The charm of Oregon’s wines | David White

There's something special about the wines from Oregon. The state produces some of the finest Pinot Noir in world. Its Pinot Gris, which generally flies under the radar, is full of character and often offers a tremendous value. Oregon's top sparkling wines are absolutely stunning. It's a region well worth exploring.

There’s something special about the wines from Oregon.

The state produces some of the finest Pinot Noir in world. Its Pinot Gris, which generally flies under the radar, is full of character and often offers a tremendous value. Oregon’s top sparkling wines are absolutely stunning. It’s a region well worth exploring.

The modern Oregon wine industry traces its roots to the late 1960s, when a number of young idealists moved to the state.

The trailblazer was David Lett, who purchased a hillside property in the Willamette Valley in 1965, shortly after finishing the winemaking program at the University of California, Davis. Lett’s professors urged him against moving so far north, believing it would be too cold and too wet for wine grapes. But other pioneers soon followed in Lett’s footsteps, and within just a few years, they proved the naysayers wrong.

One of those pioneers was another UC-Davis graduate, Dick Erath. But most of the others — vintners like Dick and Nancy Ponzi, Bill and Susan Blosser, and David and Ginny Adelsheim — had little experience farming and knew just the basics of winemaking. The Adelsheims, for example, didn’t even plan on making wine when they purchased a 19-acre parcel in the summer of 1971. They simply wanted to move to the country, where David would build furniture and Ginny would sculpt.

All had a passion for wine and being a part of something new and would soon dedicate all their time to Oregon’s burgeoning wine industry. Their efforts quickly paid off.

In 1979, one of Lett’s wines — his Eyrie Vineyards “Reserve” — shocked the world at the Wine Olympics in Paris, where it placed first among Pinot Noirs. Legendary French winemaker Robert Drouhin called for a rematch, and the very next year in Burgundy, Lett’s Pinot Noir would place second against an all-star lineup of Drouhin’s wines.

Fast-forward to today, and Oregon is regularly producing wines that can compete with the best in the world. And even though the industry has grown dramatically over the past 40 years — there are now nearly 400 wineries — Oregon’s winemakers still see themselves as part of something new, making wine together on the edge of viticulture.

Indeed, it’s a struggle to get Oregon’s winemakers to talk about their own wines. Every vintner I’ve met is more interested in promoting the industry as a whole than talking about himself.

While it’s difficult to generalize, Oregon Pinot Noirs are typically more feminine than their California counterparts — marked by aromas of wild raspberries and strawberries rather than candied cherries and blackberries. If California’s Pinot Noirs are bold and easy to enjoy, Oregon’s are delicate and demand contemplation.

While Oregon Pinot Noir tends to be pricey, there are a number of great examples for less than $25. The Willamette Valley bottlings from Ponzi, Adelsheim, and Rex Hill are wonderfully balanced, with delicate aromas of red fruits, flowers, and slate.

Oregon winemakers love talking about Pinot Noir, but their Pinot Gris can be just as seductive. The best ones are marked by exotic tropical fruit and are simultaneously creamy and crisp. The Willamette Valley bottlings from Adelsheim and Chehalem are incredibly vibrant and widely available for less than $20.

When it comes to sparkling wines, one could argue that America’s best examples come from Oregon — thanks entirely to the efforts of Rollin Soles of Argyle Winery.

Like so many other winemakers, Soles studied enology at UC-Davis. But when he finished his degree, he held off on launching his own project — instead gaining hands-on experience at wineries across the world. Once he moved to the Willamette Valley in the mid-1980s, Soles set out to make sparkling wines — believing that the climate was perfect for such an effort, as the grapes would retain high acidity while fully ripe.

History has proven Soles right — he consistently produces sparklers that are praised by critics and consumers alike. Argyle’s sparklers range in price from $25 to $60, and they can easily compete with French Champagnes that cost two to three times as much.

David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of His columns are housed at, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.


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