Governor John Kitzhaber signed a proclamation designating May 2012 as Oregon Wine Month to promote Oregon wine and recogize how wonderful it is. It's the first time there’s been an “Oregon Wine Month” since 1989 when Neil Goldschmidt was Governor. For a time, Goldschmidt had his own vineyard and winery.
Oregon Wine Month includes retail, restaurant and consumer events and promotions. It started with a consumer event in Portland, “Unwine’d: Celebrating Oregon Wine.” I was there with small group for a quick media tour with the Oregon Wine Board. We covered a lot of ground in three days.
It’s been many years since Oregon wineries came together for such a comprehensive tasting and the industry has evolved. The tasting included 87 producers representing 14 AVAs.
The big tasting seemed to be a hit. More than a thousand people showed up and there looked to be ample local media coverage. And they didn’t run out of great food.
I was surprised by the range of wines at the tasting because they weren’t all Pinot Noir. There was more diversity than I anticipated, from unusual varietals to ripe Cabernet Sauvignon from Southern Oregon.
Oregon's signature white is Pinot Gris but the Chardonnay was a surprise. Chardonnay’s past so-so performance in Oregon has been attributed to the use of a clone from California that was available as the industry was getting started that wasn't well-suited to the climate. Some blame flawed farming, site selection, clone selection or a combination of the three.
That's changed. I counted more than a dozen Chardonnays at the Portland tasting and enjoyed the Chardonnay I sampled.
A couple days later, Benton Lane winemaker Steve Girard poured his first vintage of Chardonnay (2009), saying, “Chardonnay has a well-deserved terrible reputation in Oregon. We’re trying to change that. … Ten years from now I think we’re going to make the best Chardonnay on the planet.”
Paul Franson has a nice story on the rise of Oregon Chardonnay over at Wines & Vines. Paul was on the tour.
The chart Oregon Wine Board director of marketing Charles Humble put together (above) shows the number of 90-plus scores Oregon wineries received from Wine Spectator between 2001 and 2011 by varietal. Oregon gets more of these high scores than it used to and Chardonnay is increasingly part of the mix.
We stopped for a dinner with some of the founders of the Oregon Wine Industry, who talked about what it was like when they started. The Oregon Wine Board's new executive director Tom Danowski joined us. It’s a tight knit group. “We’re very collaborative and obviously incestuous,” Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem said. Myron Redford of Amity Vineyards remembered that in 1978 the local pastor didn’t want anyone to know he’d tasted Myron’s wine. Wine was frowned upon.
This bottle of Amity Vineyards 1978 Chardonnay really held up very well.
Nearly 40 percent of all vineyards in Oregon are LIVE Certified for sustainability. We met four producers who discussed their biodynamic practices during a visit to Montinore Estate where Jeff Weissler of consciouswine.com presented an overview of Oregon’s sustainable wine story. The wines we tasted were silky, smooth and vibrant.
We visited King Estate, which is such an amazing place – a site to see.
Then we continued south.
We met up for lunch with Earl Jones of Abacella, Patrick Spangler of Spangler Vineyards; and Terry Brandborg, Brandborg Vineyard and Winery at The Southern Oregon Wine Institute in Roseburg with program director Chis Lake (That's Chris with the tie). Earl Jones said there are 72 different grape varieties grown in the Southern Oregon AVA.
Abacella, of course, is well known for its Oregon Tempranillo.
These vintners are practically neighbors but they’re dealing with very different microclimates. Spangler even grows some Petit Sirah: he’s the only member of PS I Love You from Oregon.
The Southern Oregon Wine Institute is housed in an impressive modern building with a view and boasts a new winery for hands-on instruction and is training winemakers for the burgeoning Southern Wine industry. I was pleased to see a big stack of Wine Business Monthly magazines in one of the classrooms. They’ve got new winemaking equipment and a brand new spiffy winery for students to use - It looks great - all they need now are the tanks. Can any suppliers out there hook them up with some tanks?
Southern Oregon is still a place where it’s possible to start a vineyard and grow quality grapes at a reasonable cost. Land is inexpensive compared to other places, and there’s room to plant. Certainly the wine industry in Southern Oregon is poised for growth.
Along the way we visited Cowhorn Vineyards (vineyard to the left - great name for a biodynamic producer). When Barbara and Bill Steel started their vineyard and winery they didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Fast forward a few short years and they’re really starting to make a name for themselves.
Some of the vintners in Southern Oregon feel that the wineries up north closer to Portland get most of the attention, which is probably true, if nothing else, because of the geography. The wineries to the north are closer to each other, there are more of them, and they’re near to a major metropolitan area.
Steve Girard, who made wine in Napa Valley before moving to Southern Oregon to start Benton-Lane, showed us this table. It shows Oregon still wines that have received placements on either the Wine Spectator Top 100 list or the Wine & Spirits Top 100 list since 2005.
It indicates that 32 percent of Oregon’s placements on these lists were from the south even though Southern Oregon accounts for just six percent of the state’s vineyard acreage.
The American Soceity for Enology and Viticulture, ASEV, is holding its national conference in Oregon next month. I'll miss it but am looking forward to returning to Oregon for the wine bloggers conference in August.
Those bloggers have a lot of energy.