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Decoding the Grape: Oregon Wines, California Natives

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 9

By Ken Friedenreich

A few weeks ago Charles Humble, who is the chief spokesperson for the Oregon Wine Board, shared a splendid 1999 Raptor Ridge single vineyard Pinot Noir with me as we talked about dif-ferences between California and Oregon wine country. He asserts that Oregon wine making has a long history, but its spirit is young and still evolving. “California has its industry base more estab-lished. We like being upstarts.”

I haven’t trod through many wine lists in the Long Beach area, but one thing is sure: few well-known local eateries have Oregon wines represented. The King Brothers’ Pine Avenue seafood place has one Erath Pinot Noir on its list; John Bloeser’s Fish Tale has some northwest wines represented on the list from the Columbia Valley, but no Oregon whites. Too much good wine com-petes for space on local wine lists, and California with good reason dominates.

Californians liked their spirits and wine; German and Italian immigrants brought their historical preferences for wine over the mountains and across the vast continental expanses so that now in the world’s third largest wine producing nation, California is the Godzilla of the wine industry with almost as many American Viticultural Area designations (AVAs) than Kim Kardashian has wardrobe changes.

By contrast Oregon has 17 AVAs and one is not even two months old. Indeed, as Napa Valley and Sonoma’s riverside vines and lovely vales were taking on the traditional markets of Europe, Oregon did not even have an AVA until 1984 when it got three — Southern Oregon, Umpqua and Willamette. Talk about working from the back end of the alphabet!

If readers know something of Oregon wine, it’s likely someone brought them a bottle of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir over for a cookout. The wines use two of the most prestigious and popular varietals grown anywhere, including California. The typical style of wines made by Californians is BIG, like the state. This can come as a shock to those who know great wines from Burgundy. The California trademark Chardonnay has lots of color, butter, oak and vanilla. They can be beautiful or overbearing. Pinot Noir, a more finicky grape, has a California style, too, with wonderful notes of black cherry and currants, and usually some generous oak as well. Ascuncion from the Central Coast is fine example as is Acacia or Road 31 from Carneros, where Napa and Sonoma converge at the top of San Francisco Bay.

Now look at the Oregon wines made from the same grapes. Chardonnay is sturdy enough to grow in the warm and dry Southern AVA, which in a Chinese puzzle manner includes all of Um-pqua and four other sub-AVAs. But it is Willamette that the Chardonnay takes on a style more reserved than brash, often with more lemon grass or citrus than honeyed gold. A Cerulean label Chardonnay aged in some years in stainless tanks—zero oak—grow up to be clean and lean. It comes from another AVA, the Columbia Gorge which attracts wind surfers as well as wine surfers.

The Oregon Pinot Noir is a cash crop. It was first planted in the state a mere 50 years ago against the advice of practically everyone at UC Davis, who said Oregon was too weird and wet to make decent wine other than German style Rieslings.

But the Pinot Noir, such as Arterberry Maresh, Elk Cove, Ghost Hill, Groschau, Patton Valley, or Willakenzie to name some—are quite unlike the fine wine made of the same varietal found in the wide expanse of California. They strike me as very bright on the nose, with cherry and at times a little chocolate, with a nice presence of oak that doesn’t overpower everything else in the glass. They have structure whereas California counterparts rely at times on special effects.

Sometimes the growing season is short so the wine grapes get a little less sugar and come out a bit pinched. Acceptable, but very different from warmer, longer growing seasons like 1999 or 2006 which are more balanced and vigorous. The winemakers can pretty much handle the pitch Mother Nature tosses, whether a heater or a spitter.

I think the California winemakers of renown have a fine sense of their potential for any vintage. This is also true in Oregon, with its goulash of soil types and micro-climates, but the narrative is still being written. Surely, part of the fun is being around, glass in hand, waiting to see how the story unfolds.