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Sommelier Ron Acierto’s Guide to the Willamette Valley

Vineyard with sun peeking from behind hill
Hallo, mein Name ist Georgia!

Georgia Freedman is a freelance journalist and editor based in the Bay Area. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine, Afar, Saveur, Martha Stewart Living, and many other publications and has worked as an editor for national consumer magazines and book publishers. Georgia also writes and co-authors cookbooks and produces the California Table newsletter on Substack.

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Hi, I'm Georgia!

Georgia Freedman is a freelance journalist and editor based in the Bay Area. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine, Afar, Saveur, Martha Stewart Living, and many other publications and has worked as an editor for national consumer magazines and book publishers. Georgia also writes and co-authors cookbooks and produces the California Table newsletter on Substack.

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“The Willamette Valley is one of the luckiest and smallest wine regions in the world,” says Ron Acierto. “We can pretty much grow everything that the rest of the wine regions in the world can grow.”

Acierto, who immigrated from the Philippines as a teenager, has been working in Oregon’s wine scene since 2007, running tasting rooms, building wine lists at some of the region’s best restaurants, and even opening his own Champagne-focused wine bar. Today, he’s the wine and beverage director at Okta, in McMinnville, which Portland Monthly has called, “Oregon wine country’s greatest restaurant, ever.” His wine list at Okta—which highlights local producers—has even been recognized by Wine Spectator with a Best of Award of Excellence.

Over the course of his career, Acierto has developed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the wines made in Oregon—and a deep love of the region that produces them. Here are his recommendations for getting the most out of a trip to the Willamette Valley.

Ron Acierto looking at camera with racks of wine behind
Ron Acierto is the wine and beverage director at McMinnville, Oregon, restaurant, Okta. | Bildquelle: Okta

What to know about Oregon wine country

Oregon has been producing wine since the early 1880s (before the area was incorporated into the United States), and today’s winemaking movement dates back to the 1960s and '70s—the same era when Napa California’s wines took the world by storm. The state boasts a handful of large wine regions, with the Willamette Valley (which alone is home to more than 700 wineries) among the top producers.

Nowadays, the Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a large region, stretching for more than 120 miles (193 kilometers) from north of Portland to the area south of Eugene—and it’s more than 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) across at its widest spot. It also contains 11 sub-AVAs, each with its own distinctive features. Wine is everywhere here—even the mayor of McMinnville, Remy Drabkin, is a well-known winemaker.

The valley is best known as one of the premier pinot noir–producing areas in the world (and also is known for chardonnay), but Acierto points out that an astonishingly wide variety of grapes do well there. Look around, he says, and you’ll find producers growing almost every varietal you can think of—and making wines that mirror the styles made in practically every top wine-growing region across the globe. “We grow everything from nebbiolo to pinot meunier to your beautiful riesling,” he enthuses, then rattles off a list of the different grapes being grown in the valley, ranging from chenin blanc and albariño to lesser-known ones such as trousseau, mencía, and chasselas.

Long rows of grapes in vineyard with sun peeking behind hill
The valley is best known for its pinot noir production. | Bildquelle: Steven Madow / Shutterstock

Where to do wine tastings in the Willamette Valley

No road trip required: If you want to start your tastings with the region’s famous pinots, Acierto recommends heading to the valley’s most storied wineries. “You can never go wrong with the classic representations at the original tasting rooms that are concentrated in and around Dundee. That’s what I would focus on first,” he says. Specifically, he suggests Archery Summit, Domaine Drouhin, Ponzi Vineyards, Sokol Blosser—all wineries that helped put the Willamette Valley on the map.

Farther afield: Of course, there also are great options all across the AVA. If you’re in McMinnville, Acierto recommends Coeur de Terre, Eyrie Vineyards, and R. Stuart & Co. Outside of Yamhill, you’ll find the storied Beaux Frères. And if you’re up for a slightly longer trip, you could also head to Crisdom Vineyard, in the Eola-Amity Hills, or to Saint Vincent and Willamette Valley Vineyards, both located near Salem. And, because Acieto is a Champagne expert, he also suggests trying the valley’s excellent sparkling wines from producers such as Argyle Winery (in Dundee) and Soter Vineyards (in Carlton).

Innovators and up-and-comers: Once you have a sense of the terroir, Acierto recommends branching out and visiting newer vintners and some more inventive, experimental spots. Out in Hillsboro, you can visit Cho Winery, the first Korean American winery in Oregon. In downtown McMinnville, you’ll find Troon Vineyard, the only regenerative- and organic-certified winery in the state, which offers creative blends and natural wines including an “amber” (orange, skin-contact) wine and a sparkling pet-nat. In Gaston and Dundee, head to tasting rooms featuring Limited Edition (Ltd.+) for mencia, grenache, skin-fermented pinot gris, and other unique wines.

Three women toast with wine glasses while seated at a table in a vineyard
Acierto recommends first focusing on the region's most storied wineries. | Bildquelle: Willamette Valley Visitors Association

How to go beyond the tasting room

For Acierto, one of the best parts of Oregon’s wine country is that it offers numerous ways to really learn about winemaking—beyond the tasting room experience or your standard winery tour. Winemakers in the region are eager to share their expertise and show off what the region can do. “All the wineries are usually very open to entertaining guests. There’s lots of barrel samplings and dinner with the winemakers,” he says, noting that most wineries’ websites offer different levels of tastings and that local hotel concierges also can help book outings.

Acierto also recommends making sure to get out onto the vineyards to take a deep dive into the agricultural side of the wine business. “You have to appreciate the farming that goes into wine,” he says. “I like telling people to go visit and ask them to give you an in-depth tour of what they do in the vineyards. Then you’ll truly, truly appreciate winemaking.” He suggests booking something like a lunch in the vineyards where you can spend time with winemakers and vineyard managers, learning about specific soils and varietal clones, then enjoy a meal with these experts. “That’s one of my favorite things to recommend,” says Acierto.

Hands pouring a sparkling wine into a glass with other glasses set up on table
Many wineries offer different kinds of tastings—indoors and out. | Bildquelle: Willamette Valley Visitors Association

What to drink in the Willamette Valley—other than wine

Of course, Oregon produces far more than just wine. If you want to break up your tastings with some beer, Acierto notes that “there are many, many breweries in the valley.” He suggests heading to newcomer Foreland Brewery, which immediately won accolades when it opened in 2021. Another acclaimed spot is Heater Allen, “probably one of the most well-known breweries in Oregon,” according to Acierto. Another good option is Golden Valley Brewery (which boasts a huge restaurant). Acierto also recommends checking out Killdeer Distillery, which opened recently in Newburg and makes gin, vodka, bourbon, and whiskey.

Chalkboard with list of beers, ABV, availability, and similar attributes
Breweries and distilleries also operate in the Willamette Valley. | Bildquelle: svineviken / Tripadvisor

Where to eat in the Willamette Valley

The valley boasts a number of excellent restaurants, many of which highlight local wines, and all of which are easy to access, regardless of where you’re based. “If you’re staying in the valley, in wine country, most of the restaurants—from McMinnville to Dundee up to Newburg—are within a 20-, 25-minute drive,” Acierto explains. “So it’s not that far, considering.”

For a special meal paired with local wines, he, of course, recommends Okta, where chef Matthew Lightner offers a tasting menu of hyper-local, highly inventive cuisine, and Acierto has built a list split between local and international wines. Other good options for tasting menus with good wine lists include Tina’s, which Acierto says is “really classic New American;” the Joel Palmer House, which occupies the historic home of one of Oregon’s most famous pioneers; and the Painted Lady, where the menu also leans heavily on local ingredients.

“You also have to at least visit Nick’s Italian Café, in downtown McMinnville,” says Acierto. Nick’s, which makes primarily northern Italian cuisine, opened in the '70s, is now run by the founder’s daughter, and is still a local favorite. “You’ll see a number of winemakers or neighbors hanging out at their casual bar. They have a lot of regulars who live in the valley,” he says. Another local favorite is Bistro Maison, which offers French-style food with a New American twist.

The menu at the Painted Lady focuses on local ingredients. | Bildquelle: Painted Lady / Tripadvisor

Where to enjoy Oregon’s great outdoors

One of Oregon’s big draws (other than wine) is its natural scenery, and Acierto notes that it’s very easy to pair winery visits with outdoor activities. “Oregon is one of the best places to hike,” says Acierto. If you’re in McMinnville, he recommends visiting Miller Woods, a conservatory 15 minutes from downtown. If you’re staying near Carlton, he suggests heading to the Our Lady of Guadalupe, a trappist abbey that also offers a hiking path open to the public. He notes that bikers also can enjoy the area’s many scenic bike paths, and if you’re looking for a low-impact way to enjoy the scenery, you can book a ride on a hot-air balloon, helicopter tour, or adventure flight.

Because Oregon gets a lot more rain than many famous wine areas, the valley also offers plenty of water-based fun, including kayaking along the Willamette River. Or, head to Silver Falls State Park where you can hike past more than a dozen waterfalls, take a dip in a swimming hole, or climb a tree at sunset. If you want your physical activity with a side of grapes, you can combine a hike with a winery tour. “In many vineyards you can schedule a vineyard tour-slash-hike, and they can walk you through the vineyards,” Acierto notes.

You also can enjoy the state’s natural beauty without really leaving the city. In the summer, for instance, Newburg hosts a lavender festival where, Acierto says, “all the lavender farms get together and show off the bounty of beautiful and perfumed lavenders.” And in Portland, he notes that you can enjoy the city’s world-famous rose garden and stunning Japanese garden.

Young child reaches into the spray underneath a waterfall
Many hikes in Oregon include opportunities to see waterfalls. | Bildquelle: Willamette Valley Visitors Association

Where to stay in the Willamette Valley

This rural region is dotted with a number of charming, welcoming towns, most of which boast urban tasting rooms and offer easy access to local vineyards. For the best concentration of tasting rooms, hotels, and restaurants, Acierto recommends making downtown McMinnville your base. The town offers a number of accommodations, including the Tributary Hotel, which houses Okta and also offers eight luxury suites with fireplaces; the boutique Atticus Hotel, which has won accolades from a number of publications; and the historic Hotel Oregon, built in 1905.

For accommodations in other parts of the valley, he recommends the Black Walnut Inn, which sits in between vineyards in the Dundee Hills. Another good option is the Allison Inn and Spa outside of Newburg where Acierto once worked as the wine director and which, he says, has a “beautiful view, beautiful restaurant, and beautiful setting.”

Man and woman ride a tandem bicycle in front of Atticus Hotel
Downtown McMinnville offers several accommodation options. | Bildquelle: Willamette Valley Visitors Association

When to visit

The Willamette Valley is beautiful all year long, and summer offers gorgeous scenery, lots of outdoor activities, and good weather. But if your goal is to really learn about the area’s wines, Acierto recommends visiting in fall or winter.

“I would highly recommend coming in during harvest, because many wineries will do harvest dinners and really show off what harvest is all about,” he says. Harvest in the region generally runs through September and October, with different grape varietals reaching ripeness throughout this period. (If you’re looking for both warm weather and a harvest experience, try for early to mid-September, when you can pair outdoor activities with the first events of the season.)

Alternatively, if you have a pretty good understanding of what goes into wine making and you’re looking for a more in-depth education about this particular region, the winter—when the nonstop work of harvest season has finished—is best. “That’s when you can schedule a one-on-one in the barrels with the winemaker,” Acierto explains.

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