Oregon stormed the wine world’s elite ranks in 1979, when The Eyrie Vineyards’ 1975 South Block pinot noir beat out all the French Burgundies in a blind tasting at the Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades in Paris.
The late David Lett, who founded The Eyrie Vineyards in Dundee, and other Oregon wine pioneers recognized that the state not only sits at the same latitude and shares climatic similarities with some of Europe’s premier wine regions, but has its own unique microclimates, soils, and other growing conditions—terroir—suited to producing world-class wines of complex flavor and aroma.
In the years since the international wine community first sampled Oregon’s potential for greatness, ever more innovative winemakers and determined farmers have toiled to cultivate a thriving wine industry in the state. Despite daunting competition from more well-established wine regions, periodic cool and wet growing seasons that hamper grape maturation and cause mildew problems, and other obstacles, wine has grown into a vital Oregon business.
Today the industry includes about 450 wineries and employs about 13,500 people in related jobs in the state, according to the Oregon Wine Board. Some 850 Oregon estate and commercial vineyards (the former have attached winery operations, while the latter strictly grow and sell wine grapes) produced a record 41,500 tons of fruit in 2011. And a whopping $2.7 billion in annual impact on the state’s economy can be directly or indirectly linked to wine, according to a 2011 report by Berkeley, California–based Full Glass Research.
What’s more, Oregon vintages consistently earn glowing reviews on par with those from the world’s most well-known wine regions. Last year, Wine Spectator magazine rated more Oregon wines at 90 points or higher on its 100-point scale than it did those from California, Italy, France, or Australia.
Each of these facts is a meaningful arrow in the marketing quiver of Tom Danowski ’83, a brand-management expert who became executive director of the Oregon Wine Board in December 2011. Danowski, who earned his undergraduate degree in advertising from the UO journalism school, served in marketing and management roles for the likes of Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Seattle’s Best Coffee, and Chateau Ste. Michelle—the Northwest’s largest wine producer—before taking on the task of extending Oregon wine’s reach.
“An exceptional opportunity lies in front of the Oregon wine business for a couple of reasons,” says Danowski, who occasionally lectures on brand management and business strategy at the UO’s Charles H. Lundquist College of Business.
One of those reasons is that “Oregon wines being made right now are some of the best wines ever made,” a heady claim Danowski says is validated by those Wine Spectator ratings—“a very important quality marker.”
The pace at which Oregon wines have earned that distinction has accelerated in the past decade. Danowski notes that fewer than eighty Oregon wines had received the 90-plus marks by 2001; by 2011, the number had more than tripled, to 272.
Danowski says another reason to be optimistic about further growth for Oregon’s wine industry is the high regard it already enjoys among wine and cuisine insiders.
“It is known very favorably by many inside the industry,” Danowski says. “That is a huge benefit, but we have a chance to build greater awareness within that community.”
With the overarching goal of boosting national and international sales, one of Danowski’s priorities at the Oregon Wine Board is reaching out to wine and food media members, tourism professionals, restaurateurs and chefs, and others in the wine distribution chain. He and his staff work with winemakers and grape growers throughout the state’s sixteen American viticultural areas (AVAs) to host tours that allow wine-industry influencers from around the world to “kick the dirt in our vineyards” and drink in the complete Oregon wine experience.
As for those who buy wine in the restaurant and retail marketplaces of the world, Danowski says there is an emerging level of recognition for Oregon wine but little awareness of its consistently high quality ratings.
“One of the first things the wine consumer considers is the quality and esteem of the winegrowing region,” he says. “So it’s hugely important for us to continue to advocate the quality of Oregon wines and establish an esteemed brand for the entire region.”
Danowski sees his role, and the mission of the Oregon Wine Board, as “breaking the trail” for the industry and making it easy for individual wineries to follow up with their own brand-oriented marketing efforts.
While much of Oregon’s existing wine cachet is built upon the success winemakers here have had with pinot noir, Danowski says that image is evolving.
“Pinot noir makes up almost 60 percent of our crop, and right behind that comes pinot gris,” Danowski says. He lauds King Estate, the state’s largest winery, for establishing that white varietal as another signature Oregon product.
In third place, and growing rapidly in acreage planted, is Chardonnay. Danowski says cooler-climate Oregon Chardonnays tend to contain more fruit acids, and thus offer more crispness, broader food-pairing possibilities, and sometimes greater “ageability” than their more-famous California counterparts.
“Pinot noir usually starts the Oregon wine conversation,” Danowski allows, “but now it’s also an invitation to broaden that conversation to include two important white wines. It makes you look more serious as a wine region when you can add two or three world-class varietals.”
With international business accounting for less than 10 percent of Oregon wine sales, global markets present vast potential. Danowski mentions Tokyo, London, and Vancouver, BC—centers of cuisine and commerce with high levels of discretionary income—as prime targets for industry outreach.
While the world’s wine illuminati might be delighted by their first taste of the next great Oregon vintage, they shouldn’t be surprised.
The secret, after all, was uncorked more than thirty years ago. And all signs suggest that Oregon’s wine industry is improving considerably with age.
—By Joel Gorthy '98
Raptors on Guard
On a warm afternoon at King Estate Winery twenty miles southwest of Eugene, a black-shouldered kite glides over acres of pinot noir grapes in search of gophers. A kestrel hovers, then darts down to earth, rising back up with a mouse in its talons.
“Ground squirrels are a problem for us,” says King Estate gardener Jessie Russell, striding through an oak grove and pausing at the vineyard. “Voles girdle a plant. Gophers are the biggest fiend—they eat the roots.”
Unchecked, rodents can decimate a vineyard, but using poisons to address the problem can compromise the quality of soil and wine. To help ward off devastation to King Estate’s 430,000 vulnerable vines, founder Ed King III ’82 has introduced raptors to control pests on 1,033 acres of hills and wetlands.
Birds of prey are expert hunters, snatching up their targets without disturbing vines. And they’re voracious: two barn owls can eat more than 1,000 rodents annually. Harnessing this natural prowess, the staff at King Estate has partnered since 2008 with Eugene’s Cascades Raptor Center to introduce owls, kestrels, and red-tailed hawks as an alternative to rodenticides. On still mornings, vigilant hawks scan the scene from perches on the propellers of tall wind machines used to protect the vines from frost.
Many relationships go into a bottle of wine: grapes and yeast, winery and raptor center, vine keepers and sharp-eyed hawks that glide above the rows and rows of fruit.
—By Melissa Hart