Oregon rising

The fourth biggest wine producing state in the US, Oregon is becoming renowned for its fine wines. Liza B. Zimmerman gives an overview.

Number of Oregon wineries
Number of Oregon wineries

Oregon winemakers have distinguished themselves over the past few decades by producing good-value, environmentally friendly and well-made wines from cool-climate varietals. The top three are currently Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris from the Willamette Valley AVA, the state’s best-known appellation, established in 1984. The state is also notable for how much both inter-state and international investment, primarily from California and Burgundy, it has attracted in recent years. 

At a glance

Oregon is home to more than 700 wineries, 1,050 grape growers and 18 stunningly different viticultural areas, according to the Portland-based Oregon Wine Board (OWB). From the cool and foggy Willamette just an hour outside Portland — which put the state on the map for its delicate Pinot Noirs — to hotter climes in the south of the state that make Tempranillo, Malbec and Rhône varietals, Oregon’s winemaking industry is diverse. Also much of it is sustainably farmed, in keeping with the state’s generally progressive outlook on agriculture. 

The average size of wineries in Oregon is generally small, with exceptions such as the 350,000- to 4000,000-case King Estate and A to Z Wineworks, whose wine is served on American Airlines in coach class. The number of vineyards in Oregon has doubled since 2005, according to the OWB, and 70% of the state’s wineries produce fewer than 5,000 cases a year. 

According to recent data from the OWB, Nielsen data for the year ending in “July 2017 reflects Oregon wine sales over the past year trended up +17.0% nationwide. As a comparative benchmark, sales are up +2.3% and +3% for Washington state and California, respectively,” said the report. “The state ships an estimated 3.2m cases of wine globally each year, equating to about 1.1% of domestically produced wines.”

“This is the strongest consumer-driven growth trajectory we’ve seen in recent memory,” said OWB president Tom Danowski. He added that consistent quality, particularly in the above-$15-a-bottle price range, is also driving interest in the state’s wines.

New investments

A handful of winemakers were instrumental in making Oregon the fine-wine producing state that it is today. The late David Lett, of Eyrie Vineyards — affectionately know as “Papa Pinot” — drove Pinot Noir clones down from the University of California at Davis in the 1965. He staked out the Willamette Valley as one of the prime growing areas for this varietal in the US. He was also a big fan of Pinot Gris, which is, to this day, widely planted in the Willamette Valley. His son Jason continues his legacy today at the winery.  

Another granddaddy of the industry, Dick Erath, brought the historic Pommard clone UCD 4 to the state in the 1970s. His historic Erath Winery was bought in 2006 by corporate giant Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery (SMWE) out of Woodinville, Washington. Their investment was just the tip of the iceberg and major California and Burgundy producers have also bought into the state both before and after SMWE’s acquisition. 

The highly respected Drouhin family from Burgundy produced its first vintage at Domaine Drouhin Oregon (DDO) in 1988. This was followed by other investors from the same French region such as Bruno Corneaux of Domaine Divio and Jean-Nicolas Méo of Domaine Nicolas-Jay. Maisons & Domaines Henriot acquired a majority share in iconic Willamette winery Beaux Frères in April of this year. The company owns a Champagne house as well as a negociants, Bouchard Père & Fils, in Burgundy.  

Corneaux, Domaine Divio’s owner and winemaker, fell in love with the Willamette Valley when he worked at DDO two decades ago and has since come back to realise his own American dream, with a vineyard in the sub-appellation of Ribbon Ridge. He said if you compare the region to Burgundy you will find some similarities, but the one unifying factor is both areas’ abilities to make quality wine.

The OWB’s Danowski continued the comparison by noting that both regions also have exceptional soil and viticultural areas. “They are both very similar and very different,” added Jean-Nicolas Méo. “Oregon has captured spirits of the grape: its versatility [and] ability to reflect terroirs.” Other than these similarities, he said that the soils are completely different and that Oregon wines are sweeter, higher in alcohol, lower in acidity and “display more candied aromas” than wines from Burgundy. 

Kendall-Jackson recently purchased WillaKenzie and Penner-Ash wineries and the Napa-based Crimson Group has long owned the Archery Summit winery. At Crimson, president and CEO Patrick M. DeLong said that part of the interest on behalf of both Burgundy and California producers in Oregon vineyards stems from the former two regions running out of places to plant great Pinot Noir and “both are most expensive than Oregon [in terms of land costs]”. 

Most of the acquisitions and influx of out-of-state spending has been going on in the northern Willamette Valley. The southern growing regions, such as the Rouge and Umpqua Valleys, have their own microclimates and focus on grapes such Malbec, Tempranillo and the Rhône varietals. 

While few of the Southern Oregon wines are seen outside the state, Danowski said that thanks to tourist attractions like the Shakespeare Festival, held in Ashland, and Crater Lake National Park, many southern wineries sell the bulk of their production of their tasting rooms. He added the 2014 film Wild, with actress Reese Witherspoon, was partially filmed in the southern Oregon city of Ashland and has had a bit of Sideways effect in attracting visitors to the region. 

Soul and soil

Oregon has long been considered a pioneer in agricultural products, from hazelnuts to wine. Oregon, according to Danowski, is home to 89 B Corporations (for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab, on the basis of social and environmental performance), which is more than anywhere else in the world. Five of them are wineries.

It is also a state that launched the LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) programme to certify the sustainable practices of winegrowers in the Pacific Northwest in 1999, as well the Salmon-Safe programme that works to keep urban and agricultural watersheds clean enough for salmon to thrive. Danowski concluded that “sustainability is just baked in the DNA in Oregon”.

While the terroir in Oregon doesn’t resemble Burgundy, the key things that Burundians comment on are the fact that the soils in Oregon have more marine sediment, he noted, adding that Oregon’s fine volcanic soils are quite different from the limestone-based soils in Burgundy. 

The retail perspective

Sommeliers and retailers across the country are fans of Oregon wine producers for their creativity and understated use of oak. They also think the state produces some of the best quality and most consistent Pinot Noirs in the country.

“There are still a lot of really great small producers [in Oregon] who are not afraid to think out of the box,” said Alicia Wolf, the sommelier at Houston-based Underbelly, a pork-centric restaurant. She added that these wines, “can hold their own when compared to some great, classic European wines”.

“If there is any change in Oregon winemaking, it’s that the quality level continues to rise each vintage,” said Andy Zalman, the wine steward at Portland-based, Pacific Northwest restaurant Higgins. He added the prices have become more appealing as well, thanks to larger crops and a streak of mostly good vintages. 

Oregon has “garnered quite a bit of acclaim over the years and has become this sort of Mecca, if you will for great, American Pinot Noir,” confirmed Kelsey Alt, the wine director at The Rieger, a Mediterranean restaurant in Kansas City. 

“Our research has found broad and growing support across the country for Oregon Pinot Noir, described by one merchant as ‘Burgundy crossed with California’,” said Barbara Insel, president and CEO of the St. Helena, California-based wine data research company Stonebridge Research Group. She added that, since the recession that began in late 2007, interest in Oregon Pinot Noirs has been revived “for both its taste profile and value”.

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What lies ahead

Very little Oregon wine is exported, according to Danowski. The approximately 4% that does leave the country mostly ends up in London, Tokyo and Canada. The Scandinavian countries have also been a strong market for Oregon wines, he said, noting that a handful of importers have long had an Oregon focus in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. 

The OWB organises tastings in its key markets and attends key trade shows such as ProWein in Germany. Danowski added that “Vinexpo Hong Kong has been good for raising visibility in Asia”. 

In addition, the OWB encourages key influencers to attend quirky Oregon events such as the International Pinot Noir Celebration and Oregon Pinot Camp. The first is open to consumers and features multivintage tastings and irreverent competitions like spitting contests. The second is only for trade, during which sommeliers and importers ride around school buses in the Willamette Valley tasting and attending seminars that are interspersed with fun activities such as vineyard treasure hunts. These lively and educational tasting opportunities have helped shape the state’s image. 

There’s still more room for growth. Brand Oregon “is young and will require a relentless drive on the part of the producers to visit more distant markets and champion their regions”, said Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, the lead sommelier at RN74, a French restaurant in Seattle.

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