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
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.
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
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
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 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).
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
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.
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
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