The state of Oregon has established an international reputation for its production of wine. Oregon has several different growing regions within the state's borders which are well-suited to the cultivation of grapes; additional regions straddle the border between Oregon and the states of Washington and Idaho.
As of the 2005 winegrowing season, the state of Oregon has 303 bonded wineries, 384 wine brands, and 734 vineyards growing Vitis vinifera, composing a total of 14,100 acres; 11,800 acres were harvested in 2005. Out of all US winegrowing regions, Oregon ranked third in number of wineries and fourth in production. Nearly 1.6 million cases of Oregon wine were sold in 2005. The retail value of these cases was USD $184.7 million, a 24% increase over the previous vintage.
The industry has had a significant economic impact on the state. The industry contributed a total of USD $1.4 billion to the Oregon economy. Of that figure, over USD $800 million is directly provided by wineries and vineyards via sales, wages, and spending. It is estimated that the industry contributed 8,479 wine-related jobs and USD $203 million in wages. Exports to other states in 2004 were USD $64.1 million.
Oregon produces wine on a much smaller scale than the California wine industry. Oregon's biggest producer produces only 125,000 cases per year and most produce under 35,000 cases. The state features many small wineries which produce less than 5,000 cases per year. In contrast, E & J Gallo Winery, the United States' largest producer, produced 65 million cases of wine in 2002. The majority of wineries in the state operate their own vineyards, although some purchase grapes on the market. Oregon contains a significant number of independent vineyards.
The Oregon wine industry focuses on the higher-priced segments of the wine market. Oregon growers receive a higher average return per ton and a higher average revenue per case than do growers in other wine-producing regions in the United States. Despite producing a much smaller volume of wine, Oregon winery revenues per capita are comparable to those of New York and Washington.
Varieties of Wine
Like other wines produced in the United States, Oregon wines are marketed as varietals. Oregon law requires that wines produced in the state must be identified by the grape variety from which it was made, and must contain at least 90% of that variety. Oregon law has long forbidden use of place names, except as appellations of origin. Oregon is most famous for its Pinot Noir, which is produced throughout the state. Pinot Noirs from the Willamette Valley have received much critical acclaim from wine connoisseurs and critics, and Oregon is regarded as one of the premier Pinot-producing regions in the world.
In 2005, the top five varieties produced in Oregon were:
- Pinot Noir (7,974 acres, 12,086 US tons)
- Pinot Gris (1,184 acres, 4,317 US tons)
- Chardonnay (842 acres, 1,568 US tons)
- Merlot (550 acres, 675 US tons)
- Riesling (524 acres, 1,000 US tons)
Other varieties with significant production in Oregon include Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Pinot blanc, Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, and Syrah. V. vinifera based wines produced in smaller quantities include Arneis, Baco noir, Cabernet franc, Chenin blanc, Dolcetto, Gamay Noir, Grenache, Marechal Foch, Malbec, Muscat, Nebbiolo, Petite Syrah, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Viognier, and Zinfandel. The state also produces sparkling wine, late harvest wine, ice wine, and dessert wine.
History of Oregon Wine Production
Wine has been produced in Oregon since the Oregon Territory was settled in the 1840s; however, winemaking has only been a significant industry in the state since the 1960s. Grapes were first planted in the Oregon Territory in 1847, with the first recorded winery being established in 1850 in Jacksonville. Throughout the 19th century, there was experimentation with various varietals by immigrants to the state, and in 1904, an Oregon winemaker won a prize at the St. Louis World's Fair. Wine production would cease in the United States during Prohibition, and the Oregon wine industry lay dormant for thirty years after Prohibition was repealed.
The Oregon wine industry started to rebuild in the 1960s, when California winemakers opened several vineyards in the state. This included the planting of Pinot Noir grapes in the Willamette Valley, a region long thought too cold to be suitable for viticulture. In the 1970s, more out-of-state winemakers migrated to the state and started to organize as an industry. The state's land use laws had prevented rural hillsides from being turned into housing tracts, preserving a significant amount of land suitable for vineyards. In 1979, Eyrie Vineyards entered a 1975 Pinot Noir in the Wine Olympics; the wine was rated among the top Pinots in the world, thus gaining the region its first international recognition.
The accolades continued into the 1980s, and the Oregon wine industry continued to add both wineries and acres under vine. The state industry continued to market itself, establishing the first of several AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) in the state. The state also grew strong ties with the Burgundy region of France, as Oregon's governor paid an official visit to Burgundy and a leading French winemaking family purchased acreage in Dundee.
In the early 1990s, the wine industry was threatened by a Phylloxera infestation in the state, but winemakers quickly turned to the use of resistant rootstocks to prevent any serious damage. The state legislature enacted several new laws designed to promote winemaking and wine distribution. The state found a newfound focus on "green" winemaking, leading the global wine industry into more environmentally-friendly practices. Several new AVAs were established. By 2005, there were 314 wineries and 519 vineyards in operation in Oregon.
Major Wine-Producing Regions
There are, loosely speaking, three main wine producing regions with a major presence in the state of Oregon, as defined by non-overlapping American Viticultural Areas. Two of them--the Willamette Valley AVA and the Southern Oregon AVA, are wholly contained within Oregon; a third, the Columbia Gorge AVA straddles the Columbia River and includes territory in both Oregon and Washington; however, this AVA is considered to be an Oregon AVA. Portions of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, an AVA which is primarily in Washington (along with the Columbia Valley AVA which contains it), descend into Oregon in the Milton-Freewater area. The Southern Oregon AVA was recently created as the union of two Southern Oregon winegrowing regions long considered distinct, the Rogue Valley and the Umpqua Valley. Several other smaller AVAs are found within some of these larger regions. The Snake River Valley AVA, which straddles Oregon's border with Idaho along the Snake River, is the first AVA to include a part of Eastern Oregon.
The Willamette Valley AVA is the wine growing region which encompasses the Willamette Valley. It stretches from the Columbia River in the north to just south of Eugene in the south, where the Willamette Valley ends; and from the Coast Range in the West to the Cascade Mountains in the East. At 5,200 square miles, it is the largest AVA in the state, and contains most of the state's wineries; approximately 200 as of 2006.
The climate of Willamette Valley is mild year-round, with cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers; extreme temperatures are uncommon. Most rainfall occurs outside the growing season and the valley gets relatively little snow. Not all parts of the Valley are suitable for viticulture, and most wineries and vineyards are found west of the Willamette River, with the largest concentration in Yamhill County.
The region is divided into four subordinate AVAs; Dundee Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, and the Yamhill-Carlton District. Two more AVA applications are pending. In addition, many wine connoisseurs further divide the Willamette Valley into northern and southern regions, the dividing line being the approximate latitude of Salem.
This region is most famous for its Pinot Noir, and also produces large amounts of Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Chardonnay. The region also produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Sémillon, and Zinfandel grapes, but in far smaller quantities.
The Southern Oregon AVA is an AVA which was formed as the union of two existing AVAs--the Rogue Valley AVA and the Umpqua Valley AVA. (A small strip of connecting territory is included in the Southern Oregon AVA to make it a contiguous region; however, this strip passes through mountains regions not suitable for vineyards). This AVA was established in 2004, to allow the two principal regions in Southern Oregon to jointly market themselves. As the Rogue Valley and Umpqua Valley regions produce different grapes (and different varietals), they are examined separately.
Umpqua Valley AVA
The Umpqua Valley AVA contains the drainage basin of the Umpqua River, excluding mountainous regions. The Umpqua Valley has a warmer climate than the Willamette Valley, but is cooler than the Rogue Valley to the south. Grapes grown here include Pinot Noir, with smaller amounts of Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Riesling, as well as several French-American hybrids. The region includes one sub-AVA, the Red Hill Douglas County AVA.
Rogue Valley AVA
The Rogue River AVA includes the drainage basin of the Rogue River and several tributaries, including the Illinois River, the Applegate River (Oregon), and Bear Creek. Most wineries in the region are found along one of these three tributaries, rather than along the Rogue River itself. The region is 70 miles wide by 60 miles long (although much of the land within the AVA is not suitable for grape cultivation); there are less than 20 wineries with only 1,100 acres planted. The three valleys differ greatly in terroir, with the easternmost Bear Creek valley being warmest and driest, and the westernmost Illinois River valley being coolest and wettest. Each river valley has a unique climate and grows different varieties of grapes. Overall, however, this region is the warmest and driest of Oregon's wine-growing regions.. The region has one sub-AVA, the Applegate Valley AVA.
The Columbia Gorge AVA is found in the Columbia Gorge. This region straddles the Columbia River, and thus lies in both Oregon and Washington; it is made up of Hood River and Wasco counties in Oregon, and Skamania and Klickitat counties in Washington. The region lies to the east of the summits of nearby Mount Hood and Mount Adams, situated in their rain shadows; thus, the region is significantly drier than the Willamette Valley. It also exhibits significant differences in elevation due to gorge geography, and strong winds common in the area also play a factor in the region's climate. This allows a wide variety of grapes to be grown in the Columbia Gorge. The region has nearly 40 vineyards, growing a wide variety of grapes, including Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Zinfandel, Cabernet, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Sangiovese.
Walla Walla Valley
Portions of northeastern Oregon (in the vicinity of Milton-Freewater) are part of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, which was established in 1984. This appellation, which is part of the Columbia Valley AVA, lies primarily within Washington state. This region has nearly 100 wineries and 1,200 acres planted. Wines grown in the valley include Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Sangiovese and a few exotic varietals including Counoise, Carmenère, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo and Barbera.
Snake River Valley
A new viticultural area along the Snake River was established on April 9, 2007. Principally located in Idaho, the area also encompasses two large counties in Eastern Oregon, Baker County and Malheur County. The region's climate is unique among AVAs in Oregon; the average temperature is relatively cool and rainfall is low, creating a shorter growing season. Current production is led by hardy grapes such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Chardonnay. The climate also lends itself extremely well to the production of ice wine. However, the AVA is quite large and warmer microclimates within the area can also support different types of grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
With the continuing improvement in the region's winemaking reputation, wine tourism in Oregon has become a significant industry in its own right. On-site sales are becoming an increasingly important part of the business of Oregon winemaking, and other businesses which cater to wine tourists, such as lodging, fine restaurants, art gallerys, have been appearing in places like Dundee, many of which have long been rural farming communities. Wine festivals and tastings are commonplace. It is estimated that wine tourism contributed USD $92 million to the state economy in 2004, excluding sales at wineries and tasting rooms. There are approximately 1.48 million visits to Oregon wineries each year; 49% of which are by Oregonians, and 51% from out of state visitors. Major events which draw significant numbers of tourists to wine country include the International Pinot Noir Celebration and the Oregon Pinot Camp.
Facilities for wine tourists in Oregon are considered underdeveloped compared to wine regions in California, especially premium growing regions like the Napa Valley. Only 5% of overnight leisure trips in the state involve visits to wineries, a much smaller figure than comparable California growing regions which range from 10%-25%. Oregon lacks many accommodations found in wine growing regions in other states such as luxury hotels, resorts, and other attractions suitable for well-heeled tourists. As of August 2006, a resort hotel is being planned in Dundee, which would be located near notable wineries such as Domaine Drouhin Oregon. A local developer and businessman has proposed construction of a 50-room hotel, spa and restaurant in the Dundee Hills region, but has met with opposition from many notable vintners, including David Lett, who fear that such a development would dramatically alter the landscape of the region. Concern has also been raised by vintners that the proposed site is on prime growing land that should be used for wine production rather than a resort hotel.
The increase in winery-related tourism, as well as the presence of a casino in the Willamette Valley, has greatly impacted the region's transportation infrastructure. Oregon State Route 99W, the highway which runs through the heart of Willamette Valley wine country (and which is the main street in towns such as Newberg and Dundee), is plagued with frequent traffic jams. Plans to construct a freeway bypass around Newberg and Dundee (avoiding the prime growing areas in the hills) are in motion, but are highly controversial. Currently, construction of the highway project is unfunded, and the Oregon Department of Transportation has proposed making the new bypass a toll road, highly unusual for Oregon. Tolls have also been proposed on the existing route of OR-99W, in addition to the new bypass. This proposal has proven to be highly controversial, with many local residents opposing the plan, primarily due to potential negative effects on businesses located on 99W.