Wine Pioneers of Oregon

Oregon’s Willamette Valley

They say that when grapevines struggle, they produce the best grapes and ultimately, the most intriguing wines. But little did the pioneers of Oregon know that they too, had to strive to produce wine in Oregon’s Willamette Valley (WV).

Domaine Serene

Argyle Winery

Meet the Texan, Rollin Soles, complete with hat, handlebar moustache and accent. As the winemaker of Argyle Winery, he’s had his fair share of hardship in his early days and is more than willing to share his stories. Today his wines ranks as Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines of the world –no less than eleven times.

Rollin tells of the 1960’s when “it was a hit and miss affair then. Only in some years, did we get ripe grapes. You would think that if grapes got enough heat, just like in California they would ripen. Then we realised that WV, situated at the 45th parallel, we also have the shortest growing season because of the lack of light. Because of this light deficiency, grapevines begin shutting down for the winter really early. It took us awhile to work out that grapes planted on the south or east facing slopes ripened well. Not only that, we found that grapes also struggled to ripen at elevations above 800ft.”

Next came mouldy grapes. “We planted bush vines. In hot climates, un-trellised vines grow like a bush with leaves shielding the vines from the sun. However, in our region, the bush traps moisture and prevents air circulation. We soon wised up though and began trellising our vines so we could ‘open’ the canopy and expose our grapes to the sun, just like in Europe.”

And there’s more. “Our vines were generously spaced out. That is until Domaine Drouhin from Burgundy planted grapes in 1987. We tasted their wines and realised that close spacing of vines matched by lower yields, resulted in higher quality grapes and better wine.”

Finally I taste a product of his labour of love. Rollin pours me a 2007 Argyle Nuthouse Pinot, the culmination of many lessons learnt. The wine was an excellent Pinot, with a lingering taste of mocha, blueberry and wild berries. His white wine – a Riesling was also a delight, with lovely stone-fruit and pear aromas and a silky texture.

Fans of WV wines take note. Whilst the region is already known for its Pinot, it will be soon be admired for other cool climate wines too.

Ken Wright Cellars

In the town of Carlton, I meet another pioneer. Originally from Kentucky, Ken Wright made wine in California before he moved to Oregon in 1986 to start up Panther Creek Cellars. Ken has also the distinction of being known as ‘One of the Founding Fathers of Oregon Winemaking’. After all, he was instrumental in organizing the six new American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) in the Northern Willamette Valley. Each AVA defines in detail, a unique growing area. It wasn’t a surprise that Ken naturally gravitated to the subject of terroir in our conversation. After all, matching wine varieties to climate and soils was something that he had to deal with, through trail and error in his early days. Patiently, he introduced me to the various soils of the WV – basalt/volcanic soils that originated as lava flows; marine sediment from the way the valley was formed; loess or silt carried up by wind from the valley floor; and deposits of silt and sand.

“Consistency of grapes is now the preoccupation of many producers”, says Ken. “We found that if you control your yield, you can hasten ripening – as much as two weeks – and harvest before the rains arrive. Additionally, we want our grapes to experience the long growing season as the WV is an extremely cool area. The extended ‘hangtime’ lets grapes develop of flavour, aroma and texture. If you pick the optimal site, use the right clones and rootstocks and modify your vine spacing and trellis system for each individual vineyard site, you will be able to produce some fine wine.”

I taste two pairs of 2008 Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noirs.

From the Eola Hills AVA with volcanic soils: a Canary Hill Pinot, exposed to morning sun; showed soy, earth and mixed red fruit, vs. a ‘Carter’ Pinot, exposed to afternoon sun; that was savoury and firmer, with lots of dark fruit flavours.

From the Yamhill Carter AVA with sandstone and silt soils: an Abbott Claim Pinot was dark and had aromas of black cherries, plums and was linear and long. The Savoya Pinot (made from Savoya grapes grown at a 50 feet higher elevation than Abbot Claim) was complex with nutmegs, earth and mixed fruit.

Ken is pleased that I can appreciate the terroir differences. He parts with these words, “We may not have the scintillating acids of Burgundy but we do have better acids than most other Pinot Noir producing regions around the world. Moreover, our Pinots have a lush mid palate, vibrant fresh fruit that does not dry out. Best of all, you don’t need to wait to enjoy our Pinots even if they age well.” In the coolness of his tasting room, I drink to that.

Beaux Frères Vineyards & Winery

Next day, I am standing in front of what looks like a huge pile of dirt. To Mike Etzel it’s a two-ton compost heap and the life force of his vines. Already Etzel is scrabbling arm deep in it. He comes up with a handful of warm dark ‘earth’ and invites me to take a sniff. “Better still, stick your head in the hole,” I wonder if he’s serious. “Doesn’t it smell wonderful?” Etzel asks. Hesitantly I take in a big whiff. Certainly, the ‘earth’ has indeed some floral nuances. I run my fingers through the material and Etzel, a biodynamic practitioner, explains that his compost is made from daisies, chamomile and other plants growing in the nearby field. Here’s a man that defies convention, choosing to do things (his soils namely) the hard way.

To Etzel, all compost are not created equal. However labour intensive, he maintains different heaps for different needs. For example, one compost type is destined as a carbon source for long-term slow release in the vineyard whilst another, rich in nitrogen is used to ward off phylloxera. “See how healthy our vines look…. And oh, and you might want to wash before we go to lunch – there’s some humus somewhere in there too as this land was a pig farm previously” remarks Etzel humorously.

Mike Etzel, founded the Beaux Frères, named after himself and his famous brother-in-law Robert Parker Jr. At lunch (after a through hand wash), I compare the 2007 and the 2008 Pinot – both immensely delicious wines. The former had soft tannins, and depth of flavours with hints of chocolate and mixed red-black fruit. The latter was lighter with raspberries and minerals and with structured tannins.

Lunch with the crush crew

Etzel shares with me that each vintage is starkly different at his estate. This is because in producing wine, he believes in minimal intervention in the winery. And in the vineyard, only physiologically (rather than analytically) ripe grapes are harvested each year. As such yields are different each year, every year’s “wine is guaranteed to be the most natural and authentic vineyard expression possible”.

Some Wines Tasted


Tasting grapes at Archery Summit


The WV boasts over 200 wineries. I perhaps visited just a handful of them and found them all exceptional. The Pinot Noir certainly, and the Chardonnay was especially notable. As these producers are starting to make wines from other varietals, it will only be inevitable that wine lovers will soon enjoy some excellent Pinot Blancs, Rieslings and rosé wines from this charming part of the world.

Archery Summit

Premier Cuvée  Pinot 2007 – Bright with cherries, chocolate, jasmine and restrained tannins.

Dundee Hills Pinot 2007 – Intense perfume of red and black fruit. Big structure, layered with a long finish.

Domaine Serene

Etoile Vineyard Chardonnay 07 – Perfumed with florals, white stone fruit, pineapple, pear and almonds. Balanced, medium bodied, with chalk and tangy finish.

Evanstad Reserve Pinot Noir 06 – Plums, florals, ripe pomegranate, depth of flavour with earth cedar, medium tannins dried herbs and a broad smooth finish.

Domaine Drouhin

Arthur Chardonnay 08 – Subtle nose of pear, apple, with flavours of tea and stone fruit. Silky, light citrus finish.

Laurene Pinot Noir 07  – Floral feminine wine with lots of layers, quite different from the concentrated 06 or the masculine 05. Barrel sample.


Beacon Hill Brut Rosé 05 – Pale pink with small red fruits, ginger and spice. Refreshing.

Mineral Springs Ranch Pinot 08 – Intense with red- and dark fruit, cloves, orange peel and vanilla. Good balance, fine tannins, and a clarity of finish.


Pinot Gris 08 – Crisp with green apple and citrus fruit, dry finish.

Citation Pinot Noir 00 – Nuances of leather, animal and with structured but soft tannins, proving Pinots of the region can age well.

Tori Mor

Reserve Pinot Gris 09 – complex and layered with almonds, herbs pear and a lively tail.

“Deux Verres” Reserve  Pinot 08 – Perfumed, structured, long and warm with bright cherry flavours and good concentration.


Elk Cove

Willamette Valley Pinot 08 – Concentrated with currants, cherry and coffee with beautiful texture and adroit balance.

Elk Cove Pinot Blanc 08 – White apricots, flowers and minerals, soft acids, sweet velvety texture and lovely clean finish.