Before You Go: What You Should Know About Oregon’s Wine Country

Although many people associate the US wine industry with California or the Finger Lakes of New York, the state of Oregon is one of the nation’s leaders in wine-production. Growing over fifty varieties of grapes, Oregon’s wine country has an extensive history, which has grown into a distinctive experience for travelers and wine enthusiasts alike.


David Lett and his son, Jim Lett, working on vines at Eyrie Vineyards in Dundee Oregon. Reprinted from Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grapes by Kenneth Friedenreich (pg 37, The History Press, 2018).
David Lett and his son, Jim Lett, working on vines at Eyrie Vineyards in Dundee Oregon. Reprinted from Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grapes by Kenneth Friedenreich (pg 37, The History Press, 2018).



A Brief History of Oregon’s Wine Country


The history of wine in Oregon begins with the settlement of the Oregon Territory in the 1840s. While the territory was not officially recognized until 1848, grapes had been planted in the future state by 1847, and the territory’s first winery was opened in the 1850s outside of Jacksonville, Oregon. During this early period of Oregon’s history, winemakers experimented with different varietal types, including German expats Edward and Jon Von Pessls, who experimented with planting Zinfadel, Reisling, and a type of Sauvignon grape (though today it is unknown whether the grape was a Cabernet or Blanc). Their vineyard was likely one of the earliest in Southern Oregon, as they planted their grapes in the 1880s.


This experimentation with grape varieties continued throughout the 1880s and 90s, and by the early 1900s, several regions of Oregon were recognized for the quality of wine they produced. Indeed, it’s claimed that Ernest Reuter of the Willamette Valley won either a silver or gold medal at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair for his Klevner wines. Klevner, a German term for Pinot Blanc, also included some varieties like Chardonnay at the time. However, Prohibition put a stop to the growing wine industry in Oregon, not least because state legislation was passed four years earlier than the rest of the country in support of banning alcohol. The multitude of grape vines were subsequently torn out of fields, and replaced with either fruit trees or potatoes.


Dick and Nancy Ponzi testing their wine. Reprinted from Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grapes by Kenneth Friedenreich (pg 35, The History Press, 2018).

Dick and Nancy Ponzi testing their wine. Reprinted from Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grapes by Kenneth Friedenreich (pg 35, The History Press, 2018).


Despite its former popularity, the production of wine in Oregon did not automatically restart following the repeal of Prohibition either. In fact, the wine industry laid dormant for nearly thirty years after the ban was lifted in 1933. It wasn’t until 1961, after California winemakers began planting grapes close to the states’ border that Oregon’s wine industry restarted. At this time, Richard Sommer ventured into southern Oregon, where he planted several varieties of grapes, including the state’s first Pinot Noir grapes. He later established HillCrest Vineyard, which still operates as Oregon’s oldest estate winery.


Following Sommer’s lead, five commercial wineries were established in Oregon by the 1970s, particularly following the discovery that the Willamette Valley region could support Pinot Noir grapes. Previously, the region had widely been believed to be too cold to properly support viticulture, but the grapes flourished during the 1970s.


By the 1980s, Oregon’s wines began to achieve more global recognition, with several different vintages winning awards. By this point, there were thirty-four different wineries within the state, and a connection between Oregon and the Burgundy region of France had begun to grow. This connection was fostered as experts experienced increasing difficulty tasting the differences between an Oregon or Burgundy-produced Pinot Noir. These ties allowed Oregon winemakers to obtain clones of vines used in Burgundy that California wineries could not, giving them a competitive edge over their southern neighbor. The fame that Oregon achieved during this period also led the state to establish the Oregon Wine Advisory Board, which helped to market Oregon’s wines internationally.


Since achieving worldwide renown, the wine industry in Oregon has boomed – by 1998, Oregon wine contributed $120 million USD to the state’s economy. Since the turn of the 21st century, a greater focus has been placed on “green” winemaking in the region, with one non-profit certifying wineries for meeting yearly environmental standards that encourage biodiversity and earth-friendly practices. Today, Oregon has over 700 recorded wineries and more than 1,000 corresponding vineyards, making it one of the nation’s top-five producers of wine, producing over seven million gallons of wine in 2014 alone.



The Wines and Wine Regions of Oregon


Some of Oregon’s wine-producing regions. Reprinted from Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grapes by Kenneth Friedenreich (pg 89, The History Press, 2018).

Some of Oregon’s wine-producing regions. Reprinted from Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grapes by Kenneth Friedenreich (pg 89, The History Press, 2018).


There are over fifty different varieties of grapes grown in Oregon, ranging from the well-known Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, to lesser-known grapes like Dolcetto and Sylvaner. Altogether, there are eighteen different wine regions within the state, each of which produce their own different specialties. Many of these regions have been combined by the state, however, into four major American Viticultural Areas (or AVA’s). These regions are:


The Willamette Valley AVA: Encompassing sub-appellations such as the Dundee Hills AVA, McMinnville AVE, and the Ribbon Ridge AVA, the Willamette Valley is located in northwestern Oregon, traveling from the Oregon-Washington state line down the state’s western coast. The region contains over 500 wineries, which produce twenty-five different grape species. Despite its challenges, the Willamette Valley is well-known today for its Pinot Noir, but also produces Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling, to name a few.


Southern Oregon AVA: Spanning the southwestern corner of Oregon, the Southern Oregon AVA has four official sub-appellations, but has a few other areas that are not recognized officially as AVA’s at this time. Its regions, such as Applegate Valley AVA and Rogue Valley AVA, have over 100 wineries, and produce over 30 unique types of grapes. Like the Willamette Valley AVA, Pinot Noir is also widely grown in the area, but the area also boasts some Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.


Columbia Gorge AVA: Lying to the east of the Chehalem Mountains, the Columbia Gorge AVA is located on the border of Oregon and Washington. A wide variety of grapes are grown in the region, ranging from Syrah to Riesling and Sangiovese.


Columbia Valley AVA: Encompassing regions like the Walla Walla Valley, the Columbia Valley AVA is not a predominantly Oregon AVA, but has some land in the state. Located near the Columbia River Plateau, grapes from the region include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc, among others.



David Lett christening the first planting at Eyrie Vineyards in the Willamette Valley. Reprinted from Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grapes by Kenneth Friedenreich (pg 37, The History Press, 2018).
David Lett christening the first planting at Eyrie Vineyards in the Willamette Valley. Reprinted from Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grapes by Kenneth Friedenreich (pg 37, The History Press, 2018).



Visiting Oregon’s Historic Wineries


Due to its international popularity, Oregon’s wine country today also serves as a major tourist destination. In areas like the Willamette Valley, luxury resorts, quaint bed & breakfasts, and multiple tasting routes offer a variety of ways to explore the region. While there are hundreds of wineries to visit in Oregon, we recommend visiting the five “founding wineries,” as they might be called, of Oregon. These wineries, started by Oregon’s mid 20th century wine pioneers, still widely function as family-owned and operated businesses to the public:


Adelsheim: Founded in 1972, Adelsheim was one of the first wineries started in the Chehalem Mountains region of the Willamette Valley. The winery, which still involves its founders, is known for its Chardonnays, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir.


Ponzi Vineyards: Also located in the Willamette Valley, Ponzi Vineyards was opened in 1970 after Dick and Nancy Ponzi traveled to the Burgundy region of France several times to research wine production. Today, the vineyard is still family-run, and specializes in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and some Riesling.


Sokol Blosser: Opened in 1977, Sokol Blosser is located about thirty miles southwest of Portland. Like many of the wineries in the Willamette Valley, Sokol Blosser specializes in Pinot Noir, and is today run by siblings Alex and Alison Sokol Blosser.


Elk Cove: Founded in 1974, Elk Cove winery is also family-owned, and run by the son of its original founders. Located in northern Oregon near the Oregon-Washington state border, Elk Cove today has six vineyards, totaling ten times the size of its original acreage in the 70s. The estate specializes in Pinot Noir, but also produces a Pinot Noir Rosé, Chardonnay, and other varieties.


Eyrie Vineyards: Founded in 1965, Eyrie Vineyards is located in the Willamette Valley region. The vineyard was the first to produce any Pinot Gris within the US. The winery also competed against a Burgundy winery in the early 1980s – a competition in which they took second-place by only two-tenths of a point. While the original owner of Eyrie Vineyards has passed away within the last decade, the estate (consisting of five different vineyards under the name) is still family-run, and continues to specialize in Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc.


To learn more about wine in Oregon, check out Kenneth Friedenreich’s Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grapes, out now!


Have you ever visited Oregon’s wine country? Did you have a favorite vineyard? Let us know in the comments below!








 
Posted: 5/16/2018