Neatly pruned vineyards along quiet country roads. The warmth of a fireplace or an unexpected sunbreak. A chance to sip wines at a leisurely pace, and the unhurried attention of the staff in tasting rooms. These are just some of the uplifting pleasures of a wine-country getaway in winter. It’s a quiet time of year, but the Willamette Valley’s winemakers, chefs and hospitality pros keep the lights on during the off-season. And they are encouraging you to take advantage of the intimacy of what they are calling Willamette Valley’s Cellar Season. Sure, the term might sound made up. But so was storm watching, before it became a thing. Besides, who doesn’t like avoiding crowds while sampling wine and food? With this in mind, here are 6 great reasons to embrace Cellar Season this winter.
(Pictured above: A dog with a nose for the finer things competes in the Joriad. Photo by Andrea Johnson.)
That New Hotel Smell
When it opened last April, the 36-room Atticus Hotel brought a hip boutique lodging experience to the heart of downtown McMinnville. At less than a year old, the hotel still bears its new-construction shine. The hotel’s Italianate design features fit in with the rest of the historic district, mostly built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But its furnishings and amenities are decidedly hip and modern. The hotel’s local ownership group eschewed the cookie-cutter model of hotel room design, giving each studio and suite its own, slightly different look from the others. Décor including works by local artists heightens the sense of place. Meanwhile, comforts including Pendleton robes, Internet-enabled TVs and a wine fridge in each room cater to the needs of all demographics.
Truffles: Part 1
Thanks to its active and resourceful mycologist community, the Willamette Valley is leading the way in domestic truffle production. Area growers are cultivating four native Northwest species. And they have also introduced French and Italian varieties through inoculation. Amid this mushrooming success, the annual Oregon Truffle Festival has grown into a two-weekend celebration of the prized local delicacies.
The festival’s opening weekend, centered in and around Eugene, includes the only known truffle dog competition in North America, on Jan. 24. Now in its fifth year, the Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship begins at Lane Events Center. This is where truffle dogs and their handlers score points by finding truffle-scented targets. (The breeds include Lagotto Romagnolos, the pooches of choice for Italian truffle foragers, as well as retrievers, German shepherds and others.) Those who advance to the final round search for ripe truffles in a nearby field. The location of the latter is withheld, to protect it from potential poachers. Though this final round is not open to spectators, the awards dinner is.
In addition to the Joriad, the opening weekend includes a truffle dog training program and a truffle growers’ forum. These latter events are geared toward established and aspiring mycologists. But the Grand Truffle Dinner, on Jan. 26, and Sunday’s Eugene Fresh Truffle Marketplace, on Jan. 27, appeal to the tastes of a broader audience.
Truffles Part 2
The festival takes its mushroom-mania north to the Yamhill Valley, Feb. 15–17, for an extended weekend of consumer friendly tastings, dinners and other events (better yet, Mon., Feb. 18 is a national holiday). Admission to the weekend’s signature events is restricted to those who shell out for the Terroir of Truffles Package, which has already sold out. But space is still available for a handful of a la carte events. These include Fruit and Earth: A Taste of Place, a tasting that pairs Willamette Valley wines with bites made with truffles, on Feb. 15, and the Newberg Fresh Truffle Marketplace, Feb. 17. Both of these latter events take place at the Chehalem Cultural Center, in Newberg.
Since the area’s dark truffles ripen in winter, you’re also likely to find dishes enhanced by these local delicacies at area restaurants, including the Dundee Bistro, Joel Palmer House, Thistle Restaurant & Bar and Marché, among others.
You Think You Know Chardonnay
Oaked. Unoaked. Green fruit. Tropical fruit. Old World. New World. Chardonnay is one versatile bugger. Some people love it. Some hate it. And if you’re in the latter group, you’re probably just drinking the wrong ones.
Now in its ninth year, the Oregon Chardonnay Celebration, Feb. 23, at The Allison Inn & Spa, is your chance to take a deep dive into the world of Oregon chardonnays, reset your palate and reinforce (or rediscover) your love for this noble grape. The afternoon seminar features tastes of current releases and library selections from four featured producers, which fits in with this year’s theme, “Time in a Bottle: The Evolution of Chardonnay.” It is followed by the Grand Tasting, a walk-around tasting of 50 Oregon chardonnays (selected by a panel of winemakers and sommeliers during a blind tasting).
Deals and Experiences
Even when these special events are happening, you’re likely to find greater availability of tables at area restaurant and rooms at area hotels and inns, with many of the latter, including the Atticus, offering reduced, off-season rates. Travel Lane County has a page on its website dedicated to Cellar Season deals in the Eugene area. Some wineries are also taking advantage of this quiet time of year to host unique experiences. In Dundee, for example, Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards is introducing its monthly Winter Wine Dinner Series, on the third Saturday of each month. The event brings chefs from top Northwest restaurants to the winery to create multicourse dinners paired with Lange’s wines, which include sparkling wines, pinot gris, chardonnays and pinot noirs.
On a February weekend a few years ago, before we had heard the term Cellar Season, my wife and I drove down to The Allison for a winter wine getaway of our own. On an overcast Saturday morning, we noshed on savory mini-croissants at Carlton Bakery before heading over to Dundee.
People were out and about, having fun, creating a vibe that felt more convivial than crowded or rushed. When we arrived at the Oregon Olive Mill, next to Durant Vineyards, a group touring on horseback with Equestrian Wine Tours had just gotten back on their Tennessee walkers for the ride to their next stop. By the time we made it up to Ponzi Vineyards on Chehalem Mountain, the sun had come out, brightening the views of surrounding vineyards and hazelnut groves, which we could drink in from the terrace, along with outstanding pinot noir.
Clouds were returning on our drive back to the hotel, but that didn’t stop us from taking a refreshing dip in the hotel’s indoor infinity pool. From the adjacent Jacuzzi, we could gaze through floor-to-ceiling windows at the growing mist enshrouding the verdant hillsides around us. There, in our sort of country-chic cocoon, I remember feeling that there was nowhere else I would have rather been. Cellar Season in Willamette Valley? You bet we’ll be back!