This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by Columbia Winery in the fine state of Washington. (What, you thought only apples grew there?) Columbia Winery crafts critically acclaimed wines from some of the most impossible wine-growing terrains in the state. Did you know grapes grow in the desert and make rich, amazing wine? No really, it’s like Columbia Winery has captured the state of Washington in a glass. Give Columbia wine a swirl at their tasting room located 43 minutes north of Seattle, where this very podcast is produced. Or, take a Wine Exploration class. You won’t be disappointed.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers dives into the wine industry of another Pacific Northwest state: Oregon. The region’s history is rich with innovation and challenges, but that didn’t stop early winemakers from growing stubborn varieties like Pinot Noir. Plus, what does the future of wine look like for Oregon? Tune in to learn more.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I’ve been thinking about this for almost my entire life, and I have to actually verbalize this finally: The close-door button on elevators is a placebo.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. What is happening with you today? OK, guys, we’re going south of Washington to a place called Oregon. It’s a wonderful wine region. We’re going to talk about it.
OK, wine lovers. Here we are in the Pacific Northwest, still. We are going to be just south of Washington, just north of California, in the state of Oregon. And I believe I’m saying the state correctly, Oregon. And if I’m not, please let me know. Because if you’re from Oregon, you’re an Oregonian, and I don’t know… Anyway, I’ll get there. But what I’m trying to say is we are still in the Cascade Mountain range. Yes, we are still in the Pacific Ring of Fire. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what my obsession is with that. I just love that the Pacific Ring of Fire sounds pretty cool and epic. I don’t know why. Anyway, I think what my big deal with Washington State was, how recent everything is in the development of the wine industry of that state. Kind of like how recent everything is in the United States and how we’re still exploring. We talk about Oregon, which is very cool because the wine region of Oregon is just night-and-day different from the wine region in some of the wine regions of Washington State — except for Puget Sound, which I’ll get into. But similar to Washington State is the development, in that it was only recently in the early 2000s that a lot of their AVAs were awarded. And we’re kind of, just like in Washington, in this place where Oregon may have a more of an established national image than Washington State. But it is still developing before our eyes. So let’s get a sense of Oregon, what’s going on, and get a good general understanding so we can get on the ground floor as this stuff develops.
The majority of Washington State’s wine is made on the east side of the Cascade Mountain range in a semi-fertile desert. And it has that one AVA, Washington State, on the other side of what is called the Puget Sound AVA. That AVA, with all of its Pacific Ocean influence, is the most similar to what happens in Oregon. Because as the Cascade Mountain range goes down through Oregon, it’s called a coastal range at this point. There are these valleys that exist on the western side of the coastal range and they of course shoot up into the foothills of the Cascades. And these valleys help us. They can help us understand almost the entire wine-growing region of the state. In the north from Portland, which is right on the border of Washington state, all the way to Eugene, Ore., about 150 miles or so is what’s called the Willamette Valley. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. There’s a lot going on there. We’re going to talk about it. South of the Willamette Valley is another valley called the Umpqua Valley. And then just south of that is another valley called the Rogue Valley. And that’s basically it. Within those valleys are subregions or what the United States is starting to call “nested regions.” So you have a larger AVA called the Willamette Valley, and then you have nested regions within the Willamette Valley. We’ll get into that, of course. As I said, that’s Oregon.
But the thing is, what’s really wild about Oregon is that there are descending AVAs basically coming down from Washington State. The Columbia Valley dips into northern Oregon. And then the Columbia Gorge AVA is sitting right there on the border. On the eastern border of Oregon, there is a wine region called the Snake River. But that AVA is shared with southwestern Idaho. Yeah, Syrah from Idaho. Pretty great stuff, guys. That’s basically it. So you have the three regions, the three valleys, and you have these outlying areas. As I said, Washington State is mostly in an irrigated semi-fertile desert. In Oregon, the majority of the wine-growing regions are in that Pacific coastal range, so it’s a famously wet area. “Goonies never say die” — how about you Gen Xers out there? Anyway, even though it does rain a lot, the majority of the rain falls between October and April. So it kind of misses the really important parts of the growing season. So the winters are mild, but the summers are cool and wet.
How do vines work here? Well, when immigrants came over to this land that would one day be called Oregon, they started planting vines. This is what European immigrants did when they came to America. They looked for places to grow vines because that’s what they did back home. Vitis vinifera vines make it to what was now called Oregon in the late 1800s. So from the late-ish 1800s, like the 1860s or early 1860s to about the late 1930s, there was a wine industry here. So something was working. And I don’t really know what kind of varieties they were growing there. It just was Vitis vinifera, European wine grapes. But the thing about this is that the modern era of wine in Oregon is really what we want to know. Because that little piece of history I gave there, that’s about it. There was wine happening there, and then for a long time, it wasn’t around as much. I’m sure wine was being made. I’m sure Prohibition had something to do with it. I’m sure phylloxera had something to do with it. But it kind of stalled for a while. It wasn’t until the 1960s that we started seeing the modern wine era of Oregon begin. I know I haven’t said the grape yet. I haven’t said it yet. I haven’t said Pinot Noir. Oh, I did say it. It wasn’t there yet, but we’re going to get there.
Have you ever been in a situation where somebody says to you, “It can’t be done,” so obviously you go and try to do the thing that you said you wanted to do that they said couldn’t be done? And then you go and do the thing that they said couldn’t be done, and then it goes even further than that? So you get to look back at that person and go, “Eat crow.” Do you know what I’m talking about? Well, that’s basically how the Oregon wine industry began. In 1961, there was a graduate from UC Davis. His name was Richard Sommer. I don’t really know if he was thinking about Oregon or if he was talking to somebody about Oregon or something. But somebody said to him, “It would be ill-advised for you to grow Vitis vinifera grapes in Oregon. It just won’t work.” So he’s like, “Well, that’s OK. I’m going to go try it anyway.” So up until now, we really haven’t had that sort of “aha” moment. Yes, there were humans in the hills in the 1860s up until the late 1930s, and wine was happening. But at this point in the 1960s, that is a relic of the past. Richard Sommer comes up to Oregon. He lands in the Umpqua Valley and he starts planting Vitis vinifera. This is considered the moment everything begins. Richard Sommer and his winery, Hillcrest, are considered the father of Oregon wine. And Hillcrest is there to this day. It’s really great. They do Pinot Noir, of course. They also have Riesling, and we’re going to talk about it in a little bit. But that was a big moment in Oregon.
The second moment also came in the 1960s. The thing is, it was another person from California that was told they couldn’t do something in Oregon. And he was like, “Well, we’ll go ahead and do it.” Charles Coury was a meteorologist and an oenologist graduate from UC Davis. He was another person to come to Oregon to prove that these vines could thrive here. This is the guy who made his way to where the heart of the concentration of the Pinot Noir world would begin. He ended up just south of Portland. That’s kind of where all the Willamette Valley stuff starts. He started planting different varieties, mostly Alsatian varieties — wine varieties that would be grown in Alsace, like Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and stuff like that. He is responsible for a clone of Pinot Noir that is still in use today in Oregon called the Coury Clone. Big moment.
I don’t know which professor or professors were saying this stuff. But yet another graduate from UC Davis by the name of David Lett was also told by his professors that you should not plant, specifically Pinot Noir, in Oregon. It will not work. The temperature’s not right. It’s just not right. Well, that’s interesting because a meteorologist is there, and he is growing Vitis vinifera just fine. So David Lett’s like, “Look. I’m going to try, too.” As I said, Richard Sommer was a meteorologist. He was an oenologist. He was doing an experiment, basically.
David Lett was a graduate of UC Davis, so he had a degree in winemaking. But the dude was also a philosophy graduate from the University of Utah. So this dude, this heady guy, heads up to the Dundee Hills in the Willamette Valley, just south of Portland, in the northern part of the Willamette Valley. He was convinced and determined to make Burgundian grapes work, specifically Pinot Noir. I mean, this is a lot of determination, and I’m sure the word is getting around. So other people come to this area to start making wine. A little bit less than a dozen of these winemakers, some of them are graduates from UC Davis. Some of them are not. David Lett begins Eyrie Vineyards. In 1979, it’s a couple of years after the Judgment of Paris so there are a lot of these things going on — “competition” things. There’s something called the wine olympics. David Lett’s 1975 Pinot Noir showed very well at the wine olympics. I don’t know if it won awards. I don’t know what was going on there. But what I do know is it turned heads and raised eyebrows. And people were like, wait for a second, there’s something happening here in the Dundee Hills. There’s something happening in the Willamette Valley. So this is part of the story where the word starts getting around, and it even starts going abroad. Actually, the governor of Oregon at the time, Neil Goldschmidt, took an official visit and took winemakers and people with him to Burgundy to talk to Burgundian winemakers.
I’m not sure how this all went down, but Robert Drouhin, who is a very famous, very well-known wine merchant from Beaune in Burgundy — if you don’t know Beaune, please listen to my Burgundian episode — ends up coming to the Dundee Hills and establishing a winery not far from David Lett’s vineyards. So he’s like, “I see your climate, I see your soil, I see your slopes, I see you are wowed. I am excited. I want to try that.” When you have a winemaker who works with hundreds of years of established wine in Burgundy getting excited about something happening in the United States in the 1970s into the ’80s, that’s kind of big. This is really where it all began. When we hear about Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, this is where it all started.
By 2013, the total area under vine in Oregon was over 26,000 acres and 400 wineries. Really, Pinot Noir is what made Oregon, Oregon. It’s what put the wine situation in Oregon on the map. I’m going to tell you right now that Oregon is not just Pinot Noir, but we have to understand that this place and this grape are intertwined forever. We think of Napa, we think of Cabernet Sauvignon. We think of New York State, we’re beginning to think of Riesling. We think of the Willamette Valley of Oregon, we’re thinking Pinot Noir. And it’s in the Willamette Valley where you get a couple of things that are unique to this area.
Number 1, there’s a kind of soil in these hills and mountains that is very special to this area. It’s called Jory. It’s a very clay-based, loamy soil. I don’t really want to get into soil compositions on “Wine 101” because it’s a whole other podcast. But that soil is one of the elements that help these vines grow the way they grow. There’s another soil specific to this area called the Willakenzie soil mix. And again, I’m not going into the details of it, but it’s a very drainy soil. It’s a soil that really helps the Pinot Noir or whatever vines you’re planting there drain well, grow well, moderation’s everything, it’s great.
Because of the popularity of Pinot Noir from a movie in 2004 called “Sideways” and a place in our country that concentrates almost primarily on the Pinot Noir grape, the Willamette Valley in Oregon has been an intense focus in the early aughts. This is what I was talking about at the beginning of this episode. It was only in the early 2000s that seven AVAs or seven sub-AVAs or seven nested AVAs were awarded to the Willamette Valley. The reason is that Pinot Noir is a very tricky variety. I have a Pinot Noir episode; you should definitely listen to it. It is one of the varieties that everyone talks about as being the biggest translator of terroir. Because of the cragginess and the ancient volcanic and earthquake activity in this area, there are so many places that this grape can do well, and they’re all different.
What Oregon decided to do was cut up this whole area in the foothills of the Cascades and give them specific names. So that in the future, as these wine regions start to get more and more evolved, we can say, “I’m having a Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills in the Willamette Valley.” When you’re in the wine shops out there, you’re going to see mostly Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, and you’re going to see them with names like Eola-Amity Hills, Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills, McMinnville, Yamhill, Carleton. These are nested AVAs or sub-AVAs of Willamette Valley. I don’t have time, obviously, to go into every single one of them. But what I wanted to tell you is to try to find them and try them. The thing is, they’re not inexpensive. Wines from this area that truly express the variety can be a little bit expensive, starting at around $30 and going up from there. But this is some of the most beautiful Pinot Noir America makes.
And there’s a reason for it. And there’s a reason why it was all cut up like that to have all these sub-AVAs, and that is the Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Pinot Gris is a big deal there. Chardonnay is a big deal there, too, because that was one of the OGs. But Pinot Gris has kind of taken over the south of Willamette Valley. One of those three valleys is the Umpqua Valley. Now, I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing that correctly. If I’m not, someone, please help me. But here in the Umpqua Valley, this is where it all began, right? This is where Hillcrest Winery is. There are two nested AVAs in the Umpqua Valley. There’s Elkton Oregon AVA and then there’s Red Hill Douglas County AVA. And the thing about Umpqua Valley and the valley south of it, the Rogue Valley, is that because it hasn’t gotten the attention that the Willamette Valley has, it’s just kind of hanging out and doing its thing.
I don’t want to say it’s an experimentation area, but it kind of is in a way because they’re trying different things. Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley: These are places where grapes like Cab Franc, Merlot, Tempranillo, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer, these cool-climate varieties, are doing very well. And then just south of Umpqua Valley is the Rogue Valley. Again, similar stuff. You’re still in this coastal mountain range. So at the beginning of this episode, I said, “Let’s get into Oregon and understand it so that we can see get on the ground now as it develops.” I said that and I’m sure you’re like, “Well, dude, the Willamette Valley is developed.” But there’s so much more. I mean, yes, you have the Columbia Valley that dips in and you have the Columbia Gorge. And then over on the eastern border is the Snake River Valley, which is really kind of awesome. There’s good Syrah being made there. But the thing is, Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley — even Willamette — they’re just beginning. I mean, in the future Willamette Valley could have even smaller, little nested AVAs in there as they find better places for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris. The Umpqua Valley and the Rogue Valley are places that could at some point be like, “You know what, Tempranillo is the thing,” or, “You know what, it’s going to be Riesling here.”
There is wonderful wine being made in Oregon. I’ve had amazing wine from Willamette Valley and Rogue Valley. I’ve had amazing wine from Umpqua. It’s so interesting and fun to see what’s going on here and to think that it only started in the 1960s. I mean, in Washington State, it was the 1980s and 1960s. But you’re on the ground floor right now. Enjoy Oregon wine. I’ll see you next week for Virginia.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.
And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.