The Pacific Northwest's alternative to both Burgundy and California is gaining increasing attention, although the bar in the wine town of McMinnville pictured above in reflective evening sunlight is keen to emphasise that they offer alternatives to Pinot Noir. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. More detail and many a tasting note in A whizz around Willamette.
The modern Oregon wine industry owes its existence to the fact that its founders saw Oregon as Not California. Most of them had worked in the California wine industry and were seeking somewhere a bit cooler (in climatological terms) that might prove welcoming to the red burgundy grape Pinot Noir. Indeed, David Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards, who first planted vines here in 1965 and was the first Oregon vintner to achieve international acclaim, was known as Papa Pinot.
Other early wine producers such as Adelsheim, Amity, Knudsen Erath, Maresh, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser and Tualatin saw themselves as united in a fight to establish grape-growing in Oregon as a viable activity that was refreshingly free of California glitz. There was a sort of wholemeal, hippie element to it all as well as a community spirit whereby pioneer vintners would share both winemaking secrets and equipment.
Although this spirit has evaporated in Napa under the influence of the billions of dollars and hundreds of egos that have poured into the valley, it is still very much alive in Oregon to the north, especially in the Willamette Valley, around Portland and extending south, which is the heartland of Oregon wine production (see this map).
In this green, undulating farming country everyone knows everyone else and is keen to see them succeed. Marcus Goodfellow makes his wine in a warehouse on the outskirts of McMinnville that constitutes Goodfellow Family Cellars. He transitioned from being a sommelier in Portland to making wine himself thanks to the help he got from vintners such as Steve Doerner at Cristom Vineyards who had been part of the Willamette Valley’s second wave. ‘The community here is amazing’, Goodfellow volunteered as I tasted his remarkably burgundian Chardonnay, ‘so open and sharing. The co-operation is fantastic because you all share and you all gain. It’s that that’s moved the industry forward faster than it would otherwise have done.’
Mike Etzel, whose Beaux Frères winery was bought by the Champagne house Henriot six years ago, assured me in his beautifully restored barn complex from which he now operates next door to Beaux Frères, ‘The beauty of our profession is that we’re more like colleagues than competitors.’ He has now set up Etzel Farm to provide winemaking space and equipment to several different aspiring winemakers as well as his own Sequitur wines (clever name). One of his clients is the much-admired Chardonnay specialist Seth Morgen Long, who told me as we sat by a wood fire in the tasting room, ‘I love this facility and how I fit into it.’
Morgen Long is one of several young wine producers who enjoyed five years in an exceptional winemaking community at Lingua Franca, the wine operation started by lauded ex sommelier Larry Stone. Andrew Riechers of Audeant (which no one can pronounce) is another. ‘Our first harvest was 2016 with the Lingua Franca winery being built round us! The mantra of Oregon is share and share alike. We introduce each other to our distributors, for instance, as well as talking all things winemaking. The ethos is that we drink a lot of the same wines together – and have dangerously similar ideas about things.’
But in April 2022, after wildfires virtually wiped out the 2020 crop, Lingua Franca was sold to Constellation Brands of California, the second-biggest wine company on the planet and very Not Oregon. One of the first things Constellation did in their plans to scale up Lingua Franca’s output considerably was serve notice on the rabble of young winemakers taking up space in their winery.
Was it a shock to be moved out of Lingua Franca? I asked Riechers. ‘It was a good five-year run’, he said. ‘And they gave us plenty of time to find a landing spot. The real shock was how much I’d got used to that community and enjoyed the social aspect of it – iron sharpens iron. I hadn’t necessarily registered that effect on my own winemaking. We had a lot of fun and I have a lot of gratitude towards Larry. He was the oldest person there and there was no reason for him to ever stop and have a half-hour conversation with me in the cellar. He couldn’t have been more generous with his time, knowledge – and wine collection.’
Riechers now makes his wines in Archer winery on Parrett Mountain. There are now more than 1,000 licensed wine producers in Oregon, 768 of them in the Willamette Valley with three-quarters of them producing fewer than 3,000 cases of wine a year. The number of actual physical wineries must be a small fraction of the total number of producers, with so many of them operating out of a corner of someone else’s building or in one of the thriving, shared custom-crush facilities. (Hence my use of the word operation rather than winery.)
Compare and contrast grape prices. In Napa Valley last year, one lot of Cabernet grapes was sold for $65,000 a ton. The average price of Willamette Valley Pinot grapes is $2,400 a ton, with $4,500 being a top price from a vineyard as renowned as Shea for instance. In Oregon it is still possible for an ambitious aspiring winemaker to buy some grapes and the odd barrel and persuade a friendly winery owner to let them practise the art of winemaking in a corner of their cellar. They’ll probably give advice free too.
But there has been extraordinarily rapid expansion of vine-growing in Oregon. Admired vintners such as John Thomas of Thomas Winery (pictured above) and Doug Tunnell of Brick House used to grow vines in splendid isolation. Today they are surrounded by other vineyards, many of them extremely young and some of them now for the first time owned by people who live elsewhere. French interest from the likes of Drouhin, Méo-Camuzet, Jadot and more recently Bollinger, who bought Ponzi, has generally been seen as benign. The Lafite Rothchilds have been sniffing around; such interest from a Bordeaux first growth will presumably be viewed as a compliment. (Through acquisition, Beaux Frères is now a sister company to Ch Latour.)
There were some initial doubts, however, when Jackson Family Wines, who own no fewer than 28 California wineries, rapidly acquired Gran Moraine, Penner-Ash, WillaKenzie and Zena Crown in the Willamette Valley between 2014 and 2017. But Jackson seems to have earned the respect of the local community, not least by appointing the right people, notably Eugenia Keegan, partner of old-timer David Adelsheim and a winemaker herself, to oversee their Oregon empire.
I asked Adam Campbell, whose parents established Elk Cove in 1974 and who took over from them in 1997 when there were only 125 wineries in the valley, whether the ethos of Oregon wine had been retained despite the influx. He is sanguine. ‘Almost without exception the people who come here, come for a reason and quickly buy in to the ethos of the area. There are a few people buying fruit or wine here who don’t get it because they’re not based here. But JFW get it. It’s mostly about having an open door and talking about winemaking and vineyards. I’d really miss it if we couldn’t have those conversations. Having to sign an NDA would be awful.’
But how long can the Willamette Valley remain free of non-disclosure agreements now that Constellation has moved in and the valley’s biggest wine producer, A to Z Wineworks, with sister company Rex Hill, have to report to Chateau Ste Michelle in Seattle, owned since 2021 by a private equity firm based in New York?
Some favourite Oregon 2021s …
… with sub-appellations of Willamette Valley and alcohols. Wines will be offered to UK customers by A&B Vintners in May (readers can email A&B to express their interest). Those marked with an asterisk have not yet been bottled but are expected to be shipped by the end of the year. Prices per bottle exclude duty and VAT.
*Goodfellow Family Cellars, Temperance Hill, Eola-Amity Hills 13% £40
*Goodfellow Family Cellars, Temperance Hill Psycho Killer, Eola-Amity Hills 13% £55
Morgen Long, Eola-Amity Hills 13.2% £45
Morgen Long, X Omni Vineyard, Eola-Amity Hills 12.7% £65
Audeant, Nysa Vineyard Dundee Hills 13% £55
Brick House, Les Dijonnais, Ribbon Ridge 13% £40
Brick House, Evelyn’s, Ribbon Ridge 13% £50
*Goodfellow Family Cellars, Whistling Ridge Heritage No 19, Ribbon Ridge 12.8% £55
Patricia Green Cellars, Chehalem Mountain Vineyard, Chehalem Mountains 13.5% £25
Patricia Green Cellars, Estate Vineyard Old Vine, Ribbon Ridge 13.5% £27.50
Sequitur, Amphora, Ribbon Ridge 13% £65
*Thomas, Dundee Hills 13% £65
Tasting notes in A whizz around Willamette. International stockists on Wine-Searcher.com.