The origin of this book dates to 1984. Ironically, that year was a “harvest from hell” in the Willamette Valley, and few winemakers or consumers in Oregon have not repressed their recall of that time.
The years prior and following, on the other hand, were very good for Oregon wine, as much as was available. The industry was tiny: labels like Bon Merde and Henry’s Rhubarb Wine flew under the radar of regulations. If California vintners were styling, Oregon winemakers were feisty and a bit scruffy.
In the dog year of ’84 I visited Portland for the first time as a corporate consultant and trainer in the radiology field. On my bucket list was a meal at Jake’s Famous Crawfish, located on the corner of Stark and SW Twelfth Avenue, a landmark place that had operated since 1907. When I wanted some wine to accompany my salmon on a plank, the server sent me the wine steward. Well, in a universe of correspondences, this wine guy turned out to be a party to this book more than thirty years later, after I finally told the Doc Wilson story in the Oregon Wine Press in December 2014 (See Appendix A). So now we’re here.
I guess I’m a slow learner; life conspired to bring me to Oregon.
In the time after my first visit to the Rose City, I drank in more of the Oregon wine culture thanks to my proximity to both the restaurant industry and the media as a writer and producer. One incredible afternoon, a contigu to the plaza before the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, I waded through scads of wonderful Oregon wine. Then, too, my friend John Ortega, a hospitable high roller, introduced me to some favorite Pinot Noir from the Pacific Northwest, especially from Ponzi Vineyards and WillaKenzie Estate. (Alas, this latter property has been digested by the California gold of Kendall-Jackson. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the wine won’t be the same.)
I enjoyed wines that expressed attributes other than California bigness and duly took note, far more as consumer than wine writer, though I qualified on both counts. The wines were a bit hard to track; for thirty-four years I lived in Orange County, home to Disneyland and shopping malls—if not the happiest place on earth, nonetheless a fast-paced diverse community. I was happily, for many of those years, inundated by California wines. California remains the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the domestic wine trade. Thus it remains no anomaly that even at this writing many people are surprised to discover wines actually also originate in forty-nine other states and many more postal codes. In 2013 as I stood in a Beverly Hills checkout line holding a bottle of Willamette Valley Chardonnay, the woman behind me was astonished to discover that this grape wasn’t grown only in California. This moment is one in a chain of experiences big and small that led to this book.
From the outset, place and timing matter. Oregon is currently fourth in America for wine production, trailing California, Washington, and New York while leading Texas and the other forty-five. When I started writing in 2012–13, the state already claimed over 450 wine properties. Now it has more than seven hundred. This book accounts in its own quirky way for how this growth goes on. And here is the tail to wag the dog: I write the story of my own learning about Oregon wine as the means to celebrate the stories told to me by winemakers and, by inference, the wines they make.
When in his “Pour” column for July 14, 2017 NY Times, Eric Asimov claimed that Oregon was the most exciting wine territory on Planet Earth at this time, he missed one detail that even makes his assessment more remarkable. Of the top five domestic producer states, Oregon is barely one-tenth the size of California, about one-eighth that of Texas, one-seventh of New York State, and about half as populous as Washington state. This suggests that many people living about the nation and in Oregon itself remain blinkered about Oregon wine as agricultural product or its significance to the state’s perception of itself. What is more troubling is the way successful winemaking has attracted big money from outside with attitudes resting on bragging rights and celebrity rather than what actually comes out the land and wineries by those who make them. Time, not money, is the serpent in the wine industry here.
Having thus fought far above its weight as a viticultural champ relative to size, we must wonder whether Oregon will retain the stamina and independence that makes its wines so compelling. As the generations succeed in the vineyard, the two minute bell is about to sound.
This is a memoir, a panegyric to drink as commercial and social ecology, laden with some lore, and describing transitions from modern founders to their heirs and successors.
The book is more meditation than buying guide, more observation than how-to, but these elements are necessary as they are both useful reminders and fun to write about.
Throughout I have monitored the balance of entertaining narratives with the how-to practices in developing one’s taste memory so that wine and place reinforce each other. Largely brief chapters allow readers to use the book for learnable steps as well as good tales. It is a book you can carry with you into Oregon wine lands, emulating the fine sensibilities of Lewis and Clark as they trod West to the mouth of the Columbia River. It’s still a thrilling journey of discovery.
I consider what comes in the following pages a snapshot of Oregon’s wine industry as it appears between penning my narrative and its publication. I recall an episode in Joeseph Kamon’s Leaving Berlin, as the hero sorts out contact sheets of a photographer who was gunned down. Outside the cropped images, more is revealed than what one sees before one’s eyes. This also holds true in film or television production. The most accurate rendering is always part illusory and incomplete. So, I wager my take on Oregon wines reveals more by what sits just outside the frame. In appreciating wines, much of the good stuff is also just beyond what you think you know.
If by the close you have not poured yourself a glass of wine in a nice stem, it is not my fault. Read the book again.
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