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Oregon: Part 1 – 50 years in the making

Oregon wine country as we know it today really started to formulate in the 1960s.

In 1961, Richard Sommer, a UC Davis graduate, began making wine south of Portland in the Umpqua Valley under the Hillcrest Vineyard label. In 1964, David Lett, ignoring UC Davis professor, Maynard Amerine’s advice that Oregon was too cold and wet for grapes, went ahead and searched for an ideal vineyard site in the State. In went Pinot Noir vines in a temporary nursery in Corvallis before Lett found his preferred spot in the Willamette Valley’s Dundee Hills. It was here that Eyrie Vineyards was born.

Charles Coury may have followed next, although local debate continues today as to whether he preceded David Lett in planting the first Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley. While the Lett family has sound documentation as proof, the Coury family has anecdotal evidence that says they planted a year prior to the Letts. In either event, the 1960s was a great time of exploration in the Willamette Valley.

It wouldn’t be long before Dick Erath, then David and Ginny Adelsheim, Ronald and Marjorie Vuylsteke, Dick and Nancy Ponzi, Joe and Pat Campbell, and Susan and Bill Sokol Blosser all planted vines, and themselves, in the Willamette Valley.

The 1976 Judgment of Paris did its part to propel Oregon wine country forward. Although it was California wines which were personally thrust into the limelight at this tasting event, other American wine regions felt the warm glow. If great wine could be made in California, well then, why not Oregon?

The early pioneers pinned their hopes on Pinot Noir. They likened the climate to Burgundy and noted both regions fell at the same latitude: 45 degrees north. Specific topographical differences were not a concern at the time, and so the general consensus went: Oregon could make wines like the great reds of Burgundy.

It appears they were on to something. Awards came early to Oregon. In a tasting pitting top French wines against their new world emulates, David Lett’s 1975 Eyrie South Block Reserve Pinot Noir won great acclaim in Paris in 1979 at the Gault-Millau Wine Olympiad, rating among the top 10 along with grand Burgundies.

These awards stirred a new wave of plantings and devotees to Oregon wine country. This only picked up pace when Robert Parker proclaimed that the best Oregon Pinot Noirs have an amazing similarity to good red Burgundies in 1987.

The 1980s saw an incredible boom, along with new investment in the region. The Burgundy negociant, Joseph Drouhin, turned his intrigue with Oregon’s awards into opportunity, and opened Domaine Drouhin in Willamette Valley. Ed King III brought in loads of cash and established King Estate.

Much of the money was infiltrating Willamette Valley. This was one of the state’s first AVAs, established in 1984, and home today to two-thirds of Oregon’s wineries and vineyards.

There are numerous factors making Willamette Valley good land for grape growing. Several of these factors began to form twelve to fifteen million years ago when Willamette Valley, along with the rest of western Oregon, literally swam with the fishes. Western Oregon was part of the Pacific Ocean floor.

The collision of the Pacific and North American plates pushed what is now Willamette Valley out of the ocean, and gave the region its Dundee and Eola Hills along with other aspects of Willamette Valley’s terrain. Happy vines, it seems, follow calamity.

The marine sediment of the region now forms the bedrock of the oldest soils in the region and has been layered with volcanic basalt and sedimentary sandstone, wind-blown silt (loess), and deposits from glacier dam floods.

The Pacific Ocean continues its influence on the region today, especially by mitigating the general climate and providing for milder winters. While the region is wet, the rain comes mainly outside the heart of growing season– from October to April.

That is not to say there is not rain at harvest or heat stress in the summer; difficult vintages there are. And in general, producers in the region have stopped trying to make wines that emulate the great red Burgundies. They now embrace the regions’ differences and strive to make the very best Oregon wines.

Today, Oregon wine is serious business. As of 2011, the state has 450 wineries and 849 vineyards. Approximately 1.9 million cases of Oregon wine were sold in 2010, and wine tourism provided $158m to the state’s economy in 2010. The industry itself brings 2.76m to Oregon’s economy.

This may not be huge comparatively; economies of scale don’t work here. This is a region of quality and not quantity. But it has just been some 50 odd years since Oregon first strived for quality wine, and the world already knows about Oregon’s wines. That is quite a feat.

For further analysis of Oregon wine, especially the evolution of its Pinot Noir, see September’s issue of the drinks business.

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