Recipe for a Family Spring Breakation in Oregon Wine Country

This recipe has been in my family since my kids started going to school. I tend to whip it out a few days before the fortuitous calamity of Spring Break takes hold: one week of no-school, with its free-form days, lingering cabin fever and dreary, unpredictable Oregon weather. I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit over the years, but the general method remains the same. The right mix of places, people and attitude make for one hot dish, perfect for grey days cut through with an occasional rainbow.


1-2 Caregivers, slightly worn*
1-5 Rascals, depending on taste
3-5 Oregon wine country destinations
1-2 Days of unpredictable weather

*They can be parents or grandparents adults otherwise crazy enough to take responsibility for the little Rascals in public.

Serves 2-6:


Move the Rascals from your couch to the car and buckle in. Set your GPS to McMinnville, all available routes are the scenic route. If Rascals start to bubble over en route, stop at Red Hills Market in Dundee for breakfast scones, coffee and a round of bocce on the court out back. Take HW18 towards Dayton.

You will know the rascals are ready for adventure when they start pointing and waving at the giant 747 atop the Wings & Waves Waterpark at the Evergreen Aviation Museum.  Alternate reading about the jets, planes and space craft on sight with frequent impromptu comedy sketches with old airline seats, a kiddo play area, an indoor fun park ride, and the IMAX theater.  If you notice a dip in mood, pretend you are the only person in the museum who can’t see Howard Hughes’ 219-ft. Spruce Goose, the largest wooden plane in the world.

The Rascals might need their own provisions at this point. Nab a quick bite of elevated home cooking at The Diner, or head down Oregon’s Favorite Main Street to Community Plate for a late brunch.

By now your Spring Breakation has been simmering for about three hours and weather will decide your next steps. Taste test the Rascals by kissing their foreheads to see if the flavors have started to congeal.


If it’s raining, head back to Evergreen for an afternoon at the Wings & Waves Indoor Water Park. After thoroughly wearing yourself out there, drop in for some paint-your-own pottery at Jack Potter. If the Rascals start to show signs of hunger (whining, bickering, or hitting each other in the backseat) stop in at the Grain Station Brew Works for a pint before heading home.

Chance of sun

If the sun has taken over, grab some snacks at Harvest Fresh Grocery and head on 99W towards Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge.  Climb to the overlook to catch sight of overwintering Canada Dusky Geese and other waterfowl. Pretend like you speak their language and teach your kids a few words. On the way back, stop in at Brooks Winery, one of Oregon’s most Rascal-friendly wine destinations, for choice Pinot noir, and, if you’ve timed it right, some wood-fired pizza and lawn games. Carry the Rascals back to the car, if you must, and blast your self-help podcast on the way home just a few seconds after they fall asleep.

Makes one very happy family.

Read more at Visit McMinnville.

The wine country detective gets the dirt on Terroir

There are some searches that take over a man. Some ideas that grab him by the neck and don’t let go. For me, it’s always been that elusive culprit that goes by the street name of Terroir. He’s there lurking in the diurnal shifts of cold evenings and hot days, always just out of grasp, always hiding in plain sight.

I finally get a break in the case Thursday morning. My sources are pointing fingers at Alexana Winery, up in a little valley straddling the Red Hills and the Yamhill-Carlton AVA just northwest of McMinnville. Word has it they have more Oregon soil types up there than any other wine joint in the state.


It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

I make an appointment. Better to give them a head’s up, let ‘em know I’m coming.

Right away I know they have something to hide. The winery’s tucked into a deep cut in the hill, something of the grapes and rolling landscapes to distract you on either side, pretty promises to divert me on my track. But I’ve been in this business long enough to spot a pretty lady’s secret motives, whether she’s got legs or just landscapes, and I won’t be deterred.

I park the car in a gravel lot and head in.

It’s all set up for fun and games: Wine bar near the left, group tasting room to the right, production facilities at the back end. The bar itself is Plexiglas covering contrasting lines of dirt in undulating stripes.

It’s like they’re mocking me, playing like that, out in the open.

Winemaker Bryan Weil is my way in. He’s one of the new crop of cool kid winemakers up on Worden Hill, planting grapes where no one thought they would grow.  He’s telling me a story about where we are: On this collision pattern between two AVAs.

It’s land touched by history. Volcano ash. Sediment. Oceanic debris. Landslides. A crime scene from millennia past: Geologic violence calmed down in the present.

It’s the soils I’ve come for. We’ve got the usual suspects again, but the crime ring seems to have grown here.  Jory. Willakenzie. Sitton. Yamhill. Hazelair. Gelderman. Goodin. Some guy named Witzel. There’s 18 of them in all, every one of them with his own foibles.

We’ve got profiles on all of them.

“There are a lot of spices in the spice box,” Weil tells me. He pulls up a chair.

Weil brings out two wines he describes as siblings. They’re part of the winery’s soil series, single blocks he keeps separate before blending.

We do that with our suspects back at the clink, too, keep ‘em separate, isolate ‘em, learn their tricks.

The first is the 2015 East Block Pinot Noir, roots dug down into volcanic soils.

I taste it. I’ve got a nose for this stuff, and it’s right there: spicy, with currants and vanilla. She’s got soft, plus tannins. She’s like a lady baking a pie in heels.

Then the 2015 West Block. The brother. Bolder and richer without bitterness. His roots reach down in the sedimentary soils.

When I’m being nosy I find some black tea, cinnamon, a touch of red fruits but it goes down slightly tart, clovey. He’s like a tea butler who slipped you some tart from the kitchen.

Same grapes, different soils, two wines, related but distinct. Terroir has his fingers in it all.

I prefer the lady, but I can’t let personal inclinations get in the way.

In the end, all detectives have the one who slips away. The search never ends.

Weil may be right. The story I may be writing here is the story of my own palate. Every new patch of dirt sets a course of where to go next.

Maybe I’ll find it today, maybe I’ll find it tomorrow, but someday soon, and for the rest of my life.

Read more at Visit McMinnville.

With small town baked goods, a delicate dance in scarcity

When you live in a place long enough, perhaps you, too might start to set your watch by an intimate knowledge of when your favorite dessert is made.  

It’s been the same every place we’ve lived since my husband and I got married, but we weren’t sure it was going to happen for us in McMinnville. We’ve marked our calendars by chocolate mousse cups – flaky pie base, finger-width layer of chocolate ganache with a tiny mountain of piped chocolate mousse on top, or  Later, a bakery’s DIY cannoli kit – mascarpone custard piping bag with a caramelized shell.

We had been in McMinnville for four years without falling in love with any one sweet confection, but about a year ago my husband brought home one flaky round, dusty brown disc about five inches in diameter from Red Fox Bakery.

It crumbled, soft.

We crumbled, hard.

And soon, he was biking three miles into town on his lunch break every Thursday to pick up a buckwheat cake (or two, or five).

It’s been the same every week since. I wait for it, actually. There’s a moment mid-day where I get the call, declaring the firm gladatorial Yay or Nay.

Really, I don’t care if you slap “French” on it and sprinkle it with Fleur de sel like they do at Red Fox, is there anything more ‘Merica than a buckwheat cake? A pastry so connected to the longings of the wayward traveler yearning to be home that it made it into a line of Stephen Foster’s minstrel ballad “Oh Susanna,” at the very point when the singer is dreaming of his long lost love?

That’s not even to get started on buckwheat itself. As a crop, it doesn’t respond to nitrogen fertilizers or pesticide use, so cultivation had fallen off in the last century, but a new consumer interest in ancient grains – heirloom grains that haven’t changed much in the past hundred years – has led bakers and recipe developers to experiment more with it as an ingredient. The result has been a bevy of baked goods with that quintessential buckwheat toothiness that somehow manages to feel both light and substantial at the same time.

At Red Fox, the Hall and Oates Channel streaming in on Pandora mixing with the scent of yeast starter, Baker Warren Lambert makes no more than a double batch of buckwheat cakes each Monday and Thursday at about 3:30 a.m., using a secret recipe developed by the bakery’s original owners.

Count them – that’s 24, including one that they usually cut up for samples.

With the sun still far from rising, Lambert mixes the dry ingredients into a mixture of butter, vanilla, eggs and sugar, mixing them just long enough until incorporated. Any more and the cakes will be more hockey puck than flaky disc.

The goal? An inch-high, lightly vanilla-sweet cake tinged with the unmistakably robust, slightly hoppy buckwheat.

He bakes them at 375 degrees on a tray sandwiched between the bakery’s other products, cinnamon rolls and twice-baked almond croissants.

Later, he will turn to danishes, fruit gallettes and, of course, baguettes, some of which will end up on a signature red wagon dragged down Third Street to restaurant clients.

“I still get that feeling when I pull the bread out of the oven,” Lambert said. “I look around to see if anyone is watching and say: Do you see this?”

A double tray of buckwheat cakes is all here can manage in between so much else, no more, no less.

What can I say – it’s a problem.

On a good day, half a dozen can make it to the bakery’s stand at the McMinnville Downtown Farmer’s Market. But all you need is one crazed buckwheat superfan who rolls in at 7:15 am and buys the whole lot and the day is soured for the rest of us.

Yes, it’s an universal truth – some of us choose to live in or visit small towns because this is about as much drama as we can handle. Because the world is so dark and the news is so devastating that the only existential question we want to answer most days is:

Will there, or will there not be buckwheat cakes at Red Fox today?

Red Fox plays this game of scarcity, trying to never over-saturate the market and leaving people wanting more. It’s a small batch bakery after all, with everything hand-made and where the goal is to have products sell out, but it’s a delicate dance where getting used to the occasional grumpy sullen customer is part and parcel to retaining a product’s popularity.

Meanwhile, at my house, we’ve got scarcity’s opposite and opposing force going full throttle: Food as love language, the desire to share  an abundance of the things you adore with your own adorables because you like watching your sons and friends and partner’s colleague’s husband crumble, too.

Check in with me in a week, please. Sharing this information might have been the worst idea for a writing subject I’ve ever had.


Confessions of a Closet Cruise Director

Confessions of a Closet Cruise Director

There’s this thing that happens when people visit my family in McMinnville. The second I learn someone I know is coming to town it is as if invisible hands have tied a short navy scarf around my neck and I morph into this person: chipper, scheming, managerial, someone with very good posture, all smiles, pointer finger ready to direct.

When it comes to trying to have the best experience humanly experiencable, I live to tell people what to do.

It’s an outgrowth of my job as a travel writer to seek out experiences worthy of a postcard, and when I go places, it is always with this extra filter created by this question driving me: Why should anyone take the time to do this?

But over the five years I’ve lived in McMinnville, capital of Oregon’s wine country, I’ve grown somewhat tired of the top ten lists, the must-see’s, the kind of travel writing you could do from a behind a desk without actually going anywhere. That kind of writing has value, yes. But when it comes to my own town, I’d like to take my inner cruise director and make her something more fitting of this place, more like a benevolent strolling partner with a lot of insider info.

The nuance of nice

This town I live in, it can seem at first glance like Pleasantville because it’s Nice with a capital ‘N.’ But nice has nuance. Nice people come to McMinnville, and the niceness has everything to do with wanting to do great big things in the world while also living small day-to-day. Nice means no nonsense, thank you very much, because there is work to do and wine to drink.

McMinnville – it’s a place where you might meet the guy who started one of the world’s most active online communities (Metafilter), and he’s sitting next to another guy who designs shoes for Adam Levine.

It’s a town where everyone stops traffic. No, really. Linger for even a second on a corner of Third Street and cars stop for you. I just can’t get over that.

It’s got a main street (3rd) where you are just as likely to meet someone taking their goat for a walk, where the farmer who sells you your veggies brings his own milk to Community Plate for a third-wave single origin latte, foam drawn in the shape of a swan.

It’s marked by a veneer of localism and small-town boosterism worthy of the freshly watered potted baskets that line 3rd street while also holding the country’s most legitimate scholarly conference on UFO sightings.

I crave these stories-behind-the-stories.

I live to tell people that they must go to Bistro Maison because the owner used to manage the Tavern on the Green in New York City and will provide you with the most exceptional hospitality in the valley.

I want to point out my friend Carmen’s Italian specialty shop Peirano & Daughters – and daughters! – and tell them what it’s like to watch friends aim high and win James Beard Awards.

As you can see, I am already telling you what to do.

Introducing Tiny Travels

So I’ve got this new column for Visit McMinnville and I’m calling it Tiny Travels because that what travel actually is for most of us – collected moments we squeeze in between everything left to be done. Tiny doesn’t mean fast, after all. It means choosing setting deliberately and enjoying what goes on there more.

This is not a hard job. Oregon wine country is a place that rewards those who linger. It favors the compulsive picnicker, the bucket list wine lover, the spontaneous day-tripper, the flaneur, the connoisseur, the sensual sweet spot-seeker.

I hope that Tiny Travels will help you go deeper, that it will feel more like collected scenes captured from the very clever wallpaper than listening to Julie from the Love Boat direct the show.

I invite you to follow me on these tiny travels.  Do let me know if I’m micro-managing you.