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Winemaking in Oregon

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | June 28, 2011

When reviewing winemaking in the United States, one can easily become consumed with the amount of wineries and regions found in the State of California. It is therefore important to realize that many other areas exist in the United States that are responsible for quality wine production. The Pacific Northwest region of the United States has long been associated with winemaking and nowhere is this truer than the State of Oregon.

Unlike winemaking in the State of Washington, Oregon has a longer history of winemaking. Also unlike the State of Washington, Oregon wineries have traditionally been smaller organizations that rely on small plots of grapes that are usually harvested by hand. Oregon like most other States was negatively affected by prohibition. Upon repeal, California overshadowed Oregon concerning wine production. This led to production of sub standard wines produced from grape varieties other than Vitis vinifera. By the 1960s the wine industry in Oregon began to recover and today Oregon is known for its high quality wines. In terms of amount of wine produced by State, Oregon stands fourth in the United States.

Winemaking got its start in Oregon in 1847. A man by the name of Henderson Luiellen was responsible for introducing Vitis vinifera to the Territory of Oregon. After this development, Peter Britt introduced additional grape plantings in 1852. In addition to these new plantings of grapes, Britt also started Oregon's first winery known as Valley View Vineyard. Valley View Vineyard was located in the town of Jacksonville and survived until Britt's death in 1906. These early winemaking events all occurred before Oregon had been granted Statehood and acceptance into the union.

Before prohibition Oregon showed growth in wine production. In 1880 a national census concerning wine growing was taken for the State of Oregon. The county of Jackson reported the production of 15,000 gallons of wine while the counties of Clackamas and Marion reported the production of 1,900 gallons of wine. Around this time individuals also began to speculate that Oregon's climate was well suited for the production of quality wines. One such individual was California's viniculture expert, Professor Frederic T. Bioletti. Unfortunately for Bioletti, the dark clouds of Prohibition were on the horizon.

Like all other States, Oregon wineries suffered due to the effects of Prohibition. While individuals such as Professor Bioletti worked to promote that the Vitas vineifera was ideally suited for Oregon's climate, lawmakers worked to discourage this fact, even after prohibition had ended! This resulted in the slow growth of Oregon wineries after Repeal.

Wineries were hit hard by Prohibition, but many managed to remain in business. At repeal, wineries were once again legal through an annual winery-licensing program. This winery license was granted for 25 dollars and stipulated that only the production of light wine produced from ones own grape vineyard was valid. Immediately after Prohibition there were 28 such wineries selling their wines at retail. As the years past the number of these wineries grew smaller until in 1972 only two wineries were still in operation.

Things changed in a big way for the Oregon wine industry in the early 1960s. As the American populace began to learn and appreciate quality wines, the demand for quality wines increased. This phenomenon was felt by the wine industry on a national level and Oregon was no exception. The honor of Oregon's wine revolution falls to Richard Sommer who in 1961 established Hillcrest vineyard. Sommer's background before Hillcrest vineyard was somewhat varied. Originally a student at UC Davis in the 1950s, Sommer took a wine course in viniculture taught by professor Maynard Amerine. In this course winemaking and grape growing fundamentals were reviewed and the idea of fine wines being produced in the cooler California districts stayed with Sommer. Six-years after graduating, Sommer decided to open his own winery. Remembering the instruction from his wine class, Sommer looked to Oregon's slower and gentler ripening conditions. In the end Sommer's winery and winemaking philosophies proved to be successful. A few years after the startup of Hillcrest Sommer's wines were being featured in gourmet shops and restaurants. Sommer's wines were even winning over customers in California. The concept of cool-climate viticulture was born and soon other individuals would follow Sommer's example. This led to additional high quality wineries appearing in the State of Oregon.

Cool-Climate viticulture was not without its problems. Frost, rot, harvest rains and the varying ripeness of grapes resulted in serious wine production problems. Studying the problem systematically, Oregon winemakers turned to institutions that had been producing wine in similar conditions for a much greater period of time. These institutions included the Burgundy, Switzerland and Alsace wineries. Ultimately, simple old-world wine techniques such as leaf plucking, site selection, understanding microclimates, planting on slopes, proper drainage, etc were employed. In the end, the quality and consistency of the wines produced using cool-climate viniculture improved.

Today the Oregon wine industry is composed of tiny family run vineyards scattered throughout Oregon's various AVAs. With Oregon's wine industry embracing the concepts of cool-climate viticulture, many quality wines are now being produced in Oregon. By focusing on better clone selection of grape varieties and the development of 20 to 30 year old vines, wines produced in Oregon stand among some of the finest wines found within the United States.

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