Residing on the same latitude as Burgundy, and boasting a similar climate, Oregon — particularly the Willamette Valley — became a draw for Burgundian producers looking to make their mark in the New World. Now, winemakers from across the globe are looking to this pocket of the Pacific Northwest as a place to set down roots.
A smattering of plantings between 1847 until Prohibition in southern Oregon marked the beginning of Oregon’s viticultural history. As with everywhere else in the country, Prohibition put the kibosh on the burgeoning industry (and the state actually enacted its teetotaling rules before Amendment 18 was ratified in 1919). After it was repealed in 1933, a few bonded wineries once again kickstarted winemaking. But it wasn’t until 1965, when David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards planted the first Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley, that the idea that Burgundian grapes would thrive in the climate took hold. From that time forward, the region saw an explosion of activity as entrepreneurial winemakers moved to Oregon and AVAs were officially established.
Burgundy exerted its influence even in the region’s nascent stages: David Adelsheim, founder of Adelsheim Vineyard, one of Willamette Valley’s earliest wineries, went to Burgundy in 1974 and began a campaign to bring Burgundian clones to Oregon. From the other side of the ocean, Veronique Drouhin of Burgundy’s Domaine Drouhin arrived in Oregon in 1988, laying the groundwork for others with the establishment of Drouhin Oregon.
As Oregon continued to gain acclaim for its wines — Pinot Noir, especially — outside interest and investments flowed in. And while much of the energy came from Burgundy houses looking to expand their holdings — given the limited room for growth in the home region — other cool-climate producers see Oregon as their next venture. “European families with interests in the wine business are looking in Oregon because the value proposition is so much better,” says Sashi Moorman of Evening Land Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. “You can leverage your brand equity that you’ve built and buy vineyards here in Oregon for a fraction of what it costs in California or Europe.”
From Champagne to the Chehalem Mountains
Ponzi Vineyards is one producer that seemed primed for Burgundy investments. Luisa Ponzi, daughter of Dick and Nancy Ponzi, one of Willamette’s early pioneers, graduated from winemaking studies in Burgundy in 1992. “I count my time in Burgundy as integral to how I make wine,” she says. But it was Champagne-based Groupe Bollinger that acquired the winery in 2021. The head of Bollinger, Étienne Bizot, had wanted to get into the U.S. market for a while and, based on previous trips, always had a soft spot for Oregon. The Ponzis weren’t actively looking for a buyer, but by cracking the door open to the idea, interested parties flooded in.
“The fact that there are so many family projects in Oregon is attractive to Old World investors.”
From a business standpoint, Oregon had a lot to offer. “It’s [a category] that’s growing fairly fast, both in volume and in value,” says Jean-Baptiste Rivail, CEO of Ponzi Vineyards and executive vice president for Groupe Bollinger Americas. “The quality is extremely high and there is a commitment to sustainable farming,” he says. Bollinger opted to purchase an existing winery, rather than build from scratch, in order to quickly gain traction in the U.S. market.
Both parties are family-owned, an attractive quality on both sides when it came to the merger. “The fact that there are so many family projects in Oregon is attractive to Old World investors,” Rivail says.
Although Groupe Bollinger is widely known for its Champagne houses, there are no plans to produce sparkling wine in Oregon. Instead, the new owners plan to focus on the high-end portion of the Ponzi portfolio. Investments in the cellar and eventual plans to only work with estate fruit solidify the commitment.
Building a stronger brand identity is also paramount to the plans. “It’s been a luxury for me to reflect [with the Ponzis],” Rivail says. “There are questions they never asked themselves because they were busy doing. Having the ability to discuss, find the patterns, and therefore define their DNA, is really a great privilege.”
“When we sold it was a bit of a jolt to the community, as far as outside interest purchasing something that was beloved, homegrown family winery,” Luisa Ponzi says. “I really think that it’s only positive for our region. [N]ot everyone is thinking of the good for the community, but I do think that Bollinger was the right choice for us and the right choice for the region to move us all forward.”
A Draw For the Southern Hemisphere
Oregon’s potential for winemaking has spread to other hemispheres. Antony Beck, the proprietor of Graham Beck in Robertson, South Africa, started Angela Vineyards in 2006 in partnership with Ken Wright, one of Oregon’s leading winemakers. In 2012, after purchasing the remaining parcel from Wright, Beck created a new label from that specific plot called Abbott Claim. But as traditional-method sparkling wine is the main focus at Graham Beck (called Methode Cap Classique in South Africa), it was only inevitable that a sparkling wine label, Lytle-Barnett, would join the Oregon portfolio.
“I would say there’s a tremendous similarity between Robertson and the Willamette Valley,” Beck says, pointing particularly to the maritime climate. The Benguala current, coming from the North Pole, creates cold evenings in the Western Cape, whereas the Van Duzer gap allows cold air into the Eola-Amity AVA, creating a similar evening effect. However, he notes Oregon bypasses South Africa when it comes to organic and biodynamic farming. “In Oregon, I’m looking for vines that will outlive me for many, many decades,” Beck says.
“The Willamette Valley specifically is able to produce something much more akin to what we produce at Hamilton-Russell Vineyard, and what we respect stylistically; something a bit more savory and structured rather than just purely fruit driven.”
For Anthony and Olive Hamilton-Russell of Hamilton Russell Vineyards in Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa, the appeal of the Northern Hemisphere was the ability to make wine in alternating seasons. As Pinot Noir and Chardonnay specialists, they first looked in Burgundy but found it inaccessible and expensive. Vineyards in California came onto their radar, but the more they tasted wines from Oregon, they opted for the Pacific Northwest for their first foray north of the equator. “The Willamette Valley specifically is able to produce something much more akin to what we produce at Hamilton-Russell Vineyard, and what we respect stylistically; something a bit more savory and structured rather than just purely fruit-driven,” she says. With their fifth vintage currently in barrel, they continue to learn how to craft their style in a different terroir. “We’re learning to not just pick on sugar and flavor, but also pH and acidity,” she says.
A Contrast to California
Domestically, California’s climate is the dream for many producers. But winemakers Sashi Moorman and Rajat Parr think Oregon is the next frontier for the style of wines they want to produce. “Raj and I never saw California and its climate as an attribute,” Moorman says. Despite its terroir, microclimates, and diversity, the abundant sunshine was seen as a liability. “The opulence that you find in California wines was something — as you see with our wines at Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte — that we were obviously running away from.” Indeed, the duo are known for their restrained and balanced Pinots from the fog-enshrouded Sta. Rita Hills.
Moorman doesn’t believe Oregon is a cool climate, though. “It gets to 110 degrees in the summertime,” he says. But what it does have going for it is a short growing season. “And so what you’re getting, particularly on the white grape end of the spectrum, is a tremendous opportunity, because you get very quick evolution of ripeness in skins. And you maintain a tremendous amount of acidity,” he says.
Moorman ponders how Willamette might change as more producers stake their claim in Oregon — and possibly create an identity that’s separate from Burgundy. He says California doesn’t try to align itself with any other part of the world. “California’s got more ego, right?” he says. “It’s like, ‘This is a great place. Why do we have to be like anybody else?’ Oregon just has so much potential.”
The article Burgundy Laid the Groundwork, Now Other Cool-Climate Wineries Are Staking a Claim in Oregon appeared first on VinePair.