Oregon, the newly crowned darling of the wine world, humbly accepts its quiet fame with earthy gracefulness. The people who work the land are friendly and approachable, strongly contrasting with the flashy, Vegas-like Napa Valley. The climate, similar to France’s Burgundy — where pinot noir is raised and worshipped like Buddha — attracted many starry-eyed, wine-loving young families in the 1960s and ’70s, when Oregon’s wine scene began to sprout. Names like Ponzi, Erath, Adelsheim and Blosser felt the potential of the cool nights and mild days — the perfect womb for picky pinot noir. These wine lovers weathered many lean years before America, and the world, finally took notice of their incredible wines.
These early founders — although “founder” might be pushing it, since Oregon soil grew grapes as far back as 1825 — didn’t just stop with growing grapes, they turned activist to ensure Oregon wines didn’t die like a bug flicked off a shoulder. In 1972, they successfully lobbied to pass a land-use bill that declared hillside plots previously zoned for “view property” as agricultural land. This protected the rich land from developers and encouraged future wine-making growth.
Then something really cool happened. A series of international highbrow wine competitions in the late ’70s and early ’80s pitted the best Burgundies against the stars of Oregon. In a particularly humiliating kick in the balls, a 1975 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir from Oregon came in second behind Joseph Drouhin’s prestigious 1959 Chambolle Musigny, but ahead of countless French labels. Definitely a bragging rights moment that opened eyes all over the wine world.
In addition to producing great wines, Oregon also subscribes to organic techniques in the vineyards. For decades, they’ve avoided pesticides, herbicides and fungicides (they do use sulfur, but this is accepted organic practice). In the ’90s, winegrowers established the non-profit Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) organization that set standards for biodynamic and sustainable farming techniques within Oregon. Sixty wineries are LIVE certified, and in 2001 the organization became certified by the International Office of Biological Control.
But Oregon isn’t just about pinot noir. Another popular grape in Oregon is the white kin to pinot noir — pinot gris. Also called pinot grigio in Italy and Tokay in Germany, this grape embodies the supple side of the family. The word “gris” translates to “gray,” after the grape’s unusually dark skin. Domestically, Oregon dominates the tart, fantastically fragrant pinot gris. Loaded with peaches, apples and honey, one whiff and you’re hooked.
Oregon isn’t perfect, though. All the added quality standards can mean hefty prices. But pitted against more expensive Napa and Sonoma pinots, you might be surprised in the high quality-to-price ratio. Some of my favorite wines in the world are produced in Oregon. The proof is in the glass.
Cristom 2002 Pinot Noir Reserve Wow … elegance embodied. Vibrant cherry, lush raspberry and an earthy, mushroom-y finish. Layers upon layers of flavor that give ’til it feels so good. Sweetness = 2. $32. 4.5 stars
Sokol Blosser Meditrina II Fresh, fun and juicy, but with enough guts to stand up and holla. Loaded with bright cherry, tart cranberry as well as rugged leather and dark chocolate. Sw = 2. $18. 4 stars
A to Z 2004 Pinot Gris Oregon Full-bodied and gushing with Red Delicious apples. Sports a nice crisp finish. Sw = 3. $14. 4 stars
Willakenzie 2004 Pinot Gris Willamette Valley Aromatic with ripe peaches and flowers. The tongue tastes grapefruit, honey and a mild nuttiness. Yum. Sw = 3. $17. 4 stars
Rex Hill 2003 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Black cherry and dirty earth with a dash of black pepper. Enough oomph to please any syrah lover. Sw = 2. $16. 3.5 stars
Ponzi 2003 Pinot Noir Soft and elegant, like a velvet glove for the mouth. Bright cherry and balanced acids make this is a great food wine. Sw = 2. $32. 3.5 stars
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.