A visit to the Dundee Hills is a visit to the soul of Oregon wine country.
While not quite the oldest region in the modern Oregon wine industry — the Umpqua Valley holds that distinction — these hills with the red-tinted dirt hold the state's history in their purple-stained hands. Here is where people with names such as Lett, Erath and Sokol Blosser planted Pinot Noir and built a new industry in ancient soils.
In the mid-1960s, David Lett arrived here from California. Three decades after Prohibition had laid waste to any kind of Oregon wine industry, Lett set out to rebuild it. He put Pinot Noir in the ground in 1966, making it the oldest in the Willamette Valley. They thought he was crazy, that wine grapes shouldn't be grown in such a seemingly cold, wet place. That they shouldn't be planted north of California.
But Lett was a visionary — and a stubborn one at that — and he proved to all that Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay could thrive out here on the edge of viticultural viability.
Others followed. In 1968, Dick Erath came north from California and a year later planted 23 varieties of wine grapes here. He learned what we all now know: Pinot Noir loves the iron-rich soils of the Dundee Hills.
In 1971, Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol Blosser arrived, planting their grapes near the town of Dayton and solidified the region as a viable wine industry.
In 1979, The Eyrie Vineyards 1975 South Block Pinot Noir by Lett showed well in the Wine Olympiad in Paris. This led famed Burgundian winemaker Robert Drouhin to buy land and establish Domaine Drouhin Oregon in the 1980s — and that put Oregon on the global wine map.
Of the six American Viticultural Areas in the northern Willamette Valley, the Dundee Hills has the richest history and is, perhaps, the most easily defined. The Pinot Noirs here are distinctive from all others, thanks to bright red flavors backed by acidity that bursts across the palate and tannins that lift the fruit and get out of the way so it can Lindy Hop across the palate.
A long weekend here in the heart of Oregon wine country — a mere 45 minutes from downtown Portland — will be 72 hours of superb wine, delicious food and luxurious comfort amid winding roads and glorious discoveries.
The Dundee Hills is home to no fewer than three dozen wineries and tasting rooms, and they generally break down into three areas: downtown Dundee, the hills above town and the wineries south of Dundee near the towns of Dayton and Lafayette.
With so many wineries in a concentrated area, it makes the task of dividing your three-day visit a bit easier, though you'll be able to visit perhaps a third of the region's wineries in that span. While space limits us from writing about every winery in the region, refer to www.dundeehills.org for a complete list.
The most difficult task of navigating downtown Dundee is the near-constant traffic on Highway 99W, which runs through the center of town. The good news is a long-talked-about bypass highway that could virtually eliminate the problem is under construction. The bad news is it probably won't open until late 2016.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started in downtown Dundee.
As you enter Dundee from Newberg to the north, the first winery you'll likely see is Duck Pond Cellars. The Fries family opened the winery more than 20 years ago and crafts a wide variety of wines from its Oregon and Washington vineyards.
One of the highlights of downtown Dundee is Argyle Winery, which you will find on the left side of the highway as you travel south. Argyle is famous for its sparkling wines but also crafts delicious still wines, including Pinot Noir and Riesling.
Also along the main drag is Dobbes Family Estate/Wine By Joe, which features the wines of longtime Oregon winemaker Joe Dobbes. He was winemaker at Willamette Valley Vineyards before launching his own brand.
The recently reinvigorated Panther Creek Cellars now has a tasting room in downtown Dundee. The winery was launched by Ken Wright back in the 1980s and has gone through a few ownership changes. Tony Rynders, formerly of Domaine Serene, is the winemaker.
A relative newcomer to the scene is Chapter 24 Vineyards, which already is producing some highly acclaimed Pinot Noirs.
Two wineries from other areas of Oregon that have tasting rooms along Highway 99W are Zerba Cellars from the Walla Walla Valley and Cathedral Ridge in Hood River.
Up in the hills
When you're ready to get away from the traffic, it's time to head for the hills. Turn right (if you're heading south through town) on Southwest Ninth Street, which ultimately becomes Northeast Worden Hill Road. It won't take more than a few minutes to be amid the serenity of trees, and vineyards.
Maresh Red Barn is one of the pioneers in the Dundee Hills. Jim Maresh began planting Pinot Noir in 1970 for Dick Erath, and the family later launched Maresh Red Barn Winery. Today, the family still runs the whole operation and has two wineries: Arterberry Maresh and Powell Hill.
In a region that is often breathtakingly picturesque, Bella Vida Vineyard is among the most photogenic areas of the northern Willamette Valley. Owners Steven and Allison Whiteside focus on Pinot Noir and a refreshing blend of Pinot Gris and Riesling.
South of town
This is a bit of a misnomer, as some of the wineries that are "south of town" actually are up in the hills. But you need to head southwest on Highway 99W to easily access them. And some are pretty close to the highway.
One of the Dundee Hills' original wineries is Sokol Blosser, with vineyards planted starting in 1971 and the first vintage coming in 1977. Today, the second generation has taken over, with siblings Alex Sokol Blosser as co-president and head winemaker and Alison Sokol Blosser as co-president in charge of sales and marketing.
High in the hills, Archery Summit has been crafting some of Oregon's finest Pinot Noirs since 1993, when it was established by the late Gary Andrus. Chris Mazepink is the winemaker, and he uses grapes from six estate vineyards. If you go, it's worth scoring a tour of the caves.
Ken and Grace Evenstad launched Domaine Serene in 1990 and opened its newly built winery 11 years later in the Dundee Hills. The classically crafted wines are made by Erik Kramer, including 2010 Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir which Wine Spectator ranked as the world’s No. 3 wine in 2013.
The Gladhart family has been farming in the Dundee Hills since 1961 and launched Winter's Hill Estate in 1998. Today, Delphine Gladhart is crafting many examples of delicious and award-winning Pinot Noirs.
John and Nancy McClintock began planting grapes in 1997 and opened Vista Hills Vineyard & Winery a decade later. They feature Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, all from estate grapes.
Thanks to its rich history and its place as the center of the Oregon wine industry, Dundee has perhaps the most developed food scene in the northern Willamette Valley (though McMinnville also makes a good argument for that crown). You will find no shortage of great cuisine that focuses on fresh regional ingredients.
Here are a few favorites from which to choose.
The Dundee Bistro, owned by the Ponzi family, has been a mainstay along Highway 99 for more than 15 years with a history of talented chefs. Exquisite food, a superior wine list and classic wine country atmosphere help make the Dundee Bistro a top choice. It is open daily for lunch and dinner.
A new favorite in the Dundee Hills is Red Hills Market, which is just off Highway 99W on Southwest Seventh Street. You'll need a hearty breakfast for a successful day of wine tasting, and Red Hills Market is the place to start, thanks to great food and coffee, and its charcuterie makes for superb lunch options, too. It's open daily until 8 p.m. Red Hills' catering services also have become a favorite with wineries around the region.
A newer eatery in Dundee is Babica Hen Café (which also has a location in Lake Oswego). It's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and serves delicious cuisine, with many of the ingredients coming from its 1.5 acre adjacent garden.
If you want a real sense of Dundee's underbelly — or just prefer a cold beer and a juicy burger — head to Lumpy's, a tavern along Highway 99W. The food is generally delicious, and there's usually a game on the TV.
All of Yamhill County is blessed with perhaps the largest concentration of B&Bs of any semi-rural area in the Pacific Northwest. Many of these inns are in the Dundee area, which means you have many choices on where to stay. Here are just a few to consider:
The Black Walnut Inn and Vineyard is one of the most luxurious inns in our corner of the country. The former plum orchard provides stunning views of the valley below. Today, it is surrounded by a sustainably farmed vineyard, and the breakfast is stunning. Rates start at $200/night.
Stoller Family Estate is not just an award-winning winery. It also offers guesthouses for folks who want to stay in the vineyard and bring family/friends. While not a B&B, the guesthouses do have full kitchens and other facilities. Rates start at $400/night.
Up in the hills not far from Vista Hills is Wine Country Farm B&B, a combination inn, vineyard and tasting room. Rates start at $150/night.
Just a couple of minutes from Highway 99W is the Dundee Manor, a luxurious home built in 1908 that now is a B&B. There are four rooms, with rates starting at $200/night.
While the main focus in Dundee is — and should be — wine, here are a couple of other activities you will undoubtedly enjoy.
Complete your fabulous Oregon wine country experience with cooking classes at the Wine Country Cooking Studio in downtown Dundee, just above Red Hills Market.