Once the middle of nowhere, this locale is now the heart of Oregon wine country
written by James Sinks
Fifty years ago, the editors of Sunset Books published an eighty-page Travel Guide to Oregon, chockablock with maps, photos, and lists of the Beaver State’s can’t-miss destinations, from the coast to Timberline to Hells Canyon.
In it, there’s no mention of anything in McMinnville. Not even a suggestion to tap the brakes.
What a difference a half century, and a few hundred wineries, can make.
Today, McMinnville is the epicenter of Oregon’s wine world, and the home to 34,466 people now is a leading fixture on recommended tourist itineraries, including international bucket list destinations for aficionados.
Head into the rolling countryside in any direction and you’ll find vineyards next to vineyards, and vintners ready with stories, appetizers and cuvées. The city hosts the ritzy International Pinot Noir Celebration every summer. And downtown, you can’t even throw a tantrum without hitting a tasting room.
With that in mind, it’s perfectly acceptable to book a getaway here solely to be a wannabe sommelier—especially in late autumn when the annual crush has finished, and even the smallest of wineries throw open their doors. That said, McMinnville also invites you to set down that snifter. In-between sips and swirls, the quiet and quirky hamlet can keep you plenty busy or not busy at all, whether you enjoy leisurely walks, whimsy or whiskey.
From the you-won’t-see-this-anywhere-else department, visit the legendary Spruce Goose seaplane and—if you’re a basketball fan, TikTok videographer, or serial car test-driver—there’s Damian Lilliard Toyota, the only dealership co-owned by the Portland Trailblazers all star. He’s not typically there, however, as he has a second job this time of year.
Once part of the ancestral range of the Yamel Indian Tribe, the city was platted in 1855 by William T. Newby, of McMinnville, Tenn., who’d claimed the land after trekking west across the Oregon Trail. It’s not known how long it took him to come up with the creative name for his new Oregon town.
Newby built the city’s first commercial structure, a mill, on what would become Third Street. The mill is long gone, but on that historic-registered avenue today you can mill amongst boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and pubs, a subterranean tea shop, upscale hotels and an old time ice cream parlor with a player piano—all of them under a canopy of twinkling fairy lights in the trees overhead.
It’s alluring enough that the folks at Sunset—who’ve located McMinnville since that vintage travel guide—in 2017 named it the best Main Street in the Western United States.
ERRATIC ROCK • FUDGE • UFOS
People love talking about dirt in wine country. A lot. After all, the ground is a big part of what makes vintages outstanding, versus merely pedestrian. And they’ve got great dirt in and around McMinnville, including a bunch of reddish Jory, which is like a dirt celebrity and was decreed the state soil by the Legislature in 2011.
It’s like a gift from the geological gods to your glass.
With geology in mind, a good vantage to begin your adventure awaits at Erratic Rock State Natural Area, just west of town. Here, a half-mile walk uphill takes you to a ninety-ton flat-topped rock that hitchhiked from the Rocky Mountains on an iceberg more than 10,000 years ago.
From the top, there’s a great view of the patchwork quilt of the valley floor below, and it’s a good backdrop for photos of anyone in your traveling party who might have a bit of their own erratic going on. (It’s also a good idea to climb on things before you start drinking, which is next.)
Every Oregon winery founder has a story. They usually don’t involve escaping the Iranian Revolution, but that’s how Moe Momtazi and his wife started the journey that eventually brought them to a former wheat farm near McMinnville in the 1990s.
Today, the family’s Maysara winery—where grapes are cultivated using a “biodynamic” method that employs organic natural teas instead of chemicals—is truly a family affair: One of his three daughters is now the winemaker, and the others sell it. As with many wineries in the area, reservations are required.
You know how some people can get stone-faced, especially after drinking? Just down the road, you can see what it’s like when rocks are people-faced. Grimacing stonework is just one part of the eclectic outdoor collection at the Mason-Rivera Sculpture Garden and Art Gallery, where there’s also a gift shop for holiday browsing and hand warming.
Round out the afternoon at the Monastery of the Brigittine Monks, which offers a sneak preview of what it’s like in heaven. Yes, there’s stained glass and church services, but there’s also a confectionery where the monks melt chocolate and sugar into decadent fudge and truffles to sell around the world. At least, they can ship what doesn’t end up in your mouth.
Downtown, the rooms at the venerable McMenamins Hotel Oregon are named after noteworthy real-life local places and people, including Abigail Scott Duniway, the woman’s suffrage advocate who lived in nearby Lafayette. And then there’s the UFO Room.
The city gets some of its contemporary cachet from a reported flying saucer sighting in 1950. Fictional or no, the extraterrestrial encounter has been celebrated since 1999 with a circus-like festival every May. All year, there’s an alien painted on the sidewalk out front.
For dinner and drinks and maybe more dirt talk, burrow into a coat and stroll down Third Street past the alien and under the twinkling lights to farm-to-table hotspot Humble Spirit. The wine list is international and the American-style menu is rewritten daily, based partly on what’s growing nearby. Another thing that’s growing, you might remark, is your affinity for McMinnville.
WINE TASTING • WHISKEY • OLIVE OIL
Long before the wine tour vans arrived, McMinnville was known as Oregon’s Walnut City. Celebrating that bygone era, the upscale Atticus Hotel—which ranks among the nation’s top places to stay in wine country, according to USA Today—has a replica in its lobby of a walnut-filled archway that was once a centerpiece of a Seattle marketing effort.
These days in local orchards, you’re far more likely to find hazelnuts. And at the Atticus, you’re certain to find a terrific breakfast.
The Red Hills Kitchen is a spinoff from the popular Red Hills Market, in nearby Dundee. Instead of grab-and-go fare, however, the hotel location invites you to sit and savor. Think whiskey-imbued bacon, pastrami jalapeno hash, and housemade cinnamon donuts with warm chocolate sauce.
A nap would be justified, but it can wait. Grab java at local roasters Flag & Wire in the up-and-coming Granary District. If you have a padlock handy, and who doesn’t, you can add it to the “locks of love” artwork in the parking lot. It’s easy to find because it says “Love” on it.
Just minutes away, the hills in Dayton are home to some of Oregon’s most familiar pinot noir labels, including Domaine Serene, Stoller and Sokol Blosser, each of them with striking tasting rooms and very good dirt. But they’re not the only shows in town.
Tucked amid the same slopes you’ll find lesser-known vintners making a breadth of varietals, such as unpretentious Remy Wines, opened in a farmhouse by a lesbian winemaker who is a onetime McMinnville City Councilor.
If you’re ready for a wine break, sample artisan whiskey at Branch Point Distillery, where the tastings can come with mini mixed drinks. And if you want to give your liver a rest—and that’s not unusual come midday—Dayton also is home to the Northwest’s only olive oil-pressing facility, known as an Olioteca.
In 2004, the Durant family—also one of the first wine-growing families in the region—decided to plant olive trees on part of their property as an experiment, said wholesale associate and tour guide Jeff Rainoldi. To the initial surprise of just about everybody, including arborists, some were hardy enough to make it in Oregon. Now there are 17 acres of trees.
Durant offers a sit-down tasting of oils or you can try the lineup—including Spanish, Italian, lemon, and jalapeño, augmented by flavored vinegars—at the gift shop. To get the best flavor? “Slurp with conviction,” Raindoldi advised. “But not the vinegar. Don’t slurp the vinegar.”
Like wine, the harvest season for olives is late fall. In mid-November, Durant hosts an Olio Nuovo Festival—with Italian music, pitchers of freshly squeezed oil, and yes, wine.
Finish at La Rambla Restaurant, where your Spanish wine will want to be accompanied by the patatas bravas with Calabrian chili butter and flavorful paella. It won’t be easy, but save room for the churros. After dinner, duck into the 100-year-old Blue Moon Lounge, with a neon marquee out front, tall leather booths and pinball in the back. It’s cash only. Or, if video games and quarters are more your style, at Joysticks Arcade there’s beer, Pac-Man, carpal tunnel exercises, and laughing.
MORNING STROLL • LOCAL EATS • SPRUCE GOOSE
Joe Dancer was the first city manager for McMinnville—and he was liked so much they named a park along the South Yamhill River after him. After walking or jogging the well-maintained 1.5-mile footpath, you’ll have your own positive vibes about him, too. Also, there’s a skate park, if your bones haven’t been broken for a while and you miss that feeling.
Since 2011, Community Plate has been serving up local meats, duck and chicken eggs, and house-made rolls and bread to happy and hungry lines of breakfast clientele in a bright and airy downtown spot. You’ll be even happier when the Bloody Marys and pork belly breakfast burritos have arrived.
The restaurant is a good staging ground for exploring the retail bonanza on Third Street, between the tasting rooms. Thirsty? Head underground to Velvet Monkey Tea Bar, where they have more than 100 varieties of loose leaf teas, plus chocolates, bubble tea and lemonade. It’s a perfect place to make blends in low places.
In 1947 in southern California’s Long Beach Harbor, the then-largest wingspan airplane in the world—a mammoth wooden seaplane dubbed the “Spruce Goose”—made its one and only flight, for about 30 seconds. Built by eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, the flying boat was envisioned as a World War II heavy cargo carrier—but ended up being mostly a tourist attraction. In the early 1990s, it was dismantled and moved to McMinnville, where it was reassembled as the centerpiece of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum.
The museum, which has survived recent financial turbulence, is also home to a collection of fighter planes, a NASA Titan rocket, and a SR-31 Blackbird, a Cold War-era reconnaissance jet that could fly an astonishing 2,100 miles per hour. A planetarium is on the drawing board. And if you feel energetic and too dry, hit the waterslides next door at the Wings & Waves Waterpark.
Before departing Oregon’s wine country, make a final stop where it began and pay homage, glass in hand, to the pioneering family credited with starting it all. The late David Lett—known as “Papa Pinot”—first started planting vines in the 1960s and in 1970 opened a winery in a converted turkey processing facility in McMinnville. The tasting room is still there.
In 1979, a Pinot Noir from Lett’s The Eyrie Vineyards put Oregon on the international map at the world Olympics of wine in Paris, besting established French Burgundy labels. The family’s organic wines have been winning medals regularly ever since, as have many of the other local wineries that followed in the Letts’ dirty footsteps.
Today—and everyday, really—that’s worth a toast.
Flag & Wire Coffee
Red Hills Kitchen
McMenamin’s Hotel Oregon
Vintages Trailer Resort
Branch Point Distillery
Brigittine Monks Monastery
Durant Olive Mill
Erratic Rock State Natural Site
Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum
The Eyrie Vineyards
Mason Rivera Sculpture Garden
Thanksgiving in Wine Country
Thanks for the comment on Joe Dancer. He was my Father-in-Law and a wonderful public servant who helped make McMinnville what it is today. The Park is a fitting tribute to him.