COMMENTARY

Geography Lesson

Marketing Oregon’s four distinct growing regions

By Cole Danehower

Wine grapes, as I am fond of saying, know no borders. Yet we humans put borders on grapes all the time. We call them appellations (short for appellation d’origine contrôlée), or more formally in this country, American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).

Grapes grow best where the conditions are best for them to grow, and the grape knows nothing of what we humans happen to call the place where it grows. But to us, the names we give to these places are vital in helping identify the character and even the market value of the wine that comes from those locations. Consequently, Gevrey-Chambertin implies one set of wine expectations, Pauillac another.

The names given to winegrowing areas are important because they help us understand something about the wine that comes from that place. Each wine growing place has a unique combination of geographical factors — latitude, soil type, bedrock type, surface slope, aspect, elevation, wind, rainfall, evaporation, sunlight hours, air temperature, diurnal shift, etc. — resulting in different broadly defined wine styles.

Cole's Column

Cole Danehower is a James Beard Award-winning wine writer and wine industry marketing consultant who has been reporting on the wines of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest since 1998.

This is the rationale behind the American AVA system. These geographic names, to quote the TTB, “allow vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographic origin.” The Rogue Valley AVA, for instance, has one set of wine associations; Ribbon Ridge AVA, another.

Why all this discussion about geographical wine names? Because it is becoming confusing for consumers to understand the diversity of Oregon’s multiple appellations, a fact we need to fix. I think we can do so by discussing more about Oregon’s Wine Countries than we do Oregon’s AVAs.

Oregon now has 18 AVAs, each offering its own grapegrowing character. There are names as exotic as Umpqua Valley, and as awkward as Red Hill Douglas County Oregon. There are sizes as small as Ribbon Ridge (5.2 square miles), and as large as Willamette Valley (5,156). And growing degree days (GDD) — a measure of heat accumulation — range from a low of 1800 (great for Pinot Noir) to more than 3000 (good for Cabernet Sauvignon).

With such vast viticultural variances even a self-confessed Oregon wine geek like me has a difficult time rattling off the key aspects distinguishing each named AVA from another. Remind me again, please, how is the Applegate Valley AVA different from the Rogue Valley AVA?

Imagine how it feels to the vinous visitors wanting to experience the best of our diverse wine geography, but can’t tell the difference between Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge. How can they ever hope to grasp the nature of Oregon’s distinct appellations?

I think the best way is to start thinking of Oregon not in terms of individual AVAs, but rather in the larger scale of Wine Countries. By aggregating our individual AVAs into larger, more easily understandable regions of commonality, we can better attract visitors and market our wine tourism, which, in part, we’ve begun to do.

The Willamette Valley, for instance, is well understood to be “Pinot Country” by most wine aficionados. They may not understand it is because the region’s climate so well matches the evolutionary growing needs of cool-climate grapes like Pinot Noir, and they may not know the differences between the Willamette Valley’s five child-AVAs, but that doesn’t matter. It is enough that they know Willamette Valley Wine Country predominantly means Pinot.

Similarly, Southern Oregon constitutes a very different umbrella wine region gaining mind-share traction in the market. Predominantly warmer, the various AVAs of Southern Oregon have a reputation for growing a wider range of grapes, with generally more warm-climate varieties than possible in the Willamette Valley. The larger geography of Southern Oregon Wine Country offers consumers convenient shorthand for understanding the wine character of the region, and presents them a different set of wine expectations and reasons to visit.

The next large subdivision of Oregon’s wine countries should properly be called the Northern Border Wine Country. This very important part of Oregon’s wine geography includes the Columbia Valley, Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla Valley and The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVAs. Perhaps its most important wine characteristic is that it includes a multitude of growing conditions, ranging from cooler in the west to warmer in the east, enabling a very wide range of wine styles to be made.

Often, and in my opinion, quite erroneously, this region is referred to as “Eastern Oregon.” But it isn’t Eastern Oregon at all, and it is inaccurate and misleading to call it that. True, these AVAs are east of the Cascades, but their most salient geographic commonality is how they lie along an almost straight line between Hood River and Milton-Freewater and are consistently within about 20 miles of the state line. Indeed, all but one of the Northern Border AVAs actually extend into Washington.

There is a true Eastern Oregon wine region worthy of its name, but it is the Oregon half of the Snake River Valley AVA — not the accumulation of AVAs along the northern border. This is hard-core Eastern Oregon, sharing many of the same viticultural characteristics of central and eastern Washington’s famous wine regions — except without the ready access to irrigation flows. Eastern Oregon is by far the least developed of Oregon’s wine regions, barely qualifying today as a true Wine Country — which is not to say that future development won’t transform it into a wine destination in the future.

As I said earlier, wine is about geography, and over time, geographic names connote certain wine characteristics. For Oregon, this will be easier to accomplish if we discuss what makes our four Wine Countries distinctive, rather than trying to define each of our 18 appellations.

By marketing Oregon’s wine countries as regions with common wine characters, rather than our localized AVAs, consumers will be better able to “attribute a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographic origin.” This approach will make it much easier for wine lovers to comprehend the state’s great wine diversity; it will make Oregon more inviting, accessible and memorable to the average wine lover.

And who knows, once they get started on Oregon’s wine countries, more than a few will become inspired to delve deeper into all aspects of our 18 appellations. After all, we can never have enough Oregon wine nerds.

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