groening and “painted” by Marge — installed on the side of the Emerald Art Center in Springfield.
And the region also is famous as home to more than a dozen covered bridges within a 30-minute radius of Eugene, and Elkton, which is on the way to the ocean, is less than an hour away and features the Northwest’s highest concentration of wineries per capita.
The U.S. Olympic Team Trials for track and field have been rescheduled for June 18–27, 2021, for historic Hayward Field. And now the 2022 World Athletics Championships are scheduled for Eugene.
In the winter, there’s the Oregon Truffle Festival, a phenomenal pairing for a wine country visit. Check in with some of the early urban wineries to see about the status of the Urban Wine Circuit, which helps guide wine lovers to tasting rooms around the Whiteaker and Westside neighborhoods. Last July, the Oregon Country Fair celebrated its 50th anniversary.
TRAVEL AND TOURING
In 2019, the Eugene airport began offering direct connections to San Diego and Chicago. Alaska Airlines flies out of Eugene and is proud of its Wines Fly Free program. Since the South Willamette is wine country, travelers departing from Eugene can check a case of wine for free. Ask one of your wineries for a proper shipping box.
Reduce the stress by working with a touring company. Among the recommendations are Cork and Barrel Wine Tours, My Party Buss, Oregon Tour Experts and Sunshine Limo Services & Wine Tours.
There’s also the interactive Pacific Pub Cycle, not unlike those found in Boise and Vancouver. This features 14 seats, and the circuit begins and ends at Eugene Wine Cellars.
BEGIN YOUR JOURNEY
Travel Lane County offers outstanding resources to map out every chapter of a trip to the South Willamette Valley. Go to EugeneCascadesCoast.org, or visit the Eugene, Cascades & Coast Visitor Information & Adventure Center in Springfield.
ERIC DEGERMAN is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greathorthwestwine.com.