Image: Left Coast Cellars, Left Bank Vineyards, Oregon, by Andrea Johnson Photography
Celebrating Oregon’s Wines
As it’s been for the last several years in the wine world, the month of May is recognized as Oregon Wine Month. And if what’s happening there continues, as far as winemaking is concerned, May might very well turn out to be just one of many months of every year that we celebrate what has become the fastest growing wine region in the country.
I’ve written about Oregon wines before, and what a wonderful place it truly is, especially the Willamette Valley (it’s wil-LAM-met, dammit!) and its most cherished varietal, pinot noir. But, there’s so much more to the state’s wine riches than the WV and PN; and when one truly examines the numbers beyond the sales, the focus beyond the intent, and the stories behind the production, it’s evident that, in this country at least, no other state even comes close to Oregon in terms of identifying itself solely on the quality of its wines.
Oregon winemakers, past and present, are true pioneers, carrying with them a determination and grit reflective of the early Oregon Trail days. Visionaries such as Peter Britt, who in 1847 established the Northwest’s first winery, and Richard Sommer, who built Oregon’s first post-prohibition winery in the Umpqua Valley (in 1961), planting riesling, chardonnay and the state’s first pinot noir vines, established early marks. Soon after Sommer’s successful establishment of Hill Crest Vineyard, in southern Oregon, other winemakers migrated to this warm, dry growing region. His work laid the foundation for David Lett, Charles Coury and Dick Erath, who from 1965 – 1968 would change Oregon forever, planting pinot noir vines in the cool climate reaches of the Willamette Valley.
Here are some fun facts that define the various winemaking scenes of Oregon, and can perhaps enlighten one about a wine place of lesser familiarity than say, neighboring California.
There are over 700 wineries and four main growing regions in Oregon: Willamette Valley, Southern Oregon, Columbia Gorge, and Walla Walla Valley. A smaller fifth region called Snake Valley is located on the eastern state line, bordering Idaho. Within the four main regions though, there are 19 AVA’s (American Viticulture Areas) that give each area a sense of both place and purpose. In the Willamette Valley alone, there are seven sub AVA’s, and a whopping 70% of vineyard plantings in Oregon are located in this valley. Southern Oregon represents 24% of plantings, with areas that include Umpqua, Rogue and Apple Valleys…a warmer, more temperate part of the state, with varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, syrah and tempranillo. The balance of plantings are found in the northern region(s) of Columbia Gorge and Walla Walla Valley, bordering Washington State.
Even further beyond the work in the fields, legislative decisions that were made in the infancy stages of the Oregon wine business, in the 1960’s and early ’70’s – by farmers, winegrowers and politicians alike – not only protected Oregon’s lands and resources, but also provided a safe passage for the vision that was being created at that time. Early laws like the Beach Bill, which granted public recreational rights to the dry sands of public beaches, thus protecting them, and the Bottle Bill, one of the first recycling bills in America, set the stage for Senate Bill 100, passed in 1973, which protected farmlands from urban growth, requiring cities and counties to make comprehensive, land use plans. These laws and practices allowed for unprecedented wine/vineyard growth throughout the 1970’s and 80’s.
Add to that the various certification boards that were created in the 1990’s and 2000’s, such as LIVE (Low Impact Viticulture and Enology), one of the most authoritative sustainability accreditations in the wine world, Salmon Safe and the Deep Roots Coalition, which forbids any irrigation of vines, all on the heels of Demeter Certified Biodynamic, the most strict and complex farming board of all…these endeavors would protect a growing industry and a changing landscape, through their respective philosophies and practices. As the industry grew, so did the demands for sustainable practices.
The truth telling numbers of quality speak for themselves.
Of those 700 plus wineries throughout the state, another whopping 70% of them produce about 5,000 cases each year, with 52% of wine coming from estate-grown fruit. Compared to the thousands of labels in California that exceed hundreds of thousands of cases annually, Oregon is a mere blade of grass in a giant state park, if you will, as it produces only 1% of fine wine in the country. There are multiple producers in California and Washington State that make more wine than all Oregon wineries combined.
On the grape side of things, pinot noir accounts for 58% of Oregon’s total production, as expected. After that, pinot gris sits at 14%. And while Oregon grows 72 varieties of wine grapes, including Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and more, it’s the two pinot(s) that make up over two-thirds of its production.
Throughout the entire state, you’ll find one producer after another who farms their (wine) land completely organically. You’ll also find the practice of irrigating wines decreasing, which ultimately forces those vines to grow as deep as possible for water and nutrients, allowing for very low, concentrated yields, producing extraordinary fruit, and creating extraordinary wines.
Oh, and for you wine score lovers out there, between 2015 and 2018, Oregon, again representing only 1% of production in the entire country, garnered 20% of Wine Spectator’s 90+ scores on domestic wines sold.
Wine writer and James Beard award winner Cole Danehower said it best:
Great Wine = (Place + Plant) x People.
Very few places in the wine world truly maximize that equation like Oregon; and in just 50 years, it has evolved not only into a world-class winegrowing state, but has done so by protecting its abundant, treasured resources. If you’re looking for a wine trip this year, go to Oregon…you’ll remember it forever. Until next time, Happy Vino’ing!