Unpaving the Way

Dare to dust up your car exploring real wine country

By Neil Zawicki

“This is the most beautiful place on earth.” Author and environmentalist Edward Abbey said that … about the desert.

Specifically, he wrote it about his first morning in the arid landscape in his 1968 book, “Desert Solitaire.” He also coined an eloquent contempt for tourists. He referred to the “indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety to every nook and corner of the National Parks.”

But I’m talking about wine, actually, wine country, and the hundreds of vineyards and wineries that exist along the backroads of the Willamette Valley. Outside Portland’s city limits, up gravel roads, next to an old truck long overtaken by blackberries or down the road from an ancient double-wide with 1980s era graffiti all over it, these are the places that make wine country. They encourage visitors to relax and engage in real conversations with the mad scientist winemakers themselves, play fetch with the wily farm dog and try a bottle of Tempranillo grown in a sea of Pinot and naysayers.

Destinations on “the road more traveled” are what Abbey would call “Industrial Tourism.” In the context of the Willamette Valley, customers routinely buying the area’s wines only at city bottle shops or patronizing wineries located in the most convenient locations are missing an incredible opportunity. Stories get lost on a crowded shelf — beyond some attempted copy narrative — and experiences are limited when the road is always paved.

If you have guests, bring them to where the vineyards share the same soil as derelict farm implements, rutted logging roads and heat-baked hillsides. Get dirt under your fingernails, find some strange little spots to eat, discover a new kind of animal and find yourself on the terrace of a trim little tasting room run by a crew filled with characters.

This is authentic wine tourism. These are farms where the real work happens. This is the trip, and as Plato taught us, the trip is the thing.

I’ve lived out in the valley for just over two years, and the countryside itself makes it a fine place. But around every turn there’s a winery, and each one has its own special edge. One might have a little corrugated steel room next to a barn only open in July and August, while another might be an opulent, stout-beamed hall, thick with tradition. All of them require a drive through authentic backroad country, which means finding the winery is the end, or the middle at least, of a journey.

There are 16 wineries in an association called Heart of Willamette Valley Wineries, a group promoting the simple truth that a bottle of wine found at its source is richer and comes with a story. 

Redgate Vineyard is one such place. To get there, you have to be willing to venture east of Salem and up a road called Buena Vista, to a place where Charlene and Steve Dunn, a retired couple, love live music and wine and hold concerts all summer. Steve had a career in construction management; he built the tasting room and patio. They also have the keyboardist from Iron Butterfly staying with them for part of the year and playing concerts — this is the kind of stuff you learn when interacting with the source of wine.

Trudy Kramer at Kramer Vineyards is another interested in showing people the value of the road less traveled when it comes to tourism. She keeps an elegant tasting room and patio right next to her vines; and that fine venue sits on the edge of a hill near Gaston.

Out here, you’ll meet dogs, travelers and eccentric or, at least, interesting winemakers, and you’ll probably learn a little something you didn’t know before. Along the way, you’ll likely find new places to go beyond just the wineries.

So while a Portland tasting room has its place, to me, an authentic wine experience should include a trip down a dirt road to a place you otherwise didn’t know existed, where a great view, unexpected discoveries and a reason to really appreciate wine awaits.

Besides, what would Abbey think?

After having lived in the city, out here with the massive sky and the bright gold and green rolling land, and the back country flavor, I regularly take a look around the valley and think, “This is the most beautiful place on earth.”

In the years before Neil Zawicki landed in the Willamette Valley, he spent his time as a reporter in Alaska, and a sailor with an address in a California marina. In his spare time, he’s a student of history, a painter and a guitar player.

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