Winter in the Willamette Valley Wine Country

I don’t remember the last time I saw the sun.

Surely it peeked through the slate grey Oregon sky at some point in the past four weeks, but honestly, it couldn’t have been for an hour or two.

Before we moved to the Willamette Valley, we were warned of the winters. We were warned particularly good and hard by our friends who lived here and understood we were coming from Napa Valley where it rains and is grey in the winter but not for too long at a time and not with the persistence you get up North.

“You need to be prepared for the winters. You won’t recognize it and it can play a number on you.”

“Like everyone else you’ll want to take a week or so around January or February and find a beach.”

“I highly recommend an LTB (Light Therapy Box) and get a good one. It changed my life after going through a couple winters without it.”

Our friend was recommending a SAD lamp. SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, which basically means the ongoing lack of sunshine can make one ongoingly depressed, irritable, mean, ornry and, well, sad.

We haven’t picked one up yet.

Kathy grew up in Texas with its abundance of winter sunshine. I’m from Northern California, which, while not Texas, had winter weather patterns that allowed me to keep my golf clubs at the ready all winter so long as I didn’t mind teeing off in 45-degree weather in the morning (I didn’t). My last round was late November when my son, Henry, who likes to drive the cart while sitting on my lap and whack the ball, was bundled up and complaining of the cold by the 3rd hole.

Of course, it is the winter weather here in Oregon that explains the prices of homes in Northern California—which was one of the reasons we moved to the Willamette Valley. You can still buy a 3,000 square foot home on nearly a quarter acre in a very nice section of the town for $500K. Currently, you can get a 2 bedroom, 2 bath, 1,200-foot condo in Napa for $500K. However, it does come with sunshine.

I don’t want to give the impression of buyers remorse or even that I’m complaining. Moving the family here was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made as an adult and I’d do it again just as quickly as I’ve recommended the move to others…numerous times since our move in early 2019 as a matter of fact.

But it’s true that when you move from a place like Sunny California, after living there for so many years, to the grey Willamette Valley there is an awe that sets in when you start to consider the monumental effect that a charge of climate can have on the mind and soul. At first, the change is all fun and games for its starkness. It’s like turning the corner in a funhouse: Ah…well, that’s different. Surprise!”

What creeps up on you after you settle into the constant grey, cold wind, and neverending dampness that is a Willamette Valley winter is the regular knowledge, and the comfort that comes with it, that in not too long a time it will all end. The winter will.

This very particular kind of realization never crept up on me in Napa because when there were grey skies in the winter it all ended real quick. There was no time to settle in and turn your attention to hope.

This time of year I take regular but unwarranted walks around my soggy backyard. I look at patches of bare ground knowing beneath are a hibernating collection of bulbs or corms that will return. I think about the lushness to come when I look at the cut-back banana trees and gunnera, both of which will grow so high by July that their tops are well beyond my reach. I find the golf balls that were chipped with too much gusto into what was in August a bit of a jungle and will be again. This will all end I tell myself as I take my regular strolls.

Truth be told, I’ve come to appreciate the chilly wind and hard drizzle of a normal Willamette Valley winter evening. As I write I’m sitting outside, under a large umbrella in 48-degree weather listening to the tapping of rain on the cover above me. enjoying a drink and a cigar. The giant conifers beyond my fence line are noisy with the wind at their tips. Still, being truthful I admit it’s an appreciation that is acquired, not natural…at least not for a Northern California boy.

I wouldn’t want to give anyone the impression that winters in Willamette Valley are harsh and taxing in the way that those loopy Minnesotans, Mainers, or Bostonians experience winter. Despite a little snow and colder temperatures that we usually get here once or twice a season, it’s not a grudge match for survival with the elements. It’s just grey and damp….most of the time from November to mid to late March.

I’m told by my trusty weather app that at some point over the weekend the sun will make an appearance. But for the next 12 days after, rain is considered probable at a rate of 20% to 40% each day. The foretold appearance of sunshine this weekend, if it really does come, is just a tease; a flex by the elemental gods to demonstrate they are not one-trick ponies.

So, my advice to those who are considering a similar move from a sunnier clime to the Willamette Valley is don’t let ongoing blankets of grey deter you or scare you off. Rather, make the move knowing that while neither Maine nor Arizona, the Willamette Valley remains a remarkable location of still-affordable beauty where grapes and wine are plentiful, the ocean nearby, the skiing an hour away, the forests still dense, the culture vibrant, and the winter is well, moist and damp with a small chance of sun.

Posted In: Oregon, Personal


6 Responses

  1. Jim Bernau - January 7, 2022

    Love this! My family has been in the Oregon Territory since 1821 and wouldn’t trade this wonderful Willamette Valley for any other place to make a full and contributing life.

  2. Rob from Yamhill County - January 7, 2022

    I’ve lived 40 of my 64 winters in the Willamette Valley, and would say this one, so far, is among the grayest and wettest. Perhaps being relatively homebound to avoid the virus has made it seem worse, but my backyard is soggier than it’s ever been.

    “I think about the lushness that will come…” That’s the best strategy! Once enveloped by the green, it would be hard to give it up. Or the reds…

  3. vanessahadick - January 7, 2022

    My first few Willamette Valley winters were the hardest…but then, as you appear to be, you realize that it’s small sacrifice we make to have year-round green hills and the cleanest air I’ve ever breathed. We do it for the vines! And appreciate it even more deeply when witnessing the severe water shortages south of the border. We are fortunate to receive the rain we do.

    It’s hard to live here and NOT become a conservationist, being surrounded by year-round green and majestic pines. And now (7 years living in Oregon), I LOVE having the four seasons, and could never go back to the year-round sameness of weather in Northern and Central California. As someone mentioned in a previous comment, this year has been especially gray and wet, and early. Yet also….that Christmas week of beautiful snow was absolutely magical, and we had several days of blue skies to make the snowy scene even more glorious!

    It has also been shocking to watch the climate changing even in the 7 years I’ve lived here – it’s been dramatic, and the shift towards warmer weather here makes me think often of the shifting boundary lines of regions conducive to winegrowing. It’s reassuring to be in Oregon when that is the reality.

    And yes….the cost of living here is almost laughable in its affordability. My mortgage for my 3 bed/2 bath house with a backyard and 2-car garage is less than my rent was for a room in San Francisco (as much as I miss the city). If rainy weather is the sacrifice for comfortability financially, the Willamette Valley wins every time.

  4. Jason - January 7, 2022

    I don’t see how its so much more affordable. Yes maybe compared to Napa/San Fansisco…but there are other northern California areas that are cheaper, Mendicino maybe? Then again in Davis where I live the average home price is like 700k$? It seemed like when I was living there it was just as expensive to rent or find a place to rent. Maybe that’s why there are so many people there living in RV’s and stuff?

  5. Keith Ross Karpel - January 7, 2022

    Winter in the Williamette Valley Wine Country was immediately interesting and important for me to read on many levels the main one being the a loved ones that are living and experiencing the winters. While I reside in Texas and it’s early December temperatures reaching 88 degrees, humidity discomfort included I received a call from my cousin in Salem informing me her tree fell over as the freezing rain/ice made the tree topple over but that passed so she was experiencing fresh clean air with an almost 50 degrees from my humid mid/eighties temps. Envious and curious about her move to Salem as I had no clue her family had analyzed their move before I read my cousin Toms blog while remaining eloquent explaining and being introspective and providing reasons ,past present and future for everything his family did from Napa to Salem to the exact neighborhood, the prose describing each decision likely keeping non-family members interested in the mindful trek his family made a happy short story. Thank you cousin giving me an insight into the knowledge of what Kathy and why Kathy fell in love with you and how lucky she is and we all are to have you in our family. Tom I love you cousin, sorry if this embarrasses you. I feel like i know you and understand what you’re about as I listened to the whole podcast Kath sent me today and I think you are brilliant

  6. Jessie Alvarez - October 23, 2023

    I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I don’t know who you are but definitely you’re going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

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