Even serious enophiles describe Oregon wines with one word: Willamette. And one grape: Pinot Noir. It’s understandable. The Pinots produced in places like McMinnville and Dundee are among the very best in the world.
But another Oregon wine country is rising 230 miles to the south of the Willamette Valley. For the wine-minded traveler, this destination feels almost utopian. Here, tasting fees cost less than a latte; hotel rates are actually reasonable; wineries go way beyond water crackers (wood-fired fig and caramelized-onion pizza with a 92-point 2012 Syrah, anyone?). And, as in Santa Barbara County but unlike many other wine regions in the West—all kinds of grapes thrive.
“We can ripen anything,” Southern Oregon winemakers joke, and judging from the wide array of varieties found here—in this sprawling land of 150 microclimates across three river valleys, high desert, and mountains—it’s true. Roam from the Rogue Valley to the Applegate Valley, all the way north up Interstate 5 to the Umpqua Valley, and you’ll find about as many types of good wine as you would in your beloved bottle shop. Good wine. Albariño, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Syrah, Viognier, Cab Franc, Malbec, and yes, plenty of Pinot Noir too.
What you won’t find are crowds. “We are the last undiscovered wine region in the world. Truly,” says Jamie McCleary of Jaxon Vineyards. The secret may not last, with tasting rooms opening all the time and 1,000 acres of grapes planted in a year alone. Talented winemakers like Stephen Hall from Napa, Scott O’Brien Kelley from Paso Robles, Jean-Michel Jussiaume from the Loire Valley, and Chris Graves from the Livermore Valley (who is heading up one of three custom-crush facilities) have moved to Southern Oregon, to be pioneers in a place where pioneering is still possible.
Irvine Vineyards. On 80 gorgeous acres in the hills outside Ashland, Doug and Dionne Irvine built a Tudor-style home, and planted 26 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Then they wisely appointed a winning team: Michael Donovan, formerly of RoxyAnn, to oversee sales and operations, and Herb Quady at Barrel 42 to make the wine. Irvine’s tasting room is slated to open in early 2016. It’s a handsome, one-story, window-walled spot tucked above the vines, and it’ll have a patio, firepit, and tapas. We can’t wait. 2113 Emigrant Creek Rd.; irvinevineyards.com. We recommend: Irvine Family 2012 Pinot Noir (Oregon; $35).
Willow-Witt Ranch. For our money, the most beautiful spot to stay in Southern Oregon is a 445-acre off-the-grid farm in the mountains east of Ashland. It has four canvas tents with comfy beds tucked in the trees amid the changing foliage; gardens full of leafy greens; goats, pigs, and chickens—and a lantern-lit outdoor kitchen for cooking up all the ingredients you collect. Ideally before darkness falls and the stars come out. Zillions of them. Tents from $125; 12 campsites, $40; 1 studio, $200; 3-bedroom farmhouse looking out on a 100-acre meadow, from $250; willowwittranch.com.
Sammich. The Loop comes West. At Sammich, Illinois expat Melissa McMillan does Chicago’s sandwich traditions proud. She roasts her own beef, poaches her own tuna, and smokes her own pastrami, all of it best enjoyed on Sammich’s picnic tables and AstroTurf patio. $; 424 Bridge St.; sammichashland.com.
Smithfields. The motto of this carnivorous restaurant and bar is emblazoned on the staff T-shirts: “Bacon, the gateway meat.” It’s almost a call to arms in Ashland, an artsy town prone to attracting vegan types. But Smithfields wants you to go whole hog, with pulled pork, brisket, burgers—and, oh, a 14-ounce Umpqua Valley lamb porterhouse, if the craving strikes. Beware: The weekend brunch here—best relished on the back patio—leaves little room for dinner. $$$; 36 S. Second St.; smithfieldsashland.com.
Harvest Restaurant. In a converted gas station, you’ll find the Rogue Valley’s best new restaurant. Harvest’s petroleum heritage doesn’t extend to the decor, which is country-chic with mason jars and fresh flowers. The food is simple and satisfying. Owners John and Ruby Biles make their own pastas and split-pea falafels, and pull as much produce from local farms as possible—not to mention Carlton pigs too, for the chile-cilantro baby back ribs. $$; 102 Talent Ave.; harvestrestaurantoregon.com.
Jaxon Vineyards. Someone less visionary might have seen just an abandoned 1970s double-wide trailer parked on an old pear farm and moved on, but Jamie McCleary and his wife, Katherine, knew this 16-acre property could grow grapes. In 2009, they cleared the land themselves; planted Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo, and Viognier vines; and brought on local star winemaker Rob Folin, of Folin Cellars, to make the juice. For now, tastings are by appointment on their terrace, overlooking their vines and the Fern Valley. In the spring, look for an open-air “farmstand” in the field next door for tastings. $5 tasting; 5709 Hughes Rd.; jaxonvineyards.com. We recommend: Jaxon 2012 Syrah (Rogue Valley; $28).
Dancin Vineyards. You’ll vow to ditch crowded tasting-room counters forever after a sunny afternoon at this beautifully pastoral setting. Here, you sit at a picnic table under a giant walnut tree, enjoying a wood-fired pizza and a bottle of Dancin’s limited-production estate Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Owners Dan Marca and his wife, Cindy (Dan-Cin, get it?), are building a gravity-flow winery on-site, which should be ready just in time for this year’s harvest. Tasting from $5; 4477 S. Stage Rd.; dancinvineyards.com. We recommend: Dancin 2014 “Mélange” Chardonnay (Southern Oregon; $29).
Quady North. Those who do know Southern Oregon wine know Herb Quady. Born to central Californian Muscat-making parents and schooled at Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon, Quady decided to move his winemaking talents north after falling in love with Southern Oregon. “The bar keeps consistently getting higher here,” Quady says of the region’s snowballing top scores. “There isn’t room to put out anything mediocre.” Pop into Quady’s brick-lined tasting room on Jacksonville’s cute main drag, and you’ll see (and taste) that he’s right. $5 tasting; 255 California St.; quadynorth.com. We recommend: Quady North 2014 Rosé (Rogue Valley, Southern Oregon; $15).
McCully House Inn. Location, location, location. Next to Stim Coffee, across from Quady North’s tasting room, and with a grassy park behind it, McCully House has the best setting in downtown Jacksonville. The seven spacious rooms were renovated in 2013 or just constructed, one with a sunken tub and sweet little patio. But the preferred place to sit and sip is in one of the red Adirondack chairs on the front lawn, where you can watch all the action, or lack thereof, in this charming small town. From $165; countryhouseinnsjacksonville.com.
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden. The leafy country road that leads to Cowhorn is a far cry from Wall Street, where Bill Steele toiled through 2004, when he and his wife, Barbara, began testing soil in the Applegate Valley. They discovered that the terroir of this particular slice of Southern Oregon was remarkably similar to the Rhône region of France. The Steeles planted their first grapes in 2005 and now are known for rich Rhône-style wines, as well as for a rigorous biodynamic ethic. The wines they make are elegant, earthy, and vibrant, with a sense of the soil they come from. $10 tasting; 1665 Eastside Rd.; cowhornwine.com. We recommend: Cowhorn 2014 “Spiral 36” White (Applegate Valley, Oregon; $28).
The Haul. We’re touting wine here, but let’s not forget beer. Southern Oregon has hops too! And you can taste those hops put to their best use at this straight-out-of-Portland gastropub featuring live music, housemade-soda fountain—and about a dozen American and Belgian-style microbrews on tap. Most of the beers come from Applegate Valley’s Conner Fields Brewing; the excellent food is the product of Rogue Valley food truck–catering company Fulcrum Dining. $$; 121 S.W. H St.; thehaulgp.com.
Paul O’Brien Winery. Scott O’Brien Kelley ditched the big-name wine countries to join forces with his longtime buddy Dyson Paul DeMara at what some call “the next great wine region”—aka the Umpqua Valley. With its marine influence, crazy mix of microclimates and soil types, and ability to grow cool-climate grapes like Pinot, Chardonnay, and Riesling (and ripen bigger reds like Syrah, Merlot, and Tempranillo), this northerly valley is the most diverse AVA in an already diverse region. The friends work with grapes from eight Umpqua growers to produce Old World–style Chardonnay–Pinot Blanc blends, spicy Tempranillos, and single-vineyard Pinot Noirs. $10 tasting; 609 S.E. Pine St.; paulobrienwines.com. We recommend: Paul O’Brien 2013 “Cask 11” Tempranillo (Umpqua Valley; $36).