written by Kevin Max | photos by Tim LaBarge
In 1950, creatures from another world selected McMinnville, Oregon, planet Earth as a place of curiosity and research. Their vehicle was nearly thirty feet in diameter and shaped like a flying saucer or a garbage can lid. If it weren’t for Mr. and Mrs. Paul Trent out feeding the rabbits on their farm that day, this foray would have gone unobserved by humans, and the saucer pilots would have quietly collected data before reporting back their observations.
Opposite the page of TIME magazine’s account of the incident “Farmer Trent’s Flying Saucer” was a bowl of Franco-American Spaghetti from a can, claiming, “Thousands prefer it to the home-cooked kind!” Outlandish!
Sixty-three years later in the fertile McMinnville area, thousands prefer home cooking with the abundance of local foods. During harvest and holiday season, McMinnville is a chef ’s kitchen—fresh flowers, tomatoes, local goat cheese, melons, fresh baguettes, peppers, pumpkin sausage and local wine. There’s no better time to be in the Willamette Valley.
Named after the Tennessee hometown of its founder, William T. Newby, McMinnville has become known for UFOs, food and wine. For our stay, we’ll triple-down on the latter two, bring bikes for excursions and wives for entertainment.
Despite all the reasons to rush there—foodie paradise, small-town fantasy, etc.—McMinnville should be approached slowly through wine country. There’s much to sip and do. Driving from either direction on Highway 99, you’ll find countless wineries in this fertile crescent.
From the north, there is Adelsheim and Arborbrook in the Chehalem Mountains American Viticultural Area, or AVA, along with Domaine Drouhin, Eyrie Vineyards and Torii Mor in the Dundee Hills. On a jog west into the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, there’s Ann Amie, Willakenzie and Elk Cove wineries. Coming from the south there is Left Coast Cellars, Cristom Vineyards, Cubanismo and Bethel Heights, among many others. Trying to choose just one to visit before dinner is a cruel experiment in self control.
Bethel Heights’ young winemakers and cousins, Mimi and Ben Casteel, are now well in control of operations at the winery their families started in 1977. This tasting goes well.
Wives (really all significant others) are expressly useful in wine country. They are great conversationalists, often make informed comments about wine (at least the whites) and are persuasive governors of moderation. Without them, wine tasting loses its bouquet.
My wife tells me that I’m going to lose out on more than that if we don’t get moving toward dinner.
In the immediate McMinnville area, there are a few good lodging options. There’s Hotel Oregon from the McMenamins collection in a 1905-built classic brick four-storied corner building. There are a couple of B&Bs, The Allison Inn, an eco-friendly LEED-certified Newberg boutique hotel with a spa to end all spas and a world-class farm-to-table restaurant.
In the heart of McMinnville are the lesser-known Third Street Flats. These are four small apartments designed for culinary hunters and gatherers, people who want to kidnap the area’s bounty, and bring it back to their kitchens to have their way with it.
In an 1885 Italianate building, these pieds-à-terre are well conceived after a renovating design challenge between local interior designers. While they are decorated and furnished differently, they all have bamboo floors, recycled countertops and New Zealand wool carpets. The flats are perfect for a multiday visit.
A short drive up Highway 99 to Newberg puts us at The Allison Inn. Jory, the restaurant at the inn, ranks as one of Oregon’s top culinary experiences. It’s the aggregator of all that’s good in Willamette Valley, from local pork and chanterelles to garden squash and heirloom tomatoes. With its open kitchen design, you can witness the artistry of chef Sunny Jin and pastry chef Shelly Toombs.
My wife gets a white wine and realizes her folly the moment our waiter serves up my flight of Oregon Pinots—a hopscotch across four Willamette Valley AVAs. For our mains, we shared the Yukon gold gnocchi gratin and the Pacific halibut with wheatberry risotto.
Dessert is a slice of warm dark chocolate Pinot cake drizzled with raspberry- citrus compote. The entire evening is an étude in perfection.
Every good day I can recall began with a run. This one will be no exception. We light out from Third Street Flats to Joe Dancer Park, just east of town and along the banks of the Yamhill River. It’s not an epic trail system but offers a cushy bark path that meanders through the woods. Runners who want a little more terrain can head to the Coastal Range, only a few miles east with more miles of trails to plunder.
McMinnville’s Farmers’ Market runs from May until mid-October. This is the area’s cornucopia and the edible expression of local soil. Open Thursdays from 1 p.m. until 6 p.m., farmers, ranchers and growers bring their best to market. It also turns out to take place at Third and Cowls, conveniently in front of Third Street Flats.
We abscond back to our apartment with bread, goat cheese and wine from R. Stuart & Co. Wine Bar to click away next to each other on our laptops. Ah, la digital vie bohème.
Around the corner on Third Street lies the face of intrigue for wives who have had midday glasses of wine. France has its boulangeries, patisseries and baguetteries. Downtown McMinnville is bustling with boutiqueries.
Before I’m clear on the rules, my wife launches into a game of boutique hide and seek in which I stroll up and down the street looking through windows while she goes into shops such as Mes Amies, Cupcake Couture and La Bella Casa. The objective, I gather, is for me to wander while she disguises herself behind a progressive wall of bags from these shops.
Farther down the street in the industrial “Pinot Ghetto,” the brand new Grain Station Brew Works is just opening to the public. Back on Third Street, I could see the staff of Nick’s Italian Café preparing for another evening at one of the Willamette Valley’s top dinner traditions. There will be antipasti, and zuppa followed by lasagna with Oregon Dungeness crab. At Walnut City Kitchen, citrus-roasted beets served with twice-braised short ribs are on the menu. Around the corner on Evans Street, Thistle Restaurant and Bar is holding our table and our high expectations for the evening.
Out of the bar in the back, the bartender mixes us drinks based on our spirit preferences—bourbon for me and gin for her. Both are amazing and creative libations.
Eric Bechard and partner Emily Howard have brought a heightened passion to the locavore movement in Oregon with a menu drawn from a network of nearby farms, oysters from Netarts Bay, and pork and beef sourced from local ranches.
The food at Thistle is a wonderful exhibition of what young, talented chefs can do with Oregon’s bounty.
Chanterelles are thriving on the floor of the Coastal Range this time of year. A friend of ours brought us a bag full of freshly picked chanterelles from his morning hike. Later, back home, we would fry them in butter and salt and bake them into a breakfast casserole with herbed goat cheese.
Now though, we’re out taking in the riches of McMinnville bakeries. Next to Hotel Oregon, Red Fox Bakery is serving savory croissants and fig galettes, all made of ingredients from farms no more than an arm’s length away.
In huge block letters above its entry, Community Plate is broadcasting COMMUNITY. It’s Friday and there’s a buzz erupting around McMinnville. Like Red Fox, like Thistle, like nearly all of downtown’s eateries, foods from local farms are the order of the day. Community Plate’s interior is country simple with a line of lunch counter stools, yet conversationfriendly with big wooden tables. I opt for the heritage pork hash and an egg scramble with local vegetables.
After a record-long breakfast for us, we hit the small, independent Third Street Books across the street. In an era that is increasingly overrun with chain bookstores, it’s refreshing to see a thriving local shop. One of my recent favorites, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, is a staff pick.
We leave McMinnville by its northern route on the way home for one last terroir-to-tongue farewell—a curated wine tasting built around Pinots and local food at one of Oregon’s oldest wineries, Adelsheim Vineyard in Newberg.
As we drive home, we laugh at the presence of our unused bikes in the back of the car.
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