Oregon’s wine industry has passed a milestone recently, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first planting of Pinot Noir vines in Corvallis in the Willamette Valley.
Fifty years is a blip on viticulture’s time line, spanning about five thousand years. But things move fast when the public catches on. When I conceived this book in 2012, there were 458 wineries in Oregon; there are now well over 700.
When I first visited Oregon in 1984, not only were there just a handful of local wine known brands, that year also marked the state’s first approved American Viticultural Area (AVA). Now eighteen AVAs cover Oregon. What does this mean?
Well, as my opening story relates, timing is all, and the time to know and love Oregon wine is now. Unlike France and Italy, Oregon had Lewis and Clark rather than Roman legions and, later, industrious monks who found, exploited and cultivated grapes.
Oregon nonetheless had a commercial winery at about the time it joined the Union in 1859 at Jacksonville. It’s likely that some varietals were planted when President Polk was scheming to obtain the Northwest for the Union. California’s Franciscan monks worked up the coast from the mid-eighteenth century, giving their wines a significant head start. By contrast, in Washington State, the first vines were planted in 1951, when the New York Giants won the pennant on a home run off the bat of Bobby Thomson.
All this is to say Oregon is, comparatively speaking, a young pup in a procession that really started about five thousand years ago.
Oregonians were always a bit eccentric and ornery. The wine trade here emerged by fits and starts, and the state was dry even prior to the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment, which intended to curb Americans’ drinking habits only to fund organized crime, breed corruption and cynicism, and waste many citizens’ goodwill.
Oregon did produce tons of fruit, like berries, cherries, and plums, in addition to apples; it leads the nation in hazelnuts. So, the locals made fruit wine and spirits. At the moment Prohibition bit the dust, Oregon entered a fruit wine boom, and one company, Honeywood, was positioned from the first day of 1934 to produce and sell wines made from fruit. They still do.
But social customs don’t always conform to the freedom of the marketplace. Furthermore, the prevailing wisdom among wine experts was that Oregon was not ready for prime time concerning wine. As he notes in my book, wine pioneer David Adelsheim pointed out with forefinger and thumb that America “came this close to having no wine culture at all.” Two world wars, one big Depression, and haughty nativists with little joie de vivre impeded general interest in wine and its traditions.
What makes the stories narrated in my book, in particular my own evolving taste memory, so compelling is that the industry has become economically important and a large contributor to the quality of life in the state.
And with success come the wannabe lifestyle acquisitors who pose as much a threat to the future of Oregon wine as once did federal tax agents and temperance fanatics or aphids or other natural upheavals.
Oregon is still pastoral and supports biodynamics in its agriculture and innovation in its wineries. In some respects, the pioneer spirit of the original Oregon Trail survives. Keeping this legacy intact is our mutual responsibility and, indeed, a continuing source of natural wonder.
Readers will not only revisit the rituals of wine tasting but also learn the story of how, in less than forty years, a handful of winemakers followed their instincts, and so grew an uncontested serious wine region today. So, I argue, the recurring miracle of this most prolific and often stubborn fruit, Vitis vinifera, raises a curtain on the recent past as it celebrates this unique moment in time.
Decoding the Grape will not mystify readers with oen-speak. It will provide a candid, often risible account of how a group of inventive nonconformists conjured an extensive wine culture and important commercial ecosystem out of a potential waiting for determination and vision.
This book is meant to travel into the wine country and, even better, to serve as a coaster for your wine glass. It’s a boon companion for people who love, or want to love wine. Can we find any other agricultural output that can fill a book with entertaining and agreeable tales? Sorgum? Soybeans? You be the judge. After all, it’s about your taste memory. Written by Kenneth Friedenreich