The Umpqua Valley is only two hours from our doorstep in Ashland, but until Memorial Day weekend it was almost unknown to us.
Our son, Kevin, and daughter, Trina, had given my wife, Barb, and me a wine tour as a gift.
So we fired up at 0-dark-30 on Saturday morning, loaded the car with our bikes and did the Interstate-5 highball from Ashland to Sutherlin for the Umpqua Ultimate Bike Ride.
A spectacular, 46-mile loop from Sutherlin through fairytale valleys and along the Umpqua River, the ride lived up to its name.
The Umpqua Valley is really a series of many small valleys separated by rivers, creeks and ridges, with gentle, rolling hills and flat roads along the rivers: an ideal cycling paradise.
This year, because of the wet spring, the countryside was as lush and green as Ireland.
Immediately upon leaving Sutherlin, we entered a pastoral world of verdant fields and grazing cattle with only an occasional car on the road. The route was well-marked and took us through some of the most scenic areas of the western Umpqua basin. I almost veered off the road twice while admiring the magnificent views.
Past the hamlet of Umpqua, we followed the Umpqua River for 25 miles along fern-covered cliffs; it was the most enchanting part of the ride.
The main Umpqua is formed at River Forks, where the north and south stems join together, doubling the river in size and power.
Cycling along the river on a clear, warm, sunny day is as good as it gets. Just as we stopped for lunch, a couple of blacktail deer came loping along the opposite riverbank, oblivious to our presence.
Every now and then, we saw timeless vignettes of rural life that hearkened back to Jeffersonian America. One example was a faded sign painted on a placard in front of a farmhouse that read: "Farm fresh eggs. $2.50 a dozen. Self Service."
Traffic was virtually nonexistent, which was astounding for a sunny Memorial Day weekend, and we had the road all to ourselves riding four abreast.
The abundant foliage sometimes obscured the river, but often we were treated to beautiful vistas of the mighty Umpqua, easily a half-mile across and moving quite fast.
Birds singing in the trees sounded like a symphony, and the cliffs and tree canopy provided a shaded, moist, microclimate for ferns, which were so luxuriant and green a leprechaun would have found himself at home.
The rolling hills and gentle curves made pedaling a delight, and the scenery was remarkable: Fields of yellow wildflowers lined the road, red azaleas and purple rhododendrons covered shaded hillsides and green pastures bordered the river as it wound lazily through the valley.
After 25 miles we came to Highway 138, a busy thoroughfare and the start of a steep, 3-mile climb, but then we descended into Green Valley, another little jewel of the Umpqua.
At the end of the ride, we crossed the Rochester Bridge, one of the iconic covered bridges in Douglas County, a perfect end for the first half of our two-day exploration in the Land of Umpqua.
The next day we met Diane and Bruce Smith of Oregon Wine Country Tours (www.oregonwinecountrytours.com) at their country home, hopped in their van and took off on a tour of four of the Umpqua Valley's 23 wineries.
Our first stop was Marsh Anne Landing (www.marshannelanding.com), a true mom-and-pop winery run by Greg and Fran Cramer, who specialize in Rhone varieties like syrah and viognier. They do all the work themselves, a true labor of love. Greg Cramer explained that the name of his wines are a play on the winery name, so Marsh Anne becomes Martian and one of their wines is named Red Planet.
The second winery was Julianna Vineyards (www.juliannavineyards.com), located on the banks of the Umpqua, which features the logo of a jumping chinook salmon on its label. The tasting room was a deck overlooking the river, an ideal romantic setting to sip wine and enjoy the scenery. The Smiths put on a delicious, gourmet lunch of bread, olives, pasta salads, fruit and cookies.
The third winery, Palotai (www.palotaiwines.com), was founded by a Hungarian named Gabor and is now owned by John Olson who, along with his wife and two teenagers, produces 12 different wines from his small vineyard. The tasting room is cozy, and the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. We felt like we were visiting friends.
The last winery of the tour was Hillcrest Winery (www.hillcrestvineyard.com), Oregon's oldest estate winery and another family-run operation, owned by Dyson and Susan De Mara.
Dyson De Mara is very passionate about winemaking, and listening to him explain the history of the vineyard and how he makes the wines was both entertaining and educational. He gets so excited that he gesticulates constantly as he talks, like an Italian on the streets of Naples. The winemaking production facility is right behind the tasting room, and De Mara gave us a tour then had us sample some wines still in casks, which he will bottle next year.
We had a fabulous day traveling through resplendent countryside and enjoying some superb wines. At each winery, we learned something new about the wines from the local vintners, who are Oregon pioneers of winemaking in the region. The land of Umpqua is a local Eden for cycling and wine tasting, and we will be returning there again and again for both.