While Napa Valley and Sonoma are renowned for their world-class wines, tasting trips there generally come attached to luxurious digs, spa treatments, $25 tasting fees, Hummer limos and standstill traffic - and all the "no picnicking" pretension that goes with that.
And so, we headed north to Oregon, not to the well-known Willamette Valley, in the state's northwest, but about four hours to its south.
We found a relaxed, blossoming wine country with empty roads and crowd-free tasting rooms - some surrounded by strip malls, others by sparkling rivers - pouring excellent versions of an impressively wide range of varietals.
"Oregon is not all pinot," said Liz Wan, nodding to the persistent misunderstanding that Oregon wine means not just Willamette, but its best-known grape. Wan is a walking Wikipedia of wine knowledge who serves as the de facto spokeswoman for a vast wine country without one.
Bordeaux varietals like chardonnay and cabernet franc thrive in the dry, hot Rogue Valley; pockets of the Umpqua Valley, which is spread across a fault line, excels in Spanish varietals like tempranillo; and throughout, you'll find albariño, viognier, malbec, gewürztraminer, syrah and, yes, more pinot noir.
"The best thing about southern Oregon wine is that you don't just taste the same grape over and over again" is a refrain I heard from local winemakers, over and over again.
For visitors, though, an under-the-radar wine country without a recognizable "brand" can be a boon, offering more accessibility and affordability than you're likely to find elsewhere.
Ten years ago, there were 49 wineries in southern Oregon; today there are more than 150, according to Wan. And as the number of tasting rooms increases and word continues to spread about the quality of wine being made here, the swilling tourists are just beginning to arrive.
We pulled into Troon Vineyard, at age 42 the area's oldest, updated with bocce and hammocks. "It's snowballing," said Herb Quady, a scruffy-bearded, second-generation winemaker who consults at Troon in addition to making his own wine. Quady is a California transplant, having moved here in 2003 after working at the Santa Cruz winery Bonny Doon. "I used to think it was all lightweight Willamette pinots," he admitted. "Then I did my research on the microclimates and the soil and the season length, and I was, like, wow. I could make some good wine here."
Not just good, but really good, we realized as we continued cruising the valley. We visited ramshackle garagistas like Devitt; new rustic-chic Red Lily on the river; Schmidt, an old-timer with acres of blooming gardens; and Quady North, Quady's tiny brick tasting room in downtown Jacksonville, a charming Old West town.
Something else struck us about these wineries: They were actually welcoming to children. Everywhere we went, there were crayons and coloring books and toy bins. Grassy lawns beckoned families to spread out a picnic blanket, enjoy a wood-fired pizza and stay awhile. We made our way back down south along the Umpqua River, detouring off Route I-5 to sample spicy tempranillo at Abacela from Earl and Hilda Jones, pioneers of this Spanish varietal in America.
The next day, back in the Applegate, we sought out one last vineyard, Cowhorn. We tried four richly flavored Rhone-style wines and met the owner, Bill Steele, a former Wall Street equity analyst turned longhaired biodynamic winemaker. He said that southern Oregon shouldn't worry about its branding, but "just keep continuing to raise the bar."
Back in Ashland, we headed up a winding mountain road to Grizzly Peak and our home for our last night: Willow-Witt Ranch, a 440-acre off-the-grid farm run by a couple of 60-something women. The ranch was stripped of all conventional luxuries, lacking even a front desk. But we had a wheelbarrow to cart our stuff, a communal outdoor kitchen (and noncommunal outdoor shower), and a canvas tent with two comfy beds for $125 a night.
By the light of our lantern, we made a fire in the wood stove and lined up our loot on the table: a tempranillo from Abacela, Quady North's syrah, a viognier from Cowhorn, Schmidt's albariño. As the kids dozed off, we uncorked one, and then another.