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There are a litany of forest service roads littering the Pacific Northwest, and as such, there is more gravel riding than you can really do in a lifetime in the Upper Left, US&A. While you can find yourself further afield deep into the Cascade Mountains or up to your neck in moss along forest roads in the Olympic Peninsula, you needn’t go that far for good times on gravel. The Coast Range that runs between the beautifully rugged Oregon coastline and the Willamette Valley has gravel goodness on both its western and eastern slopes.
The Willamette Valley remains very much an agricultural hub, with fruits, nuts and vegetables growing up and down the river valley and still plenty of pasture for grazing livestock. The hillsides above the valley floor have really driven the valley’s economic and tourism development over the last two decades. This part of Oregon is still a relatively new wine growing region that is producing Pinot Noir (and increasingly Chardonnay) that matches the quality of wines grown anywhere in the world. Within thirty or so miles of the greater Portland area, smallish towns like Newberg and McMinnville play host to several tasting rooms, well-pointed restaurants and a range of accommodations. The interplay between the two, wine tourism and farming mean an interesting mix of the smoothest blacktop you’ve ever ridden sometimes ends abruptly onto gravel farm or logging roads.
Within the Willamette Valley there are multiple AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas, each with a unique set of circumstances, from soil types, to topography, watersheds and microclimate. For wine geeks, these sub-regions showcase how much all of these elements factor in to create unique Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. For gravel geeks, each also offer some great off-road riding that traverses classic Northwest Forest, rolling vineyards, orchards and farmland.
Dundee Hills and Chehalem Mountains AVAs
From the small town of Newberg you can cobble together a 40ish mile loop route that takes you through several of the Willamette’s northern AVAs (including Yamhill-Carlton and Ribbon Ridge growing regions). As the smooth blacktop of Red Hills Road crosses Harvey Creek it becomes the gravelly NE Fairview Drive in the Red Hills of Dundee, where Pinot pioneer David Lett laid down the roots of what would become the boom of Oregon Pinot Noir. At the fork in the road you can stay on Fairview or go left onto Powell Hill Road, and a punchy climb along rows of Pinot Noir vines. Topping at the junction of Powell Hill and Worden Hill Road the views are astounding, a clear day offers Mt. Hood to the northeast, and vineyards for as far as the eye can see.
Worden Hill may be one of the most picturesque road segments in this part of Oregon. Swooping descents and punchy climbs take me through the heart of the Dundee Hills AVA. Massive Garryana oak trees crowd the roadside and their yellow leaves contrast starkly with the dark green colors let off by western red cedar and douglas fir trees. As I climb alongside the vine rows near Alexana winery I can see low lying fog blanketing the valley and descending into it moments later; the temperature drops five or six degrees.
After navigating a crossing of highway 240 and the fairly busy Kuehne Road I ramble along back country roads, both paved and gravel through Yamhill County’s farm country. I head back towards the wine growing foothills in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. I turn off of North Valley Road which leads to a three mile gravel climb through vineyards on either side. The haunting morning fog fights against the early fall sunrise giving the quiet roads an eerie effect. It’s just me and this one horse, but otherwise not a soul. The climb steepens along the shoulders of the Adelsheim vineyards and tops out near 20 percent before linking up with a paved road back into town.
McMinnville AVA-The Peavine Climb
Between Portland and Salem McMinnville is the Willamette Valley’s largest town and as such some of its best dining and coffee options. The wine country classic is Nick’s Italian Cafe, the James Beard winning establishment’s back bar is where you’re most likely to find some of the region’s best winemakers probably having a beer. McMinnville’s downtown is classic, old storefronts, great wine country dining and a number of tasting rooms. Must-do stops would include Eyrie Vineyards, R. Stuart & Co and Maysara Winery.
A short ride east out of downtown takes you through the residential neighborhoods and quickly into farmland and you find SW Peavine Road pretty quickly. At the t junction with Youngberg Hill Road you take Peavine to the right and the climbing starts fairly quickly. Mercifully the steepest parts of the climb are paved and the views out into the surrounding vineyards and south into eastern flanks of the Coast Range are mesmerizing. As the gradient eases a bit the pavement ends and hard packed gravel takes you the rest of the way. The climbing lets up a bit though it persists as majestic Oregon oak trees give way to thick evergreen forest canopy. These roads are mixed use. There’s logging in the area, and hunting, and some sniper in training has left his mark on every road sign I come upon.
As SW Peavine drops over the course of the next four miles, views to the west into the Coast range with bright flashes of orange and yellow against dark evergreens make the time pass quickly. There are a few switchbacks but the gradient is easy and roads are fairly buffed out. At the bottom of the descent Peavine Rd continues to the right, and it goes on nearly halfway to the Oregon Coast. Gopher Valley Road to the left takes me another three or four miles on mostly flat, fresh gravel, which just recently graded has me picking lines all over the road. Thankfully it’s a road I have to myself save for one pick up truck heading in the other direction. Gopher Valley turns to pavement and it’s picturesque rolling pavement passing fields, pastures and some eye popping vineyards showing their fall colors along the flanks of the Coast Range foothills.
Come for the wine tourism or the gravel riding and stay for whichever one you choose. Weekends and holiday weekends in particular see much higher traffic and with folks visiting wine tasting rooms, you’ll want to get out early in the day, off season or mid week.
(Connect with the Yamhill County tourism group for recommendations on accommodations or COVID specific visit questions. The tourism office staff has a strong cycling bent and they’ve even got gravel routes listed on their website. co.yamhill.or.us )
2018 ROCO Winery Gravel Road Pinot Noir
If you’re gonzo for gravel, this is the right wine for you. The ROCO winery has a selection of wines celebrating the Willamette Valley’s best gravel roads—I’m not making this up. Each vineyard used in this blended Pinot Noir is found on or at the end of a gravel road, and so this is just a great excuse to drink a really lovely wine.
Aromatics include baking spice and clove, as well as blackberry compote. And the palate is easy drinking red fruits, think strawberry and rhubarb, with great acid and structure, particularly at such an approachable price. $25
2018 Penner Ash Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
Another take on blending a variety of the Valley’s vineyards to create a greater picture of why this is a special place for Pinot Noir. Pinot grapes from twenty different vineyards and multiple growing regions. The wine is darker in fruit character, with aromas of mocha powder, cinnamon and black plum. The palate though offers fresh minerality, turned earth, moss, and lots of blackberry flavors. $40
2017 Adelsheim Vineyard Staking Claim Chardonnay
Dave Adelsheim put down vines in 1972 as one of the Willamette Valley’s pioneers and his importance to Oregon Chardonnay’s development mirrors that of David Lett and the growth of Pinot Noir. Oregon Chardonnay is loaded with energy, freshness and great minerality; it is the closest thing you’ll find to the legendary white Burgundy in the New World.
The wine is all class notes of lemon cream, white flowers and chalk. The wines structure and elegance are matched with energy and verve. It’s a wine that shows that Chardonnay is as at home in the Willamette Valley as Pinot Noir. $35