Western Washington County Wineries

By Pat Snider

David Hill Winery - Photo provided by Pat SniderYamhill County, an hour's drive south of Portland, is considered the epicenter of Oregon winegrowing, and Portland visitors seeking a wine-tasting day trip will typically head out on Highway 99 to the town of Dundee, home to a number of well-known wineries. Here, especially on summer weekends, you can count on traffic jams and crowded tasting rooms.

On the other hand, an entirely different wine experience can be enjoyed in Washington County, west of Portland. Also part of the famed Willamette Valley Appellation, it is the closest winegrowing region to Portland and has a long viticulture history, fabulous views, scenic rural roads, and offers a more intimate, laid-back, tasting room experience. If you have only visited large, high-profile California wineries, you are in for a big surprise.

Highway 26, also known as the Sunset Highway, is the main road heading west from Portland to the Coast, and a good route to begin a wine tour of Washington County. Exit 61 offers an interesting choice. To the south, Shute Road leads into the 21st century, high-tech complex known as the Silicon Forest. To the north, Helvetia Road leads into a country side of rolling pastures and wooden barns; looking not unlike it did in the late 19th century when Swiss immigrants settled here. They named their crossroad community Helvetia, the old Roman term for Switzerland, and turned the fertile land into farms and dairies, some still operated by families of the original homesteaders.

A short distance north of Highway 26, Helvetia Road dips under a railroad trestle and on the other side is the bright red and green trimmed Helvetia Tavern. Formerly a country store, it is now a popular burger and beer joint and the jumbo, plate-sized hamburgers often appear on lists of Best Burgers in the Portland area. The interior has a homey, rustic feel with wooden floors and a décor featuring baseball caps and beer signs.

Beyond the tavern, the road makes a sharp turn to the west. On the right is Bishop Road with a sign pointing to Helvetia Winery and Christmas Tree Farm. The graveled, washboard road heads uphill passing the Pacific Crest Alpaca Farm where several hundred, purebred alpacas graze, gambol, and generally enjoy their sweeping view of the Coastal Range.
Nearby is the Helvetia Winery, probably the only one in the world that doubles as a Christmas tree farm. Jacob Yungen operated a farm and winery here in the late 1800s when the area was known as Grape Hill. A century later, John Platt and ex-Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse purchased the farm and began growing wine grapes on the southern slopes, eventually opening their winery in 1996. The tasting room is located in the old Yungen farmhouse where, on weekends, visitors can enjoy samples of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. A comfy back porch for lingering over wine, a lovely cottage garden with picnic tables, and a dozen or so dogs add to the rural charm. And, of course, Christmas trees are available for sale along with the wines.

If you purchase a tree, you must make Shafer Vineyards your next stop. Back on Highway 26, exit at Highway 6 and turn south on Gales Creek Road. Harvey and Miki Shafer began growing grapes at their pretty Gales Creek Valley farm in 1973. Like many growers who begin by selling grapes to local wineries, they took the familiar path to making their own wines and by 1981, celebrated their first crush. The 34 acres on south-facing slopes include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurtraminer; and you are likely to find a wide array of these varietals being poured at the tasting room bar. To decorate that Christmas tree, be sure to check out Miki's Christmas shop offering a large assortment of high-end holiday ornaments and collectables. A shaded picnic area and gazebo offer a fine view of the valley and vineyards.

Return north to the small town of Gales Creek and turn east on Capshaw Hill Road to Tualatin Estate Winery. At the end of a series of gravel roads, Tualatin Estate is not easy to reach, but it's well worth the effort if only to enjoy the pastoral view of vineyards while sipping a glass of chilled, sparkling Muscat. A former tree nursery, the site was chosen by Californian Bill Fuller in 1973. Fuller had an enology degree from University of California-Davis and had worked for Louis Martini Winery in the Napa Valley for a number of years. He came to Oregon seeking good vineyard land and selected this south-sloping spot and began planting white wine grapes. In 1997, the winery was purchased by Willamette Valley Vineyards and now all the winemaking operations have moved to their facility in Turner, Oregon, near Salem. Wines include Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Late Harvest Gewurtztraminer, and the spectacular sparkling Muscat. There's a lovely shaded picnic area with a great view of vineyards and distant hills.

From here, continue east on Capshaw Hill Road to Thatcher Kansas City Road and south to David Hill Road and David Hill Winery. The cheerful, lemon yellow, white-trimmed 19th century farmhouse is the perfect setting for a tasting room in one of Oregon's oldest wineries. In 1883, German immigrant, Ernest Reuter, homesteaded here and planted grapes on the surrounding hillsides. At one point, there were eight wineries in the area and it was known locally as Wine Hill. Most of the vineyards were pulled out during Prohibition and it wasn't until 1965 when another pioneer, Charles Coury, was attracted to the farm's grape growing potential. He established some of the first Pinot Noir vineyards in the northern Willamette Valley. Later, the winery experienced a number of changes of ownership, becoming Reuter's Hill Winery, then Laurel Ridge. In 1992, Milan and Jean Stoyanov bought the property and undertook an extensive renovation of the farmhouse and winery. They chose the name David Hill to honor an early Oregon pioneer. The surrounding vineyards are planted in Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewurtraminer. When leaving the winery, head uphill a short distance above the tasting room for a classic view of vineyards, forests, and farmland. Return via David Hill Road to Highway 47 and head south. In the little town of Dilley, follow the blue directional signs to Montinore. At the end of the oak-lined lane is a southern-style mansion where it would not be at all strange to see Miss Scarlet in her hoop skirt standing on the columned porch sipping a chilled glass of Riesling. Built in 1905 by John Forbis, a former attorney for Anaconda Copper in Montana, the ranch was named Montinore, a contraction of Montana in Oregon. With over 585 acres producing 40,000 cases, Montinore is one of the largest Oregon wineries. Owner Rudy Marchesi combines traditional wine making with biodynamic vineyard management to produce highly regarded Pinot Noirs, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Muller Thurgau. The tasting room's large picture windows offer an expansive view of the vineyards and the friendly staff will pour your choice of five wines for $5.