Oregon Wine “Arrives”

By Karl Klooster

Call it validation, verification, substantiation or confirmation. The vast majority of experts are now in agreement about the truth, reality and accuracy of a longstanding Oregon claim.

Since the beginning, when David Lett first planted Pinot Noir vines in the Dundee Hills, local winegrowers were convinced they had the potential to produce a superlative wine from the grape. Although early encounters with superb French competition proved Oregon Pinot could hold its own, even out-class the finest Burgundian Pinots, naysayers persisted.

By the late 1990s, cumulative evidence that Northwestern Oregon in general and the Yamhill Valley in particular were consistently producing world-class Pinot Noir could no longer be ignored. But the best?

Now, a decade and a half later, after countless competitions and a mountain of awards, one of the world’s most highly regarded and widely read wine writers has declared Oregon the best in the country, and, by extension, the equal of Burgundy’s best.

Wine Spectator Editor-at-Large Harvey Steiman covers Oregon, Washington and Australia. His career, spanning more than 40 years, includes a stint as wine columnist for the San Francisco Examiner through the 1970s. In that role, he covered the California industry as it began its climb to world prominence. He then joined the Wine Spectator’s team of tasters, raters and commentators in 1983.

Describing a recent visit to Oregon, where he met with several of the state’s most prominent winemakers, Steiman used the opportunity to explicitly express his views. “The most recent Wine Spectator tasting report on Oregon reviewed approximately 380 Pinots, and more than half of them, from nearly 100 wineries, earned 90 points or higher on our 100-point scale.

“What makes the wines so good? Start with the vines, which seem to like Oregon’s combination of soils and climate. Growers and winemakers have climbed a steep learning curve, largely while sharing their expertise with one another. They learned how to coax the character and personality from grapes capable of greatness. Most importantly, the wines taste distinct from one another, especially in the northern Willamette Valley.

“That’s what Pinot Noir can do in Oregon, which today can rightfully claim to be America’s home for the grape. For wine drinkers, who value the subtlety and expressiveness of Pinot Noir, the results are there to enjoy.”

The magazine’s annual Top 100 Wines of the World bestows a mark of excellence on every wine selected. Obviously, the higher on the list, the more prestigious the pronouncement. The 2012 list includes four Oregon wines. And this is from a state with a minuscule 1/10th of 1 percent of the world’s wine production.

Shea Vineyards 2009 Willamette Valley Estate Pinot Noir captured seventh place, the highest ranking ever achieved by an Oregon wine. 

Dick Shea said, “I was particularly thrilled by the fact that an Oregon Pinot Noir broke into the top 10 for the first time. It’s really gratifying to see that. It’s also nice that our least expensive and largest production Pinot was selected.”

Placing 14th was the Maysara Estate 2009 Cuvée McMinnville Pinot Noir, which is no small accomplishment, and the Momtazi family couldn’t be more pleased.

Maysara truly is a family affair these days. Founders Moe and Flora Momtazi are joined by daughters Tahmiene, winemaking, Naseem, marketing, and Hanna, hospitality, in running the operation.

“The funny thing about it is that these grapes were committed to a buyer who canceled just before harvest,” Moe said. “So we had no choice but to use them ourselves. My daughter, Tahmiene, was still pretty new in her position as winemaker. But she did such a great job, we decided to keep making the wine.”

Argyle 2002 Extended Tirage Brut (96 points, $70) occupies 18th place. This is the second time Argyle Winery’s longest-aged sparkling wine has climbed high on the magazine’s annual rankings. In 2008, the 1998 Extended Tirage placed 17th.

Co-founder Rollin Soles said, “It’s great to be recognized, and the larger story is that this is the first time a major wine periodical has scored a New World sparkling wine as highly as they do Champagne. Breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ for sparkling wine with a Willamette Valley-derived wine is especially great news for our region.”

Fourth among the Oregon wines entering the top 100 was Evening Land 2010 Seven Springs Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills (93 points, $45), claiming the 79th spot.

A relative newcomer here, the California-based company has added French expertise to its team with winemaker Dominique Lafon, whose family is famed for its Burgundian wines.

Altogether, this is the best Wine Spectator showing Oregon has ever had. And this recognition is all the more reason to go forward with the belief that even better is yet to come. 

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