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Oregon's Trailblazers

Take a tour of the Beaver State's diverse wine regions.


Oregon's Trailblazers

The bountiful state of Oregon is diverse in terrain and weather, from its dry, high desert prairies to its lush, green hills and rain-blessed valleys. This geological diversity, coupled with the pioneering spirit of the winegrowers and winemakers who live here, has given the state an enviable reputation for producing quality wines. When you count the number of wineries, Oregon is said to be third in the nation. Yet most Oregon producers are small, family-owned operations--yielding relatively small numbers in case production. Only about one-quarter of the total wine produced in Oregon makes it out of the Northwest.

In short, the best way to experience Oregon wine is to visit the source. Fortunately, this is not too difficult since each of wine regions have wineries located an hour's drive or less from an airport. Because in many cases the wineries are strung far apart, you may prefer to leave the driving to someone else once you get there. With an increased consciousness that drinking and driving do not mix, wine country tours have recently become even more popular. But they are not created equal. Large tour buses and vans can seem efficient, and somewhat economically priced, but you sacrifice the intimacy and personal education offered by smaller operations. So choose a region to visit, and before you board the bus, take a look into some of the smaller, more personalized tour operations in the area.

Willamette Valley
This cool climate growing region stretches from Portland in the north to Eugene in the south. You'll find Oregon's greatest concentration of vineyards and wineries in this region, and A Nose for Wine Tour, owned by Fred Gunton. Fred conducts about one hundred wine trail tours per year with the intent to help educate his passengers and get a little dirt on their boots. He uses elevated vehicles (small vans or mini-vans) for his tours because he takes you right out into the vineyards. The vineyard manager, or winemaker, or owner--who might easily be one and the same--often greets wine tourers. "When a customer calls to arrange a tour, we learn what kinds of wines they like, and what kind of experience they desire," Fred explains. Some tours are a simple day in wine country, where others are more in-depth, offering lunch or dinner. He offers custom tours and tours with themes such as "The Hidden Gems of Oregon" where guests visit wineries that are still under the radar, producing premium wines, often available only at the winery. The popular "Three AVAs Tour" enlightens guests, when they taste firsthand the difference a Pinot Noir's terroir can make.

Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge
Sixty miles east of Portland, through the Columbia River Gorge, the Cascade Mountains, and Mount Hood, the land and air go from moist to arid in a very short distance. Phil and Christi Duvic, newlyweds and owners of Hood River Tours, were the first to start a tour operation in the area that focuses on wine. They pick parties up from their hotels and treat them to personalized four- to five-hour tours, including a carefully prepared lunch. "We want our guests to relax and have fun," Christi says. "The wineries are glad to see them and most of the time they will get to talk to the owner. It's a great way for people to come out and get started wine tasting." The Duvics keep the tour size small. They take groups of up to 14 people in a passenger van, and up to six people in a mini-van for parties who don't know each other. And because Hood River and The Dalles are so close in proximity yet so different in soil and climate, they find it easy to demonstrate the importance of terroir. "The Barberas and Syrahs coming out of The Dalles area are really great. And the Hood River seems to have something for every palate," Christi says. "It's a great place to discover."

Umpqua Valley
Further south in the Umpqua Valley, the climate is warmer and dryer, and the rugged, pothole-like terrain produces a variety of micro-climates--and grapes. H. Bruce Smith and his wife, Diane, own Oregon Wine Country Tours, which takes guests on informative tours of the Umpqua Valley. "Since our climate is warmer than the Willamette Valley we grow Cabernet, Tempranillo, and Syrah." The Umpqua Valley is a long, narrow AVA, 35 miles wide, basically running north and south along Interstate 5 through Douglas County. "The wineries are spread out here, so you travel a bit in between," says Bruce, who drove a school bus for five years. But look out the window. The countryside is beautiful. And wine tourers learn a lot from their guide between stops. Information about the local wines and tips on how to taste them are shared, and before one knows it, they've arrived at the next winery.

Applegate and Rogue Valleys
In southern Oregon, Julia "Jules" Jones (owner of Jules of the Valley Wine Tours) conducts personalized tours of wineries in the Applegate and Rogue Valleys. Wine tourers particularly enjoy the winding rural drive to the Applegate Valley, where the wineries are situated in picturesque spots along the Applegate River. Jules brings along fresh, organic lunches from Summer Jo's in Grants Pass to be enjoyed at one of the wineries. Or, if her guests prefer, she'll take them to Cantrell State Park for a picnic on the bank of the river. "The climate here is similar to the Bordeaux region of France," Jules explains. "People are excited to find great Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other French varietals--and Tempranillo, too." Wineries in the Rogue Valley are located in a more urban setting where there are several delightful restaurants, and depending on their tastes, Jules selects one to take her guests to for lunch.

Throughout the state of Oregon, the diversity of climate, terrain, and wines promise new discoveries each time you venture out. And, when guided by someone who knows the lay of the land, a thing or two about the wines that grow there, and, most importantly, a bit about you and your tastes, you are bound to get the most from your wine touring experience.

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