According to a study released in 2011, the Oregon wine industry supports nearly fifteen thousand jobs statewide and brings in more than 2.7 billion in revenue per year. The more our industry grows, I believe, the more it becomes evident how differently we do things here.
It is more than a quaint fact that we operate outside of what is the norm in many parts of the wine world. Considering the mostly market-driven nature of making wine in a place like California, a look at Oregon turns up something that looks a lot more organic, if you will. There are certainly examples of moneyed out-of-state folks setting up shop to join in what they think is the glamor of winery life. But these few examples (maybe six or seven?) of lifestyle-driven wine brands are anomalies in Oregon.
at right, planting new vines at Shea Vineyard
If you do a little research into our history, you’ll find an independence ingrained in the kind of people that built this place: rugged individualists that forged their own path, from the pioneer days onward. Our wine industry is to this today informed by an overall disregard for traditional rules, specifically those that dictate how a product is brought to market.
What this means for consumers of Oregon wine is that they can more often expect a wine to reflect it’s place of origin. Oregon wineries largely don’t employ focus groups to predict demographic demand. Typicity and authenticity are put before product positioning and gimmicky marketing. The Aussies can keep their ham-fisted branding and California their high-end jug wines. One critical difference is that here in Oregon we largely eschew large scale industrial wine making, holding to the belief that truly fine wine can’t be made in million gallon tanks. Some may call it provincial, and maybe it is, but this is wine we’re talking about, not dental implants, copier machines or the latest development in plastics.
Winery owners in Oregon aren’t naive to the economics of running a business, but these economics don’t alone inform what wines they produce. As an example of who is helping forge this unique path, below you’ll my pick for three of the most unique, stubborn and brilliant winemakers in the state.
1. John Paul Cameron from Cameron Winery: Is there a winemaker in Oregon who better personifies the seat-of-your-pants approach to making wine? I think not. Don’t be fooled though, his head is stuffed with more scientific knowledge than any one man should be allowed to possess. John Paul combines the mad scientist mind of Dr. Benway (from William S. Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’), the self-reliance of ‘Pa’ from Little House on the Prairie, and the off-kilter humor of Mel Brooks.
2. Jason Lett from Eyrie Vineyards: Jason recently (and elegantly) took over the reigns at the winery his father founded in 1966. He could have taken the winery in any number of directions, cashing in on it’s place as the first on so many fronts in Oregon. Instead, he’s quietly and meticulously continued to produce small amounts of some of the most elegant Pinot Noir in the U.S. Soft spoken and dedicated, Jason represents the kind of determination that keeps us focused on what is important here: our ability to make real, soulful wines that speak to the beauty of Oregon.
3. Steve Doerner at Cristom Vineyards: Among the things that are notable about Steve is his choice to call Oregon home after making wine in California (Calera) for more than a decade. He recognized the promise this place held and has worked hard to make wines that honor that. Steve also embodies the kind of humility and deference that is absolutely instrumental to the overall appeal of Oregon wine. Ego is an ingredient that is largely absent in Oregon wines. Ask any local winemaker what makes their wines special and you’re likely to hear something like “great wine is made in the vineyard”. Winemakers like Steve prefer to coax rather than manipulate, giving most of the credit to the raw materials with which they work.
Let’s raise a glass to the beauty of this place and the winemakers who are dedicated to making their wines as intact an expression of it as possible. For this we are truly lucky.
Viva la Oregon!