Four Things You Didn’t Know About Oregon Wine Country


Photo: Joe Roberts

The state of Oregon, in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, is home to several officially designated wine growing areas, which now house well over 200 wine tasting rooms, along with about 550 wineries. Many of those wine producers are small, family-owned operations, with most of them making fewer than 5,000 cases of wine per year. That all might sound like relatively small potatoes when it comes to wine production, but wine-related tourism in Oregon is actually big business, contributing an estimated $158 million in revenue to the state’s economy. From adventure-related tourism, to farm-themed excursions and a welcoming wine trail, there’s much for an intrepid wine lover to explore and discover when visiting Oregon’s wine producing areas.

While many wine lovers know Oregon for world-class Pinot Noir (first planted in the area in the 1960s), as well as excellent Chardonnay and Riesling, there’s much more to learn about Oregon’s wine country, including some tidbits that even its hard-core wine buffs may not yet know.

It all started in the... South?

When they think of Oregon, fine wine lovers are justifiably tempted to think of Pinot Noir, which was first planted by the Lett family in Willamette Valley in the 1960s at what is now known as The Eyrie Vineyards. But Oregon winemaking started long before that, when the state’s first wine grapes were planted in the 1800s - not in Willamette Valley (where more than 200 wineries are based), but in an area now considered one of Oregon’s up-and-coming regions: Southern Oregon. Southern Oregon, which is home to Crater Lake National Park, has five sub-appellations and is the state’s largest warm-climate wine growing area. The area is now home to more than sixty-five wineries, as well as what might be the state’s most diverse set of grape plantings, including Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Sauvignon Blanc, Tannat, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino, among many other varieties.

It’s modern wine production predates Eyrie

Yes, Eyrie is deservedly credited with putting Oregon Pinot Noir on the world fine wine map, but what we’d consider modern wine production in Oregon predates Eyrie’s genesis in the 1960s by about three decades. According to Oregon Wine:

“In 1933 John Wood and Ron Honeyman of Salem were among a group of early Oregon entrepreneurs who received bonded winery status shortly after the repeal of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which established Prohibition in 1920. Honeywood Winery is Oregon’s oldest continuously operating winery and holds bonded winery number 26. Hillcrest Vineyard later ushered in the modern era of Oregon winemaking, planting the first viniferous grapes near Roseburg as Oregon’s first estate winery. Hillcrest, which holds bonded winery certificate number 42, is Oregon’s oldest estate winery.”

This was followed by media fame for Oregon wine in 1964, when renowned food writer (and Portland native) James Beard published his memoir, Delights & Prejudices: A Memoir with Recipes.

Eyrie’s history doesn’t really begin until 1965, when founder David Lett first rooted Pinot Noir cuttings near Corvallis while he was researching a permanent vineyard site (these were the first such plantings in the now famous Willamette Valley). Charles and Shirley Coury planted his first vines in a vine nursery established by Lett, and then returned to California, leaving those vines in Lett’s care. The rest is Pinot Noir history. Incidentally, the Courys returned to Oregon and eventually purchased a property that had operated as a vineyard and winery from the 1800s through Prohibition, and went to work replanting it with Pinot noir and Riesling; it’s now known by its historic name, David Hill.

Photo: Joe Roberts

It has its own dirt named after it

Oregon has at least fourteen different soil types in which wine grapevines are planted, with names such as Jory, Nekia, Manita Loam, Basalt Cobble, Laurelwood, and Bellpine. One of those soil types is actually named after areas within the state itself: Willakenzie.

Summarizing soil types is rarely an easy task, and the curious can find an almost overwhelming amount of detail about Willakenzie soils at the U.S. goverment’s soil series website. Here’s a modest attempt at explaining what sets this unique soil type apart. Found in Oregon’s Yamhill-Carlton wine region, Willakenzie is composed primarily of coarse, ancient marine sediment soils over a foundation of sandstone and silt, which drains water quickly. This soil is typically found on smooth, convex hills and foothills in the region, with an average elevation of around 400 feet above sea level. All of those things work together to create a unique environment for growing agricultural products - in this case, the cultivation of fine wine grapes, which perform best when they are forced to grow deep roots in search of water sources (to which Willakenzie soil, with its penchant for fast drainage, is very well suited).

As is traditional for names given to soil series by the National Cooperative Soil Survey, the term Willakenzie is suggestive of where the soil was first officially discovered. The Willakenzie term doesn’t refer directly to a single place, but is actually an amalgamation of the names for the unique spot in which it was first found, at the confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers in Oregon’s Lane County.

It has the largest commitment to sustainable farming of any U.S. wine region

Oregon became one of the focal points for sustainable farming when the state legislature enacted its first environmental law prohibiting the pollution of waters used for domestic or livestock purposes over one hundred years ago. This began a general trend in the state supporting environmentally-friendly initiatives, including laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s protecting the state’s beaches, requiring deposits on soft drink containers, and restricting the growth of urban sprawl into the state’s farmland. As of 2014, almost half of all of Oregon’s vineyards were certified as being farmed sustainably, the largest such commitment in the country. The state’s wine industry also spearheaded the creation of the Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) certification widely in use now in Oregon.

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a.k.a. Joe Roberts. Dad, wine-writer-guy, wine critic, wine competition judge, author, bassist, free-thinker, & occasional hiney-shaker. Opening up highly-pressurized cans of whoop-a** on the wine industry since 2007. Joe is a Certified Specialist of Wine, and the author of Wine Taster’s Guide: Drink and Learn with 30 Wine Tastings.

Downingtown, PA

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