VISITING CARLTON, OREGON
The small but significant epicenter of the North Willamette Valley’s farm and wine scene
BY VALERIE ESTELLE ROGERS
One hour west of Portland lies the community of Carlton, population 2,000, give or take a few. With one bustling main street plus a few downtown side streets, it’s possible to drive right through Carlton in mere minutes. But I’m telling you now, don’t drive through. Instead, stop, explore and give yourself the gift of discovering what Carlton residents already know: this little town is full of big fun, exciting community events, great food and amazing wineries.
Carlton is thriving.
Boasting the prestige of the highest number of tasting rooms per capita in the U.S., it’s easy to get lost on a day of Carlton wine tasting, having parked your car only once. Fifteen tasting rooms lie within walking distance, eleven of those in a four-block radius. If you add the pleasant half-mile stroll west to Carlton Winemakers Studio, you can visit Cana’s Feast Winery right next door, then discover 16 additional labels to try! No, this isn’t a bawdy bachelorette party challenge I’m suggesting, it’s just the facts. A short walk east from the center of town on Main Street, you’ll reach Carlo & Julian Winery, where locally grown malbec and merlot are poured alongside pinot noir. If you want to stay with the big reds a bit longer, be sure to visit the Troon Wine Bar. Troon vines and wines hail from Southern Oregon in the Applegate Valley region. For 11 years, Troon has been pouring in Carlton, proving a good complement to its pinot neighbors. The landmark Ken Wright Cellars tasting room can be found in the historic rail station and not-to-miss — one of my favorites — Carlton Cellars and its Road’s End pinot noir, can be found just 500 feet away. With its recently renovated historic grain elevator, Flâneur Wines is the sizzling hot newcomer to Carlton. You can’t miss it, just look up — it’s the tallest building in town. Finally, still dusting off boxes from their establishing a Carlton tasting room, meet Big Table Farm Winery.
An expert wine taster — or pretend sommelier — is usually also an expert diner because it’s no secret: wine and food have an unbreakable marriage bond. Dining in Carlton is full of options and, yes, I’ve tried them all. Breakfast staples are found at the Carlton Bakery and Barrel 47.
The Carlton Bakery serves breakfast and lunch options as well as all the delectable pastries of your dreams — I’ve heard their macaroons are as good as those found in Paris! I’m partial to the raisin cinnamon rolls and rosemary brioche. This French-inspired artisan bakery will be relocating across the street in the next few months. They’ve matched the new space to the historic aesthetics of downtown Carlton. More space means more baguettes, here’s hoping!
Barrel 47 is located in the town’s old bank building and comes complete with a walk-in vault. The restaurant offers full-menu-sit-down-fare and, if you’re adventurous, order the Big Andy Skillet: three kinds of meat, gravy and a couple of eggs, just enough to start a day of serious wine tasting.
As time passes between leisurely sipping and the lunch hour arrives, be sure to check out The Horseradish. Recently updating its vibe from light lunch fare and cheese counter to a full lunch and dinner menu, the eatery now occupies a new location a few doors down. With the opportunity to expand and add another dinner option downtown, owners Julie and Sean Davis are excited about this new chapter in their flourishing nearly-decade-old eatery. Of course, some things must stay the same: The Horseradish’s pastrami sandwich and its live music are here to stay. Along with his brothers, Sean co-owns Marshall Davis Winery with a tasting room conveniently located next door to the restaurant.
If you need to grab a quick lunch, many locals will direct you to the Mayla Thai Food To Go food truck. Another fast lunch can be found at the Main Street Market and Deli, which has been serving handmade traditional deli sandwiches for over 40 years. Owners Tom and Tina Bischof bought the business on Elvis’ birthday, which they just knew was a good sign! Local favorite the Main Street Monster is designed to feed two or three people — I hereby issue a challenge, good luck!
In addition to breakfasts, Barrel 47 is a great location for a perfect pub fare dinner. With a keg of Ken Wright wine on tap, a full-service bar and cold beer, your meal will be a hit with selections like fish and chips, prime rib r a juicy New York steak. Just down the street sits the French bistro Cuvée, where diners can enjoy a three-course prix fixe dinner for an exceptionally affordable price. Chef and owner Gilbert Henry is native to Alsace, France and has the accent to prove it. One block down the street at Carlton & Coast, diners can enjoy casual pub fare while picking up a game of pool, singing karaoke, winning at trivia and sampling any of the 38 brews on tap! Enter Earth & Sea, Carlton’s newest restaurant. Soft lighting, raw oysters and a well-curated wine list, what more is there? Oh, a great cocktail bar, outdoor seating and an open-air kitchen. Owner Thomas Ghinazzi didn’t miss a beat when he converted the former Carlton Firehouse into his eclectic restaurant.
The house-made crab cakes melt in your mouth and I encourage you to try the jumbo gulf shrimp served with Jonagold apple chutney, house pickles and a coconut curry bisque.
Carlton’s success is anchored in dedicated community members who give generous volunteer time and in active local organizations like the Carlton Business Association. Julie Rabung, president of the association, helps drive the CBA, inspiring community participation. “Living in Carlton feels like you are surrounded by friends every day,” says Julie. “The CBA promotes events that give surrounding communities opportunities to share that feeling.” The CBA hosts an astounding number of events each month — between ten and twenty — in addition to several annual signature events. Every other month sees a Ladies Night Out, when downtown stores and wineries stay open late for friends to connect. In February, for those who missed it or want to relive it, comes the Adult Prom! Get fancy and go dancing just like in the old days. A St. Patrick’s Day Crawl is held in March, followed by the immensely popular Porklandia! A pre-Fathers Day weekend event, Porklandia offers 21 locations celebrating all things pig, from Cubano sandwiches to pork belly to barbecued ribs. Find the latest information on the event’s social media Facebook page — it’s packed with wine dinners, music announcements and family activities, all in Carlton.
I have been coming to Carlton for thirty years and have enjoyed watching the charming community grow and become a vital part of Oregon Wine Country. Once a little country town, Carlton is now a destination all its own. Sometimes seeming in the shadow of the larger neighboring city of McMinnville — which boasts a university, a population sixteen times that of Carlton and was recently recognized for one of the most charming main streets in America — I can confidently say the community of Carlton stands alongside McMinnville as a peer, not as a competitor or a shadow. Carlton’s light shines bright. What makes living in wine country special is the can-do we’re-all-in-this-together spirit. When one town wins, we all win. When one winery wins, every winery wins. Of the delightful small towns found throughout the Willamette Valley, the drive between each is short — supporting each other is our key to success.
Is Carlton a small rural town or booming wine country destination? You decide. I already have.
Downtown with V. Estelle
BY VALERIE ESTELLE ROGERS
The seasons are fighting the change from summer to fall. Today, summer is winning. Warm breeze air ever so softly nudged my face as I walked along the Willamette River Trail in Independence, Oregon. The trail, which opened in 2012, covers a 5k loop from Riverview Park Amphitheater in the center of town to North Riverfront Ballfield and Complex. I passed leisurely bike riders, avid cyclists and the meandering dog walker.
I visited the newest hotel in town, The Independence Hotel, which boasts prime waterfront views. Located one block from the center of town, the hotel conveniently overlooks the amphitheater. Opened at the end of August 2019, the hotel features 75 rooms, 14 suites, a full restaurant and bar, a rooftop terrace, and in an unexpected twist, it caters to cyclists. Because it sits directly on the route of the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway, The Independence Hotel gave careful consideration to creating a space for those who are visiting by bicycle. Upon consulting cycling experts and avid riders, each room was designed to house bikes just inside the guest room door, on flooring safe for loose dirt and tires. The wall paint was considered and prepared in such a way to protect from chips or scrapes from the accidental leaning of bikes. In addition, two on-site locations are offered where guests can repair bikes and refill tires with the hotel’s provided tools. A bike washing station sits outside with more tools for minor repairs to get you back on the path again. From cyclists and water enthusiasts to park concertgoers and staycation date nights, this hotel has you covered.
Conveniently parked at the hotel, I casually walked the one block to the center crossing of Main and C Streets. I relaxed into a turtle-pace and I slowly explored storefronts filled with candy, toys, books, and window-shopped antiques. I was easily pulled into Second Chance Books, a fantastically well-organized used bookstore
dating back to 1993. The bright yellow exterior with the bold words reading “BUY SELL TRADE” hanging over well- placed chairs for reading in the sun was too much goodness to pass by. The wonderful scent of old and well-loved used books engulfed my senses when I entered. It’s amazing how time stands still in a used book store, the transformative power of section after section of books to explore, to go on journeys with. I left with a book featuring Italy and a scooter on the cover and promises of tales told over cobblestones.
Buzzworthy locations not to miss are Naughty Noodle, Jubilee Champagne and Dessert Bar and The River Gallery. If you plan well, come back in February for the annual Wild Women Show at The River Gallery, where over 200 artists showcase their talents. Spend the day picking out your favorite piece of artwork, dine at Naughty Noodle where all of the pasta and sauces are made fresh from local sources. Follow with a walk over to Jubilee Champagne and Dessert for an after-dinner delicacy, perhaps a macaroon with some Veuve Clicquot or opt for some local bubbles.
Directly in the center of town lies the Riverview Park Amphitheater. Set in place in 2005, this vision has provided the community with a central meeting place for many of the town’s favorite festivals: Farmers Market, Independence Days, River’s Edge Summer Music Series and the Hop and Heritage Festival to name a few. Hops are important to Independence — so much so, at one time around the 1860s to early 1900s, Independence was known as the Hop Capital of the World. Acres of hops still grow in the fields surrounding the town, with well-known Rogue Brewery harvesting 52 acres in 2018 and producing just under 80,000 pounds of hops. It was only natural that I would seek out a beer! After a quick little bar hop from Arena Sports Bar and Grill, Independence Grill
and Bar and Brew Coffee & Tap House, I settled into my seat at the counter of The Tap Station, formerly a gas station. The Tap Station is complete with roll-up garage doors, loud rock music, picnic tables, well-hung Edison string lights and strategically-placed locals just waiting for friendly conversation. An undeniable theme threaded through each of these bars: a new and uprising star, a young brewery whose beer was on every tap bar. I found Parallel 45, a new brewery making a huge splash, the talk of the town. Every person behind every counter wanted to share the good news.
Owners Ryan Booth and Gregory Laird, former college roommates, are chasing after their dream. With a decade of business savvy and garage brewing under their belts, the craft beer scene better get ready, because these men are ready for you.
The renovated former Independence Fire Station will be the home of Parallel 45 but you don’t need to wait for the ribbon cutting. The beer is being served all over town, throughout Polk County and at various tap takeovers. The best place to find updates on their progress will be through social media.
It was a Tuesday evening and the music of a Zumba class was pumping through the walls of an old brick building that had seen many businesses come and go over time. Locals had gathered to share time together, dancing and working out — for a brief moment I wished I was inside dancing, too. Eventually I caught the pink glow of sunset, made my way back to my comfortable bed at the hotel and called it a day.
I had one stop before I left town the next morning, and that was to fuel up on a raisin cinnamon roll from Ovenbird Bakery. Indepence will forever be associated with cold pints and the smell of warm, fresh-baked bread being pulled from the oven.