‘The Oregon Trail’…this pathway is synonymous to the indomitable spirit of the West. The Oregon territory was the destination of many a maverick adventurer, setting off from the ease and industry of the urbanized East. It’s rugged landscape, rich with mountains, fields, rivers and coast, was the ideal place for young adventurers to test the pith of their spirit against the power of Nature. This same exuberance is the legacy and essence of Oregon viticulture.
The First Adventurers
Oregon attracted the attention of viticulturists in its infancy. The fact that it lies along the same latitude line, the 45th, as the legendary wine growing regions of France and Italy, may have contributed to its allure. The climate is certainly reminiscent of the heart of Old World wine region itself, allowing Oregon to unveil wines comparable in excellence and preeminence to those of France. Of course, this took many people making their own small impressions in the dirt.
In 1847, noted horticulturist Henderson Luelling travelled the Oregon Trail to Willamette Valley. He and his son-in-law planted of the first recorded vineyards in Oregon. The wine they produced won a medal at the California State Fair in 1859. At the same time, Peter Britt produced a wine that took high honors at the St. Louis world fair in 1904.
Two German immigrants, Edward and John Von Pessls brought Zinfandel, Riesling, and other traditional vitis vinifera from California to southern Oregon some decades later, in the 1880’s. Their efforts helped to facilitate the spread of wine northward through the state, where Ernest Reuter built a reputation for Klevner wines on Wine Hill (the present site of David Hill Winery).
This slow spread of young vintner visionaries, mirroring the impervious spirit of the west, continued to advance until it met with an insurmountable obstacle–The Prohibition. The wine culture of Oregon fizzled out to a mere shadow of a ghost, a condition from which it took decades to recover. Even once the ban on alcohol was lifted, there was only a minor stirring of interest. Adventurers had found other endeavors to pursue. Oregon quietly stepped to the side, unable to compete with the flourishing wine industry of California…
At least, until the 1960’s ushered in a new era of vine visionaries!
A new generation of viticulturists plumbed again the potential lying along the 45th latitude line, and began to cultivate their forgotten vines. Suddenly, the sleeping wine culture woke up, and remembered the roots of adventure that had first brought grapes to Oregon. It was the Pinot Noir, however, that put Oregon on the map of international recognition.
In 1979, Eyrie Vineyards entered the Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades. They placed in the top ten Pinot Noir, out placing many French wines in the competition. Incensed, French winemaker Robert Drouhin arranged for a rematch, and this time brought in wines that were reputed to be of a quality finer than those seen at the Wine Olympiades–wines that were considered jewels of the Old World.
Joseph Drouhin’s 1959 Chambolle-Musigny won the match; Eyrie Vineyards came in a close second.
Enthused by this success, Oregon Pinot Noirs went on to enter the Burgundy Challente of 1985, during which wine experts could not distinguish between the Pinot Noir of Oregon and Burgundy in a blind taste test. When ranked, the Oregon wines were scored ahead of the French entrants.
Shortly thereafter, the highly esteemed Drouhin family of Burgundy purchased 100 acres of Oregon land. Here, they planted a new vineyard. As far as France was concerned, Oregon had proved it’s place on the international stage of wine, and blossomed there. Along with the families of France, came the opportunity to secure true Pinot Blanc clones–something not even California could obtain.
By 2010, there were 419 wineries, and over 20,500 acres of wine grapes cultivated in Oregon. It accounts for more than $184.7 million of Oregon’s market value, and continues to grow. With so short a history, it’s incredible to see the progress of Oregon’s wine. They’ve only forty years of modern experience, a few decades of history, and yet have still entered into the global wine ballroom with the vigor characteristic of Oregons founders. There is much more history to be written in the vineyards of Oregon.