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History and Statistics of Oregon Wine

For most people, the Oregon wine story usually begins with Willamette Valley in the 1970s, but it actually starts far earlier than that.

Vines to make wine have been planted and tended to in Oregon since the first European settlers arrived in the mid to late 1800s. Most of the early action was found in southern Oregon, toward the California border south of the capital of Salem. This became a destination for Italian immigrants in particular, who brought winemaking knowledge and curiosity with them (much like what happened in many parts of California).

But much of this was home-produced, home-consumed wines. There was nothing that looked like a wine ‘industry’ until the early to mid 20th century, especially due to Prohibition.

The modern story of Oregon wine begins when Hillcrest Vineyards in the Umpqua Valley became one of the first estate wineries in Oregon (1961). Riesling, Gew├╝rztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir were all planted by Richard Somers on the Hillcrest property. It is now owned by the DeMara family, where they produce 2000 cases a year.

Even though Pinot Noir was first planted in the Umpqua Valley by Richard Somers, it was the establishment of Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley that really put Oregon wine into the lexicon of world class wine regions.

David Lett was told he was crazy by his professors at UC Davis, but he had done his research carefully. To him, there were three perfect regions in the world for Pinot Noir: Burgundy in France, the Central Otago Valley in New Zealand, and Willamette Valley in Oregon.

He arranged for Pinot Noir rootstock, and planted it near Corvalis, in the Willamette Valley, to strengthen for a year while he found land. The spot he picked is now in the heart of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir country, on a gentle hill just up from the town of Newberg, in what is now the Dundee Hills AVA.

Those first vines are still, barely, in the ground. They are being replaced bit by bit, due to phylloxera emerging in the valley. The Eyrie Vineyards “Original Vines” Pinot Noir is still from those particular plants, and if you can find a bottle of it you should buy it.

More links for learning

Oregon Wine: About Us and History Timetable

Wikipedia: History of Oregon Wine

A website worth a glance: Oregon Wine History. It’s a bit disorganized and hard to navigate, but there is some good info in there.

A must-see video

Oregon Public Broadcasting produced “Oregon Wine: Grapes of Place” a number of years ago and it does a GREAT job of showing the history of the Oregon wine industry (granted, mainly focusing on the Willamette Valley).