On the Oregon [Terroir] Trail

Don’t know how I missed the big news. The folks in Oregon’s Yamhill-Carlton District AVA have been successful in their petition to change the appellation’s name. Henceforth they’ll be known as Yamhill-Carlton not Yamhill-Carlton District.  Wow, I’m glad they finally got that fixed! “District” was redundant, according to one report, and the name was said to be too long to fit on a wine label.

Oregon winemakers are a bit intoxicated with appellations, so I suppose they can be forgiven for being so particular about them.  Oregon imagines that it is Burgundy West (not without some justification) and longs for the fine grid of appellation and vineyard designations that Burgundy is famous for.

Never Satisfied

Not satisfied with the Willamette Valley AVA and six sub-AVAs, many Oregon winemakers have taken the Burgundy-inspired next step, releasing portfolios of vineyard designated wines.  While I admire their efforts to deeply mine their terroir, I am a bit concerned that they might also be undermining the regional brand.

The idea of Oregon wine is not necessarily an easy one for many consumers outside the region to get their heads around. Adding a couple of layers of complexity seems like it could make the big sell even harder. Fortunately, as Paul Gregutt noted in a Decanter article a couple of years ago, particular AVA names are essentially meaningless to many buyers, invisible to all but the most ardent enthusiast, so perhaps I am misoverestimating the confusion factor.

Even so, there are two concerns. First, if everyone is looking after their own little patch of dirt, who’s paying attention to the bigger “Willamette Valley” regional brand? I do think this is a serious issue because regional reputation is hard to earn and easy to lose.

I was shocked a year ago when I saw my first sub-$10 Oregon Pinot Noir, but that sticker shock has passed.  Willamette Valley Pinots in that $10 range are a common sight now and I have seen prices as low as $5.99. Yikes!

The Oregon industry with its low yields and high costs can’t afford to be defined as a “value” region and the marketplace seems to be going in that direction. Maybe, as some have suggested, it’s time to look up and consider the big picture in Oregon.

So is the focus on micro-terroir misguided when these bigger problems loom? Well, not necessarily if there’s really a there there. (Did that make any sense? Let me try again.) Not if the fine geographical divisions are valid and the wines made therein are truly distinctive. But are they?

Target: Archery Summit

With this question in mind we went in search of clear evidence of Oregon terroir. Our target: Archery Summit, chosen because they are owned by the same corporate parents as Napa’s Pine Ridge, which I examined in my Stags Leap District project, and because of their terroir-driven focus on single-vineyard bottlings from distinctly different parts of the valley.

Was there a there there? Well, yes, even I could taste it (and I don’t claim to have a particularly  educated palate), especially the Looney Vineyard wine. Of course Archery Summit has resources unavailable to many others to vigorously pursue terroir. It may therefore be a mistake to generalize from this one winery or others with the same intense focus (Ken Wright Cellars, for example), but it is clear to me that those Bugundian dreams are not wholly unfounded.

One wine that we tasted, made when Archery Summit (and Pine Ridge) founder Gary Andrus was still in charge, was sort of an über-terroirist experience. The 1996 Chêne d’Oregon Pinot Noir was actually aged in barrels made from an oak tree that grew on the vineyard site. As the Archery Summit website explains …

Creating a distinctively ‘Oregon’ Cuvée originated with a desire to marry the taste of Oregonian Pinot Noir and native Oregon oak. Our French cooper François Frères crafted six barrels of Quercus garryana Oregon white oak for the inauguration of Chêne D’Oregon. This Pinot Noir blend aged in 100% new Oregon oak barrels displays the true embodiment of Oregon’s forests, vineyards and soils.

Terroir squared. Very intense. Not to everyone’s taste (maybe this much terroir is too much?) but very interesting nonetheless. Quite an experience!

Rational Exuberance

Oregon winemakers can be forgiven for not caring one iota about my concerns about their AVA structures (or why Stags Leap District fits on a wine label while Yamhill-Carlton District apparently does not). The reviews are just in for their 2008 wines and the scores and comments are fantastic.

One wine broke through Wine Advocate‘s long impenetrable (by Oregon) 95 point ceiling. The Shea Wine Cellars 2008 “Homer” received a 96-point rating (the highest I have seen in WA for an Oregon Pinot) and the Antica Terra “Bontanica” was rated 95.  These great wines and their rave reviews (not just the big numbers)  give the whole Oregon industry the recognition it has long sought.

2008 may be the best vintage in Oregon’s relatively brief  history, according to Wine Advocate critic Dr. Jay Miller. A good thing, too, since it comes after the problematic 2007 wines, many of which are still awaiting buyers. Vintage matters in Oregon, just as it does in Burgundy where the weather is famously variable from year to year.

I’m still concerned about the future of the region if supply and demand cannot be brought into better balance so that economically sustainable prices reappear. (Even Pine Ridge, Archery Summit’s parent, has responded to the soft market by releasing a $20 value brand called Forefront. No idea where the grapes might have come from …).

In the meantime, however, maybe it is best to simply appreciate what Nature has provided. Open up a bottle of ’08 Oregon Pinot and enjoy. Happy Thanksgiving!


Thanks to Chris Hayes for showing us around Archery Summit and helping us dig into its terroir.

6 responses

  1. I think your point about paying attention to the Willamette Valley brand is important because it is what people outside of Oregon identify with quality pinot. It’s great to make the case for sub-appellations and specific vineyards on websites where customers have time to read, but in a bricks-and-mortar retail setting, it’s just confusing. It’s one of the reasons many buyers tend to avoid French wine -it’s hard to figure out. I am a serious wine consumer who has been buying 15-20 cases a year – mostly from Washington, Oregon, Italy, Spain, Germany and South America – for probably a decade and I’m just starting to figure out French wine beyond the basics. I spent a lot of time this year studying Oregon pinot and stocking up on ’08s, but figuring out what I wanted to buy and why took time. In my opinion, the most productive activity for Oregon in terms of brand-building would be wider distribution, not continual appellation subdivision. Retail choices, even in large markets, tend to be limited. You have to shop online to get decent selection and if you live in a shipping-unfriendly state, you’re SOL.

  2. I co-hosted a winemaker dinner with Patty Green last year in Scottsdale, AZ, where we paired 5 of her vineyard designated wines with 5 different courses, including dessert. The attendees were amazed at the differences between the wines, especially considering that most of the fruit was grown within a few hundred yards of one another.

    After Patty talked about the “mix and match” nature of the soils, it started to dawn on most of the folks that “location, location, location” does matter in the process of making great wines. Of course, there are many other considerations that play into the process, but it starts with where and how the fruit is grown.

    We did make some converts that night, as the “light bulbs” came on for a number of people who got it. We must always be taking advantage of opportunities to educate the consumer, as there will be some who are then spurred to learn more.

    Yes, the French system can be confusing and 85% of the US wine-buying public could care less about sub-appellations, vineyard designates or the country of origin for the oak of the barrel. Most of our jobs as sales people (retail, winery and wholesale) is in bringing along those who want to learn more and begin their journey along the wine trail.

    Outside of Oregon, if any wine consumer knows about Oregon, they probably know that they grow some pinot noir. The details are not relevant to their lives.

    On the larger issue, the Oregon Wine Board should get its act together (now that they have finally selected a new director, although that’s a topic for another column, eh?) and make a concerted effort to market “brand Oregon” outside the home field. With its consistent pre-occupation with land use issues in the Willamette, it seems that the marketing lessons they could learn from such entities as the Washington Wine Commission have gone unheeded.

    Look to other regions for emerging markets, target them and spend some money in holistically market and promote “brand Oregon.” Use Pinot Camp (or some variant thereof) to make the progress shown by bringing key wine decision-makers to the area, and giving them the full behind-the scenes tour that will translate into them relating stories to their staffs and customers.

    • Sherman,

      Well put. Your assessment of the current hurdles that “brand Oregon” faces is spot-on.

      As is your example of Patty Green, who has consistently done an inspiring job of showcasing the differences in soil types (first) and AVA’s (a distant 2nd). She goes so far as to releases 6-packs that are based on soil types, again, not by AVA. She is also a producer who is by most accounts a ‘non-interventionist” in the cellar. The crimes against terroir are far greater in the cellar than they are in the vineyard.

      To Sherman’s greater point about “brand Oregon” and the lessons learned from the WWC, Oregon has an extreme advantage over WA in the area of agricultural sustainability. Something the consumer is interested in. It is a MASSIVE difference. Where is WA’s sustainability initiative? Oregon is YEARS ahead of them. We are the epicenter of Organics (Oregon Tilth), Biodynamics (Demeter), Sustainability (OR Cert. Sustainable), Carbon Initiatives (OEC’s Carbon Neutral Challenge), and Clean Water Initiatives (Salmon Safe). How does Oregon then communicate this market advantage. So far the OWB has failed at communicating this.

      We really don’t have varietal competition with WA, which is why the Fed’s what OR/WA to be marketed as a NW brand. But, the power centers in both wine regions balk at that idea. Too bad, because it is the quickest way to really compete with CA.

      As for the new Exec. Director, I’m not so sure. In the Oregon Wine Industry, it is not the OWB Director that has the power. I hope that she quickly learns this and has the courage to really help foster change. Her way! I’m pulling for her.

  3. Oh boy.

    The multiple AVA system in Oregon is premature. I will say that I do believe that within the Willamette Valley AVA, only two sub-AVA’s should be allowed and one new one created. The two existing are Dundee Hills and Eola-Amity. I would also include another AVA (that isn’t named) which would be comprised of the Eastside of Chehalem Mountains (where the Beran Vineyards and original Ponzi Vineyards lie). This soil is mostly Laurelwood and the wines are very special and unique, but Ken Wright doesn’t source fruit on that side of the mountain, so……

    Put simply, a wine region (WV) that is all of 45yrs old (Eyrie Vineyard) doesn’t have the viniculture history to warrant such delineations. To make matters worse, the bulk of vineyards planted in the WV are barely 20 years old. Again, hardly enough time to draw lines in the sand.

    Terroir in Oregon does exist. It doesn’t exist in the producers you site (sorry). You CANNOT showcase terroir buy containing it in 100% new oak. You CANNOT showcase terroir by using cultured yeast. You CANNOT showcase terroir by using vacuum concentrators. You CANNOT showcase terroir by fining or sterile filtering.

    With all due respect sir, these two wineries make wines that mask the terroir that they both so ardently try and sell you on.

    2007 was a classic Oregon vintage. The critics were wrong to slam it. 2008 is a very good vintage, but mark my words, the 08’s will NOT survive as long as the 07’s will….and there is the irony, these critics (because they LOVE new oak) think that these massive Oregon Pinots are going to age? Ha, not going to happen, not like the 07’s. Big wines get the big scores. I would NEVER pour an Archery Summit, Ken Wright, or Shea Vineyard wine to anyone trying to understand terroir driven Oregon Pinot Noir. Now, if they were looking for big, obnoxious, over extracted, ultra ripe, over oaked wine, I would pour your examples….but for terroir? Not a chance.

    And this is the bigger problem for brand OREGON than the AVA or terroir question, and that is that people think these high scoring wines are the best examples of what Oregon has to offer. In fact, they are the worst examples. They fit the oaking palates of Dr. Jay Miller and to a lesser extent, Mr. Steiman. This is the biggest problem and would make for a better article.

    Burgundy = Elegance
    Oregon Pinot Noir = Elegance

    The more our wines taste like high scoring California Pinot Noir the more we lose our “Oregon-ness”

    I love your blog, btw.

    I just couldn’t disagree more with your examples and argument.

  4. Interesting discussion. As you note, I was an early critic of the 6 new AVAs. The obsession with obscure soil classifications means little or nothing to consumers, and rarely if ever translates into meaningful “terroir” in the bottle. Single vineyard, single block, single clone, single altitude (why not?), single whatever wines are a marketing gimmick most of the time. They are limited in production, need not go through blending trials, and can sell out at high prices to club members and collectors. Brand Oregon is in need of a radical re-thinking. Speaking as a long time reviewer, I was one of a very few in the press to lavish praise on many 2007 releases, and I do not agree that 2008 is a superior vintage across the board. I do hope the new administration at OWB will be more press-friendly, and provide more opportunities for meaningful education about all Oregon wines. I tried for many many years to get into Pinot Camp, and was always told “No press allowed.” That is simply self-defeating if you want those of us who write and blog about Oregon to obtain a deeper understanding of all the myriad strengths its wine industry includes. I am doing an article on that subject right now, pointing out that there’s a lot more to Oregon than just WV Pinot Noir, good as it is. And maybe it is time to re-unify AVAs such as Walla Walla, where the inability of the two states’ wine marketers to work together has resulted in a situation where some of the leading “Washington” wineries are entirely located in Oregon!

  5. I’ve had some really spectacular ’07s, but the quality across the vintage seemed to be very uneven and you had to know whose recommendations to trust. The virtue of the ’08 vintage from a consumer standpoint is that the quality was good-to-excellent across the board, the alcohol levels were mostly moderate and so were the prices.

    In terms of the Oregon brand, the problem with Ken Wright and Shea Vineyard and other high-profile brands is not the taste profile (regardless of how popular it is), it’s that they are expensive. And the prevailing idea about Oregon pinot once you move out of the Pacific Northwest is that you can’t get a good one for under $30. And that’s because of limited production and retail distribution. To get more selection, you have to be willing to have wine shipped (which is how the delicious Cameron ’08 Dundee Hills was able to be served at my Thanksgiving dinner yesterday).

    I know that it’s hard for small production wineries to do broad distribution – and that it may not even make business sense to do so. But as long as there are limited selections in most markets, building the brand outside a narrow geography is going to be a tough slog.

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