Perfect Storm

Fifty years ago, the Big Blow smashed Oregon—and cleared a path for pinot noir.

By Kit Mauldin September 21, 2012

 Few disasters can be seen as gifts. But if Oregonians were to declare a state holiday devoted to sipping wine, they might consider repurposing the day that Columbus supposedly discovered America. On October 12, 1962, a snarl of wind and rain spun off Typhoon Freda and slammed into Oregon, busting a coastal weather-monitoring station right after it clocked winds of 138 miles per hour.

Instantly dubbed “the Big Blow,” the biggest Pacific Northwest storm of the 20th century also ripped out power lines and tallied a death toll of 46. Among the biggest economic casualties were the Willamette Valley’s orchards: for example, 116-mph winds effectively finished off the fading walnut industry around McMinnville, once known as Walnut City.

As the sky turned orange over the 26-acre Maresh family farm, five kids took shelter under the couches. Today, second-generation farmer Martha Maresh remembers watching the Big Blow rip prune trees straight out of the ground. (When her father started the farm in 1959, prunes seemed like a safe bet.) The destruction forced Maresh into a gradual transition to grapevines. As the ’60s unfolded, other storm-tossed farmers and would-be winemakers enamored with Burgundy’s fickle pinot noir grape did likewise. A 27-year-old named David Lett, for example, purchased 20 acres just outside Dundee in 1966, and spent the next few years clearing shattered prune trees, absorbing advice on hillside farming from the old-timer next door, and creating Eyrie Vineyards, the state’s pinot pioneer.

Oregon’s new wine economy took awhile to find its footing. “The men all had to have other occupations,” says Donna Jean McDaniel, whose family switched to grapes after the Columbus Day storm wrecked its walnuts. But today, the industry is worth an estimated $2.7 billion a year. That’s a billion dollars more than some (inflation-adjusted) estimates of the cost of the damage caused by the storm.

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