The berries are ripe and the wines are wonderful in Oregon

Bonnie Henderson and Sara Schneider

Willamette Valley travel planner: restaurants, wine tasting, guest cottages, and more

Gathering Together Farm isn't on the main highway, but it's easyto find. From Philomath, just take Fern Road over the Marys Riverto Grange Hall Road, and hang a right at the sunflowers. The farmis expecting you ― you and the other fortunate few withreservations for one of Gathering Together's twice-monthly seasonalSunday brunches. Settle at a table on the covered porch, look outover the garden, and wait for the main course: crêpes withcaramelized onions and a medley of heirloom summer squash, all ofthe produce picked that morning.

This is July in Oregon's Willamette Valley ― hot, sunnydays when everything seems to be in season: all the berries, thetree fruits, the tomatoes and early corn. The valley has long beena source of plenty, shipping hops and wine grapes across thecountry. But the best of the best ― like the super-sweet Hoodand Totem strawberries, or the superb wines produced by winemakerslonger on passion than on marketing muscle ― never leave thevalley. To experience them, you just have to be here.

"We live in the best place in theworld for food"

The Willamette Valley stretches along the Willamette River southfrom Portland to Eugene, the river curling through gentle landscapedotted with a few biggish towns ― Eugene, Corvallis ―and many more tiny ones like Philomath and Sublimity.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of travelers zoom through hereon Interstate 5. But you don't want to do that. Instead, wind downthe east side on State 213, or the west side on State 99W, throughrolling open farmland punctuated with stands selling local produce― places like Fresh to You Produce and Garden Center, withits better-than-homemade marionberry jam, or Red Ridge Farms, withmore than 100 varieties of lavender.

In downtown Albany, Matt Bennett, chef-owner of Sybaris, startsSaturday night dinner prep at 8 a.m. by walking across the streetto Albany's little weekly farmers' market. No white asparagus thisday, but he knows he'll find it just down the road at the Corvallismarket. Along with fava beans.

"They're very time consuming," he explains on the drive toCorvallis, past green fields and the white humps of greenhouses."You really can't afford to pay someone to shell them, then blanchthem, then slip off their leathery skins, all before you actuallycook them." So he does it all himself: "Fava beans mean summer tome."

No restaurateur in the Willamette Valley has been dealingdirectly with farmers longer than chef Stephanie Pearl Kimmel ofEugene's Marché restaurant. Thirty-five years ago, she openedher first restaurant ― and quickly realized how limited thelocal produce selection was for chefs. The only way to getradicchio, it seemed, was to smuggle in seeds from France ―so she did, handing them over to a local farmer. When it came up,he tasted the unfamiliar bitter green and judged the experiment afailure.

"He plowed it all under before I even got a chance to taste it,"she recalls with a laugh.

While Kimmel still slips seeds into her suitcase, the varietyand quality of Willamette Valley produce keeps getting better, shesays. "Just the diversity ― all the different tomatoes,lettuce, peppers ― is astonishing," she says. "I think rightnow we live in the best place in the world for food."

Not far away, the Territorial Highway southwest of Eugene willtake you to a July dinner at King Estate Winery. Even the drive ismemorable: the low-angled sun heightening the broad and still-greenpastures. Suddenly the winery's silhouette, like that of a Tuscanvilla, appears on the hilltop ahead.

Executive chef Michael Landsberg, a veteran of high-profilekitchens from New York to Los Angeles, landed here a few months agoafter a stint at Marché. It's the next logical step; all thewine served here is made on the premises, and at the peak ofharvest, at least three-quarters of the produce served at lunch anddinner comes from gardens just a few steps down the hill from therestaurant.

"The greenhouses and acreage on the estate, the commitment tosustainability," he recites, seeming to count his blessings. "Icouldn't ask for anything more."

A search for the earth's signature inwine

This is a special time for Willamette Valley wine too. As localfarmers were learning their radicchio 30 years ago, a handful ofpioneering winemakers staked out the Willamette Valley for PinotNoir. Now, a new generation of intrepid individualists have startedtheir own tiny but often exciting operations.

It's the fava-bean mentality and more ― a preference fordoing all the work themselves. "I saw the difference betweenproduction winemaking and hands-on crafting," says John Grochau,who produces his own Pinot ― full of dark berries, warmspices, and firm tannins ― along with the slightly softer,drink-now Pinot he makes for Aramenta Cellars up on Ribbon Ridge atthe top of the valley.

"We're after the earth's signature, a sense of place," explainsBrad McLeroy, who, with his wife, Kathleen, left their wine retailbusiness to start Ayres Vineyard & Winery in 2001. "Garagewine" is no cliché for them; the McLeroys work and pour underher parents' house. A sip of their vibrant 2006 Pinot Blanc is likea glass of lemonade at a stand for grown-ups.

Over in the old white barn where Jim Prosser juggles hiswinemaking, you're surrounded by the orchards of SpringbrookHazelnut Farm. It's not the environment Prosser imagined as hisdestiny, what with a degree in finance and a corporate career. Butcrises, business and personal, landed him on a decision-makingbicycle trip across the country from Boston. And that ended atcrush time at Erath Vineyards (whose founder, Dick Erath, was oneof the original Pinot pioneers in the valley), with low pay, nobenefits, and a huge smile on his face.

Prosser credits his mentors at Erath and Drouhin and other bighouses he worked in for his handle on the nuances of Pinot Noir,"that hard-to-get woman." But he has a surprising fondness for theshoestring that he now runs his own J.K. Carriere label on."Without capital, you can't manipulate wine too much, and the landcomes through," Prosser says. "I'm not going to become a Microsoftmillionaire from this. But I can buy a couple of pairs of Levi's ayear ― and some skis."

A warren of relationships, shared spaces, and expertise launchescreative winemakers in the valley. The winemaking spaces themselvesare often creative. In the hayloft over Jim Prosser's barrels, thebones of a Norse "soul boat" ― the work of artist LarryKirkland ― hang, silent paddles moving an invisible someoneoff to Valhalla.

As you stand, sipping Prosser's excellent Pinots, you may feelthat the ghost in the boat is a gratuitous one. After all, Prosserand his neighbor winemakers and farmers and chefs have alreadyfound their Valhalla. Right here. On a sweet July day, you may findit in the Willamette Valley too.

Willamette Valley travel planner: restaurants, wine tasting, guest cottages, and more

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