I was part of an International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association press trip to Willamette Valley, Oregon. As such, all accommodations, meals, travel, and activities were provided by the Willamette Valley Visitors Association. Be assured that all thoughts and opinions here are, as always, 100% my own. Click here for full disclosure statement.
Willamette Valley, Oregon is well known for being a premier wine region. The valley, also known as Oregon Wine Country, is approximately 150 miles long and is home to more than 500 wineries. I’ll admit I’m not overly enthusiastic about wine. I’ll have a glass now and again but I won’t even pretend to be a connoisseur. While many travel to Willamette Valley specifically for the wines, options are abundant for people like me who prefer fine craft beer or unique spirits. And then there is the incomparable dining. No matter what is in your glass, you will no doubt be delighted by what’s on your plate.
My stay in Oregon Wine Country was short (isn’t that always the case?) but lovely. We managed to fit in quite a few dining and drinking spots before departing. Below are my picks for where to eat and drink in Willamette Valley, Oregon.
SubTerra – A wine cellar restaurant (Newburg)
As the name implies, the SubTerra dining room is in an underground cellar. This sort of venue makes for a very sophisticated setting and creates quite a relaxing ambiance. Lighting that is just low enough; semi-private spaces for larger parties; and attentive but non-intrusive service round out the SubTerra experience. The menus feature a delectable combination of varied world cuisines and local specialties prepared with classic technique. As it is housed in a wine cellar, naturally SubTerra boasts an award-winning wine list (along with local beers and handcrafted cocktails).
SubTerra was the first dining experience of my trip and it definitely set the bar. One of the small plates we started with was truly delightful: melted brie with maple bourbon fig jam. The presentation was equally gorgeous, the brie wheel adorned with sliced fruit, crackers, and bread. For my entree, I chose the short rib of beef. Done in the Flemish style of Carbonnade a la Flamande, the beef is braised and served in a brown ale demi-glacé with mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, and pearl onions. Overall, SubTerra was an outstanding experience.
Dundee Bistro (Dundee)
For a true slice of Italy in the Willamette Valley, head to Dundee Bistro in the town of Dundee. The Bistro and its sister establishment, Fratelli Ponzi Fine Food & Wine, are owned by Michel and Rebecca Ponzi. The Ponzi Family is well established in the Willamette Valley, being producers of fine wines since 1970 and restaurateurs since 1999. At both the Bistro and Fratelli Ponzi, guests will “experience all fine things Italian while celebrating Oregon’s greatness.” Michel Ponzi took his Italian heritage a step further and relocated his family to Italy’s Le Marche region in 2012. Now back in Oregon, the Ponzi Family draws on their time in Italy, as well as visiting the world’s top wine regions, to create an authentic experience for locals and visitors.
The Ponzis treated our group to a spectacular multi-course tasting menu, highlighting a number of their signature dishes and wines. Everything we sampled was outstanding and a true representation of blending fine Italian products with Oregon’s greatness. A few of the highlights for me were the calamari, lightly floured with carrot and zucchini ribbons, and served with Fratelli Ponzi’s own extra-virgin olive oil; Fratelli Ponzi Spaghetti with Castelvetrano olives, capers, Calabrian chili, wild-caught Oregon halibut, lemon, and cherry tomatoes; and the perfectly-prepared Cascade Natural New York Steak and Scallops. The only thing more fascinating than the food was meeting and talking with Michel and Rebecca and learning all about their culinary and familial journey.
4 Spirits Distillery (Corvallis)
4 Spirits Distillery is owned by Dawson Officer, a former combat soldier in the Oregon National Guard 2 Battalion, 162 Infantry Brigade. While serving in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004-2005, four of Dawson’s comrades made the ultimate sacrifice. Dawson established 4 Spirits Distillery in 2011 to honor, remember, and raise a glass to those four soldiers – Lt. Erik McCrae, Sgt. Justin Linden, Sgt. Justin Eyerly and Sgt. David Roustum – as well as all service members past and present. The 4 Spirits team takes it even further by donating portions of their proceeds to various veterans’ programs in the states where their spirits are sold (currently Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Michigan).
Continuing with the “4” theme, it should come as no surprise that the distillery crafts four different spirits: whiskey (American, single malt, and bourbon), rum (silver, spiced, habanero-spiced, and dark), gin (cucumber), and vodka. I got to sample a number of the spirits, my favorite being the American whiskey. It was quite smooth. I also tried the habanero-spiced rum, which, despite the name, was not spicy at all. It was rather tasty! 4 Spirits Distillery also offers a smaller but solid food menu. All I’ll say is I can’t stop thinking about the cheese-stuffed tater tots…
ColdFire Brewing (Eugene)
Sometimes I taste a beer for the first time and love it so much that I’m convinced it might be my soul mate. That somewhat describes my experience at ColdFire Brewing. On a trip that was very wine-heavy, I was ready for some serious beer and ColdFire did not let me down. In the name of research, I ordered a flight with beers covering the spectrum. The highlights for me were the Cumulus Tropicalus, a perfectly hoppy New England-style IPA; the St. James IRA, a malty red ale that completely surprised me since I generally am not a fan of reds; and the Minute Before Midnight, an absolutely decadent chocolate stout that honestly tasted like dessert, just as the bartender promised. And the bit about beer being my soul mate? That’s how I feel about Minute Before Midnight. I’d travel back to Eugene just to have another pint!
Located in Eugene’s 5th Street Public Market, aptly-named Marché (French for “market”) is a delightful French-inspired eatery and 2019 James Beard semi-finalist. Building on the market theme, Marché’s philosophy centers on serving foods that would be found at the local farmer’s market. That means Marché’s menus evolve and change throughout the year based on ingredients that are fresh, local, seasonal, and at their best. I had breakfast at Marché on my last morning in Willamette Valley and went with the smoked trout hash. (I’m a sucker for anything “hash” and local, freshwater fish.) My smoked trout hash was prepared with spinach, potatoes, spring onions, two poached eggs, and baguette toast. I accompanied my superb breakfast with a cup of coffee the size of a swimming pool. It was the perfect send-off to an amazingly delicious whirlwind tour of the Willamette Valley!