Most Left Coast dwellers, a group consisting of citizens from Washington, Oregon and California, have heard about the famous Pinot noir wines that no one would ever drink or even hear about if it weren’t for Oregon. In doing research for my romantic novel, set in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, I’ve been learning about the history of Oregon wine-makers.
When I left California many, many years ago to settle in Seattle, I didn’t know a Cabernet Sauvignon from a Shiraz, or a Pinot Gris from a Chardonnay. I drank wine, sure, but generally it was unimpressive Chablis, a wine that today is under-appreciated. And, to my shame, I had a taste for Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers.
Friends who worked in the Seattle restaurant and baking services introduced me to Erath Pinot noir. I was never a big red wine drinker, but I recall feeling an eye-opening pleasure when I tasted this grape. They had traveled to the Oregon Willamette Valley on a wine tasting tour—back when tastings were free—and to Eastern Washington as well. These regions were just starting to receive notice for the quality of their wines.
Oregon Pinot noir already had a devoted following in the Pacific Northwest. Now, many years later, I live in Oregon, and had to adjust to the wine choices available to local stores. In Washington, as forever in California, the state liquor control board was repurposed to regulate recreational weed, and the big alcohol purveyors—Total Wine, BevMo—moved in and thrived. We had an enormous number of wines to choose from. Argentinian Malbecs, Australian Shiraz and New Zealand red blends, South African Sauvignon Blancs and Pinotage, Spanish Tempranillo and Garnacha, Washington Rieslings, and, of course, Oregon Pinot noir and gris.
Move to Oregon, which still clings the State Liquor Board model, and what do you find in the grocery stores—Pinot noir and Pinot gris. Basically, that’s it. (However, the beer choices are outstanding.)
I have since sampled Pinot noir and it in no way tastes as luscious to my tongue as that first Erath bottle I shared so long ago. No one has adequately explained to me that my taste in wines has changed over the years because my palate matures or because the vintners are doing something to the wines, following a perceived demand for a certain kind of taste.
Vitis vinifera is a very old vine from the Champagne district in France. One could say it’s the great great great grand mother of Pinot noir. It probably came to Oregon in the mid 19th century, and was purchased in California. While Eastern settlers were struggling to grow the grape, the West Coast was doing just fine, assisted by the Spanish, who planted the Mission grape to make sacramental wine for the padres. Pinot noir grapes arrived with a Frenchman.
French and Italian settlers of the Willamette Valley kept wine-making alive in Oregon even through Prohibition. After World War II Oregon wineries flourished, and new techniques assisted vintners with developing more wine from grapes, rather than blackberries, elderberries and apples.
The Eyrie winery in the Northern Willamette Valley was established by a prospective dental student whose career as a dentist was sidelined by a fortuitous trip to Napa Valley in 1962. David Lett got hooked on viniculture. After exposure to scientific examination of grape growing, he moved to Oregon to set up his nursery. At the University of California at Davis, he learned about the effects of micro-climate on grape varietals. He spent time in Burgundy, France, to learn about the climate required for growing the best Burgundy grapes, a climate that very much matched that in northern Oregon.
In 1980 The Eyrie Pinot noir won second place in a French match including prize-winning Burgundies. David Lett’s superior Pinot noir had found, in cool, marine Oregon, the perfect place to grow.
That’s why Pinot noir and Pinot gris abound in Oregon grocery stores and wine shops. As I write this, I realize my palate prefers the long hot-seasoned grape of Eastern Washington, New Zealand, Argentina and yes, California. We have found two outstanding red blends from Southern Oregon—too hot for sensitive Pinot.
For my book, the history of Oregon wine is useful. Now to delve into the web of wine politics, another murky and competitive arena.