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.
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!
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.