Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Oregon’s Willamette Valley Encompasses Diverse Beverage Scene

We understand if you think Willamette Valley is Pinot Noir only. Don’t look now, but the region boasts a burgeoning craft beer scene, new distilleries and the emergence of new grape varieties.
Sampler of craft beer from ColdFire Brewing in Eugene

By Dave Nershi, CSW
Vino-Sphere Publisher

Picture Willamette Valley and it is easy to envision the pop of a cork and the pouring of its world-famous Pinot Noir. While Pinot Noir continues to rule the valley located 30 miles south of Portland, it is far from the only choice to quench your thirst. Craft beer and spirits, cider, coffee and wines from unexpected grapes are waiting for you to discover.

Craft Beers Brewing Success

Oregon boasts 281 breweries and Portland is considered by some to be the craft beer capitol of the US. The Willamette Valley Hops Region is the second largest in the US, producing 20 varieties of hops with the aroma and flavor favored by micro and home brewers. Add to that almost perfect brewing water, and you have the ingredients for outstanding craft beer.

Never Miss A Beat – Follow Vino-Sphere On Facebook

“I think it is super unique how close the craft scene and agriculture can be tied in together,” said Dan Russo, director of brewing operations for Oakshire Brewing, a small batch brewery in Eugene.

Hops harvest in Willamette Valley - Photo by Katie McGuigan
“Nearly every town up the valley including Portland is surround by farms of all types. The biggest for brewers is hops. There are some of the best hops farms in the US hop industry throughout Oregon that supply brewers big and small across the world, and one season a year we get to take an hour drive and pick hops right off the vine and make beer with them. Add on top of that the amount of fresh fruit that we can use to make beer, specialty grains, you name it. It's wonderful. A lot of places don't have that opportunity and proximity.”

At last count, there were more than 50 breweries in Willamette Valley with a half dozen in Corvallis and 15 alone in Eugene. “I think
it's still a pretty small tight community of brewers,” said Russo. “There are still far less brewers in the Willamette Valley than in all of the Portland Metropolitan area, but many of them are making pretty amazing beer and all know each other and help each other out. It's a pretty cool scene and one very worth being a part of.”

ColdFire Brewing is a small craft brewery in Eugene that’s part of the scene. It offers European style brews with a Northwest vibe.  The brewery had several intriguing beers on their tap list during our visit including Minute to Midnight, a dark stout brewed with artisanal coffee, and Tangle of Tigers IPA, which they say is their favorite hops “woven into a canvas of sunlight and unicorn tears.”

"I think the growth of craft beer and brewing in the Willamette Valley, especially the southern valley can be attributed to what is finally becoming a mature craft beer market,” said Russo. “Right now we're seeing more experimentation, and  exploration from brewers and drinkers alike than we have seen in a long time.”

Wildcraft Cider (left) uses fruit and botanicals
grown in Oregon
If you tire of grapes or hops in your beverage, chances are you will have easy access to hard apple cider. According to the most recent figures from the Northwest Cider Association, which represents more than 90 cideries in the Pacific Northwest, cider sales  surpass any other region in the country with growth of more than 30 percent per year.

Keep up with the latest. Follow us on 

Wildcraft Cider Works is in Eugene and focuses on artisanal dry ciders using fruit and botanicals grown in Oregon. One of the most widely distributed ciders that is based in Willamette Valley comes from 2 Towns Ciderhouse. Offerings from this Corvallis producer include Cot In The Act, an apricot cider, and Riverwood, a Prosecco-style cider.

Distilled spirits are also taking root in Willamette Valley. In 2007 the Oregon Distillers Guild was founded as the first organization of its kind in the nation. Its Oregon Distillery Trail blazes its way through Willamette Valley with 16 craft distillery stops there.

4 Spirits Craft Distiller Dawson Officer is a combat vet on a mission to honor service members past and present

A Spirited Distillery In Corvallis

Four Spirits Distillery in Corvallis is a labor of love for Dawson Officer, the owner and craft distiller. An Iraqi war veteran, the distillery is dedicated to four combat soldiers Officer serving in his unit of the Oregon National Guard 2nd Battalion. They lost their lives serving in Baghdad.

The distillery is a way to honor their service and sacrifice as well as that of other veterans past and
present, but it hasn’t been an easy road. There are many barriers to entry, and it can take one to two years for licensing alone.

“You are going up against the Jack Daniels and Smirnoff’s of the world,” said Officer. “You don’t need a rocket science degree, but you do need to deal with bureaucratic red tape.”

The distillery produces whiskeys, rum, vodka and gin. In addition to its innovative spirits, the distillery also serves up a menu with sandwiches, burgers and pizza as well as craft cocktails and beers.

A portion of sales from the 4 Spirits Bourbon helps supports local veteran integration programs. Since opening, more than $76,000 has been contributed to veteran services and programs in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. 4 Spirits started the first ever combat veteran scholarship endowment at Oregon State University.

Sara Specter and Bells Up Seyval Blanc

Seyval Blanc In The Valley

The spirit of innovation and creativity extends to the valley’s wine producers. While proud of its international reputation for premium Pinot Noir, other grape varieties are making a splash.

Oregon has long been known for its Pinot Gris, made into a luscious fruit forward, medium-bodied wine with bright acidity. Increasingly, wines using untypical Willamette Valley grapes can be found.

Bells Up Winery is a micro-boutique operation owned by Dave and Sara Specter who planted the first ever acreage of Seyval Blanc in Willamette Valley. The French hybrid white grape was used to produce a very limited production bottling of their 2018 Helios Estate Seyval Blanc. Only 15 cases were made, and the initial reviews have been outstanding.

Dave, who is the Bells Up winemaker, and Sara have a very personal connection to the variety. As an amateur winemaker in Ohio, Dave worked extensively with Seyval Blanc. Not only did they enjoy the resulting wine, but he won an amateur national winemaking competition in 2011 with a 2010 Seyval Blanc made in his basement.

“We felt it was the affirmation we needed to finally put the Cincinnati house on the market and move to the Willamette Valley to establish Bells Up,” said Specter. “We suspected the vines would do well here, and felt that it would be a unique wine offering among the more commonly found white wines in the region—although we were surprised to discover that we have the first planting in the Willamette and only the second in Oregon.”

Illahe Vineyards makes an outstanding Grüner Veltliner and Capitello produces a surprisingly fresh and delicious Sauvignon Blanc from Croft Vineyard. Aligoté, another Burgundian grape, is also bottled by several wineries. No grape, however, is creating excitement like Chardonnay.

The Rise Of Chardonnay 

Aspen Chardonnay from Youngberg Hill

“Ten years from now they’ll be talking about Willamette Valley Chardonnay the same way they now talk about Pinot Noir,” said Wayne Bailey, wine grower and owner of Youngberg Hill. “In the past Chardonnay was mostly seen as a white wine alternative grown where Pinot wouldn’t be. Now winegrowers are choosing prime spots to plant and spending just as much time farming and winemaking Chardonnay as they are Pinot.”

In the last decade warmer than normal temperatures have prompted wine growers to plant cooler weather clones to better mature fruit in the Willamette Valley. Bailey is bullish on Chardonnay.

Okon of Equiano Coffee Co. in Eugene
“Willamette Valley Chardonnay is all about the fruit versus California being all about the oak,” said Bailey. “Like Pinot Noir, being grown in cooler climates the Chardonnays being grown in the Willamette Valley are typically more balanced, elegant, and with higher acidity, showing both fruit and mineral characteristics throughout the palate. They will also more typically be fermented in stainless steel or minimal oak to retain the fresh fruit characteristics.”

Looking for an alcohol alternative? Willamette Valley is brimming with coffee shops. You can opt for one of the many “drive-thru” coffee shops or settle in for a hot cup at a shop like Equiano, located in the Whiteaker neighborhood of Eugene. There you can sample coffees from Africa, Brazil, Columbia, Cameroon or Vietnam.

Whatever your beverage preference, they flow like a river through the Willamette Valley. Dip in your toe and explore something new. For additional information, see

No comments: