Sokol Blosser Winery in Dayton. ##Photo by Andrea Johnson

A Vintage of Variables

More than just another wine year in fields and facilities

By Karl Klooster

The story of the 2019 Oregon wine harvest is not simply about the usual what, when, where, who and how much. More than anything this year, it centers on the who. But let’s first talk about the harvest itself.

As the growing season ended, concerns about rain in northern Oregon areas gave winegrowers a bad case of the jitters, prompting several to pick early. Some were rewarded for that decision; others sorely regretted not having waited longer. Despite their best efforts, many who coddled their clusters as attentively as newborn babes, standing by for precisely the right moment to harvest, still suffered losses.

When making calls for picking crews, some were dismayed to discover fewer workers than needed could be rounded up in time. Crew shortages owing to compressed harvesting windows and competition from other crops aggravated the problem. On the other hand, established growers with long-term labor relationships, buttressed by a core of permanent workers, were rewarded with sizable dividends for their ongoing relationships.

Those who rely on mechanical harvesters harbored no such concerns; their “workers” were ready all hours. Saturday at midnight? No problem. They still can’t maneuver easily on steep slopes or traverse terraces, but for the terrain of most vineyards, the machines do the job quite well with considerably greater speed, efficiency and lower cost-per-ton than hand labor — this has proved particularly true when row spacing and fruiting zone placement are planned with mechanized picking in mind.

Even so, the most cleverly designed machines remain just a tool, and the most skillful human harvesters can’t conjure up a change in weather conditions. When rain is relentless and the sun hasn’t delivered enough growing degree days (GDD) to fully ripen the grapes, dropped crop and less-than-ideal picking decisions may be necessary.

In 2019, Northern Oregon growers suffered substantial losses because of the seasonal sogginess, while Southern Oregon vineyards remained relatively dry. Conversely, whereas 2018’s smoky conditions in the South took their toll on vineyard tonnages, problems owing to an abnormal frequency of fall fires proved nonexistent in the North.

All told, growers around the state agree that 2019 promises to be an excellent to even outstanding vintage from a quality standpoint. As for quantity, in the aggregate, it is estimated to be approximately 10% to 15% below normal. They’re also in agreement that whereas nothing can be done to alter the weather, astute actions taken in the winery can bring out the best in a vintage.

 “The body of knowledge we’ve accumulated since the industry’s infancy is immense,” says Alex Sokol Blosser, who directs winemaking for his family’s pioneering winery. “These days, we’re able to take a pretty average vintage, which, thankfully, we haven’t had many of in recent years, and turn it into a pretty darn good one. This gives you some idea of what can be done with a very good vintage or, for that matter, one approaching greatness, which we’ve seen more than a few times this decade.”

Sokol Blosser was referring to the recent string of years — 2014, 2015 and 2016 — all heralded in the media as near great vintages, with 2010 and 2012 also ranked close to the top. These determinations, based on North Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, continue to put this cool-climate growing region in a favorable light when compared to its Burgundian counterpart, the Côte-d’Or, reinforcing the reality that Oregon is really doing something right.

Regardless of trying to outmaneuver Mother Nature or making the right moves on the fermentation floor, the success of a vintage is reflected in the wine it produces both from a quantity and a quality standpoint. As for how good 2019 will be, even though first-hand witnesses contend that it falls in the excellent to outstanding range, the jury’s final verdict remains to be decided. But this year’s biggest story isn’t just how much or how good, it’s who and how much they made.

The size and configuration of Oregon’s wine industry has undergone some significant changes in just the past few years and there is every reason to believe more are yet to take place. Particular note should be taken of how prominently out-of-state owners, most of them only recently arrived on the scene, stack up against the usual suspects.

As for the following, previous sales histories and other related industry data have contributed to the calculation of certain estimates, particularly where current figures were not available. Tonnage production figures supplied by wineries have been converted to cases for comparative convenience. They are stated in rounded off totals and represent estimated ranges as opposed to what the actual case counts may turn out to be.

Ste. Michelle Estates, which owns half of Washington’s wine production, was the first to begin cashing in on Oregon’s potential when they put together a deal with wine pioneer Dick Erath in 2006. Ste. Michelle gave the already well-known Erath brand an even bigger boost as it rapidly rose to become the country’s eighth largest wine company. Brand production and/or sales figures are not released, but based on past estimates Erath could now have reached as much as 175,000 to 200,000 cases nationally

Vintage Wine Estates is a notable newbie. The Northern California company appended Firesteed Cellars to its sizable portfolio of wineries in 2017 and has continued to grow the popular Pinot Noir-driven brand. Foley Family Wines of Santa Rosa bought Acrobat Wines from King Estate Winery in 2018 and has expanded the brand’s Pinot Gris- and Pinot Noir-focused reach along with its own national marketing efforts. Firesteed’s stated sales volume is 85,000 cases. Acrobat was last quoted at 150,000 cases.

Integrated Beverage Group of Denver acquired Stone Wolf Vineyards in 2015 and Duck Pond Cellars, along with its 311 acres of vineyards, in 2018. IBG has rapidly moved forward with further development of Stone Wolf’s Rascal brand, including greater emphasis on cans. The Great Oregon Wine Company has replaced Stone Wolf and all operations are now consolidated at the Duck Pond facility in Dundee. Future plans being laid out by the innovative Denver company remain to be seen. Rascal production was last projected at 78,000 cases and Duck Pond at 57,000 cases.

Elouan, an Oregon Pinot Noir brand from Rutherford-headquartered Copper Cane Wines & Provisions, has its own noteworthy history. Joe Wagner, Copper Cane’s owner and scion of the iconic Wagner family of Caymus Vineyards fame, made a serious splash in 2015 when selling his Meiomi wine brand to Constellation Brands for a jaw-dropping $315 million.

But, in 2018, his Elouan and Willametter Journal Pinot Noir brands — made with Oregon fruit but produced in California — were flagged for the incorrect use of Oregon AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) on the labels and packaging. Wagner has since made the required modifications, and his Elouan Pinot Noir, sourced from the Willamette, Umpqua and Rogue valleys, now carries only the Oregon AVA on its label. He stated a round figure of 2,500 tons for Elouan’s exclusively Pinot Noir production in 2019, which given 60 cases per ton comes to 150,000 cases total.

Jackson Family Wines, the nation’s ninth-ranked wine marketer, has made some carefully calculated moves since officially coming to Oregon in 2013. Under the local leadership of estimable industry veteran Eugenia Keegan, Jackson Family’s acquisitions to date include a handful of highly regarded Yamhill Valley wineries: Gran Moraine, Penner-Ash. WillaKenzie Estate and Zena Crown. Add to that the purchase of more than 1,500 prime vineyard acres, nearly 700 of them already planted. 

And that’s not even considering the 2017 completion of a 68,245-square-foot facility in McMinnville, located behind the Jackson Family’s Oregon headquarters, a modern building originally part of the Evergreen International Aviation complex. Here, the company produces the Oregon bottlings of its Siduri and LaCrema brands with plenty of room to house new projects that arise as expanded plantings come to maturity.

For 2019, Keegan pegs total production of all JFW facilities at 105,000 cases. Whatever increases may come will depend on the goals set for each individual winery. Owing to its production capacity, the Evergreen facility appears poised to quickly leap up the ladder. 

Without question, Pinot Noir is Oregon’s signature red wine. And for years, Pinot Gris ruled the white wine roost. However, the momentum has shifted to Chardonnay. Long suffering from inconsistency in Oregon, the Queen of Whites is now backed by a band of true believers and a new day is on its way.

As proof, Oregon’s answer to white Burgundy is finally beginning to earn the recognition it deserves. Keeping pace with Pinot Noir, the state’s Chardonnay sales reflect just that. Research figures show a 15% gain for Oregon Pinot Noir in a national arena where 2.5% is the average. And Oregon Chardonnay has increased 14.5% in a globally competitive category — think California, France, Chile and Australia — that otherwise shows static growth.

The state’s largest home-grown wineries exemplify the upward trend, with Union Wine Company of Sherwood leading the pack by several lengths. In only a half dozen years, owner Ryan Harms has taken his winery from small to humongous, at least by Oregon standards. The story behind this is all about cans and his determination to find a manufacturer able and willing make a 375-milliliter (12.7 ounces) version rather than the typical 12-ouncer that holds soft drinks.

Apparently instilled with insight, at least when it comes to canned wine, Harms felt certain this essentially unexploited category was poised to take off. As a result, Union Wine got a big jump on the “big boys” with its Underwood brand and has become a major player in its own right. Ready to ring up a total of 502,000 cases for all brands in 2019, the youthful entrepreneur projects 570,000 cases in 2020.

First to introduce an entire line of good-value varietal Oregon wine in 2002, A to Z Wineworks has been in the top tier ever since. Although crop losses among their more than 50 growers around the state led to lower production for 2019, annual sales still reached 325,000 cases this year and a healthy 2018 inventory on hand will allow that to increase in 2020.

Since French-born winemaker Laurent Montalieu started NW Wine Company in 2003, with backing from investor John Niemeyer, he’s fashioned it into a quintessential example of a large winery, Oregon-style. Part of NW Wine’s 246,000-case production is custom crush; the other part is proprietary. The company also owns the Westmount and Kudos brands, as well as historic Hyland Vineyard — planted in 1971 — which it is building into a substantial estate name.

The production at 12th & Maple is entirely for others, so tonnage and case counts are difficult to estimate. With all the custom crush activity around, this plus-sized, Dundee facility should have no problem acquiring and accommodating new proprietary clients. Their only limitation would be the sheer space to install more outdoor tanks.

The anonymity of 12th & Maple notwithstanding, players that have long enjoyed wide name recognition include King Estate, founded near Eugene in 1999 by the King family. The winery produced almost 214,000 cases in 2019. Oregon’s poster child for Pinot Gris, King Estate almost singlehandedly brought that grape to preeminence as the second-most grown variety and the leading white in the state.

At 152,000 cases, Willamette Valley Vineyards continues apace with founder Jim Bernau still at the helm of the state’s only publicly held winery. Dobbes Family Estate, reinvigorated by Bacchus Capital Group in 2011 and 2013, continues to satisfy a strong demand for Dobbes Family Estate, Wine by Joe and Jovino wines; Joe to Go, a canned line of everyday wine, has bolstered the company’s climb to 55,000 cases for their own account as well as custom-crush production amounting to another 70,000 cases.

While not strictly a sparkling winery, Argyle continues its reign as the state’s only sizable producer of bubbly since 1987. Over those three decades of cork popping, production has grown to 105,000 cases.  Just down Dundee’s main drag, Sokol Blosser, founded in 1971, also remains a major player. Now in the capable hands of second-generation siblings Alex and Alison Sokol Blosser, the company’s sister brand, Evolution, has evolved to the point where sales of the white blend are outpacing its elder relative. Together they account for a projected 97,000 cases in 2019.

Also started in the early 1970s, Elk Cove Vineyards managed to grow a bit bigger than its pioneer cohorts — except for Erath. But the Gaston winery didn’t sell. Instead, son Adam Campbell is now general manager and head winemaker of the 80,000-case winery his family built from scratch.

Other top-shelf brands include Stoller Family Estate, the nation’s first LEED gold-certified winery, with a 2019 production total of 139,000 cases. Its Dundee Hills neighbor Domaine Serene, currently crafting 49,000 cases of exclusively ultra-premium wines, was founded by Ken and Grace Evenstad in 1989. Their portfolio also features Burgundian properties Château de la Crée and Maison Evenstad.

In the 25,000- to 40,000-case range, tons crushed and cases produced can vary depending on several factors. Several prominent wineries fall into this category, including Ponzi, Adelsheim, Domaine Drouhin, Lange Estate, Benton-Lane, Foris, Silvan Ridge, R. Stuart, Girardet, Maysara, Anne Amie, Torii Mor, Pallet Wine Co. and Naumes, among others.

The above-mentioned wineries and wine marketers are repeatedly spreading word of the Oregon brand well beyond our borders. Augmenting that effort, larger companies and their distributors regularly knock on doors of major decision-makers across America and even overseas. In the process, they build greater awareness of the Oregon brand and its reputation for quality.

Oregon’s ideal climate, geography, topography and soil composition (terroir) for the growing of cool-climate grapes further enhances its high-quality message. Top award-winning wines from specific sites within delineated sub-AVAs and individual vineyards underpin the fact that the region has earned the right to be ranked among the finest in the world of wine.

The Oregon industry — which in its entirety makes about half as much wine annually as Ste. Michelle Estates sells and whose combined vineyard acreage is less than that owned by Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Company — is appreciative of all the accolades it can get. And the combination of elements appears to be paying off.

Oregon table wine sales are growing at eight times the national average and eager consumers apparently have no problem paying twice the national average for each bottle. If a buyer wants to put his or her money quite literally where their mouth is, one can conclude they have become appreciators. Topping it off, the growth of Oregon among $20-plus wines is double that of any other region, domestic or imported.

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