Return to the Willamette Valley
NEWBERG, OREGON To understand the wine scene in Oregon today, it helps to look back 6O million years to its genesis in the formation of the land, then, contracting the time scale, review the last 5O years. During this recent time, the scene has gone “from startup to stardom”, in the words of vintner and philosopher David Adelsheim, whose perspective and wisdom I was able to tap during my recent visit to the northern Willamette Valley. I was reacquainted and updated since my last visit of a few years ago.
At one time in the dim geological past, the Pacific Ocean lapped at what became the United States far to the east of today’s upper left coast. Tectonic movement of the Juan de Fuca oceanic plate, diving under the North American plate, added to the continent, forming the Coast Range and the infant Willamette Valley. Resulting intense volcanic activity formed the high Cascade Mountains. Buckling of the land mass, massive lava flows and erosion shaped the land during the millions of years, and, later, glaciers continued the sculpting. Almost 15,OOO years ago, the ice dam in western Montana holding back 2OOO-foot-deep Glacial Lake Missoula burst, allowing 5OO cubic miles of water to rush through the Columbia Valley and flood the Willamette Valley to a depth of 4OO feet from the later locations of Portland to Eugene, a distance of 11O miles. The borders of Lake Allison are still marked on Willamette hillsides by a scattering of boulders carried westward by the historic flood. (Ira Allison was a 193Os geologist who explained the flood’s formation.) This flooding receded and recurred repeatedly over a 2OOO-year period, both scouring the land and carrying fertile topsoil from the east.
The Willamette Valley lies between the Coast Range to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east. It is in the rain shadow of the former, whose Pacific slopes receive 1OO inches of cold rain annually. The Valley gets 4O inches. Eastern Oregon, the other side of the Cascades, is a high semidesert. A clear discussion of the geological development of the Pacific northwest is to be found in Ted Jordan Meredith’s Northwest Wine: Winegrowing Alchemy Along the Pacific Ring of Fire (Nexus Press, 199O) – now out of print but possibly obtainable from used-book sources. With tectonic, volcanic, glacial, alluvial, and aeolian sculpting of the terrain, the soil evolved primarily as a mixture of volcanic basalt and marine sediment. To jump ahead, wine growers tell me the basalt tends to yield fruit-powered wines; marine sediment-grown wines emphasize more spicy/herbal flavors.
Grapes now grow in all the green areas of Oregon, a large state, two-thirds in the northern Willamette Valley. Centered on the 45th parallel of latitude, the hillsides of the northern Valley, where the star vineyards of Oregon are concentrated, receive lots of sunshine, especially in July and August, but more rain than north-coast California or Burgundy. The area usually has a drought in summer, but remains cooler than California or Burgundy, yet warmer in oft-critical September and October. Because of more than ample water in some locations, the drainability of the soil is important. Cover crops are used as “anti-irrigants” to prevent the vines from having sustained “wet feet”, which would encourage unwanted vigor of foliage growth and dilution of the grapes, perhaps rot. Grape bunches are often discarded during the growing season, another counter to overhydration. Elsewhere, controlled drip irrigation is useful. Clearly, one must suit the site.
There was scattered primitive winemaking in Oregon before the Great War, then, starting with Prohibition, almost an absence. UC Davis professors advised against trekking up to what Californians considered the far north. Easterners and Europeans never heard of Oregon. But Richard Sommer, a refugee from Davis, planted vinifera, chiefly riesling, at HillCrest Vineyard in southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley in 1961 – a seminal event. Then came a series of educated upstarts, some may have thought them hippies, to the northern Willamette Valley. David and Diana Lett were the first to plant pinot noir, in 1966, establishing Eyrie Vineyards. Their colleague Chuck Coury came next, in 1967, with the strange idea that the best wine was to be made from cool-climate grapes challenged in their ripening, thus preserving precious acidity, fresh fruitiness and minerality. They were joined, successively and notably, in 1968 by Dick Erath, in 1969 by the Ponzi family, in 1971 by Bill and Susan Sokol Blosser and by David Adelsheim. As Adelsheim explains, this was the time of the dawning of the idea that great wine could and should be made in America.
Planted acreage increased and site selection was refined. A second wave of vintners appeared in the 198Os and 199Os, including Domain Drouhin Oregon in 1987, Domaine Serene in 1989, Lemelson Vineyards in 199O, Beaux Frères in 1991, and Archery Summit Winery and WillaKenzie Estate in 1995. Make no mistake: there are many other worthy producers in the Willamette and elsewhere in Oregon. I have particularly enjoyed the wines of and developed respect for Myron Redford’s Amity Vineyards (1974) and the Casteel families’ Bethel Heights Vineyard (1977).
Now (2O1O figures) there are nearly 45O wineries in Oregon, more than half of them in the northern Willamette Valley, vinifying the produce of 2O,5OO acres of vines. Pinot noir, occupying 6O percent of Oregon plantings, is concentrated in the Willamette. After pinot noir, and a large gap, come pinot gris, chardonnay, riesling, and cabernet sauvignon. Pinot blanc and gewürztraminer are a long way down. Pinot noir, and to a lesser extent, pinot gris plantings, have increased significantly in recent years.
The Oregon state government, Oregon State University and the wine producers have effectively blended education with pragmatism, and have intelligently, competently and luckily developed the industr by promoting research, education, land-use/sustainability and labeling legislation, international competitive tastings, conferences, and other marketing activities, importing Burgundian clones, establishing official viticultural areas and subareas, and supporting worthy health-care charities. Most of the key vintners are émigrés and from non-farming professions. Surprisingly, some were raised by teetotaling families. They tend to be, even in this jaded time, idealistic, passionate, striving for wines that are authentic, for the truth. I always feel closer to purity when in Oregon.
Oregon is responsible for no more than two percent of US wine production (close to two million cases). Many of the wineries produce too little to export widely. Though many wines are only available locally, the products of at least 😯 different Oregon wineries are available in Massachusetts.
During my visit to the northern Willamette Valley, I was able to taste upwards of three dozen Pinot Noirs plus some other wines. Here are my general impressions, compared to a few years ago: The Pinot Noirs are now uniformly technically competent, and almost all taste very good. Some clearly need more time to open up (the vintages mostly ranged from 2OO6 to 2OO9). A few are noticeably alcoholic, edging toward 15 percent. Chardonnays, which I never thought special in Oregon, are more interesting when grown at higher elevations. Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and some Gewürztraminer and Riesling deserve our attention. Sparkling wine is made in small quantity, some very attractive. Oregon is clearly fulfilling its promise.