Wine has created plenty of destinations and jobs, and a few trappings of city life

Sunday, January 27, 2008DANA TIMS

The Oregonian Staff

I n less than four decades, Yamhill County has evolved from an undiscovered viticultural testing ground to one of the world’s most acclaimed hot spots for pinot noir grapes.

Ask any noted wine expert to name the top three or four places on the planet capable of producing the delicate, marvelously food-friendly red grape, and Yamhill County invariably will be listed alongside California’s Carneros region, the Marlborough district of New Zealand and, of course, France’s Burgundian hills.

Wine-country tourism is big and growing bigger, with tens of thousands of oenophiles annually trekking to Dundee, Carlton, Dayton and beyond in search of their favorite wines.
The industry is creating thousands of jobs and generating millions of dollars for local economies. With downtown Portland less than 40 miles from the Yamhill County seat of McMinnville, tour operators say it’s now common for jet-setting Australians, Japanese and Europeans to land in Portland, hire a town car at the airport and head straight for big-name wineries such as Archery Summit, Domaine Drouhin and Domaine Serene.

But all that popularity comes with a price.

Growth pressures and traffic jams are increasing. The cost of living is rising, driven in large part by Portland metro-area residents spilling outward, bringing their willingness to pay more for housing with them. And land-use conflicts, pitting the potential vineyards of the future against scores of subdivision claims, seemingly are everywhere.

While agriculture continues to be the county’s principal industry, one-fifth of the nonfarm work force commutes to jobs outside the county every day. Toss in the number of pass-through motorists on their way to the coast and elsewhere and it’s hardly surprising that traffic slows to a near stop through the choke point of downtown Dundee during morning and evening rush hours.

As more visitors discover each year, the county’s 718 square miles — stretching from just west of Portland to Willamina in the Coast Range — contain far more to see and do than simply sipping world-class wine and gazing at rolling rows of emerald-green vineyards.

The county features two of the state’s top-10 tourism draws. One is the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde’s Spirit Mountain Casino in Willamina, which lures more visitors than any other attraction in Oregon.

Just behind is the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, home of Howard Hughes’ fabled Spruce Goose airplane. The craft, designed to lift troops and tanks over the submarine-laden oceans in World War II, flew only once, when Hughes surprised onlookers by pulling the throttle back for a one-mile flight over the Long Beach harbor in 1947. The plane, with a wing span longer than a football field, has plenty of intriguing company. It is surrounded by more than 80 other vintage aircraft and historical exhibits, the state’s largest three-dimensional IMAX theater and will be enhanced further by the opening this year of a new museum wing dedicated to spacecraft.

The variety of fairs and festivals staged annually is equally varied.

The International Pinot Noir Celebration, held each July in McMinnville, gathers the world’s most prominent pinot aficionados. Or if the entire family is looking for something to do, there’s McMinnville’s Turkey Rama, a fun-filled remnant of the early 1960s, when Yamhill County produced more turkeys than any other place in the nation.

For sheer otherworldly audacity, it’s tough to top May’s UFO Festival, commemorating the evening in 1950 when Yamhill County farmer Paul Trent grabbed his Kodak Roamer camera and photographed what appeared to be a shiny metallic disc flying over his property.

The arts are flourishing. The annual Art Harvest Studio Tour of Yamhill County welcomes visitors from throughout the United States to see where artists work, to watch demonstrations in a variety of media and to buy artwork.

Both Newberg and McMinnville have monthly art walks, with businesses featuring the work of regional artists. In Carlton, a “Walk in the Park” each August draws musicians, artists, regional winemakers and brewmasters to a day in Wennerberg Park.

An array of fine-dining possibilities, many of which are regularly written up in national travel publications, has sprung up in recent years, tracing a growth arc roughly parallel to the wine industry’s. The Joel Palmer House in Dayton, The Painted Lady in Newberg, Nick’s Italian Cafe in McMinnville and Red Hills Provincial Dining, the Dundee Bistro and Tina’s, all in Dundee, are just some of the eateries that fill to overflowing most weekends.

Recreational opportunities are just as plentiful. Trails lacing through numerous city and county parks give hikers myriad choices of scenic, challenging routes, while the area’s many quiet back roads are ideal for the surging numbers of bicyclists.

The county is also home to two higher educational institutions, Linfield College in McMinnville and George Fox University in Newberg.

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