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Originally published on lifeonbeacon.com – read the original article here

When most people think about a trip to wine country, Napa is the first thing that comes to mind.  It boasts some of the top wine producers in the world, unparalleled restaurants, and charming boutique hotels. Still, it’s an expensive trip, the wineries are crowded, and the best wines rarely show up on tasting menus.

1  //  YOU’LL SAVE BIG ON TRAVEL COSTS

Flights to San Francisco, hiring or renting a car for the drive north, paying for parking, and booking a hotel will all run you top dollar in Napa.  By contrast, you can often find great flight deals into Portland.  Rental car rates are also lower because the demand is comparably lower, as are the rates at leading hotels.  Our flights on Southwest were less than $200 per person, and our 1 bedroom Airbnb with a full kitchen was only $185 a night – and it was one of the most expensive in town!

2  //  YOU’LL ALSO SAVE ON TASTING FEES

Tasting fees in many Napa wineries will run you $30-45 each and the staff is known to closely monitor the size of the 3-4 pours on each tasting. In the Willamette Valley, $15-20 tastings were much more common, with 4-7 wines on each.  The more expensive the tasting, typically the more wines on that tasting or the more rare those bottles are. For every $20, expect to get roughly the same amount of wine as one glass.  Your tasting fees are often refunded with a purchase of a certain size (read our tips for how to fly home with wine HERE). 

3  //  YOU CAN BRING ALONG THE KIDS

Many wineries allow outdoor picnics which provide a great opportunity to bring the kids along and let them play on the vineyard grounds while you sip your tasting (Minors are allowed in Oregon wineries and wine bars until 9pm).  Penner Ash has a gorgeous oak grove the kids can play in while you enjoy lunch at a nearby picnic table, Beaux Freres has a resident pig and sweet lab you can visit, and Four Graces has a demonstration vineyard where you can look at the different varietals on the vine and sample a few!  We thought we might get some stares for bringing our four month old along, but more often than not, winery staff came around the bar to play with her.  She even was given a toy to take home from the owner of Natalie’s Estate Wines.

4  //  YOU’LL ENHANCE YOUR PALATE (AND IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS)

In Napa, you might be tasting a Chardonnay alongside a Cabernet followed up by a Merlot, and finish with a dessert wine.  The focus of the tasting can become which varietal you prefer, rather than what type of Cab you enjoy most.  In the Willamette Valley, Pinot Noir is king.  You’ll be given opportunities to taste different Pinots from warm and cool years, aged in different ways, from different parts of the valley and taught the nuances that imparts on the wine.  We left knowing we prefer cooler growing seasons for a more earthy flavor than the deep berry notes that come from warmer seasons.

5  //  THE PEOPLE ARE AMAZING

Many of the Napa wineries are owned by large corporations and staff their tasting rooms with industry professionals who have relocated to Napa for the job.  A lot of Willamette wineries are owned by locals who still work the property themselves and are staffed by people who grew up in the region.  Stop by Beaux Freres (you’ll see me mention this one a few times – it was a favorite!) to meet Mike and his two sons who still work side-by-side, pop down the road to Natalie’s and have a glass with Boyd while snacking on bites that Cassandra, his wife, has cooked up in her kitchen, or join a tasting at White Rose where people who grew up mere miles away will talk you through Neo-Classical wine making. They’re all so nice!

6  //  NO CROWDS!

Except for a couple larger wineries, Willamette Valley tasting rooms are rarely crowded.  We went on a holiday weekend and were surprised to find ourselves in a tasting room alone more than once.  There was something so great about never waiting in line, getting to ask whatever questions you want of the person pouring, pick your favorite seat and cozy up, and indulge in a little photo shoot among the vines without people cluttering the background.

7  //  EVERYTHING OPERATES AT A MORE RELAXED PACE

I recommend only setting up one appointment per day so you can spend the rest of be day at your own pace.  If you love a vineyard, grab a glass (or a second tasting – some offer multiple options) and head out to the grass.  Bring a picnic and enjoy the sunshine.  Or just take your time with the tasting you’re on (preferred, if you’re driving yourself).  There are very few wine tours or shuttle buses pushing you to swap wineries at specific points.  It definitely shifts the dynamic of the trip!

8  //  THERE’S A LOT MORE TO DO NEARBY

Yes, Napa has San Fran a few hours away but that limits your options if you want something else to do midday.  In the Willamette Valley, take a midday break for some berry picking, hike on one of the many trails, visit a museum, or stroll through one of several local farmers markets.  These are all great options if you’ve brought the kids along, too!

We had the best time in the Willamette Valley, and can’t wait to share more of our favorites from the trip!  

For more from our Oregon series, read:   Tips and Tricks for Traveling with Wine