The Wine Vacation: Napa Valley vs. Willamette Valley

Napa Valley and Sonoma County may remain the premier wine destinations in the country. However, the recent exposure that Oregon wine has received has solidified it’s place as a significant destination for wine travelers…specifically, the Willamette Valley.

So, the question arises, if you are looking forward to a post-vaccine wine holiday, which destination should you choose? Here, we compare the merits of Napa Valley vs Willamette Valley (north). In the context of wine regions, these are two very different placed, each with its own charms, benefits and pitfalls. Here we explore the merits of a Napa Valley v. a Willamette Valley wine trip.

With wine in mind, the two valleys are very similar insofar as they both predominantly feature a specific wine. In Napa Valley, it’s all about Cabernet Sauvignon. In the Willamette Valley, the featured wine is Pinot Noir. Having such a specialty is rare for wine regions. You don’t see this kind of focus in Sonoma, Mendocino, Livermore, Lodi Temecula and other wine regions. So, you have to ask yourself, which varietal would you prefer to encounter most on your trip: Cabernet or Pinot?
Bottom Line: The Pinot in Willamette Valley and the Cabernet from Napa Valley are both world-class. If the kind of wine you are likely to encounter is going to determine which region you visit then this is a very personal decision. You can’t go wrong either way.

You can put yourself in the middle of either Napa Valley or Willamette Valley with no more than an hour’s drive out of the earliest airports (Portland for the Willamette Valley and San Francisco/Oakland/Sacramento for Napa Valley). Once in the regions, you will notice stark differences in the travel geography. Napa Valley is dominated by two North/South roads that you will spend most of your time on: Silverado Trail on the east side and Highway 29 on the west side. It’s pretty simple and that’s a benefit. However, it’s pretty simple and simple isn’t always great. Willamette Valley on the other hand, while also having two important North/South roads (Interstate 5 and Highway 99), is much more about the backroads. As you travel from winery to winery and town to town (usually in and around Highway 99) you’ll encounter numerous back roads and side roads and small roads and country roads the take you to parts unknown you didn’t realize were within reach. This element of discovery and diversity of landscape is beyond charming.
Bottom Line: Willamette Valley provides a much more enjoyable drive than does Napa. I like that it’s much easier to get lost in Willamette Valley and accidentally run up on a small winery you never knew was in your sights.

Napa Valley gets a bad rap for being aloof and snooty, but frankly, I never experienced it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this reputation was developed more by it’s neighbor to the west (Sonoma), which always was looking to get an edge on Napa and tried pigeonholing it as less welcoming. Yes, Napa Valley is going to be more exclusive in terms of costs, but that’s just a matter of supply and demand. The fact is, if you want to spend your vacation in Napa Valley, you are going to get lots of smiles and welcomes from the hospitality crew that works that Valley. And the same is true in the Willamette Valley. In my time here and in my visits to tasting rooms and restaurants I’ve found a less casual atmosphere as well as lots of smiles and greetings of “Hey, come on in!”.
Bottom Line: Neither Napa nor Willamette Valley will intimidate. If you are intimidated by costs and the form of exclusivity that delivers, then Willamette Valley might be the place for you. But don’t count out Napa for a reputation they don’t live up to anymore.

It’s not even close. The Napa Valley experience is so much more expensive than the Willamette Valley. Whether you are talking about the cost of wine, lodging or restaurants, Napa Valley is a very dear experience. You might find a tasting room fee in the Willamette Valley that runs up to $30 or so per person. But in Napa, if you find a $30 tasting fee then you’ve found a bargain. And while the cost of lodging in Willamette Valley is also less than Napa, the choices are also greater in Napa. This is something to consider.
Bottom Line: It’s not a fair fight. Willamette Valley is so much more affordable than Napa Valley.

While you’ll find a number of really outstanding restaurants in Willamette Valley strewn throughout its towns of Dundee, Carlton, McMinnville, Amity and other locations, it just doesn’t compare to the food carnival that is Napa Valley. It’s not even a fair comparison. In Napa Valley sport-dining is a profession. The sheer volume of really outstanding food and restaurant hospitality boggles the mind.
Bottom Line: If dining out is a key part of what you want to experience while on vacation; if dining at a different world-class restaurant every lunch and dinner is important, Napa Valley is your destination. 

Leaving aside the nearby cities (Portland and San Francisco), both Napa Valley and Willamette Valley deliver up a variety of non-wine activities. For golfers, both locations provide interesting courses that are easily accessible. For shoppers, Napa probably gets the nod due only to the towns of Napa and Saint Helena and Yountville being so geared toward the visiting shoppers, while Willamette Valley’s shopping choices, while there and available, are somewhat less abundant. If you are looking to take a day to hike it’s really no contest. Willamette Valley is such an interesting environment with a more diverse set of vistas and hiking choices (including some that include some of the best mushroom foraging on the West Coast.
Bottom Line: Here I give the nod to the Willamette Valley. While the shopping is better in Napa Valley, the Willamette Valley just delivers a wider variety of experiences.

Bringing your kids on a wine vacation? OK. Whatever. If you must then you are looking or ways to entertain the little ones that don’t include having them sit in a corner while you sip on wine. The fact of the matter is that Napa Valley is an adult playground. You may find a few things to do with the kids, but really it’s not a place that is geared to their tastes. The Willamette Valley has many more options for the kids. From museums and waterslides to great hiking to parks and historical locales.
Bottom Line: Why are you thinking of bringing your kids to Napa Valley?

Both Napa Valley and Willamette Valley are key locations for wine lovers looking to get away. You won’t be disappointed by either region. Napa is going to be more expensive, more focused on food and wine and more dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon. Willamette Valley is a more diverse landscape, more fun to travel and drive about, less expensive, and is devoted to Pinot Noir. On a final note, you will find that the Willamette Valley is less crowded than Napa, even during its high season between April and September. That’s another important consideration.

12 Responses

  1. Jim Bernau - December 3, 2020

    We love you all are Oregonians now! ❤️

  2. Tom Wark - December 3, 2020

    And, I’m feeling the luv, Jim….

  3. Jeremiah S. - December 3, 2020

    Where is my comment? What is it? Censorship?

  4. Jeremiah S. - December 3, 2020

    People know! This punk deletes unwanted comments!

  5. Sha - December 4, 2020

    What are the transit occupancy taxes in each area? Sonoma County is considering 16%. That seems really high when visitors bring money in many ways.

  6. Tom Wark - December 4, 2020


    The TOP isn’t even a consideration in comparing Napa and Willamette Valley’s from a visitor’s perspective since the cost of lodging is so much more in Napa than in Willamette Valley.

  7. PaulG - December 4, 2020

    Interesting comparison Tom. Though both regions do specialize in a single red grape, that’s not to say that a brilliant variety of red and white and pink and sparkling wines can’t easily be found in either. Who does a better job with Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, rosé and, yes, Chardonnay?! I’m going with Oregon. And I’d give the Willamette the edge in experimentation (Pet-Nat, amphorae, native yeasts, biodynamic, etc.) I wouldn’t downplay the local eateries, which may not emulate the finest bistros of Paris but do take full advantage of an astounding array of locally sourced foods. Now, for you, on to NE Oregon (once travel opens up) and we’ll show you the Rocks District!

  8. Paul Vandenberg - December 4, 2020

    Let me invite you to my neighborhood!
    We are heavy in Cabernet Sauvignon but can offer way more diversity than both those valleys combined. I have 15 cultivars in our tiny vineyard, there are 50 more planted within 15 miles.

    Way less expensive , most tasting fees are $10 and often waived. We can’t get Napa wineries (or French) to come for comparative tasting, and we do really well in California judgings at a third the price.
    Great restaurants? A few in the cities at either end, not so much in the actual wine country, we are more like Napa in the 70s. Good taco shops.
    Lots of AirBnB, B&Bs, etc. at really low costs, under $100.
    So if you are a One Percenter, a status drinker, we may not be your place. But if you want to visit the best wine producing region in the World, (0.001 % of production often 3-8% of Top 100 lists) and be able to afford to go home with a few cases, perhaps you should look to the Yakima Valley.
    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol Winery and Organic Vineyard

  9. Tev Watt - December 7, 2020

    Hey, I know that top photo. Isn’t that Youngberg Hill in McMinnville Oregon? Their wines were as amazing as the views. My favorites were the Chardonnay and Pinto Noir..

  10. Mary Olson - December 7, 2020

    As one of the smaller wineries in the Willamette Valley and a member of Heart of the Willamette Wineries, I invite your readers to take the roads less traveled and visit our 16 small winmeries in the Corvallis/ Salem area.

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