Looking down from 35,000 feet the white haze circles the mountains like settling fog. This is Oregon in the summer so there is no doubt that this is smoke and the lush forests are on fire. I visit every summer, usually in August, and often regret not getting there before the first spark ignites the inevitable. Despite the hazy sky and 100-degree heat the Rogue Valley still delivers a beautiful summer retreat – A week filled with concerts at wineries, boat trips on the river, sampling craft beer, freshly roasted coffee, independent restaurants and the gorgeous natural scenery of Southern Oregon.
My destination is Grants Pass. I grew up here and like many who grow up in small-town America I couldn’t wait to move on to more populous destinations. I now look forward to returning to this historic town surrounded by mountains and cut through the center by the rugged Rogue River. The area, once reliant on timber, now is a thriving tourist destination with dozens of vineyards and artisan food establishments spread throughout the scenic countryside.
Where to Eat
Many of the town’s restaurants are concentrated in the downtown historic core and housed in charming turn-of-the-century buildings. It’s a safe bet to head here when you’re hungry. My mother, who shares my tastes in locally-grown independent food, has a new restaurant to try and has awaited my visit to indulge. Lulu’s is a self-described European-style bistro specializing in beignets, crepes, sandwiches, and salads. Most items are locally sourced and organic. I ordered the Mushroom Vegetarian Burger and expected the typical veggie burger held together with grains but this was all mushroom and by far the best I’ve had. I’m excited to experiment and see if I can come up with similar results. I will certainly return to sample more of the menu on my next visit. Lulu’s is open for breakfast, weekend brunch and daily lunch. 237 SW G. Street
The Horny Goat Gastro Pub is located in the old Steam Laundry Building built in 1903 and the food is as good as the location is charming. I rarely find a tofu sandwich on a menu so I had to try it. Southern Oregon has never lacked for vegetarian options and this restaurant was no exception. 234 SW 5th Street.
The one restaurant I always make sure to visit when I’m in town is Circle J. Their pizza is my absolute favorite! The Martini, in particular, is fantastic. The base is a garlic cream sauce layered with mozzarella, green olives, artichoke hearts and red onion (hold the ham for vegetarians). My version, the Vegetarian Martini Pizza holds me over in between Oregon visits. They also serve a variety of delicious sandwiches and salads. The decor is funky and you’ll find plenty of Oregon beer on tap. 241 SW G Street.
While not a restaurant The Rogue Creamery belongs in the EAT category. Much has been written about the creamery located in nearby in Central Point, Oregon but I wanted to visit the dairy to see this portion of the operation. Their blue cheese has garnered much attention after being awarded the World’s best blue cheese in 2003 at the World Cheese Awards in London. This was a first for a U.S. creamery. They state their mission as being “an artisan cheese company with people dedicated to service, sustainability and the art and tradition of creating the worlds finest handmade cheese”. The dairy is completely organic and committed to sustainable agriculture which they define as environmental health, animal welfare, and social and economic equality. After touring the dairy on this hot August day we left with a variety of cheese and some of their homemade ice cream which consisted of minimal ingredients. Follow the link to read more about my tour of the Rogue Creamery Dairy. The dairy is located 7 miles from downtown at 6531 Lower River Road.
Where to Drink
Grants Pass is home to Dutch Bros Coffee. Founded in 1992 they are known for providing not only a good cup of coffee but the friendliest service you’re likely to come across. The privately held company started by two brothers in a single location has now grown to over 260 locations across the west. There are no outlets near where I live in Los Angeles yet I’ve heard Dutch Bros mentioned twice in the past week – a person who proclaimed herself a customer for life after vacationing in Washington and having her first Dutch Bros. coffee. The other from someone who, despite all the Southern California options, orders their coffee online from Dutch Bros. They seem to have found the perfect combination of quality coffee and great service. Their smoothies are my daughters absolute favorite requiring us to drive directly to a Dutch Bros. immediately upon arrival. Lastly but certainly not least this company donates millions of dollars per year to charities.
The award-winning Rogue Roasters is the perfect spot to meet up with friends and enjoy organic micro-roasted coffee. I made multiple trips here during my week in Grants Pass and made sure to buy some beans to return home with. Although I should branch out their Mexican Mochas are the best I’ve had anywhere so, as always, I stick with what I love. Speaking with the friendly staff I learned that they roast to order so I can easily order online and drink my favorite coffee, freshly roasted, from anywhere. 610 SW 6th Street.
If you’re in the mood for a beer you have some great options. Climate City Brewing Co. offers a wide variety of beers including IPA’s, porters, and pilsners among others. I’m a big fan of reds and rarely find two on tap anywhere. The Rainie Falls Red and Ray’s Imperial Red were both fantastic while being distinctively different from one another. They also have pub food offerings such as pretzel bites, salads, sandwiches, and pizzas. 509 SW G. Street.
My visits always include a party thrown by my parents for my family and friends. They serve local food, wine, and beer. This year we decided to buy some growlers from the local market, Cartwright’s, which has an extensive selection of beers on tap. We went home with some Porter from Mountain View Brewery. This two-year-old family-run brewery produces some great craft beer which can be found at local restaurants. The Porter was exceptionally smooth and enjoyed by all of the guests.
Southern Oregon Wine
Wine Tasting at Del Rio Vineyards
Southern Oregon is home to dozens of exceptional wineries. The area has gained distinction as a region where microclimates result in a wide variety of superb wines, not just Pinot or Chardonnay. Earlier this year Forbes named the region one of The Top 12 Underrated Wine Regions To Visit In 2017 because of the diversity of the wines grown here. If you’re not lucky enough to be visiting the area a great way to sample wines from the Northwest is to join a wine club. I belong to The California Wine Club which has a Pacific Northwest Series subscription. The variety and quality of the small-batch vineyards they feature are fantastic. If you’re visiting the region the best ways to spend an afternoon in Southern Oregon is to visit these gorgeous vineyards and sample their wines.
Located along the Rogue River Del Rio Winery is a short drive from Grants Pass and a routine part of my visits. The picturesque vineyard is expansive with 200,000 vines covering the rolling hillside and a tasting room housed in the former Rocky Point Hotel built in 1864. Once a stagecoach stop, the building is now a charming spot to relax and sip Del Rio’s many varietals. I’m partial to reds and theirs are exceptional, especially their Pinot Noir. Despite my preference for reds I always order the Premier Wine Flight which gives a sampling of both their reds and whites. Sitting at a picnic table on the grounds is a relaxing and tasty way to spend an afternoon.
Summer evenings in wine country are especially enjoyable. This time of year many of the local vineyards stay open late hosting concerts. As luck would have it our Thursday night was free and also the scheduled concert night at Red Lily Vineyard. Located between Grants Pass and Medford along Hwy. 238 this location is hard to beat. Nestled in the hills with the Applegate River running through the property it’s the perfect spot to listen to live music while sipping their fantastic wine. We bought a bottle of their Tempranillo and grabbed a table next to the river. Multiple food trucks gave guests delicious options and the ice cream truck was a hit with the kids.
On this particular hot summer night, the weather was unsettled. Nature began to make noise before the band began to play and soon the thunder and lightning were constant, luckily without much more than a brief sprinkle. Friends of mine joined us just as we have done in past summers. One of their sons just bought his first DSLR camera so we decided this was the perfect time to test it out. We wandered the grounds attempting to catch a lightning bolt on “film” and despite our failure to capture that image we gave ourselves a walking tour of the beautiful Red Lily grounds.
The setting is gorgeous but let’s talk about the wine. Red Lily’s goal is to produce exceptional Spanish style wines and by the awards they are winning I’d say they are succeeding. Most recently The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition billed as the “largest competition of American Wines in the world” awarded their Tempranillo a silver medal. Stop by for a tasting year-round.
What to Do
Farm to Table
The Grants Pass Growers Market is the oldest and largest of its kind in Southern Oregon. Established in 1980 the market has grown to over 100 members selling their vegetables, fruits, baked goods, arts and crafts. Located at 4th and F Streets in downtown they serve between 300 and 5000 visitors each weekend and operate year round. They move the market indoors at the fairgrounds during the winter months.
This is a weekend ritual for my family and I’m more than happy to tag along during my visits. This isn’t just a place to stroll and sip a cup of coffee it’s the destination for stocking up for the week ahead on all the culinary necessities. My mother comes here with specifics in mind; Rosa’s Tamales which will be dinner one night during my Southern Oregon stay and Mama Terra Micro Creamery for their delicious goat cheese which will be served when we host friends later in the week. These combined with fresh fruits and vegetables from the areas many farms make eating-in a treat. One vendor, Salinity Salts, wasn’t at the market today. I stock up on their salt every time I visit. The Black Garlic Finishing Salt is a staple in our home. Luckily I can order online at https://salinitysalts.com/.
Ride the Rugged Rogue River
The Rogue River is the heart of Grants Pass. In the summer months, the tourists come to town to raft and boat along this wild and scenic river. I spent many hours on these banks as a kid and never fail to recognize its beauty. One thing I never managed to do while growing up here was take a trip down the river on the Hellgate Jetboats. These boats take over 70,000 people each summer for a variety of excursions where visitors admire the natural beauty of the area, dine at the OK Corral and usually end up drenched. The dinner trip (order ahead for a vegetarian meal) has been a part of my summer itinerary for the past several years. This year was a bit smoky due to the forest fires but still gorgeous. The only disappointment was failing to see any bald eagles. Last year we saw 4! There is still plenty of wildlife and as my daughter realized the deer are more than happy to eat that unwanted celery right out of your hand.
I spent my final warm Oregon evening outdoors with friends and family sipping Southern Oregon wine and craft beer and eating local berries, melon, salad and Rogue Creamery cheese. As dusk falls a friend I hadn’t yet seen on this trip stops by to say hello. She’s been busy fighting the raging forest fires in the Southern half of the state. Looking skyward we notice that the stars are once again bright in the clear night sky. The winds have shifted or perhaps the fires have died down – either way, it’s a beautiful sight. This is the Rogue Valley I came for; the people, local food and drinks, stunning nature and sparkling milky way spiraling overhead.