Drive Oregon’s Tasty “Fruit Loop” in the Hood River Valley

Oregon’s fruit basket, the Hood River Valley, overflows with bounty: fruit orchards, vineyards, mountain vistas. Just an hour’s drive east of Portland, the area is ideal for an agritourism getaway. (The town of Hood River is also a mecca for windsurfing and kiteboarding.)

Hood River County’s Fruit Loop is a drive through orchards and farms at the foot of Mt. Hood. ©Laurel Kallenbach

My first taste of Oregon fruit was delivered years ago in a box of apples sent as a gift by my boyfriend’s parents—now my in-laws—who live in the town of Hood River. Each apple, nestled in its cardboard bed, was an emissary from this Land of Plenty. Biting into a crisp McIntosh, Pippin or Gravenstein, I could taste the verdant valley from a thousand miles away.

A pesticide-free pear along The Fruit Loop ©Laurel Kallenbach

Planted with 15,000 acres of fruit trees, the Hood River Valley extends from the base of Mt. Hood, an 11,235-foot volcanic peak, to the Columbia River. This 20-mile swath of fertile land claims the titles “Apple Center of Oregon” and “Winter Pear Capital of the World.”

During summer and fall, roadside stands along sections of Highways 35 and 281, known as The Fruit Loop, offer fresh-picked fruit—peaches, pears, apricots, apples, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, melons and blueberries—along with canned and preserved fruit, nuts, pies and baked goods.

Fruits of the Valley

Whenever we visit in summer, my husband and I love to ramble the farm-lined roads, stopping at fruit stands when a colorful sign beckons us to sample the fruit du jour. Over the years, we’ve wandered many portions of The Fruit Loop, a self-guided 45-mile path of scenic highway that leads through the valley’s orchards, vineyards, forests and farmlands. Along the way, we usually stop at one of the many emerging vineyards for a wine tasting. (Pheasant Valley Winery is one of our favorites, and its vintages are made from organic grapes.)

Picking strawberries right from the field is an economic way to get the freshest, ripest fruit. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A charming alpaca farm is fun for kids—and for knitters like my mother-in-law who craves alpaca yarn. During mid-summer and fall, the fruit stands are packed with just-picked fruit and veggies, as well as eggs and homemade jams and pies. At McCurdy Farms, pears grow inside bottles attached to the tree branches to create Eau de Vie de Poire (pear brandy in a bottle).

For a hands-on fruit experience, we often spend a morning at one of the many organic “U-Pick” fields, where ripe cherries, apples, pears and berries are just waiting to be plucked from branches and bushes.

Fresh Oregon strawberries ©Laurel Kallenbach

This summer, our whole family went out and picked buckets of blueberries—then we went home and cooked blueberry pancakes for lunch, which we topped with more blueberries.

Somehow fruit always tastes better and fresher when you’ve picked it yourself.

You can find a map of the self-guided farm-stand tour at the Portland airport or in restaurants and stores around the town of Hood River. More information is also available at the Fruit Loop website.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted September 7, 2013

Views of Mt. Hood make the The Fruit Loop a dramatic drive. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Greener Grapes: Sustainable Oregon Wineries

Traveling through one corner of Oregon’s wine country taught me a lot about sustainable wine production. Here’s a quick guide to the green certifications for wines:

King Estate organic wines

King Estate organic wines

Organic: Most certified-organic wine labels say “made with organic grapes,” which means at least 70 percent of the wine’s ingredients are grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. The wine maker may also add low levels of sulfite as a preservative.

Biodynamic: The Demeter organization certifies that grapes are grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers and that the farm is managed as a living organism with a healthy, diverse ecosystem.

LIVE (Low-Input Viticulture and Enology): This internationally recognized program for sustainable certification limits use of chemical pesticides and promotes species appropriate to local conditions, biodiversity, and reliance on beneficial insects and plants.

Salmon Safe: A U.S. Northwest eco-label for agricultural practices that protect and restore waterways, allowing salmon to spawn and thrive. This certification comes with LIVE certification.

Here’s a taste of a few of the sustainable vintners in Oregon who are helping make a difference for the earth.

If you know of other sustainable Oregon wineries that I should add to this list, please leave a comment at the end of this blog about its name and what green certifications it carries.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Sokol Blosser's wine cellar is built green.

Sokol Blosser’s wine cellar is built into the side of a hill.

Oregon’s Sustainable Wine Country: Day 2

And so, my quest continues through Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley for fabulous wines that are good for the environment. The area we visited, including the Chehalem Valley and Dundee Hills, is less than an hour’s drive south of Portland—provided you don’t hit bad traffic (avoid rush hour).

Biodynamic vineyards at Brick House winemakers

Biodynamic vineyards at Brick House winemakers

Vines Harmonized to Nature: Brick House Vineyards

When Ken and I drive up to the farmhouse and tasting room of Brick House Vineyards, dogs Guy Noir and True Blue bound up to greet us, followed soon thereafter by Doug Tunnell, owner and winemaker, who shows us around his pristine land before leading us to the barn/tasting room. (Tastings can only be done by making a reservation in advance.)

There, we sip Pinot Noir and Chardonnay while Tunnell explains eco-friendly grape farming. Brick House Vineyards is certified biodynamic, meaning it does not use any harsh systemic fungicides, herbicides, insecticides or pesticides—which pollute the earth and bodies of water. Biodynamic growers follow organic principals and focus on nourishing vines and soil through use of manure, crop rotation, natural pest control, and lunar planting (done according to the moon’s phases).

Brick House Vineyard’s wine-aging barrels

Brick House Vineyard’s wine-aging barrels

Surrounded by the fruit and hazelnut orchards above the Chehalem Valley (several miles from the town of Newberg), Brick House is truly a New World winery dedicated to Old World ways of growing grapes.

“Biodynamic farming is connected to old wisdoms that a lot of farmers have gotten away from,” says Tunnell. “Grapevines are attuned to natural forces, including the changes in the moon. Biodynamics optimizes this,” he explains.

And the results are in the glass: Brick House wines are absolutely exquisite on the palette. The Cuvee du Tonnelier Pinot Noir is pricey ($39 per bottle), but its rich berry flavor with very mild tannins is so divine.

Brick House wines are distributed in a few states throughout the country (including Portland, Seattle, New York, Chicago, San Francisco) and the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are available for shipping right to your home. What better souvenir?

Culinary Center for the Willamette Valley

Up next: lunch at the Dundee Bistro in the town of Dundee,  followed by a wine tasting at the adjacent Ponzi Wine Bar. The bistro is owned by the Ponzi family, one of the first families to plant Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, and it blends culinary sophistication with a casual, modern atmosphere.

Dundee Bistro’s chefs cook with organic products and support local farmers committed to sustainable agricultural practices—and fortunately there are quite a lot of them in Oregon.

The Ponzi Tasting Room and Wine Bar sells a variety of Oregon wines.

The Ponzi Tasting Room and Wine Bar sells a variety of Oregon wines.

The restaurant’s goal is to “define” Willamette Valley cuisine, and it presents a lovely menu of locally produced wines, vegetables, nuts, fruits, mushrooms, fish and meats. We especially loved the Coq au Vin and the fresh organic salad.

After lunch, Ken and I wandered into the Ponzi Wine Bar to taste Ponzi wines, which are certified by LIVE, the Oregon program for Low-Input Viticulture and Enology. This internationally recognized program limits use of chemical pesticides and promotes planting of species appropriate to local conditions, biodiversity, and reliance on beneficial insects and plants.

The Ponzi Family supports the Oregon wine community, especially the sustainable movement, so its wine bar also sells rare wines from the region’s best producers.

During our tasting, there were many Ponzi wines we loved, but Ken and I thrilled to a dessert wine, the Ponzi Vino Gelato, made from white Riesling and Muscat grapes frozen until mid-winter. They’re then pressed and fermented to retain their sweetness. Yum!

Silo Suites: Abbey Road Farm

Ever slept in a grain silo? At Abbey Road Farm you can enjoy posh resort-style rooms, and yes, they’re housed in retrofitted silos.

Old silos have been converted into chic guest rooms at Abbey Road Farm.

Old silos have been converted into chic guest rooms at Abbey Road Farm.

When John and Judi Stuart bought this working farm near the town of Carlton, Oregon, they decided to raise chickens, goats and llamas on the 82 acres. Instead of sending the old silos to the dump, they took the eco-friendly initiative and converted them into luxury guest rooms with glorious views of the fields, gardens and orchards.

Local artisans salvaged fallen timber from the farm to create beautiful staircases, and energy-saving in-floor heating keeps visitors toasty on chilly days.

Guests can make Abbey Road their home base for exploring wine country, and if they desire, they can get an up-close experience with the farm by picking raspberries or collecting fresh eggs for breakfast.

Abbey Road Farm was booked the days Ken and I were in the area, so we have yet to experience sunrise from a silo, but the consolation prize during our stop-in visit was to sample the farm’s fresh, homemade goat cheese. It’s made daily, and guests can slather it on toast for breakfast. The Stuarts blend it with wonderful herbs: I personally found the lemon-zest variety out of this world!

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Click here for more information on what’s happening in Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine country.

Wine Taster’s Poll: Have you ever tasted an organic wine? What did you think? And what motivated you to choose organic over conventional?

Abbey Road Farm’s birdhouses attract red-wing blackbirds and orioles.

Abbey Road Farm’s birdhouses attract red-wing blackbirds and orioles.

Touring Oregon’s Sustainable Wine Country: Day 1

Oregon’s Willamette Valley is legendary for its fabulous Pinot Noir wines, and a great many of them happen to sustainably grown and produced. My husband, Ken, and I decided we really needed to investigate some vineyards; we discovered that there were so many organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wines that in two days, we could barely skim the surface of this quaint, lovely region.

Sokol Blosser sign_1A Passion for Pinot Noir: Sokol Blosser Winery

From Portland, we drove south to the Dundee Hills to Sokol Blosser Winery, located just two miles from the town of Dundee. Sokol Blosser is truly committed to creating delicious wines and to pursuing environmentally friendly practices in all phases of its business.

The Sokol Blosser family planted their first grapes in 1971. Over the years, they have perfected their art and protected the land and its biodiversity. Here are some of its eco-friendly measures:

  • The vineyards are organically farmed according to USDA regulations.
  • The estate is certified by Salmon-Safe as a vineyard that protects and restores salmon habitat.
  • Farm tractors run on 50 percent biodiesel.
Solar panels in Sokol Blosser's vineyards

Solar panels in Sokol Blosser’s vineyards

  • Sokol Blosser’s underground barrel cellar, built to U.S. Green Building Council standards, became the first winery in the country to earn the prestigious LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
  • The vintners use unbleached paper products for labels, wine boxes and gift bags whenever possible.
  • They recycle everything from office paper to pallet shrink-wrap.
  • Solar panels located in the grape fields provide about one-third of the winery’s electrical needs.

So how about the wines? You can relax and enjoy them all in the lovely tasting room that overlooks the acres of rolling hills and rows of grapevines. (The tasting room is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)

The Sokol Blosser Winery's tasting room lets you sample organic flavors.

The Sokol Blosser Winery’s tasting room lets you sample organic flavors.

We said “Mmmmmmm,” in honor of Meditrina (named for the little-known Roman goddess of wine and health), a rich, fruity marriage of Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel. We also adored Evolution, a blend of nine grapes that creates a light white wine that pairs with nearly any food.

Homage to Mushrooms at the  Joel Palmer House Restaurant

This restaurant is a must if you like mushrooms and are in Oregon wine country! All the dishes at the Joel Palmer House revolve around wild mushrooms (which the staff gathers themselves), and local/organic greens, herbs and vegetables.

Yes, even the desserts are mushroom-centric: Try the Mushroom Gelato or the Crème Brulée with Essence of Candy-Cap Mushroom.

The elegant and exquisite The Joel Palmer House is in a stately, Victorian historic mansion. The chef/owner, Jack Czarnecki, came to the tiny town of Dayton, Oregon because he learned mushrooming from his father, and Jack wanted to blend fine mushroom-based cuisine with great wine—especially Oregon’s finest.

Even though the ingredients are local, the menu includes dishes from all over the world: I chose scallops on lotus root with a wine/mushroom sauce; Ken had wild salmon with an Argentinian chimichurra sauce. To start the meal, we were treated to a mushroom risotto amuse-bouche with white truffle oil and shavings. Divine!! (Who knew truffles grew in Oregon??!)

The Joel Palmer House restaurant specializes in mushroom-based cuisine and Oregon wines.

The Joel Palmer House restaurant specializes in mushroom-based cuisine and Oregon wines.

As we debated whether to order the Heidi’s Three-Mushroom Tart (a house specialty) a silver-haired East-Coast gentleman stopped at our table and said in his distinguished voice, “Heidi’s Tart is to die for. You must have it, but do share it between you two.” And so we did. It was rich, and very foresty with its blend of wild mushrooms.

If you’re really hungry, splurge for the $75 Mushroom Madness dinner in which Chef Czarnecki serves a variety of items. It would be the best way to get lots of tastes, but we were completely satisfied with our a la carte choices.

A-Snooze at the Wine Country Farm B&B

From the verandah of the Willamette Room at the Wine Country Farm B&B, Ken and I sipped some wine and beheld the rolling vineyards in the valley. As a fox went scurrying by, we realize how his quiet and peaceful the countryside in wine country is.

The entrance to the charming Wine Country Farm B&B

The entrance to the Wine Country Farm B&B

The B&B is situated on a charming working farm (they raise grapes and Arabian horses) near Dayton, Oregon. Its grounds are lovely, filled with garden sculptures and blooming flowers to enjoy.

After our fabulous dinner (and a chocolate chip nightcap from the B&B’s bottomless cookie jar) we drifted off into sweet slumberland.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

P.S. Share your stories of wine country: in Oregon, California, Italy, France, Australia.