Food & Drink

Willamette Valley continues to gain prominence in wine industry

Laurie Daniel
Laurie Daniel

There was extra reason for merry-making in McMinnville, Ore., at this year’s International Pinot Noir Celebration, which wraps up this weekend: 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the planting of the first pinot noir vines in the Willamette Valley.

David Lett was a University of California-Davis graduate who saw similarities between the climates of Burgundy and the Willamette Valley outside Portland. He thought pinot noir would be more successful in Oregon than it had been in California and decided to test his theory. In addition to pinot, he planted chardonnay and pinot gris. Lett established The Eyrie Vineyards and produced his first wines in 1970. Lett and his wife, Diana, were followed over the next decade by vintners such as Dick Erath of Erath Vineyards (at first called Knudsen-Erath); Dick and Nancy Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards; Joe and Pat Campbell of Elk Cove Vineyards; Susan and Bill Sokol Blosser of Sokol Blosser Winery; and David and Ginny Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyard.

Since those early beginnings, the Willamette Valley has grown into Oregon’s most important wine region, with more than 17,000 acres of vineyards (about two-thirds of the acreage is pinot noir) and more than 400 wineries. The valley gained status as an American Viticultural Area in 1982. Now the area is further subdivided, with six smaller appellations.

Of the wineries that followed the pioneers, one was particularly important: Domaine Drouhin Oregon. Burgundy vintner Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin had been impressed by the quality of Willamette Valley pinot noirs, and in 1987 he purchased more than 200 acres in the Dundee Hills and planted vines. Drouhin’s investment in Oregon was seen as validation of the area’s potential for world-class pinot.

A lot of the valley’s early vintners were inspired by Burgundy, but Willamette Valley pinot noir has its own identity. Although the wines have ample fruit, they rarely get as jammy as some California pinots do. “The common thread would be our natural acidity and abundance of fresh fruit,” says Luisa Ponzi, Dick and Nan cy Ponzi’s daughter and the winemaker for Ponzi Vineyards. That said, there is a range of styles, including some wines that are quite opulent, with ripe fruit and generous oak.

So where does the Willamette Valley go from here? David Adelsheim notes that pinot noir has such a big head start that “20 years from today, the story is going to be about Willamette Valley pinot noir, for sure,” although he thinks that chardonnay will play an increasing role.

The area continues to grow, with bigger players as well as small wineries. There are also parts of the Willamette Valley that haven’t seen much, if any, vineyard planting.

“Have we already found the Romanee-Conti of the Willamette Valley?” Adelsheim asks, referring to perhaps the greatest pinot noir vineyard in Burgundy. “Who’s to say?”