Whither Willamette?

Will Success Ruin Oregon Wine Country?

Money. Popularity. Climate change. The Willamette Valley is outgrowing its gritty roots.

By Ramona DeNies September 11, 2018 Published in the October 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

It wasn’t the supermarket sales strategy. It wasn’t the price, about $20. No, it was the messaging from California-based Elouan Wines that so infuriated Willamette Valley winemakers.

“The opulence of California. The elegance of Oregon.” “Redefining the Oregon Style.”

Yes, Oregon wine’s latest player isn’t even here. To make its 2016 Oregon pinot noir—with the “firm acidity found in the fruit of the Willamette Valley”—Elouan trucks grapes south, to blend into wine “with northern character,” in a facility north of Stockton.

“It’s a chuckle,” says Jason Lett, second-generation winemaker at Eyrie Vineyards in the Valley’s Dundee Hills. “They’ve just taken Sonoma marketing, cut-and-paste, find-and-replace.”

Ask Lett about the greatest threat to Willamette Valley wine, and he won’t point to Elouan. (He’s more annoyed by “lifestyle vintners,” with their camera drones, helicopter tours, and vineyard soirées blasting “Uptown Funk.”) But for many of his fellow old-line Willamette farmer/winemakers—the Ponzis, the David Adelsheims, the Ken Wrights—campaigns like Elouan’s menace the integrity of both pinot noir, our signature grape, and the Willamette Valley, our winemaking heartland. Arguably, a mass-market “Oregon” pinot just underscores our success: in 2016, the state’s 725 wineries (and counting) raked in more than $1 billion. Among America’s wine-producing states, Oregon bottles fetch top dollar. Outsiders are understandably eager to cash in on Oregon’s brand for high quality, one built over decades by families like Lett’s.

“The story has always been about family makers and that tie to place,” says Thomas Houseman, winemaker at Anne Amie. “In the last three years, that’s changed drastically. You have a lot of big players coming in.”

Jackson Family Wines, so far, is the high roller—with its purchase of Willakenzie Estate in 2016 (its fourth recent acquisition since 2013), the California behemoth became Oregon’s largest single owner of vineyard acreage. Others are nibbling. In 2006, Oregon’s Erath Winery sold most of its estate to Washington’s massive Chateau Ste. Michelle; last year, the family behind Napa’s Silver Oak bought another Erath chunk. Other developments also challenge the Willamette’s downhome image; take Domaine Serene’s lavish villa-style “clubhouse,” erected last summer, followed by its plush tasting room in downtown Portland’s Sentinel Hotel.

Change is rocking the whole wine world, as soaring demand meets a disrupted environment. Some local evolutions have been embraced: take the arrival of the Burgundians. Following France’s Domaine Drouhin in 1987, more legacy winemakers from pinot noir’s homeland—Maison Louis Jadot, Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair, Domaine des Comte Lafon—have settled the valley, refugees of Continental land prices and climate change. Additional arrivals seem inevitable. In the Atlantic this past spring, writer James Conaway asserted that “a changing climate has prompted vintners to get the most out of Napa before possibly having to move on to the Pacific Northwest or the Rockies.”

The question, then, is how the Willamette Valley will preserve its soul (and premium prices). Strategies vary, even among the old guard. Some want to double down on pinot, perhaps by enacting 100 percent purity laws—no blending—for single-varietal wine. (Right now, Oregon’s bar is 90 percent; in heathen California, just 75.) Others want to shore up the land-use laws that limit valley sprawl and luxury development. Others say it’s time to diversify the valley’s grape portfolio, by getting behind chardonnay, say, or gamay, or trousseau noir, or....

For longtime valley force Ken Wright, the call to action came last year, during his first sales trip to China. It was a wild success—and that worried him.

“I went thinking, they probably won’t know where Oregon is,” says Wright. But, he notes, “These buyers knew the Willamette Valley, and how to say it right: Will-A-mette. Then they’d give me this thumbs-up and say, ‘Pinot noir!’”

“There’s a real sucking sound from the marketplace,” Wright adds. “We will see an escalation in land prices, an escalation in competition.”

Wright believes the key is to keep making great pinot noir. (“It wants to be amazing here.”) Lett, however, argues that now could finally be the time for Oregon to step out of Burgundy’s shadow.

“Nothing can touch pinot’s ability to translate nuance in the life of a plant,” says the son of the man who planted some of the Willamette Valley’s earliest such grapes. “But the grand cru of pinot noir is already firmly established in Burgundy. With other varieties, we have a chance: to push them to their highest expression, and maybe take the crown away from Europe.”

A crown? Sounds elegant. Not quite vintage Oregon, but elegant.

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