By Robin Dohrn-Simpson
Although Oregon has been home to vineyards as far back as 1847, after the end of Prohibition in 1933, it needed a bit of rebuilding. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that winemakers made the trek from the Mediterranean and mild climates of California to do just that, throwing their hats in the ring to grow grapes in a new and very different terrain.
It was during this time that well-known names like Dick and Kina Erath, Dick and Nancy Ponzi, Susan and Bill Sokol Blosser, David and Diane Lett and David and Ginny Adelsheim put down roots around the state of Oregon and started vineyards. Some had education and training in viticulture; some did not. Most had a pioneering spirit. It is this spirit that has seen them through the trials and tribulations of grape growing and winemaking in a new frontier.
Susan Sokol Blosser chronicles these trials in her book, “At Home in the Vineyard: Cultivating a Winery, an Industry and a Life.” In a state with no tradition in fine winemaking, she and husband Bill helped create one by taking a leap of faith, moving to Oregon without farming or winemaking experience, buying property and planting grapes. The struggle was real and took perseverance. Through trial and error, she and her husband finally harvested their first vintage in 1977.
By 1979 the Oregon wine industry was recognized at the Wine Olympiad in Paris when Eyrie Vineyards’ 1975 South Block Reserve placed in the top ten pinot noirs. In a rematch one year later Eyrie came in second, only 2/10s of a point behind the winner, a 1959 Chambolle-Musigney from Joseph Drouhin. Suddenly Oregon was a force in the wine world.
After Eyrie’s success, Oregon’s wine industry grew leaps and bounds. By 1990, there were 70 bonded wineries and 320 growers. In the same year came disaster—phylloxera—forcing vineyard owners to rip out vines and replant on grafted phylloxera-resistant rootstock. This replanting allowed Oregon growers and winemakers to rethink and resurface stronger than ever.
Eventually, the growing regions were separated into AVAs, and the Oregon Wine Marketing Coalition formed. All the while growers and winemakers collaborated–discussing strategy and banding together in times of need for growers and employees alike. That has never ended.
“Every wine region claims to be collaborative, but in Oregon, it’s truly a close-knit environment. I have worked in other wine regions, and this one really does feel genuinely tight–people make wine together, share equipment, come together to help each other when disaster strikes, and trade knowledge and advice. I’ve been told by several owners that when they started out, the community was incredibly supportive of them throughout the learning curve of starting a winery,” said Julia Burke, Marketing and Communications Coordinator for the Willamette Valley Wineries Association.
“I remember being impressed by the close community when I visited Oregon for the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) while I was a winemaker in California,” said Anthony King of The Carlton Winemakers Studio. “The Oregon winemakers were friendly and welcoming to those of us from out-of-state, but extremely close and familiar with one another. Now that I’ve been here for thirteen years, I know that camaraderie is true. That spirit, I think, comes from the founders of the industry, who helped each other in the beginning and have continued to help the industry through combined efforts to tell the story of Oregon wine.”
In 1999, state legislators passed HB3429, allowing multiple winery licenses on a single premise, and, in 2002, The Carlton Winemakers Studio formed. This unique facility, pioneered by Eric Hamacher, Luisa Ponzi and Ned and Kirsten Lumpkin as an incubator and home for multiple producers, is the ultimate in collaboration.
Today, Anthony King is one of the winemakers at The Carlton Winemakers Studio and consults as the general manager. When asked about collaboration at the Studio, he mentioned an ongoing project with Patrick Reuter at Dominio I, one of the first winemakers at the Studio. “In 2015, Patrick and I started a collaborative project that we named after our grandmothers, ‘Agnes and Luisa.’ It focuses on Italian varietals and is meant to be a learning experience and exploration,” said King. “We all help each other. Jerry Murray of Project M explained to someone just today that it is easier to help someone and know that you’ll likely need some help sometime later that day. I, for one, love that I can walk around the Studio with a barrel or tank sample and ask ten winemakers whom I respect what they think of it.”
Collaboration is not limited to members of the studio, however. Tim Ramey of Zenith Vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills told The Grapevine Magazine, “I agree that winemakers are collaborative. Our annual winemaker dinner is a great example of this. We invite all of the winemakers who produce wines from Zenith, and they come and present their wines to each other where the common denominator is vintage and Zenith – the variables are winemaking and vineyard block. It is hugely informative,” he said.
“We borrow equipment. We help each other with vineyard problems. I have even harvested grapes at Seven Springs as a favor to a winemaker since in 2006 there was no one to harvest.”
Winemakers also provide feedback to one another through tasting groups King told The Grapevine Magazine.
“Most winemakers have tasting groups or cellar crawls where they visit each other’s cellars throughout the year,” King said. “One group has been tasting together for years and started https://www.cellarcrawlwines.com. Their tastings have likely helped us all to be better winemakers, as they learned from each other and then passed that knowledge on to the rest of us.”
Vintners Associations and Wine Festivals
Oregon wineries have many vintners associations and wine boards that transcend AVAs. “The Oregon Wine Board covers the whole state, focusing the efforts of AVAs across the state. That organization hosts the Oregon Symposium each year in Portland that is well attended by winemakers, cellar workers, marketing folks, direct to consumer and national salespeople,” King said. “The seminars are designed by people in our industry and each year are pertinent to our ongoing conversations. We also have a research group that reviews research proposals and allocates OWB funds to wine and vineyard research annually.”
“The vast majority of the wineries in this region belong to associations–most of them belong to several, as there are smaller nested AVA associations and then our organization and the Oregon Winegrowers Association and Oregon Wine Board and others. I have noticed a tremendous willingness to talk out differences and resolve issues as a community. Everyone has an eye on perspective and the bigger picture,” Burke said.
With collaboration also comes celebration, in the form of festivals honoring Oregon’s status in the wine world. “The International Pinot Noir Celebration is based in McMinnville and brings us together annually to showcase our wines in the context of some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world. We often find ourselves discussing and formulating seminars that we hope both the winemakers and attendees will find compelling,” King said. “The Oregon Chardonnay Celebration is similar but has not been quite as developed as IPNC, but gets better every year. Oregon Pinot Camp is probably the ultimate of collaboration in Oregon. Each year 280 sommeliers and buyers come from across the country to visit, taste and attend small, intimate seminars. Planning takes the entire year, and the seminars are in a constant state of evolution. Although not all the wineries participate in OPC, I believe that it continues to be the kindling for our industry’s collaboration. Collaboration is a regular topic of conversation with the sommeliers and buyers. They all love the collective spirit and typically one or two of them each year ends up moving here to be a part of it.”
For winemakers in Oregon, community support and collaboration are only natural, given their roots.
“Camaraderie is a part of Oregon’s culture. People are neighborly and value community over competition. Part of it is that we’re a young region. Our founders had already observed other wine regions around the world and came here with intent, and they knew that a rising tide lifts all ships,” said Burke. “Part of it is that we have one focal grape, Pinot noir, and yet an incredible diversity of sites, and it would be crazy not to share knowledge and experience with each other. I think the biggest factor is that about 70 percent of wineries in Oregon produce less than 5,000 cases, which means we trend very small. We have a lot of small producers who rely on each other, and the larger producers remember what it was like to be just getting started.”