Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hidden Gems—Willamette Valley Surprises

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places! 
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

Deciding where to's not as easy as Dr. Seuss makes it sound
This is often a problem when traveling…for me anyway.  I’m a Type A personality.  Anal-retentive.  A bit of a freak planner. 

Sometimes too much so.

Planning every second of every trip is something I used to do, and something on which I have had to work as I age.  And I’ve done pretty well, if I do say so myself!
I no longer make plan after plan and appointment after appointment.  Mostly because I have had some of my best travel experiences through unplanned stops based on the recommendations of others. 

This is my newest way to travel:  less planning and more spontaneity.

Though it is much harder than it sounds--for me--this plan of action paid off on my recent adventure in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  I’m calling these unexpected treats off-the-beaten-path, hidden gems.  And they were great surprises!

McMinnville was the first surprise.  Okay, so this isn’t off-the-beaten-path or hidden, but having McMinnville as the home base for the majority of the trip was such a splendid turn of events.  My husband and I stayed just blocks from the adorable downtown area in the cutest historic rental (check for options), making navigating the region quite easy.
Our first treat came in the form of amazing restaurants in the historic city center, most on or near Third Street.  Spanish-inspired dishes awaited us at LaRambla, a quaint, tapas-style establishment.  To say the food was amazing was an understatement.  Our table of four shared lamb nachos, the fondue special, mussels in wine sauce, and fried empanadas, all paired with a great bottle of Domaine Serene Pinot Noir.  Though we were completely stuffed after the meal, we did share a glass of port-style, local wine from the extensive wine list which featured many Oregon options, as well as other wines from around the country and world.
Nick’s Italian Cafe was the next Third Street surprise.  It was another highly recommended spot by the locals, so we knew we couldn’t miss.  More delicious culinary options awaited our small group.  The crab lasagna was absolutely amazing, so amazing that it was featured in Saveur Magazine, along with Nick, owner of the establishment for all 39 years it has been in operation.  Another amazing wine list where we enjoyed a Willamette Valley wine (and Oregon beer) helped make the meal complete.  After, we moved to the back of the restaurant where the locals hangout.  Eventually, my husband started visiting with a friendly patron, who just happened to be a wine maker there for a cocktail.  Then our group was joined by Nick himself, conducting his evening check on his business.  A hidden gem for sure!

Downtown McMinnville was filled with shops and eateries of all kinds, but we found a great jewel in R Stuart & Co for wine.  Honestly, our group of four stopped there because it was open, and we weren’t yet ready for dinner.  However, these breaks often turn into the best experiences, and this was the case here.  We sat at a table looking out on bustling Third Street while we sipped on the three different lines of wines R Stuart produces in McMinnville.  The Love, Oregon brand had beautiful labels on the outside of the bottle with great wines on the inside.  My favorite was the Love, Oregon rosè, perhaps the prettiest bottle of wine I have seen for some time.  However, the R Stuart reserve pinot noirs were simply splendid examples of what the grape can do in the Willamette Valley.

Moving away from the lively town, we headed to more local-favorite wineries.  One such spot was White Rose Estate.  Nestled in the rolling vineyard hills was this picturesque destination.  A small producer of pinot noir, it could be easily missed…but it shouldn’t!  The tasting room was a unique find in, and of, itself.  After stepping inside, I felt I had entered a treehouse, suspended in mid-air.  The steep, enclosed roof added to the ambiance.  There were no windows, but there was also no need. The amazing pinot noirs deserved all the attention here.  Another special aspect was the out-of-house bathroom—no, not an outhouse, just out-of-house.  It added to the whimsical feel of being in another place and time, a place and time with fabulous Willamette Valley wines!

Not necessarily unknown or concealed, Sokol Blosser made my list for a special reason.  Yes, the wines here were amazing; yes, the service was top notch; yes, the surroundings were splendid; and, yes, the establishment was quite historic.  All of these were motives for visiting, but there was another, lesser-known purpose as well:  tasty food enjoyed in the outdoor areas.  Sokol Blosser has an in-house chef who creates great specials.  The customary cheese and charcuterie board pleased with every bite, but the chef’s house-made hummus and pita bread made a lunch with an amazing view.  These specials change daily, so multiple trips would be wise to enjoy all Sokol Blosser has to offer.

Further south in the Willamette was another hidden gem—Left Coast Cellars.  One late afternoon, my hubby and I were looking for a quick bite to eat.  Left Coast was another recommendation from natives, the highest honor in my book.  We parked and admired the breathtaking grounds.  Inside, we ordered a house-made sandwich to share as a late lunch.  We noticed a gray-haired gentleman working in the kitchen as we started our tasting.  We sipped on two different sparkling options, moved onto white wines, and ended with several excellent pinot noirs.  Our light fare arrived, and we enjoyed the food with the wines.  Soon, the gray-haired gentleman came out after noticing our Wyoming license plate.  This man working in the kitchen just happened to be a former resident of our neighbor state, Colorado...and the owner of the entire organic Left Coast Cellars property!  We had quite the visit about his background and the farm.  This was the last stop of our week-long stay, and that it was such an exceptional surprise seemed only fitting for our whole trip, a trip where the unplanned destinations seemed meant to be.

be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shae,
you’re off to great places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting. 
So…get on your way!”

Dr. Seuss may have said it best about traveling through life—there are so many places to go.  But many of these great places shouldn’t be found by planning every step of the way.  Many of these treasures will only be found by going off the usual path, being spontaneous, and listening to others.

Don’t by Type A, don’t be anal-retentive, don’t be…the old me.  Learn to go with the flow and enjoy the twists and turns life throws your way.  The best laid plans can be good now and then, but the hidden gems of travel just might be some of the greatest memories of a destination.