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Promoting Pinot

Published:  23 July, 2008

It's like a word-association game: we link certain wine regions with particular grape varieties. For example, Sancerre suggests Sauvignon Blanc; Rioja implies Tempranillo; the Barossa Valley connotes Shiraz; Oregon means Pinot Noir.
Actually, that last pair might provoke an academic response. Many people in the trade have little or no experience of Oregon wine beyond a quick tasting during their WSET qualifications. If pressed to define this US wine region further, vague references to boutique producers', expensive' and inconsistent' may be all that come to mind.

These limited perceptions reflect the limited presence of Oregon wine in the UK market. However, recent changes in the Oregon wine industry suggest that these perceptions are dated and that this corner of America has something to offer both the off-trade and on-trade in the UK.

True believers

Oregon wine dates from the original settlement of the frontier in the mid-19th century, but the modern industry was born in the 1960s and '70s. During these years, founding fathers David Lett and then Dick Erath moved north from California on what was essentially a mission. They came for Pinot Noir,' says fellow industry pioneer David Adelsheim. It was their quest. They really believed that Oregon was perfect for Pinot Noir, and they devoted themselves to proving it.'

That proof came in 1979 and 1980, when Lett's wine surpassed all expectations during competitive tastings alongside the best of Burgundy in both Paris and Beaune. The international publicity generated by these events inspired the establishment of several new estates here, not least Burgundian ngociant Robert Drouhin's Domaine Drouhin Oregon and American wine guru Robert Parker's Beaux Frres, both starting in 1988.

Today, the industry comprises more than 300 wineries and 5,600 hectares (ha) of vineyards. They extend from the Rogue and Umpqua valleys of southwestern Oregon to the Columbia and Walla Walla valleys along the northern border with Washington State. The majority of production is concentrated in the Willamette (pronounced Will-AM-it) Valley, a vast tract of often-hilly terrain stretching between the Coast and Cascade mountain ranges in the northwest corner of the state.

The climate here sets Oregon apart from the wine regions of neighbouring California and Washington State. Western Oregon

has a reputation for being wet. Annual precipitation in the Willamette Valley averages just over 1,000mm - as much as five times that in some of Washington's wine regions. But 85% of Oregon's precipitation falls between October and May; summers tend to be very dry.

Growing-season temperatures classify this area as cool - Region I according to the degree-day heat summation system devised by Amerine and Winkler - but this should not be interpreted to mean cold. Climatic data for the valley shows at least three weeks of summertime highs in excess of 30C. Taken together, these conditions suggest great potential for grapevines that thrive in cooler climates - including Pinot Noir.

Broader meaning

Indeed, Pinot Noir has dominated the industry's production since the beginning. More than half of Oregon's plantings are devoted to this variety, and Pinot fruit demands the highest prices at harvest - approximately $2,000 per ton. Wine sales nationwide are extremely good, too; so it is not wrong to say that Oregon means Pinot Noir. But it is not all that Oregon represents. Pinot Gris is also a great success here, and this variety has rapidly grown to become the state's second wine.

For King Estate, at the southern end of the Willamette Valley, Pinot Gris is very much the first wine: it is three quarters of this winery's production. According to winemaker Bill Kremer, It has definitely shown the most promise of any white variety. With sur lie ageing, the wine has real richness and weight. And recent growth has been phenomenal. It is becoming as important to the Oregon wine identity as Pinot Noir.'

King Estate represents part of that Oregon wine identity' as a family-owned enterprise. Most Oregon wineries operate in the

same way. It is also organic-certified, and the state's producers as a whole show tremendous commitment to sustainable, environmentally sensitive farming practices. But this is not a boutique winery. King Estate's production has grown to 90,000 cases, distributed to the on-trade and off-trade across America.

Most of Oregon's wineries are much smaller - producing just 5,000 cases a year, or even fewer. Adelsheim says there are two reasons for this profile. Land-ownership laws here favour small wineries. There aren't any big plots of land available like in California. Also, it's very hard to do large fermentations of good Pinot Noir. The ideal fermenters are five or six tons, and there are only so many of those you can monitor during harvest.'

Of course, these tiny outputs probably preclude the viability of exports, but the boutique stereotype is not wholly accurate. In addition to King Estate, several companies are generating significant volumes. Sokol Blosser Winery, which is newly distributed in the UK by Les Caves de Pyrene, produces 45,000 cases a year. Firesteed, represented by Liberty Wines in the UK, produces 70,000 cases. Other wineries such as A to Z Wineworks and Willamette Valley Vineyards have outputs of 85,000-90,000 cases.

That sort of scale is an opportunity to address another stereotype of Oregon wine: price. For much of its history, the industry has aimed at the high end, with wines priced at $30 or more. Oregon wine has been an inverted pyramid,' says Howard Rossbach, president of the Firesteed brand. For a long time, there were very few basic wines, and lots of people were saying - or thinking - that they were making the best wine in the world. Actually, before we came along in '92, I don't think there was an entry-level Oregon Pinot Noir available nationally. But that's changing.'

David Millman of Domaine Drouhin, which is represented in the UK by Fields, Morris & Verdin, confirms that there has been a shift. The Oregon category is finally reaching out to consumers at sub-$20 prices. So you are going to see more well-marketed brands playing in that range: good wine and true Oregon wine, but at a more accessible price.'

Reliable quality

With the addition of Pinot Gris, larger producers and lower price points, the Oregon wine industry can be redefined in a broader way. But for that to happen in the marketplace, it must also overcome concerns about consistency - or the lack of it.

This issue encompasses several interlinked variables. One of them is the marginal climate of the Willamette Valley. During the mid-1990s, the US economy was flourishing, and American wine consumption grew like never before. But this boom may have been ill-timed for the Oregon wine industry.

We have to acknowledge that the wines made in the wet vintages of the mid-'90s were not very good,' says Adelsheim, mostly due to dilution, but also some rot.' This poor performance came on the heels of great success in previous vintages, including 1994, and this flip-flop marred the reputation of Oregon wine.

However, the weather has been remarkably good since 1998, and the ripeness and the weight of the wines have been excellent, especially in 2002 and 2003. Producers have basked in this weather, and many now talk about global warming; but the Willamette Valley remains a cool-climate zone, and inclement growing seasons will return. Indeed, several winemakers have referred to 2005 as a more classic' vintage.

But cementing the advantage of these very good years is a series of substantive changes that should drive up quality for the foreseeable future. Most of these changes have been in viticulture,' says Dick Shea, whose Shea Vineyard supplies 19 wineries with fruit that many consider the best in Oregon. Just 12 years ago we basically "let the fruit grow itself". Now it's constant work with shoot positioning and leaf pulling to improve ripening and reduce the need for spraying. There's also been a move from tonnage to acreage contracts, and yield reductions from five to two tons per acre (30hl/ha). It's just a completely different industry than it was even 10 years ago.'

During those same 10 years, Oregon's vineyard area has doubled in size, and the new planting differs significantly from earlier vines. Oregon's first wave of Pinot Noir was self-rooted stock of clones sourced from UC Davis. Phylloxera was not a concern at the time, and ungrafted vines were relatively cheap. Also, California was the only real source of plant material, even if those vines were selected for a climate very different from that of Oregon.

By the mid-1990s the industry had grown and had acquired the resources to shift to more appropriate, earlier-ripening clones sourced from a new relationship between Oregon State University and ONIVINS in Dijon, France. These new vines also were grafted on to rootstock that could maximise the potential of each site. (Phylloxera has slowly made its way into the state.)

And finally there is better winemaking,' says Adelsheim. People just have a much better idea of what they are doing. They use sorting tables, and they have experience of the kind of things you need to do in the winery during challenging years.' He adds, We certainly had a reputation for inconsistency, but you will now see much less of that for many reasons.'

The collective impact of all of these developments has worked to the industry's benefit - yielding not only better wine but reliably better wine. It's a dramatic change, and a rapid one at that. Of course, rapid change often generates controversy.

Drawing lines

One debate is the recent creation of sub-appellations within the northern Willamette Valley. Four districts - Yamhill-Carlton, Dundee Hills, McMinnville and Ribbon Ridge - have been granted official status as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) during the past two years. Two more districts - Chehalem Mountain and the Eola Hills - are awaiting government approval.

Shirley Brooks is the national sales manager for Elk Cove, a 25,000-case producer in the Yamhill-Carlton district. She says the development of these sub-appellations reflects the scale of the encompassing Willamette Valley AVA. This valley stretches over 120 miles south from Portland, and is 60 miles across between two mountain ranges. That's a huge area, and too large to think that there are not some inherent differences. As we mature as an industry and better understand these differences, we need a means to communicate what we're discovering.'

Rossbach of the Firesteed brand accepts that reasoning, but he believes these actions are premature. This is still a young industry, and I'm not sure we know where the dividing lines are. Consequently, I think this is more marketing-driven than qualitative.'

Maria Ponzi Fogelstrom agrees that it may be too early for these sub-appellations to be meaningful. As marketing director for the 15,000-case producer and industry pioneer Ponzi Vineyards, she also sees them as marketing-driven. At this point, any differences might be down to rootstocks or clones or vine age or a combination of these and other variables. We just feel these AVAs differentiate one group of brands from other groups of brands. We don't use them.'

But Alex Sokol Blosser believes the timing is right for these sub-appellations. As vice president of the Sokol Blosser Winery, he spent a lot of time on the development of the new AVAs. There has been staggering growth in this area. And as new growers come to Oregon we need to show them the best places to grow grapes. We want them to make world-class wines, and we need them to succeed. So this is really an effort to shape our future.'

The same sort of discussion extends to the validity of single-vineyard-designated wines. However, Brooks of Elk Cove explains that none of these debates is the source of real friction. Like in all families, there is some tug and pull from time to time.'

Collective effort

Family' may be the best word to describe the Oregon wine industry. Beyond the fact that most vineyards and wineries are family owned, they all seem to form a legitimately close community. According to Adelsheim, It goes back to the idealism that led to the foundation of this industry. Back in the '60s and '70s, a lot of people were passionate about getting back to the land and about community, and we weren't any different. But that spirit of collaboration has been part of this area from the 1850s through to today.'

One concrete example of collective effort is the Carlton Winemakers Studio. This eco-friendly facility was launched by Eric Hamacher in 2002, and it serves as home to as many as 10 small wine producers. The tenant wineries are spared traditional set-up costs by sharing high-spec, gravity-driven vinification equipment as well as a tasting and sales room. Other examples include the Deep Roots Coalition, a group of wineries that proselytise dry farming (unirrigated viticulture) as the source of wines that best express terroir. There is also the Steamboat Conference, an annual gathering of Oregon winemakers to share ideas and advice. Then there is Salud, an auction collectively organised by Oregon wineries to raise money - $750,000 in 2005 - to provide health care for migrant agricultural workers in the state.

But the most significant illustrations of collaboration relate to promotion. For 20 years running, Oregon wineries have worked together to host a three- or four-day midsummer festival of Pinot Noir from around the world, called the International Pinot Noir Celebration. This sell-out consumer, trade and press event features producers from Oregon, California, Burgundy, New Zealand and other regions.

A more recent spin-off event called Oregon Pinot Camp (OPC) may be of greater importance to producers. This is a three-day series of seminars and tastings in June, and it's not open to the public or the press. This is for restaurants and retailers - the frontline people selling to consumers,' says Ponzi Fogelstrom of Ponzi Vineyards.

According to Millman of Domaine Drouhin, There are still several places where we lack exposure, so Pinot Camp is a fabulous way to inform the trade and turn some of them into advocates. And if we at DDO don't get a particular listing but someone like Elk Cove does, that's fine. Just let someone from Oregon be on that list.'

Ponzi Fogelstrom confirms that attitude. It amazes me that even at OPC, when bottom-line issues like selling more wine with a particular hotel or restaurant are at stake, there is still a tremendous level of collaboration. I suppose it's not stereotypical American individualism, but it's kind of what defines us.'

The Oregon Wine Board is seeking a partner

to help better establish and grow the industry's presence within the UK market. Proposals are requested by 15 February. Contact Katie Stoll for further information: e-mail or call +1 503 228 8336, ext. 27.