Oregon Wine History

Editors Note: The history of the Oregon wine industry is made available to the Oregon Wine Board for use on its website with the permission of its author, Katherine Cole, wine columnist, The Oregonian, and may not be reused for any other purposes without the expressed written permission of the author.

Oregonians were growing and fermenting grapes before we achieved statehood. But our current reputation as one of the world’s top producers of high-quality wine has been built over only the past five decades:

The Early Years

1933: John Wood and Ron Honeyman of Salem were among a group of early Oregon entrepreneurs who received bonded winery status shortly after the repeal of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which established Prohibition in 1920. Honeywood Winery is Oregon’s oldest continuously operating winery and holds bonded winery number 26. Hillcrest Vineyard later ushered in the modern era of Oregon winemaking, planting the first viniferous grapes near Roseburg as Oregon’s first estate winery. Hillcrest, which holds bonded winery certificate number 42, is Oregon’s oldest estate winery.

1961: After a long dry spell following Prohibition, Richard Sommer launches Oregon’s modern era of winegrowing when he plants Riesling, gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot noir and Zinfandel at his HillCrest Vineyard in the Umpqua Valley.Oregon’s oldest estate winery.

1964: Food writer and Portland native James Beard places Oregon on the culinary map with the publication of his memoir, Delights & Prejudices: A Memoir with Recipes.

1965: The Pinot noir era dates from February 1965. David Lett first rooted Pinot Noir cuttings near Corvallis, while researching a permanent vineyard site , the first plantings in the Willamette Valley. Charles and Shirley Coury, fresh from UC Davis and a year in Alsace, arrived in March and planted his first vines in the nursery established by Lett and then returned to California, leaving the vines in the care of Lett. The Courys returned later in the year and eventually purchased a Forest Grove property that had operated a vineyard and winery from the mid-1800s through Prohibition and began to replant it with Pinot noir and Riesling. (The property is now known by its historic name, David Hill.)

1966: Lett and his wife, Diana, spend their honeymoon planting young vines at The Eyrie Vineyards in the Dundee Hills, now the epicenter of the Oregon wine industry. He was convinced the Burgundian varieties could be grown better in Oregon than in California. (Two years later, they will acquire some cheap labor in the form of an energetic 10-year-old named Joel Myers, who will go on to become one of the Willamette Valley’s leading vineyard managers.

1967: Richard Sommer harvests his “first crop of any consequence,” resulting in 6,000 gallons of juice. Sommer decides to quit his day job as an appraiser to make wine full-time and bottles Oregon’s first ever vintage of Pinot noir.

1968: Another Davis grad, Dick Erath, arrives in the Willamette Valley and prints up business cards in anticipation of planting his first wine grapes in 1969.

1969: Dick and Nancy Ponzi arrive in Oregon and begin planting their first 20-acre vineyard. (Later, Nancy will cofound ¡Salud!  and other organizations, and the couple will launch BridgePort Brewery Company and the Dundee Bistro). The same year, Jim and Loie Maresh begin planting grapevines on their now-famous Maresh Vineyard.

1970: Susan Sokol Blosser and Bill Blosser buy an abandoned prune orchard in Dundee, two weeks before their first child is born, and begin clearing the land so they can plant grapevines.

1971: David Adelsheim and Ginny Adelsheim purchase their original property at Quarter Mile Lane in Newberg and prepare to plant Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Pinot gris and Riesling. Cal and Julia Lee Knudsen purchase 200 acres in the Dundee Hills and commence clearing to plant Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. The same year, an innovative and formal Italian restaurant, Genoa, opens in Portland; and Philippe and Bonnie Girardet begin planting their Umpqua Valley estate.

1972: The Wisnovsky family decides to revive pioneer Peter Britt’s 1850s-era winery and vineyard, Valley View, in Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley.  Sons Mark and Michael are conscripted as vineyard crew. The same year, Dick Troon plants his vineyard nearby, on the Applegate Valley’s Kubli Bench.

1973: With the establishment of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, a group led by David Adelsheim and David Lett creates maps designating the prime vineyard zones of the northern Willamette Valley, then lobbies to protect this land.  Until now, farmers have fought land developers (as Jim and Loie Maresh did in the mid-1960s) on a case-by-case basis.

1974: David Adelsheim travels to Burgundy to work harvest and realizes that the clones (or specific strains of grapevines) there perform better in the cool Burgundian climate than the “Davis” clones from California perform here in Oregon. It will take him a decade, but with the help of David Heatherbell, Professor of Enology at Oregon State University, Adelsheim is able to import “Dijon clones” from Burgundy beginning in 1984.

1975: The Eyrie Vineyards makes a Pinot noir that will become the “South Block Reserve.” Four years later, this wine will trump the French competition at a now-famous Paris wine tasting sponsored by the Gault & Millau restaurant guide. The same year, Cal Knudsen and Dick Erath form Knudsen-Erath Winery and operate Bonded Winery No. 52, the first commercial winery in the Dundee Hills.

1976: Myron Redford builds his winery at Amity Vineyards and makes his first wine, a “Pinot noir Nouveau.”

1977: The Campbell family ferments the first vintage of grapes from their Elk Cove Vineyards, planted three years prior, in Gaston; and the Casteel family begins to plant Bethel Heights Vineyard in Salem. Meanwhile, in McMinnville, Nick’s Italian Café opens.

1978: In Grants Pass, Ted and Mary Warrick plant grapevines on their property overlooking the Applegate River, establishing Wooldridge Creek Vineyard.

1979: The Enological Society (now the Seattle Wine Society) meets to taste through Oregon, Washington and Idaho wines.  Someone has the idea of printing the menu in French, as if that will make the potato salad and deviled eggs sound more sophisticated.

The 1980s

1980: David Adelsheim, Dick Erath and David Lett petition the state department of agriculture to establish a wine commission.

1981: After a year of driving a tractor around the decade-old Knudsen Vineyard, Allen Holstein realizes he can’t go back to his PhD program at OSU.  Three decades later, Holstein is still farming Knudsen Vineyard, as vineyard manager at Argyle.

1982: Alarmed by the rapidly declining quality of the fruit at his decade-old Henry Estate Vineyard, Umpqua Valley vintner H. Scott Henry designs a unique four-pronged trellising system that exposes the grape bunches to maximum sunlight. The “Scott Henry Trellis System” is soon adopted by vineyards all over the world.

1983: Nine vintners get together, form the Yamhill County Wineries Association, and decide to throw open their winery doors for the first “Thanksgiving Weekend in Wine Country.”

1984: Relentlessly wet, cold, muddy and late, this is, by all accounts, the worst harvest season in Oregon wine history. On a more positive note, Cameron Winery is established this year; and the Oregon Wine Advisory Board, now Oregon Wine Board, begins funding enology research through Oregon State University.

1985: At a tasting at the International Wine Center in New York, a group of oeno-experts cannot distinguish Oregon Pinot noirs from Burgundies costing more than twice as much. They choose Oregon wines as their top three favorites.

1986: A winemaker named Ken Wright starts up a boutique winery in McMinnville that specializes in vineyard-designate bottlings. He calls it Panther Creek Cellars.  Later, Wright will sell Panther Creek to found Ken Wright Cellars and Tyrus Evan> in Carlton.

1987: The first International Pinot Noir Celebration takes place in McMinnville, gathering Pinot noir producers and lovers from all over the world. Image provided by Oregon Wine History Archive.

1988: Burgundy-born and -educated Véronique Drouhin makes her first vintage of Willamette Valley wine for the newly minted Domaine Drouhin Oregon label. The investment by Véronique’s family company, Maison Joseph Drouhin, in Dayton vineyard land and a world-class new winery, places an international spotlight on Oregon. Meanwhile, an Oregon wine cellar is installed in the governor’s mansion.

1989: The state’s only shareholder-owned and publicly traded winery, Willamette Valley Vineyards, opens in Turner.

1990s – Today

1990: The dreaded vine-root louse, phylloxera, appears in the Willamette Valley, forcing vineyard owners to rip out vines and replant on grafted phylloxera-resistant rootstock. The process is expensive, labor-intensive and heartbreaking.

1991: Eighteen Oregon wineries join forces to plan a charity auction modeled on the Hospices de Beaune, the annual barrel sale in Burgundy that is said to be the oldest charity auction in the world. ¡Salud! raises funds to provide free, in-the-vineyard healthcare to migrant laborers, the only program in the nation of this kind. The same year, a 50-seat restaurant called Tina’s opens in a little red cottage in Dundee.

1992: Construction of King Estate winery is underway. A decade later, in 2002, the vast property will achieve organic certification. Only in Oregon would the state’s largest winery farm all of its vineyards organically.

1993: Renovations of the former Multnomah County Poor Farm are complete and McMenamins Edgefield opens its 100 guest rooms to overnight guests. Visitors to the sprawling Troutdale resort can watch winemaking, brewing and–soon–distillation happening on site while enjoying house-made wines, beers and spirits.

1994: Harry Peterson-Nedry, Judy Nedry and Bill and Cathy Stoller open Chehalem winery in Newberg. In a then-unusual move, the partners bring in a consulting winemaker from Burgundy, Patrice Rion, to assist with the startup. Their original fruit source is Ridgecrest Vineyard, planted by Peterson-Nedry in 1982.

1995: Earl and Hilda Jones plant the first Tempranillo vines in the Pacific Northwest at Abacela winery in Roseburg. Their Iberian varietals go on to win international acclaim.

1996: Sokol Blosser is the first winery to achieve the Salmon-Safe sustainable farming designation.

: Ted Casteel of Bethel Heights leads a group of vineyards to form LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), a wine-grape specific eco-designation.

1998: As “celebrity chefs” begin to spend more time in front of the camera than the stove, Oregonians begin to take a keen interest in their own top toques. At events like the IPNC, chefs like Philippe Boulot and Pascal Sauton enjoy top billing.

1999: Bill Holloran more or less launches the “garagiste” movement in Oregon when he converts his West Linn horse barn into a winery, blurring the lines between suburban and rural; he hires Jay Somers (today of J. Christopher) as winemaker. The same year, another suburban winery–Cooper Mountain Vineyards in Beaverton–is the first in the state to achieve Demeter-Certified Biodynamic status.

2001: Portland Wine Storage opens in Portland’s Central Eastside, introducing Oregonians to a new concept: temperature-controlled, secure storage for their ever-growing wine collections.

2002: The winemaking business reinvents itself, twice. When the eco-built Carlton Winemakers Studio debuts, it’s the first multiple-winery facility in the state. And the arrival of A to Z Wineworks takes the negociant model–purchasing finished wine in bulk and creating value-oriented blends–all the way to the bank, quickly growing to be Oregon’s largest winery.

2003: Another new business model: Laurent Montalieu and his partners take the “custom crush” business from vineyard to bottle with the new NW Wine Company in McMinnville, which will source, farm, crush and vinify fruit for you, then bottle and label it, too.

2004: The release of the film “Sideways” sparks Pinot mania.  Also: The Willamette Valley begins to subdivide. By 2006, the large AVA has six additional sub-appellations: Chehalem Mountains, Eola-Amity Hills, Dundee Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton.

2005: The Portland Indie Wine and Food Festival arrives, offering a showcase for the best of Oregon’s many pint-sized wineries.

2006: The Wine and Spirit Archive opens its doors, offering WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) accreditation and joining the International Sommelier Guild in establishing Portland as a center of wine education on the west coast.

2007: Celebrity chefs are so yesterday. A series of “Dueling Sommelier” dinners held in Portland this year calls attention to the rising prominence of sommes. Also: Riedel rolls out its first region-specific design ever: the “Oregon Pinot Noir Glass.” Local tasting rooms begin to sell the glass version, stamped with their winery logos, for $15; the crystal version sells for $30 per stem.

2009: The Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine (OCSW) certification debuts, simplifying the state’s many eco-certification options by offering a single umbrella designation. Fourteen wineries–representing approximately 20 percent of Oregon wine production–join forces with the Oregon Environmental Council to kick off the Carbon Neutral Challenge, the first wine-industry carbon-reduction program in the United States. Solar panels begin to pop up all over wine country. And Willamette Valley Vineyards cofounds what is said to be the world’s first cork recycling program, entitled Cork ReHarvest.  Also, The Allison Inn and Spa opens in Newberg, nudging the Willamette Valley a centimeter closer to the impossibly high bar of “Napa Valley luxury.” Also, the British wine magazine Decanter names Southern Oregon University geologist Greg Jones, an international expert in vineyard climatology, to its “Power List” of the 50 most influential people in the world of wine.

2010: Who said wine had to come in a bottle? Oregon restaurants start serving wines by the glass that are fresher than ever thanks to packaging in boxes and kegs. The new wines on tap are lighter on the wallet and the environment, as well. Also, wineries like Boedecker Cellars, Chehalem and Troon roll out refillable bottle programs for regular customers.

2011: Oregon is now home to more than 400 wineries and a $2.7 billion industry, bringing tourist dollars and jobs to the region.  Wineries remain focused on quality, with the average winery’s production at a mere 5,000 cases annually–tiny by national standards. In Portland, a new group, PDX Urban Wineries, forms; it’s an indicator of the fast growth of the boutique urban winemaking trend. And in McMinnville, Linfield College publishes the Oregon Wine History Project, a collection of interviews, documents, exhibits and photographs archived online for the public to browse and for scholars and reporters to refer to.

2012: The new year kicked off with the USGA’s annual vineyard survey, reavling that the 2011 harvest was the largest in Oregon history at 41,500 tons. In January, Gov. John Kitzhaber proclaimed May Oregon Wine Month, reviving a tradition that had been dormant for more than two decades. In February, the Oregon Wine Industry Symposium was held in Portland for the first time and attracted a record attendance of 1,300 industry registrants. OWB hosted the state’s largest tasting of Oregon wine under one roof in April to kick off Oregon Wine Month. In May, the first-in-the-nation Oregon Wine Country license plate was made available by the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles. More than 800 consumers and 91 wineries attended. In August, Oregon hosted the fifth Wine Bloggers Conference, attracting bloggers from all over the world. In November, Wine Spectator devoted its cover to Oregon, proclaiming Oregon the home of American Pinot noir and marking Oregon’s first cover story.

2013: Elkton Oregon became the state’s newest American Viticultural Area after receiving approval from the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau this week. The new Elkton Oregon AVA is entirely contained within the Umpqua Valley AVA, which is entirely within the Southern Oregon AVA. Oregon has a total of 17 AVAs.