Oregon's Wine Pioneers

The great migration north

1967 David Lett & vinesHad Oregon's early wine pioneers listened to the "experts," Oregon would not have a wine industry today. But that's what makes Oregonians special. They are part dreamers and part determined trail blazers, unconcerned about what the critics said couldn't be done. This has been the history of the Oregon wine industry, characterized by an often-irrational determination to prove the skeptics wrong and do the "impossible."

In 1961, winemaker Richard Sommer ignored whispers of discouragement from his University of California at Davis cohorts and trudged north to the Umpqua Valley to plant his roots-more specifically, to plant Riesling and small amounts of other varieties. Soon after his successful establishment of Hillcrest Vineyards near the Southern Oregon town of Roseburg, other winemakers migrated to this warm, dry growing region and, in 1969, the Oregon Winegrowers Association was founded nearby.

Farther North in the Willamette Valley, three other UC Davis refugees also ignored the grumblings of their naysaying colleagues and trekked to the Willamette Valley. Here they believed they could successfully grow high-quality cool-climate varieties.

Between 1965 and 1968, David Lett, Charles Coury, and Dick Erath and their families ventured north and established vineyards in the North Willamette Valley. They were the first in the Willamette Valley to plant Pinot noir. They also planted small amounts of related varieties, including Pinot gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling.

Belief in terroir

These modern wine pioneers truly believed that Oregon would one day become an important wine-growing region. Other believers were not far behind. Within the next decade, David and Ginny Adelsheim, Ronald and Marjorie Vuylsteke, Richard and Nancy Ponzi, Joe and Pat Campbell, Cal and Julia Lee Knudsen, and Susan and Bill Sokol Blosser all planted roots in the North Willamette Valley.

1969 Nancy & Dick Ponzi w tractor

These families were hard workers. Each held other jobs-teacher, doctor, salesperson-to support their winemaking endeavors. And they toiled in a collaborative spirit, sharing advice, humor and encouragement, as they began writing history by producing superior wines in Oregon. Though, it wasn't until David Lett entered his Oregon Pinot noir in the 1979 Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades and won top Pinot noir honors against France's best labels that the world started to take notice of Oregon as a serious winemaking region.

In just 50 years Oregon has evolved into a world-class wine growing region with 18 approved winegrowing regions, and more than 600 wineries producing wine from 72 grape varieties. As a wine region Oregon will continue to grow and evolve, but Oregon will always be a place where small, handcrafted wines dominate, where collaboration and community are ingrained in the culture. And where the growers and winemakers are never far away from the tasting room.

In May of 2012,  Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) honored the Oregon Wine Pioneers with an episode of its show, Oregon Experience, entitled Oregon Wine: Grapes of Place. Below is an excerpt from that episode. The full episode can be viewed and purchased on OPB's website. 

Watch Oregon Wine: Grapes of Place on PBS. See more from Oregon Experience.

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