Beyond the Bridges

Perfect Pairing

The Willamette Valley finally grows a destination resort equal to its world class wines

By Randy Gragg August 17, 2009 Published in the September 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

OREGON’S MOST STUNNING LANDSCAPES have often sprouted resorts so beautifully wedded to their surroundings that it seems they were nurtured from seeds. Muscular and rustic, Timberline Lodge rises like an ancient crag against the snows of Mount Hood. The central Oregon Coast’s Salishan Spa & Golf Resort delicately weaves architecture and flora into an expression of living lightly on the land. Even Troutdale’s Edgefield Manor, once a poorhouse farm, has been remade into a stately, dignified lodge, a homey gateway to the Columbia Gorge.

The rolling, verdant farmlands of the Willamette Valley, however, have remained strangely free of iconic accommodations, even as their rapid transformation into some of the greatest vineyards in the world have made the need for such a place more acute. Compared to the lavish resorts that sprouted alongside Napa Valley’s rise into an international wine destination, the scattered bed-and-breakfasts, Shilo Inns, and Red Lions that pepper the decidely humbler environs of McMinnville, Dundee, and Newberg hardly beckon to the international wine elite. Better to stay in Portland and charter a helicopter or a stretch limousine.

But when the Allison Inn & Spa opens its doors in Newberg this month, all of that will change. With 85 sumptuously appointed guest rooms and suites, a 15,000-square-foot spa, a soon-to-be four-star restaurant, and ample meeting space to lure corporate gatherings, the inn will provide just the kind of Napa-style panache that our valley has long been lacking.

A vivacious septuagenarian with a taste for bright pastels in clothes and landscaping, Joan Austin is an unlikely guiding light for the project. Pinot noir gives her headaches, and her husband of 56 years, Ken Austin, is a recovering alcoholic. The Austins made their fortune over the past 45 years building a company called A-dec, one of the world’s largest makers of dental chairs and tools. When asked how the idea for the Allison arose, Joan candidly details how she first wanted to build a motel for the families of the addicts and alcoholics who were recovering at the nearby treatment facility, Hazelden.

But as A-dec grew from a single Quonset hut in downtown Newberg to the 16-acre campus it now occupies on the edge of town, so did the Austins’ ambitions, largesse, and landholdings. While Ken built the business, Joan, a self-described “land lover,” accumulated property. Eventually, the Austins were able to donate land for an expansion to the public library, an elementary school, and an extension of George Fox University’s campus. They also planned a 450-acre addition to Newberg, called Springbrook.

Although Springbrook’s 1,200 houses, 50 acres of parks, and town center are now on hold, Joan proceeded to build the Allison at the development’s northeastern edge. The resort, she proudly extols, is an Austin family affair, involving not only the couple’s daughter, Loni Parrish, and son, Ken Austin III, but also their grandchildren. They’re “all putting fingers in the pie,” Joan says—from handpicking the artwork to Ken III’s careful crafting of the wooden tables found in the inn’s main lobby and private dining hall.


“Once you do something and succeed at it, and you see the good it accomplishes, it makes you want to do more,” says Joan Austin, pictured in front of the Allison Inn & Spa.

Image: Traci Griffin

Pie-stained or not, the touch has been consistently white-glove. Designed by GGLO, an architecture and urban design firm in Seattle, the Allison is a collage of pastoral motifs, luxurious amenities, and functionality: its Montana bluestone façade rises on a south-facing hillside, and guests enter through an ornate porte cochere and swim in a palatial indoor pool—yet the roof is covered in photovoltaic panels. Joan has remained tight-lipped about the Allison’s price tag. (“It would be all people would talk about,” she says.) But on a recent tour, general manager Pierre Zreik, whose 25-year career in the hospitality industry stretches from the prestigious Lycee Technique Hotelier in Grenoble, France, to downtown Portland’s Heathman Hotel, points out every expensive detail, from the inn’s richly textured wallpapers to the property’s freshly planted mature copper pines, river birches, and dogwoods.

“Ken and I have stayed at some of the best hotels in the world, so we’ve picked up a lot along the way,” Joan says. “When [guests] arrive, I want them to feel like, ‘Hey, I can relax.’”

Joan has worked diligently to infuse the Allison with the valley’s terroir—quite literally, in many cases. The inn’s name, for instance, derives from Ira S. Allison, the Oregon State University geologist who traced the origins of the Willamette Valley’s exceptional soil back to the Missoula Floods that occurred some 15,000 years ago. The house restaurant, Jory, takes its name from the well-draining soil in which the valley’s grapes thrive. Other touches include a poolside painting by Oregon State University crop-science professor Jay Noller that’s partially rendered from soil gathered on-site. “We’re into dirt,” Joan says, laughing.

Indeed, Joan even worked with one of Oregon’s most respected winemakers, David Adelsheim, to set aside the property’s best land for four acres of vineyards. With three distinct soil types and three different vines, Adelsheim is aiming to make as many as nine distinct wines that will carry the Allison’s label.

Joan says she hasn’t considered her efforts within the context of the grand lineage of Oregon resorts, though she concedes that the Salishan’s legendary developer, John Gray, is a close friend who has routinely checked on the Allison’s progress. But as her son, Kenny, pops into her office brandishing a newly sanded cutting board made from scraps of wood from locally harvested trees, Joan beams. “Everything here,” she says, “comes from the heart.”

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