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updated: 2/27/2013 6:42 AM

Mary Ross explores Pinots from Oregon's Willamette Valley

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Forty years ago, Oregon's Willamette Valley was a pristine agricultural enclave recognized for dahlia, grass and berry farms.

Nowadays, the Willamette is a pristine agricultural enclave recognized as a world-class wine growing region and engine of American economy.

Willamette's vintners have invested ingenuity, business savvy and true grit in their region's success. But the bustle of today doesn't negate the valley's challenges, past, present and future.

First, there's Mother Nature, fickle at best. In the 1960s, the valley's cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers lured winegrowers as Pinot Noir's Promised Land. They planted along the south-facing slopes of Dundee Hills and Chehalem Ridge to catch priceless sunlight, shining -- the vintners could boast -- at the same angle as France's famed Burgundy, also located at 45-degrees latitude. But varying precipitation (1986, 1988, 1995, 1996 …), ice storms (1989), heat (2003) and marauding birds (2007) will challenge any crop, especially delicate Pinot Noir.

The vintners not only cope, they crow. "That is why we came here. You can only make great Pinot Noir in a marginal climate. Vintage variation is a part of the reality."

The next challenge was experience -- the vintner's own and their region's. David Lett (The Eyrie Vineyards) was an ex-dental student; Dick Ponzi (Ponzi Vineyards) designed rides for Disneyland; Ginny & David Adelsheim (Adelsheim Vineyards) were kids with a dream. They fashioned wineries from barns, sheds and packing plants.

In 1977, Sokol Blosser became the first Willamette structure designed and built as a winery. Founder Susan Sokol Blosser recognized the need to protect Willamette from unregulated growth and became a vigorous advocate of organic farming, sustainable business practices and low-impact packaging. In 2002, Sokol Blosser became the first U.S. winery to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Certification. Today 25 percent of Willamette's vineyards are certified sustainable.

When the first Willamette wines were bottled, the vintners faced challenges in the marketplace.

"It's not Burgundy," sniffed oenophiles. "It's not even California."

So, they submitted wines to international competitions. At the Paris-based Olympics of Wine of 1979, Eyrie placed third among the world's most acclaimed Pinot Noirs. Disbelieving the results, Robert Drouhin of the renowned Maison J. Drouhin re-created the event: in blind tasting, Eyrie bested Drouhin's own Chambolle-Musigny.

Wine aficionado's began to talk about Willamette. But without economy of scale, shipping product to major markets proved prohibitively expensive. So, the vintner's brought buyers to them, with events including the International Pinot Noir Celebration, founded in 1987 and today one of the wine world's most anticipated events.

A few visiting cognoscenti witnessed the potential of Willamette. In 1986, Drouhin's daughter -- Veronique -- worked a Willamette harvest; in 1987, Drouhin purchased Dundee Hills land and established Domaine Drouhin. In 1987, wine critic Robert Parker purchased Chehalem Ridge property, releasing his first Beaux Freres wines in 1991.

International recognition and investment sparked further industry. A 2011 study commissioned by the Oregon Wine Board reported the economic impact of Oregon's total wine industry -- including tourism, direct-to-consumer shipment and distribution -- nearly doubled to $2.7 billion since 2005, with Willamette leading this growth.

Touring Willamette still takes an adventurous spirit, with many wineries tucked off-road in renovated barns and pig sheds. But along with modern tasting rooms and Nick's Italian Café (once the area's only dining spot to offer local wines), visitors now find art galleries, museums, world-class dining, country inns and a new wine country resort waiting around the road's next bend.

And even though countless wine lovers today recognize Willamette Valley as one of the world's finest wine regions, you'll still hear a native correct various mistakes in pronunciation with the proud refrain, "It's Will-AM-mette, dammit!"

• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at food@dailyherald.com.

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