How Oregon Is Leading the Way in Sustainable Travel
A new wave of sustainable and regenerative travel is taking hold in the Willamette Valley.
Looking out over the rolling green hills dotted with lush Douglas fir and vineyards, I swirl my glass, take in the aromas, and sip. Immediate clarity, vibrant minerality, and a smooth, round finish blanket my palate. But it’s not the Willamette Valley’s best Chardonnay I’m tasting. It’s water. Spring water to be exact. And it comes from below ground at Tabula Rasa, a regenerative farm in Carlton, Oregon, that’s raising the bar when it comes to offering engaging and meaningful experiences for travelers looking to reconnect with their inner wild, and leave the land better than the way they found it.
Founder Brenda Smola-Foti, who co-owns the farm with her husband Frank Foti, has purposefully designed her property to be not only sustainable but beautiful. It’s Biggest Little Farm come to life in the Pacific Northwest, with multiple natural springs supporting grass-fed and -finished cattle, heritage breed hogs, and pasture-raised laying hens. There’s also a massive permaculture garden that raises pretty much every heirloom vegetable under the sun.
Her business is much more than a farm, though: It includes a restaurant, an Airbnb homestead, and, launching later this summer, a design-forward, eco-conscious nine-room inn. Each of the hospitality components provides entry points for travelers to experience the work Smola-Foti and her staff of six do on the farm—but it all comes back to water.
Water has been the aligning force in the journey of Tabula Rasa Farms, where Smola-Foti had for several years battled against a severe lack of it. That scarcity led her to realize just how vital it was in a region like the Willamette Valley. It came as a bit of a surprise to me when Smola-Foti described her hair-pulling journey to locate a functional well in the region. In all my visits to the region over the years, I’ve been awestruck by towering evergreen trees and an abundance of rainfall. But in fact, Oregon faces drought issues much like the rest of the West.
“The green, the trees, the water, everything about it was a draw,” says Smola-Foti of eventually making her way to the state from her rural Oklahoma ranching roots. “But in reality, Oregon is not far behind California in terms of where we are with the drought.” That’s where permaculture came in, particularly through Zachary Weiss, founder of Elemental Ecosystems in Montana. He’s a protégé of Sepp Holzer, an Austrian farmer often billed as the Dalai Lama of permaculture. Weiss helped her work with what the land offered, eventually installing a series of rainfall-catching ponds, terraces, and water gardens in an effort to hydrate the land for years to come. The result is nothing short of an agritopia, where there are multiple points of access for travelers to experience the delicious food that comes from the land, and various ways to interact with it.
At their restaurant, Humble Spirit, located down the hill in the quaint town of McMinnville, you can get a taste of the farm’s meat and produce. Had you walked in after a day of tasting with friends, you might not know the story, and still have a great meal. But seeing the regenerative farm in action lends a whole new level of appreciation.
The simplest dish—like crispy bits of farm-raised pork belly served with local hazelnuts and finished with sea salt and herbs—becomes transcendent when every element is respected from the ground up. The complexity isn’t in overly fussy cooking; it’s in the journey it took to get it on the plate. (When you go, get the daily “farm cut” and prepare to have your mind blown.)
Once the inn opens, there will be a taproom, but not for craft beer like many other tasting rooms in the region. Here they will serve various types of water—their own well and spring water, and city water from the municipal tap—so that guests can experience the sensory breadth of this essential building block of life.
Not too far afield, in Dundee, Antica Terra is similarly connecting guests to the terroir of the Valley. At the sustainably minded, high-end winery, instead of having vinophiles belly up to the bar at a staid tasting room, winemaker and managing director Maggie Harrison opts to take guests out into nature, offering two different field tastings: foraging in the forest and crabbing along the coast.
On the drive out to the Oregon Coast from McMinnville, gnarled oaks drip with lichen and make way for cloud-blanketed shores. A fresh salinity lingers in the damp ocean air as we look out at Haystack Rock in the distance. Our group—which includes Harrison and assistant winemaker Mimi Adams—sets out on the Nestucca River in our crabbing boat.
A single bald eagle flies overhead, and the Oregon air is so clean that it almost stings my Angeleno eyes. While in tasting rooms, I might geek out on coastal influence and diurnal shifts, but here I actually feel the natural phenomena at work. It’s a visceral connection to what makes this winemaking region so special.
“Sometimes as a winemaking and hospitality community, we just stop short. We talk about the percentage of new oak and the wind and the soil, and that’s as far as we can go,” says Harrison. “But if you draw that experience on paper, erase the walls, and pull people out onto the ocean and stand on the soil, all of a sudden the experience takes on a new meaning that you just can’t find indoors.”
We pull up our traps and eventually unload our haul of Dungeness crabs at Cape Lookout, where a lavish spread is set forth by the Antica Terra team. A giant picnic table lined with newspaper is decorated artistically with huge hunks of French butter dusted with fleur de sel, delicate speckled Oregon chicories, French breakfast radishes, and copper saucier pots filled with melted butter for dipping, and the most perfect crusty sourdough bread. It’s almost too pretty to eat. Almost.
There’s a real synergy between the salt air, the freshest seafood, and Antica Terra’s wines. After cracking open a claw and drenching it in butter, I take a sip of Harrison’s Aequorin Chardonnay, and a steely, saline minerality shines through. The wine is named after jellyfish, which are able to navigate and thrive in the darkest abyss of the deep sea. Similarly, these wines are blended blind by Harrison and Adams. The result is a clear reflection of the landscape in a glass.
Making our way back to the heart of McMinnville, we check in at the new Tributary Hotel, located in a 100-year-old historic building with an ambitious, Michelin-worthy restaurant ōkta that owns and operates its own fully regenerative farm. Walking up the stairs into the cozy boutique hotel, guests are greeted by opulent-yet-charming suites, each of which is named after a river in Oregon and comes with a cozy fireplace, oversize soaking tubs, well-curated bookshelves, and even better-stocked minibars. (Jose Gourmet tinned fish and artisan crisps? Yes please.)
Chef Matthew Lightner, an alum of Michelin-starred Atera, has literal boots on the ground overseeing the operation from seed to fork. While the tasting menu could be taken to big cities like New York or San Francisco and fare well, the experience is uniquely Oregonian.
Each morning, a massive breakfast utilizing elements from the farm arrives at your door, and it is nothing short of life-changing. Smoky house-cured rashers of bacon, breads, and pastries that rival the finest French boulangerie, and stewed white beans with local chanterelles are just a few of the gems that made up the best breakfast of my entire life. It would be all too easy to stay inside by the fire while grazing over the spread. But walking the off-site farm with Lightner takes things to a whole different level.
As Smola-Foti told me when I first arrived: “If people can’t see, taste, feel, and touch the land, it’s hard to create an appreciation for regenerative agriculture and the products we produce as farmers. But when you can give people immersive experiences, you can change the world.”