Visit Carlton Wine Country
Posted on Tuesday, Oct 21 2014 - 12:00 am
“When I was growing up in Carlton, it wasn’t “The Heart of Oregon Wine Country,” my wife Joni points out. “It was “Way the Hell Out in the Sticks.” And she can tell you what all the wine tasting rooms lining Main Street used to be. The tasting room where I pour delightful Pinots – Noble Pig Vineyard and Winery – used to be the hardware store. De Ponte Cellars’ tasting room clearly used to be the old firehouse. Ken Wright Cellars’ tasting room, the one that looks like every small town train depot in every old movie you’ve ever seen, used to be the site of many a long goodbye and joyous homecoming. And Omero Cellars’ tasting room, the one that looks suspiciously like an old movie house, used to be the old movie house. The old marquee now says “Welcome to Carlton.”
The arc of Carlton’s story is a fairly typical slice of Americana, except for the current chapter. Incorporated in 1899 and named for pioneer, carpenter, shoe maker and the town’s first postmaster Wilson Carl, it’s about seven miles north of McMinnville (“Mac” in local-speak). Carlton enjoyed some fairly robust boomtown years after World War II: there were timber jobs, a steel plant in Mac, and a manufacturing concern right in town. Carlton also saw its fair share of bust years, along with the rest of small town America, starting in the 1970s. A lot of high school graduates left town as soon as the ink was dry on their diploma, some doing quite well -- Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is a graduate of Yamhill-Carlton High School. Others stayed, and struggled with an economy that was less than friendly to the rural working class.
When the Oregon wine industry began to take hold in the foothills all around it, Carlton gradually and quietly became a choice location to set up a tasting room for the various vineyards and wineries. It just sort of happened, like a town that has an antique store, then another one, and the next thing you know it’s a beloved one-stop antiquing destination. Same kind of thing, only with wine. One by one, boarded up windows saw daylight again, and turn of the century storefronts were lovingly renovated. Then, thanks to the tourism fueled upturn in the local economy, streets and sidewalks were improved, trees were planted, and hip-level streetlamps were installed. On a summer afternoon or a winter night, a stroll down Main Street in Carlton is magical. And quick – it’s only two blocks long.
Within that two square block radius are well over a dozen wine tasting rooms, with more scattered around the outskirts of town. The wines being poured can be extremely local, like Carlo & Julian, whose grapes are grown within the Carlton city limits, or from way out of town, like Scott Paul Wines, who, in addition to Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, also pours Burgundies and the occasional Champagne from France. The aforementioned Ken Wright Cellars makes Pinot Noirs from twelve vineyards scattered all around Oregon, whereas my home base, Noble Pig, makes Pinot Blanc, Gris, and Noir entirely from grapes grown in the McMinnville AVA (American Viticultural Area). Kramer Vineyards does wonderful things with sparkling wines: Rose made with Pinot Noir grapes, and sparkling Pinot Gris. Some of the newer structures on Main Street also house tasting rooms, like K&M, which offers small production, food friendly Willamette Valley wines. On the north edge of town Cana’s Feast offers Sangiovese and Barbera, among other varietals, as well as the sense you stepped out of your car into an Italian villa, complete with bocce ball courts. Nearby, the Carlton Winemaker’s Studio is the one-stop home to no fewer than twelve different vintners.
Just to name a few.
Hungry yet? The Horseradish offers soups, salads, sandwiches on fresh baked focaccia bread (the BLT with Carlton Farms bacon will blow your mind) and build your own cheese and meat platters. There’s live music Friday and Saturday nights. Also offering lighter fare a few doors down is Farmer’s Plate & Pantry, which also provides a cooking and gardening lending library, as well as sustainable living workshops and seminars. Heartier appetites could head across the street to Barrel 47, which offers everything from prime rib to fish tacos. A former bank, Barrel 47 kept the vault, turning it into the “Man Cave.” Another big favorite with the locals -- some tourists have a hard time wrapping their minds around this one, for some reason -- is Carlton Corners, also known as “The Gas Station.” Because it is. Not a cute little old gas station that’s been renovated into a nice spot to grab a sandwich (that would be the Carlton Bakery) but the fully operational, and only, town gas station. They just also happen to serve up the kind of breakfasts where “farm fresh” isn’t just empty marketing, and the rest of the day: amazing burgers and such, with a dozen or so microbrews on tap, including the latest from Carlton’s own Fire Mountain Brewery.
On the sweeter side, Republic of Jam is a don’t-miss. Under the banner “This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Jam,” their shelves are filled with an assertive jam creativity that might give Grandma the vapors: Blueberry Mint Chocolate, Marionberry Espresso, and Pineapple Vanilla Clove, for example. Also popular are their Goat Cheese Ice Cream Pushups. That’s right, Goat Cheese Ice Cream Pushups. Speaking of ice cream, Milo’s Dessert Bar a few doors down sticks with the more traditional Tillamook and Cascade Glacier ice creams, which can happily become a shake or root beer float, or maybe a crown on top of a slice of a Black Raven Pie from nearby Amity. Next door, Seven of Hearts/Luminous Hills pairs Oregon wines with handmade chocolates and truffles.
Carlton has always been a great American small town. In hard economic times, the wine industry helped restore some of its vibrancy, but that only happened because of the hard work and vision of locals who believe in their community. They built it, and the wine tourists came. “This is a great little town” I hear every weekend at my tasting room. “Funny you should put it that way,” I say. “That’s the official motto, says it right there on the sign: ‘Carlton: A Great Little Town’.”
~Jeff Marten, Tasting Room Manager, Noble Pig Vineyard & Winery