Then & Now
By Riggs Fulmer
It’s 2009. Despite the looming Second Depression, we live in the most exciting time in the history of Oregon wine. More acres are under vine, producing more varieties, than ever before. Quality is at an all-time high. The increasing modernization that has occurred in our local wineries, combined with influxes of cash from hopeful purple-handed immigrants, all seasoned with a healthy dollop of Northwestern quirky individualism (read: we’re weird out here), have gifted us with perhaps the world’s most exciting wine region. Just think: Soon we won’t even be “up-and-coming”! We will have arrived, and it will be fascinating to see what the industry looks like then, as we are forced to re-image ourselves, from the underdog to the star.
It’s easy and natural to look forward and wonder what the next quarter-century will hold for us. Will global warming lead to Albariño and Pinot in the Coast Range, à la Santa Cruz? Will the high desert outside Bend be planted to Mourvèdre and Insolia? Will we completely phase out glass bottles and corks, to be replaced with bags-in-a-box and recyclable plastic bottles? It feels like we are at a crossroads, as we begin to forge a real body of work, and plan for a somewhat uncertain future, and it is in these times we tend to look back as well. It also doesn’t hurt to do so on our birthday as a publication!
That’s right, the Oregon Wine Press turns 25 this month, having grown from the Oregon Wine Calendar to today’s comprehensive, well-revered monthly, that you’ve come to know and love! My editor has commissioned me to compare these two watershed years, 1984 and 2009, to see what the Oregon wine world looked like back then and how that era has led to the modern one.
Although the first grapes were brought to Oregon by horticulturalist Henderson Luelling in 1847, before we were even a state, cultivation of vinifera grapes for wine did not begin in earnest until over a century later, in the mid- to late-1960s. The industry grew and flourished over the next 20 years, finally catching eyes across the world, most notably in the famous tastings of 1979 and 1980, when David Lett’s glorious 1975 South Block Pinot Noir first defeated, then came in a very close second, to the best that France could offer.
As the potential for local Pinot became clearer, more and more wine began to be made: Between 1970 and 1980, the number of bonded wineries grew from five, with 35 acres under vine, to 34 wineries with 1,100 acres of vineyard.
The 1980 eruption of Mt. Saint Helens seemed to have an effect on the vintage that year, with two wines winning gold medals for the first time, and in 1982 Oregon wines were first favorably reviewed in The New York Times. The year 1983 saw the establishment of the Oregon Wine Advisory Board.
But in 1984, Oregon vintners took an important step with regards to the individualization and marketing of their wines: The Willamette Valley and Umpqua Valley AVAs were established. This appellation system, akin to the regional wine laws of Europe and particularly influenced by the cartographic precision with which Burgundy is delineated, allowed consumers outside of Oregon a point of reference and access to what was becoming an increasingly sophisticated, diverse wine region.
Another important development in 1984 had to do with the clonal selection of grapes. Prior to this point, the source for vine cuttings was UC Davis, home to the famous school of enology and viticulture. The clones acquired from there were Californian, better suited to the warmer, sunnier climates that exist to our south. However, Oregon’s future as a fine wine region hinged on the gamble of those early ’60s and ’70s pioneers, that our cooler, longer ripening season would allow us to produce more elegant, complex wines than those grown in the sultry shine of California. After all, Burgundy’s climate, despite being a continental one, was much closer to the Willamette Valley than Napa Valley. Oregon vintners began to realize that new clones were needed in order for their vineyards to achieve their fullest expression.
To find and develop these regionally suited clones, in 1984, Oregon State University founded a relationship with famed French clonal expert Raymond Bernard from ONIVINS in Dijon, Burgundy. This led to the importation of what have come to be known as the “Dijon clones” of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Although these plantings did not produce viable fruit until the 1995 vintage, it quickly became known that Oregon had access to French clones that no one else in the country had.
As the plantings thrived in our temperate vineyards, California producers, particularly those in cooler growing regions, began to purchase cuttings from OSU rather than UC Davis, and when the staff at Davis realized this, they themselves established ties with Oregon State and brought some of these clones back down south.
The year 1984 also saw the first visit of (in)famous world-renowned wine critic Robert Parker, who, although doubtlessly disappointed by the early lack of hedonistic fruit-bombs, seemed to fall in love with our Valley, as evidenced by his purchase—along with his brother-in-law and a partner—of local land that became Beaux Frères winery. The next year, the 1985 Burgundy Challenge had Oregon wines once more equaling or besting France’s finest, and serious négociant Joseph Drouhin sent his daughter, the talented vigneronne Véronique Drouhin, to establish a winery here in 1987.
Fast-forward 25 years to the early spring of 2009. While we don’t yet have hovercars or condos on the moon, we are nonetheless making wine in a brave new world (if you’ll forgive the Huxley reference in a piece largely dedicated to 1984), where, though they might hate to admit it, the Internet and computer-driven crushers are as much the tools of the winemaker as the punch-down stanchion and a solid pair of boots.
In Oregon today, there are nearly 400 wineries, with more than 700 vineyards and over 17,000 acres under vine. The industry contributes around a billion dollars annually to the state economy, and this number looks to continue to grow. There are over 72 different grape varieties planted here, although Pinot Noir remains the unquestioned flagship, and our wines are available around the world, particularly in East Asia.
We now host the world’s premier Pinot Noir event, the International Pinot Noir Celebration, which is attended yearly by hundreds of the world’s top Pinot-philes.
The natural partner to wine—fine cuisine—has also exploded in quality and popularity, with Portland (home to the country’s most restaurants per capita, according to the urban myth) serving as the gustatory Mecca around which the region as a whole has flourished. With access to world-class produce, meats, and seafood, it was perhaps inevitable that we achieve this rarefied height, but it was the revolution in wine that led to the revolution in food, and the two have battened on one another.
Much of the pioneering spirit of the early winemakers persists, not only in the continued excellence of wineries like Adelsheim, Eyrie and Ponzi, but in the exciting new efforts from local producers, new stars such as Boedecker, Biggio Hamina and Tyson Crowley. The happy circle of land stewardship, cuisine and viticulture also keeps growing, with increased emphasis on organic and biodynamic farming, as well as the improving precision with which we choose where to plant a given variety—and where to plant nothing at all and let the native flora thrive.
In short, we look back on our quarter-century of existence as a publication with pride in our young past, but also great enthusiasm for what the coming years will hold. Our fine wine industry is now unquestionably one of the world’s best, and within this country, we are second only to California in acres under vine; our commitment to quality is demonstrated by the fact that, despite this acreage, we are only fourth in terms of liters of wine produced. And, notwithstanding what a few California-philes argue, our Pinot Noir is the finest in the world outside Burgundy.
So, where do we go from here? As a state, we should look to increase the quality and variety of our wines. Plant Hondarrabi and Auxerrois and Nebbiolo! Do what they say we cannot, and we will once again prove the doubters wrong. We should do more to protect our precious land, not only for the health of the vine, but also for the health of our children. We can show the world what sustainable, modern winemaking looks like, drawing equally upon ancient Burgundian tradition and state-of-the-art science and research. And we should never cease to approach and attack all the obstacles in our way with the grace, honesty and hard work that are the earmarks of what it means to be an Oregonian.
If we do all this, and the heavens smile upon us, then the next 25 years will certainly hold the same kind of growth, innovation and brilliance as have the last 25.
Riggs Fulmer is a language-loving wine writer and musician. He resides in Portland.
Adams Vineyard • Adelsheim Vineyard • Alpine Vineyards • Amity Vineyards • Ankeny Vineyard • Arterberry Ltd. Winery • Bethel Heights Winery • Broadley Vineyards • Cameron Winery • Chateau Benoit • Chehalem Mountain Winery • Cote des Colombes Vineyard • Elk Cove Vineyards • Ellendale Vineyards • Forgeron Vineyards • Giradet Wine Cellars • Glen Creek Winery • Henry (Estate) Winery • Hidden Springs Winery • Hillcrest Vineyard • Hinman Vineyards • Honeywood Winery • Hood River Vineyards • Knudsen Erath Winery • Mount Hood Winery • Mulhausen Vineyards • Oak Knoll • Ponzi Vineyards • Rex Hill Vineyards • St. Josef’s Winery • Serendipity Cellars • Shafer Vineyard Cellars • Siskiyou Vineyards • Sokol Blosser Winery • The Eyrie Vineyards • Tualatin Vineyards • Valley View Vineyards • Wasson Brothers Winery • Yamhill Valley Vineyards
FAR LEFT: Jim Bernau of Willamette Valley Vineyards tends his young vines, circa 1984. LEFT: In 1984, Amity Vineyards holds their eighth annual Summer Solstice Wine Festival. TOP: Mark Wisnovsky works his tasting room at Valley View Winery in 1984, while his cousin, Amanda Shultze, makes goofy faces for the camera. ABOVE: Philippe Girardet, founder of the eponymous winery pauses during the 1984 vintage in Southern Oregon. Photos provided.