Most horses can sense your relative ease or total incompetence and will carry you accordingly, but Gracie isn’t one of those horses. A chestnut-colored, flat-shod Tennessee walking horse who has been carrying visitors into the Dundee Hills AVA for over a decade, she’s got the breed’s trademark calm, its sure-footed legs and smooth stride.
In other words, the horse handlers at Equestrian Wine Tours put me on Gracie because Gracie knows how to take care of me.
Travel, like horseback riding, can feel a bit like a trust fall. You go to a new place with the hope that it will elevate your life for a moment. You hope the guidebooks weren’t wrong, the friends that urged you there were right, that the people will be kind an knowledgeable when your GPS fails, that you’ll come away feeling, rightfully so, like your life has changed. In Oregon Wine Country, those systems are in place. A sense of hospitality thrives.
But as welcoming as it is in the rolling hills around McMinnville, Dundee, Carlton, Dayton, Amity and other tiny wine country towns in Oregon, there aren’t many great ways to actually get up into the vineyards. Wine grapes grow on private properties, and you can’t just pick a path through the vines and travel between them.
Unless you’re on a horse, that is. I met Gracie at the Wine Country Farm B&B, tucked deep in the Dundee Hills AVA, a tiny island of red volcanic soil that produces some of the world’s most exceptional wines, especially Pinot noir. The area’s the Ur-Country for Oregon wine. Oregon’s 20th century wine pioneers staked their claims here first, recognizing the microclimate’s slopes as one of those paradisiacal places for grape-growing.
Gracie has no idea about the storied slopes she walks, but she still knows them deeply. She cocks her ears and we head out, cutting through the rows of grapes of Armonéa Wines before we head up a hill. I’ve been told Gracie likes to take up the rear of the group, but today’s she’s decided to lead.
Within minutes, we’ve ascended the hill overlooking Domaine Serene to the west and are headed deep into a tiny oak grove. These little swaths of oaks are the heroes of the Oregon wine world, with so many winemakers connecting the pride of place found in Pinot noir to the magic found in these ancient environments, which once covered the valley.
I lean back as we descend, and tighten the reins a bit, but honestly, I have no idea if my beginner’s foibles affect Gracie at all because, true to her name, she both knows where to go and how to do the going. We’re developing camaraderie by the time we reach Vista Hills Vineyards, our first stop.
Gracie takes a rest and we hitch the group – six horses in all – in a wooded enclave right under the vineyard’s Tree House tasting room. The weather couldn’t have played nicer, and patches of sunlight shine through the trees onto the building’s expansive deck. A toddler comes over with his parents to pet the horses, which munch grass and scratch themselves on the trees and hitching posts while the group tries a flight from Pinot gris to Pinot noir.
Soon we’re ready to ride, so we saddle up and head east through rows of Pinot noir grapes, just leafed out. We can see all the way to Mt. Jefferson. Up into the field beyond the grasses waving in the breeze look as if a hand is petting them from above.
We hitch at Winter’s Hill and go inside the chilly barrel room, where The Beautiful Pig charcuterie has a pop-up salumi market alongside the tasting counter. My out-of-state companions are getting their first introductions to how it works in Oregon – that winemakers here want to make wine by establishing the frame, not messing with the picture.
Gracie’s spent the time nuzzling with her son, Chipper, at the post outside. Back astride, we head home. At least, I assume it’s home, since the horses seem to know the way and are eager to get there.
By now we all know much more about how little we need to control these horses. Except for a wayward chomp at a grape vine, they got this. Gracie trusts me a little more now, or maybe it’s me trusting her, and we ride back a little faster. I notice that I’m no longer holding the saddle’s horn.
I’ve taken friends and visitors up into these hills on roads for five years. I’ve visited the tasting rooms, stood at the edge of the rows, without ever really knowing how they all fit together. It strikes me that this is one of those experiences that shouldn’t be at the end of a list, but at the top. It’s the way in I’ve been waiting for.
Today, I feel like the patchwork in my wine country understanding is more filled out. It feels major, a feat accomplished at a horse’s pace, and I am awash in graciousness.
Emily Grosvenor is a travel writer in McMinnville, OR. Follow her on Twitter: @emilygrosvenor