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Willamette Valley’s Pioneering Spirit

By Amy Lively Jensen

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.

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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.

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