The winemaking history in Oregon is all relatively recent, though
there were some intrepid souls making wine as far back as 1860 according to
historians. A German fellow named Reuter won a medal in St. Louis for his
wine which hailed from Forest Grove in the Willamette Valley.
For years, the face of Oregon winemaking was the Honeywood Winery in Salem.
This warehouse-of-a-winery still exists today (and they keep longer hours than
the numerous wineries selling table wines!), featuring all sorts of fruit wines
and a handful of table wines. Most vintners working to elevate the image
of Oregon winemaking probably wince when the name Honeywood comes up in
In the early 1960s, a fellow named Richard Sommer left California to establish a
vineyard in Southern Oregon. He settled in the Umpqua Valley, planting
Riesling against the advice of California viticulture and enology school
Sommer, who never had any kids, used to say he was the "Grape Grandfather
of Oregon Wine and he had a lot of little bastards out there."
I recall tasting some curious wines of this label back in the 1970s and wondered
why anyone would bother making such a beverage.
The Hillcrest winery still exists today, though Sommer passed away in 2009.
A fellow named Charles Coury had studied at the University
of California at Davis and he'd written his thesis on the relationship between
climate and grape varieties. If his professors knew he was heading to
Oregon to plant grapes, they might not have let him graduate, for they all
thought this to be a crazy notion. But in the 1960s Coury planted Riesling
and Pinot Blanc. Coury's enterprise was not much of an economic success
and it didn't last long as his wines were not much better than those of Richard
Sommer and Hillcrest.
wine pioneer was the late David Lett whose family owns The Eyrie Vineyards. Lett figured California's
climate was too warm for Pinot Noir, but that Oregon's Willamette Valley might prove a
superior climate for this very difficult grape.
In the mid-1960s Lett began his work, planting Pinot Noir,
starting his winery in 1970. Some of his wines attracted attention, faring
well in blind-tastings with California and French Pinot Noirs. One of Burgundy's
"royal" wine families, Drouhin, was so impressed by an Eyrie Pinot Noir, they
purchased acreage and set up a winemaking facility.
pioneer was Dick Erath who had a partner named Cal Knudsen. The two of
them started a winery brand called Knudsen-Erath, though the partnership
dissolved and today there's a wine brand called Erath, though Dick is not
involved, selling the winery in 2006 to Chateau Ste. Michelle, the Washington
state behemoth vintner. I can recall the Knudsen Erath 1975 Pinot Noir as
marking a major milestone in Oregon winemaking.
Moving into Lett's and Erath's "neighborhood" were the Ponzi family and,
soon after, the Adelsheim
family. (Adelsheim was a sommelier at L'Omelette restaurant and created a
stir by having a wine list with Oregon offerings exclusively...this was in
The Ponzi Family
I'll admit to being more a fan of Ponzi's wines than the others. The
wonderful (and maddening) thing of Pinot Noir is each taster has a different sensitivity
to the grape. For me, the Ponzi Pinots have, for the most part, struck a
chord with me over the years. But that's my personal viewpoint. You may find you
prefer the others.
Dick Ponzi, David Lett and Dave Adelsheim
shortly after the introduction of electricity
in the state of Oregon.
pioneer is Bill Fuller, a fellow who was at the helm of a winery called Tualatin
made Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Noir...
The landscape has changed over the past couple of decades.
We should mention (and tip our cap to) the late winemaker Gary Andrus. He
was a character and founded Napa's Pine Ridge winery (named after a favorite ski
resort...Andrus was quite an accomplished skier) before venturing to Oregon to
start the Archery Summit winery. (Winemaker Stacy Clark was an avid
archer, by the way.)
Gary and Nancy Andrus sought to produce top Pinot Noir and, while they never
seemed to really "fit in" to the neighborhood, they did up the ante
with a lavishly-oaked style of wine that was unusual in that era.
There are now more than 500 wine producers in Oregon and about 849 vineyard owners. This is a hugely different world from
30 years ago!
Back then there were just 47 wineries in Oregon.
The main Pinot region is the Willamette Valley, just south of Portland.
But it's not "just south" of Portland. The Willamette Valley
appellation actually encompasses something like 5200 square miles, ranging from
the Columbia River in the north to Eugene, Oregon, a distance of approximately a
You'll need at least two hours to drive from one end to the other.
OREGON'S AMERICAN VITICULTURAL
and the first vintage allowed...
Columbia Valley - 1984
Umpqua Valley - 1984
Walla Walla Valley - 1984
Willamette Valley - 1984
Rogue Valley - 1991
Applegate Valley - 2001
Columbia Gorge - 2004
Dundee Hills - 2004
Yamhill-Carlton District -2004
Southern Oregon - 2004
McMinnville – 2005
Ribbon Ridge – 2005
Red Hill Douglas County – 2005
Eola-Amity Hills - 2006
Chehalem Mountains – 2006
Snake River Valley – 2007
Though unofficial, most people view Willamette in two segments,
the northern portion being north of the city of Salem and the southern part
extending from Salem south to Eugene.
Wine writer/guru Robert Parker, he of The Wine Advocate, has a financial interest in an Oregon
winery called Beaux Freres. Whether this colors Mr. Parker's view of Oregon wines is
unclear. Parker does not review his own wine, but, it's interesting to note, he did
review the French wines imported by the company which had once distributed Beaux Freres.
claiming to review these impartially, their wines seem to get unusually high scores.
Parker now sends an emissary to taste and evaluate the wines, as it's not clear
Parker can really evaluate wines which are not as powerful as Cabernets and
deeply-colored as Rhone Valley Syrahs.
The Rogue River Valley and Umpqua Valley are areas with some potential, too. Scott
Henry's "Henry Estate" is famous more for his viticulture than his winemaking.
I've visited properties in Europe and they are proud to say their vines are
trellised "...in the Scott Henry system." In these southern Oregon areas
you'll find warmer climate varieties such as Zinfandel, Cabernet and Merlot.
We've seen some good wines made of Rhone varieties, interesting Malbec and the
Tempranillo grape seems to have found a new home.
As many of the wineries in Oregon are small, the laws of supply and demand tend
to skew pricing of the wines in an unfavorable direction, at least from the standpoint of
those paying for those rare bottles. The problem, then, is that the top wines of
Oregon are rather expensive. But that's only part of the problem. Some
less-than-stellar wines are also expensive, a result of scarcity. This situation is
much like Burgundy.
Pinot Noir remains "king" in Oregon. As of 2012, there were more
than 20,000 acres of Vinifera grapes, Pinot Noir accounting for 12,560 acres.
Pinot Gris plantings tally to 2,590 (lower than a few years ago, curiously!) acres, followed by Chardonnay
Riesling (700 acres) and Cabernet Sauvignon (640 acres). Growers are
dabbling with Grüner Veltliner and Albariño, amongst others. It's a very
interesting state of affairs.
As with many wineries in the U.S., vintners want top dollar for their
artistry. It's easy to spend $30-$90 for a bottle of Oregon wine.
Some producers, in our view, have earned their spurs, while others ask a pretty
penny (and then some) right out of the starting gate.
In tasting Oregon Pinots over the past several decades, I can tell you the
winemaking and grape growing have improved tremendously.
It seems to me, though, the winemaking in Oregon is a bit more
"honest" than, say, here in California. If you do some serious
exploration in the realm of Pinot Noir, you will hear about cold soaking and
bleeding off juice to have a higher skin-to-juice ratio (with high priced wines
along the West Coast and elsewhere, "bleeding" is a term which may
refer to your wallet when you have to pay an inordinate sum for a bottle of
wine...but that's another story).
Yet look at the color of Oregon Pinot Noirs.
You won't find some of the dark, intense colors one encounters in many
California wines. (And Syrah is an emerging grape variety in Oregon and
I've tasted a number of really good examples of Rhone-styled Syrahs.)
Oregon has somewhat more stringent wine laws (for those who follow them) than
does California, for example. A varietal wine in California must contain
75% of the grape named on the label. In Oregon, of the 72 grape varieties cultivated,
18 are allowed to adhere to the 75% minimum, but most (especially Pinot Noir,
Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling) require a minimum of 90%.
We should give these Oregon vintners credit, for in an era where so many
wineries rely upon numerically high point scores to provide credibility for wine
quality, you can actually see light through a glass of Oregon Pinot Noir.
This certainly "costs" these wines some points, as most reviewers give
higher scores to wines of darker color and fuller body.
Pinot Noir producers have long known this dynamic. In France's Burgundy,
vintners would fortify their wines with darker wines from the Rhone Valley near
by or wines imported in bulk from Algeria or Italy. In California, it was
common practice to blend Pinot Noir with darker-colored Petite Sirah or
Zinfandel. These days, many winemakers may make this fortification with
Syrah or a concentrate called Mega Purple. Nobody will admit to this
practice, of course.
So, please raise a glass (and notice the lack of inky color) of Oregon Pinot
Noir and toast to the integrity of the winemakers.
a nice little video with some of Oregon's "second generation" speaking
about their "crazy" parents who were real pioneers in wine growing and