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Treasures of the Corvallis Wine Trail

Guest Author | 08/30/2018 | Breweries, Wineries & Distilleries, Winery

Finding peace and wine in the Heart of the Willamette Valley

Harris Covered Bridge in Philomath, Oregon, by Lainey MorseMy sense of wanderlust beckoned me to flee the clamor of the big city for a weekend journey in search of treasure. No, I wouldn’t be diving for ancient doubloons nestled in the crushed hull of some sunken ship. Nor would I scrounge for a trunk filled with gem-encrusted goblets used by some evil prince in bygone days.

Rather, my getaway venture would take my wife and me on a casual search for simple treasures that are too often ignored. We head for west-central Oregon.

In this lush landscape, lovingly known as the Heart of the Willamette Valley, pulses beat more gently. Here we find healthy helpings of tranquility. Rolling hillsides. Matured forests. Friendly people. And plenty of treasures to discover as one travels along meandering country lanes.

Wondrous sights

Getting off I-5 around Corvallis, we first set our sights on Harris Bridge in nearby Philomath. It lies off the beaten path, beyond where the asphalt ends and dirt road begins. The vintage 1929 Harris Bridge is the namesake of an adjacent winery. And it is one of only 50 historic covered bridges remaining in the state when there had once been 450. The charm of each bridge is undeniable. And I find Harris Bridge to be one of the countless photo ops in this region. So, Shutter Bug that I am, I grab my camera and click away. All the while, I soak up the nearly silent ambiance of this rural setting, punctuated by little more than the soothing rush of the river that passes beneath the whitewashed old bridge.

Ready for more treasure hunting, we hit the road. But soon, we’ve stopped again. This time, to grab some photos of a natural wonder. Thousands of geese have discovered Five Star dining in a field of grass seed. Happy geese. Winged bandits. They gobble with a passion. Despite hearty goose appetites, there’s enough grass seed left around here to make it a leading agricultural crop.

Bountiful land

Grapes, too, are increasingly important. With warm summer days that drift into cool summer nights, the climate here is one of the best in the world for growing pinot grapes in a rich clay soil. The result is a family of pinot wines; both reds aRipe Grapes and Oregon Wine in Corvallis, Oregonnd whites. These fine wines increasingly attract rave reviews, even compared with the famed pinot wines from the legendary vineyards of Burgundy, France.

With that in mind, Emerson Vineyards outside the town of Monmouth is the next stop on our home-grown journey through the Mid-Willamette Valley. Owner Tom Johns is tending the tasting bar.

Tom tells us that most of the 16 local wineries are boutique, family-owned and family-friendly. Though each winery produces pinot grapes, along with a few other varietals, each wine offers its own unique flavor. They are treasures in bottles that reward travelers who stop by to sip and savor and pick up a few bottles for later.

Tom has a dry wit and delights in the fact that his humor has been called “snarky.” He is quick to tell the Emerson story, explaining that his winery is “my son’s dream and my money.” Perhaps like his own glib personality, Tom explains, “Our wines have an earthiness to them.” They stay on the back of the palate for a long time so you can really enjoy them for a long time.” They pair especially well with salmon, lamb and coq au vin.

Proudly, Tom says, “Our local wineries use sustainable practices. We use organic sprays. You don’t put fertilizer down. You put compost from grape skins (back into the earth). We put in crop rotation. We try not to be a mono-culture.”

As Tom continues to tell the tale, he draws us a sample of an extraordinary 2014 Voignier Port from a nearby barrel. It was almost a breathless experience. There was a bursting rush of flavor. Not the kind of flavor you can really describe. But the kind you feel. A sensation. Something like velvet for the taste buds. It coats our palates with just enough sweetness and finish. It was like dining on a fine meal that tastes even better when you’re dressed in formal wear instead of blue jeans. We wanted more. Alas, there was none left for sale. Tom advises us to come back next year. My wife and I agree; that port is worth the return trip.

Sweet spot

Down the road, Benton-Lane Winery in Monroe is owned by Steve Girard, a veteran vintner from Napa Valley, California. He tells us he was “seduced by the pinot grape” and decided to move north where it is best grown. His vineyards are his wonderland. He happily works seven days a week, proclaiming his to be “the best job in the world.” With enthusiastic detail Girard explains his relentless pursuit of acquiring just the right plot of real estate to make his dream come true. The dirt. The climate. The angle of the slopes. He pursued the goal for years, searching, exploring options, wrangling with finances, and following his visions to make it all happen. It became a personal mission to achieve a way of life and at the same time produce a pinot of exceptional quality. But more than just the production of fine wines, it became a family affair. Like caring for beloved children, nurturing them and loving them every day, for Girard working seven days a week cultivating, creating, caring for his winery is opportunity, not a burden. Benton Lane now process about 30,000 cases a year, mostly sold on the west and east coasts.

For those with beverage tastes ranging beyond the grape, this valley hub is also attracting more attention for its microbreweries and distilleries.

From the ordinary to the offbeat, the arts, retail, and culinary communities here offer a bounty of diversity. Corvallis is renowned as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the nation. As home to Oregon State University and the mighty OSU Beavers, the city enjoys plenty of youthful energy. And it even enjoys a few quirky connections with the past… like a time-worn, counter-culture bus that now drives a street-corner business selling wild halibut and sea bass to passersby.

Treasures abound in Corvallis and its environs. Photos. Memories. Taste treats. Relaxation. When you’re here, be prepared for something special.

Article by Dan Christopher. Keep up with Corvallis news, events and happenings by signing up for our weekly email newsletter.

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