What Is Cellar Season?
Four Reasons To Add Willamette Valley to Your Bucket List
Mist slowly rolls down from the verdant hills, across sleeping vines, until everything I see is enveloped in a wispy grey shimmer. Somehow it’s not at all dreary, just ethereal and otherworldly. A smooth, fruit-forward sip of light-bodied pinot noir swirls in my mouth.
This is Cellar Season in Oregon’s premiere wine region, the long and winding Willamette Valley, that stretches from hipster haven Portland in the north to college town USA Eugene in the south. The 150-mile valley is not just Oregon’s best known wine producing area but one of the foremost destinations for New World wine.
Like most wine cultivation hotspots, Willamette (pronounced like damn it, so “will-am-it”) is busiest during the harvest, or crush season. In Oregon, that generally falls between late September and extends through early November depending on the year. While grape stomping and other crush-time fun can surely be had in the fall, I always prefer to travel during the off-season. In Willamette Valley, that means I planned a “Cellar Season” excursion last year before the world blew up. Beginning with the dawn of the New Year and extending until the spring blooms, this season offers the perfect relaxing wine country experience. There’s no hustle and bustle during Cellar Season, and visitors can expect wide open country roads, one-on-one discussions with winemakers, and tranquil tasting rooms. So if you live in Oregon, now’s the time to pay your favorite vineyards a visit. They need it! As of December third, they opened up for on-site consumption (maximum 50 people in total, 6 in a group, and up to two households represented). If you live outside of Oregon, Willamette is just the place to add to your Cellar Season bucket list as soon as you are comfortable traveling again.
Below are my four favorite reasons to visit Oregon’s Willamette Valley during Cellar Season.
It’s cheaper (and less crowded!)
As previously mentioned, traveling to Willamette during the first quarter of the year offers a quieter, more subdued atmosphere. Winemakers are fresh from the latest vintage and ready to tackle another year of cultivation. A peaceful yet exciting sense of renewal unfolds. Plus, since it’s not peak season, flights to nearby Portland, the closest large airport, are generally more affordable. Additionally, accommodations like area hotels and bed and breakfasts are often discounted during this season. That wiggle room means more space in the budget for joining wine clubs, fine dining or spa retreats, and an overall more indulgent trip without breaking the bank.
There are cool special events.
As we inch back toward normality, Cellar Season will once again offer some big draws in terms of unique event options. Lange Estate Winery & Vineyards near Dundee shines this time of year with their Winter Wine Dinner Series, which exalts both the wine scene and talented local chefs. Seasonal festivals also delight, such as the Oregon Chardonnay Celebration. In fact, on my trip, I learned that Oregon Chardonnay’s are becoming better and better known. I’d call Chardonnay the unofficial queen of Willamette, with Pinot Noir remaining its undisputed king. According to a winemaker I visited with, last year was the very first year that more new Chardonnay grapes were planted than Pinot Noir.
The multi-weekend Oregon Truffle Festival extravaganza also delights during Cellar Season, while learning opportunities like the foundational See, Smell, Sip series at Brooks provide wine knowledge and additional reasons to visit during the off time of year.
Hello. Willamette Valley boasts over 650 wineries and 800 vineyards.
This is more than either Sonoma or Napa Valley, two other celebrated New World wine areas. With all these options, Willamette offers unlimited wine tasting opportunities. While this technically means you can visit all year, the one on one attention from vintners means Cellar Season is a sure winner for both newbie oenophiles and seasoned veterans. The region even has eight different officially recognized American Viticultural Areas (or
AVAs). This simply means a grape-growing area with unique geographical and cultural features, according to the James-Beard award winning site Wine Folly. The AVA system dates back to the early 1980’s and helps to classify and categorize wine. It’s also noteworthy to mention that for a wine to utilize the AVA label, 85% of the grapes in that wine need to be from the AVA. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, eight such AVA’s exist. They include the original AVA that was recognized in 1983, the Willamette Valley AVA. Other area AVAs include Ribbon Ridge, the brand new Van Duzer Corridor, Yamhill-Carlton, Chehalem Mountains, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, and Dundee Hills. Every AVA has its own unique distinctions, so visit multiple, sample all the wine, and find your favorites. Staff in tasting rooms, winemakers, and restaurant sommeliers can all help explain the differences and properties of each AVA to make your trip more well-rounded.
There’s so much more to do in the Valley than just drink wine.
While the main focus of my vacation to Oregon was wine, I was also able to enjoy a ton of other activities. From a vibrant farm to table dining scene (offering outdoor options), to an elevated spa experience, to hiking among the waterfalls, Willamette Valley impresses for multiple reasons. The cute town of Newberg is home to the stunning, 30+ acre Allison Inn & Spa property. Stop in for Pacific Northwest-inspired body treatments like the Grapeseed Cure with its grapeskin scrub or the Deep Forest Escape featuring juniper and pine oils. Other regional highlights include the so-called star of the Oregon state parks system, Silver Falls State Park. This park is also the state’s largest park and offers hikers the chance to explore behind a waterfall as part of the popular “Trail of Ten Falls” 7 mile loop. Visitors to Willamette Valley should also be sure to work up an appetite between wine tasting, with delicious eateries like Thistle and Tina’s that are sure to delight. A plethora of cool brewing operations also call the Valley home, so consider visits to Wolves & People, Santiam, or the Benedictine Brewery. It’s easy to see that while any time of year is gorgeous in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, there is something special about Cellar Season.
Disclaimer: Writer was hosted by Willamette Valley Visitors Association but all opinions remain her own.
Katy is a freelance food and travel writer who splits her time between her Minnesotan homeland and her new base in Omaha, Nebraska. Her passions include spending time at the lake, cooking, traveling, reading, brunching, and thrifting. Besides Wine4Food, she has contributed to Travel+Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, The New York Times, Eating Well, and more. Connect with Katy on instagram @katysjoyce