Chronicling Pinot Noir History in Oregon
In recent decades, Oregon has steadily gained prestige in the wine industry with its beloved grape: pinot noir. Yet where does the real history behind Oregon’s temperamental grape actually begin?
Records place pinot noir’s genesis in the Roman era, predominantly in France, around 1,000 AD. As a Cistercian order of Monks in Burgundy believed that hard labor resulted in a closer connection to God, harvest reports, terroirs, and importantly, pinot noir, took root in French hillsides. But when did pinot noir transition from a sacramental necessity to a source of pleasure that could be grown locally in Oregon?
Pinot Noir’s Humble Beginnings
While most sources associate Oregon’s pinot noir beginnings with a group of viticulture and agriculture students from UC Davis, common grape vines have been growing in Oregon since as early as 1825. As settlers ventured west throughout the nineteenth century, pioneers began to reap the benefits of Oregon’s fertile farmland, moderate weather, and abundant water — the ideal infrastructure for producing wine.
Unfortunately, in 1914, the state of Oregon adopted Prohibition laws, thereby rendering local wine making practices illegal and obsolete. And as the demand for table wines dwindled, pinot noir remained dormant in Oregon’s subterranean market.
Pinot Noir’s Oregon Renaissance
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, three University of California Davis graduates, all independent of each other, established roots in Oregon. David Lett led the true birth of Oregon’s pinot noir wine region, planting the first pinot noir crop of grapes in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Charles Coury and Richard Sommer followed suit as the region’s foremost innovators and wine makers. Charles Coury founded a vineyard in the Willamette Valley, while Richard Sommer experimented with vines in the Umpqua Valley; together, these men cultivated early varietals of Oregon’s pinot noir.
Others too began to recognize that Oregon’s unique microclimate offered a valuable foundation for producing wine. Names that remain relevant today began investing in the region’s soil to cultivate the perfect pinot noir; the Blossers, Eraths, Ponzis, Wisnovskys, and Giradets, among others, join the ranks of harvesters and growers responsible for Oregon’s pinot noir renaissance.
A Changed Landscape for Pinot Noir
As more growers and wine makers began to set roots in Oregon’s landscape, the face of the land changed irrevocably. In the last three decades of the twentieth century and into the first decade of the 21st century, the count of established wineries grew from one to 418; the number of acres planted escalated from below 100 to over 20,300.
With the pronounced increase in pinot noir’s presence, Oregon’s landscape has been altered. Hillsides once dotted by cherry, peach, or walnut orchards have been replaced by vineyards. And the wine economy has thrived, rendering pinot noir a staple crop on Oregon’s landscape.
Looking Ahead: What to Expect From Oregon Wines
Given the successful history of pinot noir in Oregon, and its trajectory to continue as a fundamental crop in the region, two questions remain: what lies ahead for the future of pinot noir in Oregon, and what will be the consequences and benefits of this projected growth?
With Oregon’s pinot noir wines amassing recognition from Wine Spectator’s annual list and other international critics, it is undeniable that Oregon’s pinot noir occupies a coveted, niche spot in the wine industry. With its every increasing varietals and its nuanced flavors, it is confirmed that Oregon’s pinot noir is here to stay.
And the impact is positive. Pinot noir is writing a positive history for itself, as its presence has contributed to improving the quality of life in Oregon. Wineries and vineyards are scenic; many winemakers cultivate their crops and design their tasting rooms with requirements and goals rooted in sustainable practices.
Aside from aesthetic and environmental impacts, the swell in pinot noir production and sales has generated revenue that brings in millions of dollars to Oregon state. Together, pinot noir’s current and projected presence suggests a fruitful history for the next generation of this land’s inhabitants.
Pinot Noir: A Legacy in Oregon and Beyond
History is not terminal; it is continuous, evolving, obscure, and ever-present. The narrative surrounding pinot noir in Oregon has humble origins, pioneering growth, and a bright future. But it is complex and ever shifting, much like the grape itself, and it requires gentle handling for the generations ahead.