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History of the Oregon Wine Industry

by Lisa Shara Hall
Exerpted from her book
Wines of the Pacific Northwest

(Mitchell Beazley 2001)

Oregon’s wine history dates back to the early settlement of the state in the mid-nineteenth century. Accounts of grape growing activity in Oregon coincide with early winemaking in California, each following their annexation to the United States. However, grape growing in California dates back even earlier to 1779 when Franciscan missionaries planted the very first vines.

Very Early label, pre-prohibition for Henry's Wine



The Pioneers- 1840-1900

Henderson Luelling, a noted horticulturist who had crossed the Oregon Trail from the East, had planted grapes in the Willamette Valley by 1847. He and his son-in-law, William Meek, allegedly won a medal at the California State Fair in 1859 for a wine made from the Isabella grape, a Labrusca X vinifera – an American hybrid thought to have been developed in South Carolina in 1816.

By the 1850s, Peter Britt – now a well known name in Oregon associated with a popular music festival which is held annually on the property of his former home in Jacksonville – is known to have grown wine grapes at his Valley View Vineyard. This was located in what is now the new Applegate Valley appellation of the Rogue Valley. The modern-day Valley View Winery was restored by the Wisnovsky family; they replanted grapes in 1972 and made their first wine in 1976.

A census of 1860 reveals the statistic that Oregon's wine production was some 11,800 litres (2,600 gallons), but certainly not all of itwas Vitis vinifera.

By the 1880s, two German immigrants, brothers Edward and John Von Pessls, came north from California to plant Zinfandel, Riesling, and Sauvignon in southern Oregon. However, it is not known whether the Sauvignon was Cabernet or Blanc. Another German immigrant, Adam Doerner, visited his friends the Von Pessls in the 1890s. He obtained Riesling and Sauvignon (once again, no specification) from the Beringer Brothers in Napa and returned to the Umpqua region of southern Oregon to make wine.

Further north, in the Willamette Valley, Ernest Reuter had built a reputation by the 1880s for his Klevner wines; Reuter is purported to have won a gold medal at the St Louis World's Fair of 1904. (Klevner is a modern Alsatian or German term for Pinot Blanc, but has referred to various varieties, including Chardonnay.) Reuter's grapes were planted on Wine Hill, also known as David Hill, west of Forest Grove in Washington County, at the present site of the David Hill Winery.

Substitute for Wine during Prohibition?

Prohibition Halts Oregon Wine Industry in 1919

The wine industry in Oregon fizzled out by 1919 due to the success of the Temperance Movement and the resultant Prohibition. It was also unable to compete with the growing California industry (with its larger scale and a climate that ripened grapes more easily).

Fruit wines dominated production in a post-Prohibition Oregon; "Farmer’s Wineries" could be licensed by the late 1930s, and by 1938, there were twenty-eight bonded wineries, primarily producing fruit wines based on berries, Concord grapes, and other American hybrids. (Honeywood Winery near Salem, which has been in continuous operation since 1934, now produces both fruit- and viniferabased wines.) There were only two notable vinifera-based exceptions from the 1930s: Louis Herbold – who had grown grapes in Europe and who had the first winery bonded in 1934 – cultivated sixty-five varieties of grape, and Adam Doerner’s son, Adolph, who made a basic red wine that was sold only locally. His son Ray kept the winery going until 1965.

Early label (post prohibition)
from David Hill Winery

The Modern Era

Oregon’s modern era dates from 1961, when Richard Sommer established HillCrest Vineyard near Roseburg, in what is now the southern, Umpqua appellation. Sommer planted primarily Riesling, plus small amounts of Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Like most of Oregon's first wine producers and winemakers, he was a refugee from the University of California at Davis, looking to find cooler viticultural sites. And like the other expatriates from Davis, he had been firmly advised that Vitis vinifera grapes could not be grown successfully in Oregon.

In 1965, Charles Coury left California for Oregon to plant a wide range of Alsatian varieties – including Pinot Noir – on the exact site on Wine Hill in Washington County as the nineteenth-century Ernest Reuter. Some of Coury’s plant material was brought back to Oregon in his suitcase after he had spent a year in Colmar, Alsace at INRA (National Institute for Agronomic Research).

The Pinot Noir era dates from 1965. David Lett, (left) of the Eyrie Vineyard, first rooted Pinot Noir cuttings near Corvallis, while researching a permanent vineyard site.

In 1966, he replanted them in the north end of the Willamette Valley in the Dundee hills – now the epicentre of Oregon’s wine industry – convinced that Burgundian varieties could be grown better in Oregon than in California.

He approached the decision of what to plant by spending time in Europe studying what grew well, where, and by applying the priciples of a ripening date classification system first developed in 1888 in France by V. Pulliat. David Lett believed that Pulliat’s Period I grapes – in particular Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Muscat Ottonel, true Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay – had the best chance of success in the climate of Western Oregon. This view of ripening contrasted with Amerine and Winkler's heat summation study and degree-days theory, a system as widely accepted in California then as now.

Lett focused on Period I varieties, but now allows that Riesling – which is a Period II grape – can also be viable because its flavours develop early and the grape can be picked slightly underripe, as is the practice at times in Germany. From the cuttings he brought up from Davis, Lett planted what he had been told was Pinot Blanc. It has subsequently turned out that most Davis-sourced Pinot Blanc should really have been labelled Melon. Lett, however, thinks the cuttings he brought up to Oregon believing them to be Pinot Blanc were, in fact, Chardonnay.

A Fledgling Wine Industry- the 1970's

David and Ginny Adelsheim, 1972

By the early 1970s, Oregon could make a claim to be a fledgling, and burgeoning, wine region. Other California immigrants included Dick Erath of Erath Vineyards Winery (then known as Knudsen-Erath, 1969) and Dick and Nancy Ponzi of their eponymous winery (1970); they were also joined by The Vuylsteke family (Oak Knoll, 1970), Susan and Bill Sokol-Blosser (Sokol-Blosser Winery, 1971), David and Ginny Adelsheim (Adelsheim Vineyard, 1972), Pat and Joe Campbell (Elk Cove Vineyards, 1973), Bill and Virginia Fuller (Tualatin Estate Vineyards, 1973), and Jerry and Ann Preston and Myron Redford (Amity Vineyards, 1974) in the Willamette Valley AVA.

But it was David Lett who was to ignite the flame that first cast light on Oregon wine. It was his 1975 Eyrie Vineyard’s South Block Reserve Pinot Noir that put Oregon on the map. In 1979 in Paris, the French Gault Millau guide sponsored a grand tasting of wines from 330 countries to see how New World wines compared with the French. In the Pinot Noir category, David Lett’s Eyrie was placed among the top ten. Beaune négociant Robert Drouhin staged a follow-up match in Beaune in early 1980; this time, the Eyrie came second, less than a point behind the Drouhin 1959 Chambolle-Musigny. The international press jumped on the story, and Oregon was placed on the world’s wine map. This success continues to be a major component of “The Oregon Story” and is used as a benchmark against which to compare the achievements of Oregon wines today.

Robert Drouhin strongly endorsed the success of the 1980 Beaune tasting by purchasing land in 1987, and building a state-of-the-art, gravity-fed winery in 1989, within sight of Lett's own vineyards in the Red Hills of Dundee.

The Connection with France is Strong

The connection with France has been strong from the beginning. Early pioneers Charles Coury and David Lett had both spent time in Alsace and Burgundy before founding their own wineries. As Oregon’s early wine producers grew more confident in their belief that this was indeed a credible region for growing cool-weather, French varieties, they looked to refine their choice of plant material.

David Adelsheim (at left) took the lead, after a local 1974 tasting of Oregon Pinot Noirs by winemakers, which focused intense interest in the Pommard clone and, for the first time, brought clonal discussions to a community level. Adelsheim was concerned: if different clones were available, how could he know which ones would make the best wine? At the time, only the University of California at Davis and the State University of New York in Geneva had importation licences and could bring in plant material from older, European wineproducing regions.

Adelsheim went to France in search of new plant material to bring back for cultivation at Oregon State University (OSU). The initial variety focus for imports was supposed to be Pinot Noir, but Adelsheim made a trip to Alsace in 1975 and arranged to send back to OSU samples of all of the region’s grape varieties, including the then never- seen true Pinot Blanc. In 1977, authentic Gamay and a few clones of French Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made their way to OSU as well.

By 1984 a relationship developed between clone expert Raymond Bernard (at ONIVINS in Dijon) and OSU, which resulted in the importation of the now-hot Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones that are today widely planted in Oregon and which started to bear viable fruit by the 1995 vintage. By the mid-1980s it became widely known in the United States that Oregon was bringing in clones from France to which no one else had access. As a result, California producers began purchasing plants from OSU, not Davis. When staff at Davis realized that, they forged a relationship with OSU that brought some of those clones to Davis. This was all a first – previously the flow of plant material had gone entirely in the other direction.

Oregon’s important French link once came under strain when a French nurseryman figured out that the traditional French clones, which the French had paid to select, were being propagated in the US without the French receiving royalties. But the French connection is alive and well once more.

In 1998, two commercial nurseries in California signed agreements with the French Ministry of Agriculture to pay royalties in exchange for a monopoly of select clonal material. Such clones are in quarantine in California, being evaluated for disease before propagation takes place.

Above, Domaine Drouhin from Sokol Blosser

The Industry Matures

Oregon’s most exciting new clonal material – especially for Chardonnay – has started to bear fruit. The resultant wines are displaying more complexity, and almost more importantly, a ripeness not realized before, since California clonal selections were inappropriate for Oregon’s cool climate. Oregon Chardonnay without the use of Dijon clones can taste very green and lean, unless the vintage achieves an unusual, extraordinary ripeness.

Oregon is finally beginning to reach its maturity as a wine region.The early pioneers are still at it, but the next generation has already joined them in the cellar. At Ponzi Vineyards, Dick Ponzi’s daughter Luisa has assumed the role of winemaker; at Elk Cove, Joe Campbell’s son Adam is now in charge. Even at Domaine Drouhin Oregon, it is Veronique Drouhin Boss – Robert’s daughter – who makes the wine.

With only forty years of modern experience, Oregon is now starting to develop into a region of some standing, and its bountiful potential is being utilized enthusiatically by its talented and innovative winemakers. But with barely more than one generation of experience, there is still a lot of history to be written.

next- ---------------------Oregon Identity


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