They said it couldn’t be done: grow Pinot Noir in Oregon. They were wrong.
Pioneers of European origin brought vinifera vines to the “land of milk and honey” when traversing the Oregon Trail in the 1830s and 1840s. The vines flourished, as did the settlers. Writing in Winemakers of the Willamette Valley, Vivian Perry and John Vincent report that the first commercial vineyard in Oregon “was planted in 1852 by Peter Britt” in the Rogue Valley. Winemaking gradually spread elsewhere as farmers planted “hundreds of acres of grapes and started producing profitable wines.” Ernst Reuter, another early Oregon wine pioneer, “captured a medal for his Riesling at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair.”
But disaster befell the burgeoning industry. According to Perry and Vincent, “Oregon was among the first states to adopt prohibition in 1913 and possibly one of the last to end it in 1933.” Deprived of their livelihood, winemakers ripped out vines and replanted vineyards with other crops. Though a precious few grape growers survived by “bootlegging or making wine for religious ceremonies,” Oregon’s wine industry lay moribund for the next four decades—until a former dental student named David Lett kick-started it in the 1970s.
Wine educator Jane Nickles explains that Lett “had been in dental school, but enrolled at UC-Davis after a vacation in Northern California left him enamored of wine.” Once ensconced at Davis, he became fascinated “by the red wines of Burgundy, which were the ‘world standard’ for Pinot Noir.” After his graduation, Lett spent a year traveling and studying in France before returning to the United States poised to make great Pinot Noir—in Oregon.
Why Oregon? Lett was sure that the Beaver State was a perfect place to grow the prototypical Burgundian grape. In the 1960s most people thought that was crazy. Lett’s professors said the Oregon climate was too cool, too wet and too variable to grow Pinot, but Lett’s research on climate and soil types had identified similarities between Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Burgundy. As Jane Nickles puts it, “The climates of the two regions … were surprisingly alike … from temperature fluctuations to elevations, rainfall, and winds.”
David and his wife, Diana, found a 15-acre prune farm in the Willamette Valley that seemed ideal for their venture. After clearing it and planting vines, they named The Eyrie Vineyards (eyrievineyards.com) in honor of a family of red-tailed hawks that lived in fir trees near that first property. David and Diana made their first Pinot Noir in 1970 in a converted turkey processing plant near McMinnville. The rest is history.
When the Letts entered a Parisian wine competition in 5 1979, their 1975 Pinot Noir was named third-place winner against stiff Burgundian competition. Was this a fluke? Robert Drouhin, a leading Burgundy négotiant, sponsored a rematch the following year in Beaune. The upstart Oregonians took second place.
Domaine Drouhin Oregon
Robert Drouhin had visited Oregon. He recognized that Oregon’s soils and climate could “unlock the complexities and potential of Pinot Noir … in the United States.” Véronique Drouhin, Robert’s enologist daughter, traveled to Oregon in 1986 and worked the harvest at three wineries, including Eyrie. The following year Robert purchased land in the Dundee Hills to establish Domaine Drouhin Oregon (domainedrouhin.com). Véronique became DDO’s winemaker; her brother Philippe became its viticulturalist.
Stoller Family Estate
Raised on a turkey farm near Dayton, Ore., Bill Stoller is not your typical winemaker. He studied business and economics, earned an MBA, and then founded and ran companies in the personnel business. But his ties to the land were strong, and he wanted to start a winery.
When the family farm ceased operating in 1993, Stoller purchased it from his cousin. Stoller believed that the sloped, rocky terrain with its low-yielding soil would be an ideal location for a vineyard. In 1995, with the counsel of Burgundian winemaker Patrice Rion and local experts, Bill planted 10 acres each of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Stoller Family Estate (stollerfamilyestate.com) was born.
I met Mr. Stoller several years ago. He radiated pride in his heritage, mentioning the family turkey farm several times as he filled our glasses.
Universally recognized today as a wonderful place to produce Pinot Noir, the Willamette Valley is divided into six AVAs (American Viticultural Areas)—Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton. Many outstanding wineries operate in these areas today. We tasted wines from three pioneering establishments.
The Eyrie Vineyards Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2013($38) is light and melodious from its intriguing bouquet through its lilting flavors of raspberries, strawberries, cherries, plums and mint. We couldn’t decide whether to describe the flavors as “ethereal” or “graceful.” The experience of tasting this wonderful wine lingers in the memory much as those hawks linger above Eyrie’s vineyards.
Domaine Drouhin Oregon Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2014 ($45) is a rich garnet color. Its alluring bouquet of fruit, mint and yeast presages flavors of dark cherry, raspberry and dried figs that bloom on the palate the way the sound of a great tenor’s voice blooms on the ear as he sings. Think of Jussi Björling or Giuseppe di Stefano singing “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” from Gounod’s Faust. That is how this wine tastes.
The Stoller Family Estate Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2014 ($30) is particularly rich and satisfying. All but opaque in the glass, it emits aromas of raspberry jam with supplementary fragrances of spices, soil and oak. It is excellent with food (or on its own), offering flavors of juicy blackberries, raspberries, black cherries, a dash of pepper and spices. Sipping it, you will experience forthright acidity and a long finish.
Let us raise our glasses to David Lett and other pioneers who recognized that they could produce world-class Pinot Noir in the lovely Willamette Valley— and had the courage to start doing it. As the Burgundians might say: “Chapeau!”
Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? Email Robert:RBCalvert@att.net.