COMMENTARY

Keep That Oregon Spirit

By Boris Wiedenfeld, CSW

As I write, a big change is happening in my life, and it calls for a moment of reflection. For the last five or more years, I have been lucky to be at the helm of one of the more influential retailers of Oregon wine.

Tomorrow morning, I will wake up, immersed in a world of much larger-scale distribution of high-end wines from around the world. While that is certainly exciting in itself, I already know how much I will miss being so intimately involved in the close-knit Oregon winemaking family. 

And that led me to reflect on what it is exactly that has endeared me and so many others to this scene. And how it may, in part, be threatened.

In a word, it’s the people and how “real” they are. I arrived on the Oregon wine scene as a complete stranger, and it didn’t take long at all before many of the names I only knew from labels on wine bottles meant real people — people who would invite me over for dinner and whose kids I’d get to know over the years. In my opinion, the Oregon wine scene mostly lacks one thing: pretentiousness. Sure, there is some, but for the most part, it is a world of hardworking, genuine people, united by a love of the soil, climate and grapes that make this cherished end-product called Oregon wine.

And that certainly does not seem to be the norm across the world. Been to Napa lately? Burgundy? I just talked to an old friend from Burgundy about this at this year’s International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). He mentioned how much he envied the sense of camaraderie we have here in the Willamette Valley. According to him, neighbors there, some of whom have been on their domaines for hundreds of years don’t even know each others’ wines because they have never tried them. (By the way, my friend has made inroads on the spirit of inter-estate communication by using a uniquely American tool: the barbecue.)

This communal spirit is one to preserve. It lends the Oregon wine industry a charm that no marketing budget can buy. And in addition to marketing appeal, it makes it a place we want to live and raise our families in. If you have ever been to Oregon Pinot Camp, you know what I am talking about.

Every year, a couple of hundred someliers, retailers, restaurateurs and wholesalers descend upon the valley to be indoctrinated for three days in the world of Oregon wine. By the time they leave, they are life-long advocates of our wines. I have seen it over and over again. And many of these people have been on similar trips to various parts of California and other winegrowing regions, but rarely ended up with this sense of loyalty. Again, the prime reason for this devotion is the people involved in making the wine — not to mention taking responsibility for the land and people.

I have had many similar experiences at IPNC. Many of these guests are very affluent wine lovers from around the globe who go to many wine festivals. And again, I hear repeatedly that the IPNC has a special place in their hearts because of the people behind the wines.

But lately, I have also witnessed some disturbing trends in Oregon, especially outside the Willamette Valley.

Case in point: I visited a vineyard in Southern Oregon this summer. When they told me about some frost issue, I asked them how their neighbors fared, noticing a large vineyard right next to them. They said they had no idea because they didn’t really know them and hadn’t ever talked to them (even though they had been there for more than five years). He said, “You know, nobody down here really talks to anyone else; it’s not like the Willamette Valley.”

He said the general feeling was that a few long-established wineries had formed a sort of ‘exclusive club’ and that newcomers were not welcome. I know that is obviously an exaggeration — and I know there is collaboration down there as well — but it does seem to me that the spirit of community is maybe not quite as strong as it had been in the earlier days of the Oregon wine industry, when collaboration was a must, not an option. A spirit that shows itself today, as when the whole community came together to pitch in and finish the vintage after Jimi Brooks and Bill Redman passed away.

Of course, there is also somewhat of a ‘good ol’ boys’ club’ in the Willamette Valley. The kids of many of the Oregon wine pioneers have grown up together, and by now they are raising their children around each other. It is a close-knit community, but it has always felt very open and welcoming to newcomers. It is a spirit we would do well to cultivate.

The Oregon wine industry is healthy and growing at a very good pace, especially given the challenging economic climate, but we are still a very small industry. The challenge will be to maintain that Oregon charm that endears our wines and people to so many who experience it, while we keep growing into a larger, vibrant industry. I for one, have high hopes that it can be done.

Boris Wiedenfeld is a fine wine specialist with Young's Market Company's Estates Group.  Previously he was general manager of Sundance Wine Cellars and Oregon Wine Merchants in Eugene. 

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