Happy Anniversary, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir!

It’s an amazing reminder of just how young the American wine industry is to note that 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the first Pinot Noir plantings in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. What’s more, the region this week will host the 29th annual International Pinot Noir Celebration. It’s sold out, but very soon tickets for next year will go on sale.

How far the region has come!

In 1970, there were just five bonded wineries in the Willamette Valley, along which runs the Willamette River, and which is bordered on the east, west and south by mountain ranges. Today there are 440 wineries in this part of northern Oregon, and 647 vineyards that cover more than 17,000 acres. The wine region comprises more than 70 percent of Oregon’s vineyard acreage and produces 78 percent of the state’s wine, with 87 percent of that being Pinot Noir. Outside of Burgundy, this is one of the world’s most celebrated locations for that notoriously finicky grape. The Willamette Valley AVA has six sub-AVAS: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton.

In 1965, a young David Lett, founder and winemaker of Eyrie Vineyards, planted Pinot Noir, convinced that the challenging, cool-climate variety would do well in the Willamette Valley. A year later, he transferred those plantings to Eyrie’s current location outside Dundee. Lett, who was known as “Papa Pinot,” died in 2008. In 1979, Eyrie’s 1975 Pinot Noir South Block finished third in an international tasting in Paris of hundreds of wines organized by Gault-Millau, the French gourmet magazine. That stunning feat alerted the world to what was going on with Oregon Pinot.

It also attracted the attention of Robert Drouhin, of Burgundy’s Maison Joseph Drouhin, who eventually founded Domaine Drouhin near Eyrie, the first of other French winemakers to invest in the state. His daughter Véronique Drouhin-Boss, has been its winemaker since its first vintage, in 1988. She also oversees the winemaking at their Burgundy properties.

Oregonians boasts of their similarities with Burgundy, noting that the midpoint of the Willamette Valley shares the same latitude as Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. The Valley’s warm, dry summer days, cool nights and long growing seasons mirror those of Alsace and Burgundy. Many of the Pinot Noir clones planted in the Valley are Dijon and types of Pommard. The farming in diverse microclimates and soils emphasizes sustainability.

Lett was a sweet guy who always found time to pick up the phone and talk to us about his passion, and his name will be on the lips of many at this week’s Pinot Noir celebration. His son Jason took over the winery in 2005.

Other pioneers include the late Charles Coury of Charles Coury Winery, now David Hill Vineyard and Winery; Dick Erath, whose winery is now owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates; Dick and Nancy Ponzi, whose offspring are fully engaged in the business today; Susan and Bill Sokol Blosser, whose children now run the business; and David and Ginny Adelsheim, who now have co-owners-- all long-time favorites. These pioneers reveled in the region’s ability to grow beautiful Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and other varieties.

Reflecting the explosion in the number of wineries there today are relative newcomers who are also mining those varietals for excellence. Among the ones I’ve written about over the past year are Teutonic Wine Company, based in Portland, which makes the country’s best Rieslings. Anne Ebenretier Hubatch’s Whoa Nelly! 2011 Melon de Bourgogne knocked our socks off. The Anne Amie Vineyards 2011 Cuvée A Amrita, a  white blend of 10 grape types, was a stunner. And last month I wrote about Babycheeks, a rosé made by Brianne Day of Day Wines. This fall she will move into her newly renovated  winery, where she hopes to rent to other small, natural-wine producers.

More recently, we’ve enjoyed some wines from some other new small-production wineries: The 2011 Ghost Hill Cellars Pinot Noir was made by Rebecca Pittock Shouldis from the Bayliss-Bower Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. In 2005, Shouldis left her job as a maintenance technician on F-15 fighter aircraft for the Oregon Air National Guard to make wine. Shouldis was bitten by the wine bug when she was an exchange student in France in high school. “Smells of roses and spices,” we wrote in our notes. (ghosthillcellars.com)

The 2012 Lenné Estate Pinot Noir “Jill’s 115” and 2012 LeNez Pinot Noir were made by Steve Lutz, who with his wife, Karen, owns a 21-acre vineyard in what he’s described as having “some of the poorest soil in Yamhill County.” What makes it perfect for Pinot Noir, he says, is its steep south-facing slope and “perfect elevation.” (115 is the block of Pommard and Jill is Lutz’s mother-in-law.)  After college Lutz fell in love with wine and moved to Napa Valley,where he worked in Beringer’s cellar for a short time, and then did stints in the tasting rooms of Franciscan, Inglenook, Vichon and Merryvale. In 1986, he made his first Pinot Noir from Carneros fruit, and later had stints at Chateau Benoit and its sister winery, Anne Amie. Len, Lenné winery’s namesake, was Karen’s father and he helped them make a down payment on their land. They began planting Pinot Noir in 2001, opening the tasting room---which he knew a lot about—in 2007.

Lutz makes two wines, the Lenné Estate, which are single-clone wines and named after loved ones, and the LeNez, which is made from all of the clones. The LeNez, we wrote, was “a rich, deep, well-rounded wine. Blueberries, raspberries, earth. An American boldness. You ordinarily wouldn’t put boldness in a sentence with Pinot Noir but this is proudly robust Pinot.” Of the Lenné Estate Jill, we wrote, “charming, almost like a Monthélie, from the Côte de Beaune of Burgundy. Nice weight, fragrant, some pepper.” (lenneestate.com)

J Wrigley 2014 Riesling and 2014 Pinot Gris from the McMinnville AVA were revelations. John Wrigley purchased 200 acres in 2006 and planted his first Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Gris vines –10 acres total of 80 that are suitable for grapes--beginning in 2008. Wrigley, who was from a long line of farmers, fell in love with wine in 2005 after having what he called “a life changing” 2002 Andrew Rich Pinot Noir. Impressed, he traveled to several Willamette AVAs, trying as many wines as possible, tasting them for the land that produced them. On the day that he bought his acres, he knelt on his favorite spot and proposed to Jody. That became the Proposal block, Pinot Noir.

The Riesling vineyard, which is hand-picked, is called Mae’s Block, after Wrigley’s grandmother, Mae Brogg, and our notes say it was “crisp, with good acidity, ripe and well-made.” The Pinot Gris was “lovely and rich with minerals and good acidity. Almost like a Muscadet. Could age. Balanced and well-made.” (wrigleywines.com)

Youngberg Hill Vineyard in McMinnville is named for a Swedish farmer who owned the land until 1987, when it became the site of an inn. In1989, Pinot Noir expert Ken Wright planted the first Pinot Noir there, using its fruit for his Panther Creek label, according to Wayne Bailey. In 2003, Bailey and his wife Nicolette bought the property and named what Wright planted, the Jordan and Natasha blocks, after two of their daughters. A Pinot Gris block is named Aspen, after a third. The now 20-acre vineyard around the inn is farmed biodynamically and the wines are made with Robert Brittan, who was for 16 years winemaker and estate manager for Stags’ Leap Winery in Napa. The 2013 Pinot Noir Cuvée that we liked is made from a blend of fruit from the McMinnville AVA and Amity-Eola Hills AVA. Our notes called it “complex and interesting, a good Pinot. Good acidity.” (youngberghill.com)

For many years, Oregon’s Pinots were the only wine about which John and I disagreed. I loved their fruitiness, but John found them too fruity. Over the years, they’ve become better and we’ve found common ground with them, as their terroir moved to the fore, possibly—just possibly-- trending away from what some might have considered too-exuberant fruit.

Looking back at our last extensive tasting of Oregon Pinot Noirs under $60 for our column in The Wall Street Journal, six of our top eight were from Willamette Valley: Domaine Serene “Evenstad Reserve”; Yamhill Valley Vineyards “Estate”  (McMinnville); Beaux Frères; Francis Tannahill “The Hermit”; Ponzi Vineyards; and Roco Winery.

Congratulations, Willamette Valley, on an important milestone!

Dorothy J. Gaiter conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. She has been tasting and studying wine since 1973. She has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald and The New York Times as well as at The Journal.

Read other Grape Collective articles on Oregon wines.

Interview with Jay Somers of J. Christopher. 

On Anne Amie Vineyards.

An interview with Maria Ponzi.

A Teutonic story.

On Whoa Nelly.