Sipping Pure Sunshine

It felt like summer….sitting in the sunshine, warmth heating my toes and arms and leaving small freckles building on my nose. But it was the wine that really made me warm on this first real day of spring.

I took me five years to finally venture into the McMinnville and Yamhill Valley for wine tasting. This renowned and popular tasting area in Oregon had slipped out of my reach for the last time – my entire family even went on a full day wine tasting tour without me while I was living in South Africa. So when the weather man told me it was going to be sunny and I heard a friend of mine from Portland was free, that was it – we hit the road to meet up and sip our way though wine country.

The day started off at the Oregon Hotel in downtown McMinnville. The one landmark that we both knew of in the quaint downtown, but we quickly skipped out of town after consolidating cars. With no plan into this spontaneous trip we just picked one road out of town and followed the blue road signs to the wine rooms.

Luckily in this fertile part of Oregon it didn’t take long to stumble across our first winery – even if we did end up mainly tasting in the town of Carlton, just outside of McMinnville and less time in the countryside.

Of the Carlton wineries, two stood out from the rest.

The Carlton Winemaker’s Studio

Modern styled with large, flat bar and full of light, the Studio tasting bar welcomes winos with an air of 21st century courtship. The cold surfaces and sharp edges of the tasting studio are offset with fun, personal photos of the wine makers decorating the walls and brighten with the sunshine that constantly streams through the bank of windows that looks out onto the large patio. But beyond the tasting room it’s really the wines that make this a deliciously modern winery – or should I say wineries.

CWS Wine Tasting

The Carlton Winemaker’s Studio (CWS) pours ten individual vintners produced all under one roof. Offering artisan winemakers a joint space to share their high-end and innovative wines, the studio is common ground for the area producers to showcase their recent releases. By sharing space, the winemakers cut down on their individual costs and cooperate as a group in marketing and promotion; however, one sip of most of these wines is all you need to be convinced to buy a bottle.

The wineries available at CWS are: Andrew Rich Vintner, Ayoub Vineyard, Blakeslee Vineyard, Brittan Vineyard, Dukes, Hamacher Wines, Lazy River Vineyard, Monebruno, Retour Wine Company, and Wahle Vineyards.

For my sunny afternoon at CWS, I ran with the red flight while my friend sipped through the Pinot Noirs. From a cozy spot out on the patio at a wooden table, the wine pourer brought out each wine with knowledge, spunk, and perfect timing. Out of the seven we tasted, two wines marked my memory from take-off. The first from the red flight was Andrew Rick’s Coup d’Etat, a Rhone style blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah (surely influenced by the wine maker’s time at wine school in France). It shined in the sun with a beautiful, rich red color and a balance that both blended and exemplified the three varieties flavors. The second from the Pinot noir flight was Ayoub’s “Memoirs.” The winemaker’s second label using a blend of Pinot noirs from around the Willamette Valley, this wine not only stood out with those amazing, complex layers that only come (in my opinion) from Oregon Pinot noirs, but also for its charming label showing  blast-from-the-past photographs of his parents.

At the end of our shared flights, we were also surprised with a special tasting of an infrequently opened bottle – a taste that paid off for the studio for my friend bought a bottle of it and another wine before we turned to leave.

Open Daily 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., 801 N. Scott Street, Carlton, OR 97111, (503) 852-6100

Cana’s Feast Winery

With so many wines to taste in the area, we didn’t want to travel far and to our luck just next door to CWS was Cana’s Feast Winery. A Tuscan styled tasting room, also with a huge back patio that looked over the rolling, golden hills, Cana’s showed a variety of more formal, traditional wines that tasted with sweet delicacy that makes you salivate – it didn’t help though that the location also serves food, so as soon as you walk through the winery doors your mouth practically drools from the aromatic scents floating through the air.

View from Cana's Feast Winery's Patio

At Cana’s my friend and I shared a flight of their wines. Specializing in Italian and Bordeaux varieties, this winery offered tasting of wines less typically produced in the Willamette Valley. Highlighting each wine, the individual varieties each sat on top of an oak wine barrel in the tasting room. Here I tasted my first Nebbiolo, a red Italian style varietal grown in the Columbia Valley, and also enjoyed one my favorite wines, a big bodied Sangiovese.

While we didn’t have time to sample their wonderful smelling food, Cana’s does offer lunch and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays and Brunch on Sundays. Reservations are strongly suggested according to their website.

Open Daily 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., 750 West Lincoln St., Carlton, OR 97111, (503) 852-0002

From Carlton we slowly moved our way back into McMinnville for tastings at the local downtown wine bars and some much need dinner. The last stop of the night before a yummy meal at the French café, Bistro Maison, was one of those “save the best for last moments.”


Located in a shared building with Honest Chocolates, a huge selling point for the me and most women wine drinkers out there I think, Twelve is a family-owned vineyard that focuses on making small quantity but high-quality wines, specifically Pinot noir. The wine server for the evening, which was the wine-maker’s wife, was charismatic and friendly adding that missing trait that many of the other wineries we had visited in the afternoon had missed– and a personable wine server is something not to be overlooked in the wine world. The wines, like the service, were also top notch. Held in individualized artsy labels, each year of the Pinot noir showed the slightest of changes and demonstrated the varietal’s chameleon characteristics that develop with the best wines over time.

Twelve's Pinot noir

The 2008 Pinot noir 144, a wine that was surprisingly different from the previous tasted on the flight, blended grapes from the oldest blocks on the vineyard; being picked on October 29. The wine danced on the palate, like the ballerinas on its label, with elegance and a concentration that only comes with well-balanced and carefully crafted wine. If I had the money, I would have bought a case of this wine on the spot. I highly recommend this winery to anyone heading to their area.

Open Thursday & Friday, 2 – 6 p.m.; Saturday, 12 – 6 p.m., 581 NE 3rd Street, McMinnville, OR, (503) 358-6707

While this wine-tasting trip proved to be exciting and fresh with new wineries, the McMinnville area left more to be explored.

Have you tasted the areas wines? When I make a trip back, where should I go next?


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