Within the Pacific Northwest about an hour west of Portland, Oregon lies an oasis of Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley. The majority of Oregon’s Pinot Noir is grown in the Willamette Valley, yet only 1% of American wines come from this region. Pinot Noir thrives in the red Jory, volcanic soils and deposits of sedimentary rock and gravel that were deposited by the Missoula floods over 10,000 years ago. The cool coastal influence of the Pacific Ocean coupled with mild, wet winters is ideally suited for this cool climate grape. The relatively cool summers and prolonged exposure to sunlight allow the flavors to ripen slowly with the resulting wine showcasing finesse and a natural brightness.
Grape growing in Oregon dates back to the early 1800’s, but 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 this 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 their quest for Pinot Noir. Upon the arrival of Burgundy producer Maison Joseph Drouhin in 1968, the Pinot Noir revolution continued at a brisk pace. What started out in 1970 as five bonded wineries and 35 vineyard acres of Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley multiplied to over 730 wineries within 30,000 acres. Willamette Valley has been further subdivided into 11 sub-AVA’s.
Admittedly, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir has lived in the shadows of Burgundy, France for decades. While soils and climates are different between the two, there are similarities in their aromatic flavor profile, textural qualities, and freshness. According to Harry Peterson-Nedry of Ribbon Ridge Winery, “Willamette Valley Pinot Noir leans towards a refined brightness and elegance, with sweet deeply red-fruited, earth and mineral structured concentration, and acidity that sets a tension and ability to age well.”