Pinot, Who's Your Papa?

David Hill in Forest Grove.
Pinot Noir ripens in anticipation for harvest.

By Karl Klooster

An economic development committee is charged with promoting the attributes of a community in an effort to attract new business, boost tourism and generally stimulate the local economy.

A memorable statement or slogan that sets a place apart could significantly enhance that effort. So when members of Forest Grove’s economic development group came across something they found quite special, they pursued it.

The claim is that Oregon wine pioneer Charles Coury, who came north and bought property west of Forest Grove, was the first to identify Northwestern Oregon as a prime place for the finicky Pinot Noir grape to achieve its full potential.

A meteorologist and horticulturist, Coury studied oenology at UC Davis. And the thesis he wrote for his master’s degree there serves as the crux of Forest Grove’s case.

In his dissertation, he wrote, “Any variety yields its highest quality wines when grown in a region where the maturation of the variety coincides with the end of the growing season.” He further argued that Northwestern Oregon’s short-but-focused summer growing season presented exactly such conditions.

Coury, who had spent considerable time in the wine regions of France, particularly Alsace and Burgundy, was eager to test his theories. And he set out to do so on what is now called David Hill, just west of Forest Grove.

He picked a site that had first been planted in vinifera grapes in the 1880s by German immigrant Ernest Reuter, and went on to establish his first vines there in 1965.

However, business setbacks forced him to abandon his efforts early, leaving it up to David Lett, who eventually earned the affectionate moniker Papa Pinot, to take up the cool climate cause.

The Forest Grove folks, led by banker Don Jones and the city’s economic development director Jeff King, said they were in no way seeking to challenge Lett’s revered title.

“It’s well deserved,” King said. “He planted Pinot Noir the same year as Coury. He made the world aware of Oregon Pinot’s world-class quality, and he championed the variety all of his life.”

King argues, however, “Coury deserves credit for having started it all.” He said that’s what led the committee to adopt the slogan, “Forest Grove: Where Oregon Pinot Noir Was Born.”

Forest Grove may not be where the first Pinot Noir wines were made, he acknowledged, but it’s where the impetus originated.

The city’s website goes even further, asserting that Coury actually “planted the first of Oregon’s Pinot Noir grapes.” When queried about this, King said he wasn’t aware of that, it wasn’t correct, and it would be addressed.

A subsequent check showed the website’s wording has been modified to say, “planted the first of Oregon’s Willamette Valley famous Pinot Noir grapes.”

The author undoubtedly meant to say, “famous Willamette Valley” or “Willamette Valley’s famous,” but this was a hurried change. It demonstrates Forest Grove’s sensitivity to something it didn’t expect to escalate into an issue.

So, has the city exceeded its bounds with its sweeping statements?

There seems to be no argument that Coury was convinced great Pinot Noir grapes could be grown in Northwestern Oregon. However, that conviction was shared by fellow UC Davis student David Lett before he and Coury went north together.

In fact, upon first arriving in Oregon, the two shared an apartment in Silverton and initially sought to buy suitable vineyard land in that area. Finding nothing available, they expanded their search with Coury finding a spot in the Forest Grove area and Lett locating one in Dundee.

The question also remains regarding when Coury actually planted his first Pinot Noir cuttings on Reuter’s Hill. Jones said their research places it in 1965, the same year Lett planted his first cuttings in the Corvallis area before buying the Dundee Hills property in 1996.

This is understandably an important point with the Lett family, since the date of David Lett’s plantings is clearly documented, whereas Coury’s timeline is apparently less certain. Nonetheless, it was Lett who ultimately proved the promise of Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, both for the fruit and the wine.

With the recent wording change on its website, Forest Grove has corrected the obvious error that elicited strong opposition from Southern Oregon wine industry members.

They point out the well-documented fact that Oregon’s first Pinot Noir planting were put in near Roseburg by Richard Sommer in 1961, four years prior to either the Coury or Lett plantings in the Willamette Valley.

Bruce Smith, owner of Oregon Wine Country Tours, wrote the Oregon Wine Press to say that first-to-plant honors clearly belong to Sommer.

“It is common knowledge among Oregon winemakers that Richard Sommer deserves the title,” he said. “I quote from your paper: ‘In 1961, he was experimenting with varieties of grapes — mainly Riesling and Pinot Noir — and planted the first post-Prohibition vinifera on an old turkey farm west of town.’”

Greg Cramer, owner of MarshAnne Landing Winery, just north of Roseburg, said, “It is time for Forest Grove to relinquish a false claim and acknowledge a hasty decision. It was an error, and we all make them.”

Furthermore, the Southern Oregon contingent takes exception to Forest Grove’s slogan. Their interpretation is that “where Oregon Pinot Noir was born” should be where it began rather than where it has gained its greatest recognition.

Jones and King said they were fully aware of Sommer’s role in Oregon wine history, just as they were of Coury’s. Jones said, “I spoke at length with wine pioneers Dick Erath and Bill Fuller — founder of Tualatin Vineyards — who acknowledged the pioneering roles of both men.”

Southern Oregon winemakers contend, with justification, that Northern Oregon gets all the glory. They, on the other hand, are making outstanding wines at very competitive prices, but their achievements have not as yet attracted the recognition they deserve.

However, it is not Pinot Noir for which those Southern Oregon accolades are being earned. Sommer may have been the first in the state to plant it, but it hasn’t proved to be the most notable variety among the many that flourished under his care.

The bottom line is that as much as this may be a meaningful matter internally, the consumer couldn’t care less. Wineries would be better served to quit wrangling among themselves, hook their horses to the same wagon, and hit the road to sell “Brand Oregon” nationwide.

Maybe then, wine lovers elsewhere might stop saying, “Oregon? I didn’t know they made wine there,” and start buying more bountiful bottles from the Beaver State.

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