Willamette Valley’s Pioneering Spirit

Pass through the city of Portland and you get the vibe of a youthful, rustic and nature-based destination. Portland serves as the gateway to the Pacific Northwest and your exploration of the Willamette Valley, which lies about an hour’s drive west.  This region is recognized for its tranquil, scenic beauty and outdoor recreation of running, hiking and biking. It is best known for the pioneering spirit of families that have established grape growing here. 


The Willamette Valley is expansive stretching 100 miles in length and 60 miles in width at its widest point. It encompasses 3,438,000 acres of land with over 23,000 acres of planted vineyards. The Cascade Mountains frame the eastern border while the Oregon Coastal range lies on the western edge. Over 15 million years ago the valley was submerged below the ocean floor between these two mountain ranges. Now ancient soils of marine sediment, volcanic red Jory and windblown silt add to the identity of the wines from the Willamette Valley.  It has its own weather system as air is pulled from the Pacific Ocean through the Van Duzer Corridor providing cooling afternoon winds and evening fog. The cool coastal influence from the Pacific Ocean, coupled with moderating temperatures and prolonged sunlight are ideally suited for balancing the flavors of cool climate grapes.

Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris dominate the landscape along with Riesling, Pinot Blanc and other varietals. Each of the grapes grown here showcase finesse, natural brightness and a sense of the regional typicity where they originate. Chardonnay and Pinot Gris can be expressive with fresh hints of yellow stone fruits and minerality, similar to their European counterparts in Beaune and Alsace, France. 


As wine writer Terry These once explained, “we talk about Cabernet as we talk about sports, but when we talk about Pinot Noir, we talk about religion.” In Willamette Valley they are deeply religious when it comes to Pinot Noir. The majority of Oregon’s Pinot Noir is grown in the Willamette Valley, totaling nearly two-thirds of all plantings. While this territory hosts other varietals, Pinot Noir still reigns supreme. 

Although grape growing in Oregon dates back to the early 1800’s, it was the beliefs of some graduate students from UC Davis in California in the early 1960’s that changed the course of this industry forever. Against the better judgment of their professor, David Lett and Charles Coury believed that Pinot Noir would excel in a challenging environment.

Chicago native David Lett was credited with planting the first commercial vineyard of Pinot Noir within the Dundee Hills of Willamette Valley, Oregon in 1966. With 13 acres of vineyards, Lett established Eyrie Winery. Afterwards, followers included Erath, Ponzi, Adelsheim and countless others. California vintners also migrated to Willamette Valley in search of the holy grail. 


The presence of Burgundian producers in Willamette Valley has grown steadily with the likes of Veronique Drouhin of Domaine Drouhin, Jacques Lardere and Guillaume Large of Maison Louis Jadot’s Résonance Winery, Jean-Nicolas-Meo of Nicolas Jay and others. Veronique Drouhin and her father Robert were the first of the French adventurers to establish a Burgundian presence with Domaine Drouhin in 1987. Veronique admits, “Pinot Noir from Burgundy is history and Pinot Noir from Oregon is the future.”


These producers are not trying to emulate the French style, but instead interpret Pinot Noir from the soils where they are grown. Aaron Bell, assistant winemaker for Domaine Drouhin already has 18 years of tenure at this esteemed winery. He believes that it is important to “get to know the place” and crafts wines built on subtlety with an emphasis on textural quality of the wines.

Within Willamette Valley, there are camps of conventionalists, renegades and young traditionalists, including large and small production wineries that are all trying to interpret these grapes. They have matched specific clones with the site and climate. Many use organic and biodynamic farming practices. There are now seven distinct AVA’s, which underscores the stylistic differences of Pinot Noir throughout the valley. 


Getting acquainted with Oregon Pinot Noir requires some patience, as they are more restrained, complex and tend to evolve gradually over time. They typically lack the overt, intense fruity personality of Pinot Noir from California’s North Coast. Many profess that there are distinct similarities in Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley and those from Burgundy, France. What started out as five bonded wineries and 35 vineyard acres of Pinot Noir in 1970 has multiplied to over 564 wineries.

There is an opportunity for the public to sample these wines without traveling to Oregon. Because Chicagoans have an affinity for Willamette Valley wines, the city has hosted “Pinot in the City” for the past several years. On May 15th, 70 Willamette Valley wineries and winemakers visited Chicago showcasing their wines in an open forum. Information about Willamette Valley, their wines, wineries and upcoming events can be found at willamettewines.com