This is a guest post by Tamara Belgard, passionate wine enthusiast and Oregon educator.
For what appears to be a relative newcomer on the world’s wine scene, Oregon’s wine roots actually go much deeper than one might think. History tells us that grapes were planted and wine was produced in the Willamette and Applegate Valleys as early as the mid 1800’s. By the late 1800’s, wine production was growing around the state and grapes were planted in Forest Grove on the site now known as David Hill Winery.
In 1919 however, Prohibition brought the Oregon wine industry to a stand still and it wouldn’t resume again until the 1930’s, when Ron Honeyman and John Wood started making brandies, cordials and liquors at Honeywood Winery, the state’s oldest continuously operating winery. Honeywood (which was then called Columbia Distilleries) officially opened the day after Prohibition ended in 1933.
Then, in the 1960’s, Oregon’s modern era of wine production seemed to explode like a shaken bottle of champagne. Starting with Richard Sommer at Hillcrest Vineyard in Southern Oregon in 1961, a new wave of pioneers settled around the state taking a chance in what they hoped would become the world’s next best wine region.
This new wave started to swell in 1965 when David Lett of The Eryie Vineyards near Corvallis planted the first cuttings of Pinot Noir. After much research, Lett was convinced that Oregon’s Willamette Valley shared a similar climate with Burgundy, France and that Oregon could produce better Burgundian-style wines than California.
In the next few years, Dick Erath would arrive on the Willamette Valley wine scene, Dick and Nancy Ponzi would plant their first 20-acre vineyard in Beaverton and Jim and Loie Maresh would begin planting the now-famous Maresh Vineyard. Pinot Fever thick in the air, the Vuylsteke family of Oak Knoll began wine production, Susan Sokol Blosser and Bill Blosser purchased a prune orchard in Dundee and planted it to vinifera, the Adelsheims in Newberg began production, as did Pat and Joe Campbell of Elk Cove. The growth in the burgeoning wine industry was not just taking place in the Willamette Valley. Vineyard sites in Southern Oregon were popping up as well, at Valley View, Troon and Umpqua Valley Estates.
In 1975, The Eyrie Vineyards produced a Pinot Noir that would go on to win 2nd place, beating out many prominent French wines, at a famous Paris wine competition in 1979. The resulting international recognition would put the spotlight on the state and put it on the map as a producer of world-class wines. Less than 10 years later, French winemaker Robert Drouhin would acknowledge the success of Oregon’s production by building a new winery in the Red Hills of Dundee (near the site of the vineyard whose grapes produced the winning wine).
The number of wineries across the state has now grown to over 500, making it the third largest wine producer in the country. Domestic and international accolades also continue to mount. In 2012, Wine Spectator Magazine honored Oregon by declaring it the “Home of American Pinot Noir.”
As the modern Oregon wine industry enters it’s 50-year mark, second generation winemakers are taking the helm and are slowly steering the industry in new directions. Experimentation with different varieties, new production and growing techniques and even new packaging trends are creating buzz and excitement. As Oregon continues to evolve and develop into the full potential early wine pioneers first envisioned, the success must be somewhat intoxicating. The consumers are the real benefactors though. Each time we sniff, swirl and savor a delicious glass of Oregon wine, remember all the years of risk, hard work and dedication that went into that glass.