Dick Erath: An Oregon Wine Pioneer
Dick Erath is renowned as one of Oregon’s wine pioneers. He built on David Lett’s momentum and propelled the state’s wine industry to new heights. Born in 1935, Richard “Dick” Charles Erath grew up in Oakland. In 1948, Dick Erath enrolled in Oakland Junior College. He joined the United States naval reserve, where he trained as an electronic technician.
As an engineer turned winemaker, Erath became interested in wines following a “successful” garage experiment. He knew about fermentation from his college days while working at a brewery, as well as bits of information he gathered from Julius Fessler (the man who started Berkeley Yeast Lab — which was changed to Scott Laboratories).
Finding His Footing
Berkeley Yeast Lab supplied the winery where he worked with yeast and did any testing the winery needed. This experience sparked Dick Erath’s passion and led to his successful creation of a barrel of wine in 1965. Besides his father’s skills in making wine barrels and the occasional wine drinking during holidays and Thanksgiving, there is no history of wine in the family.
After taking classes meant for people interested in wine at the University of California, Davis, in 1967, Erath made his way to Chehalem Mountains. Upon his arrival, he settled in an unheated cabin sitting on 49 acres of land — this former logger’s house served as a home and makeshift winery for a couple of years. This estate became home to the Erath Winery in Oregon. In 1969, Dick Erath planted his first grapes, 23 varieties of Pinot Noir, in his Dundee vineyard. The grapes ended up growing well and even flourishing.
By 1972, The David Erath Winery was already considered a top winery in Oregon— making it the first of its kind in Dundee Hills. The winery churned out over 200 cases of wine in its first vintage and, since then, has expanded exponentially. As part of its growth and expansion phase, Erath looked in the direction of varietals. He began exploring non-Califonia clones and started looking towards French clones in 1974.
The quick success of his world-class wines, including Erath’s 1982 Pinot Noir Vintage, paved the way for other winemakers coming into the region to build successful brands based on set precedences and standards. By 2006, Dick Erath had expanded his estate to include seven wineries, and annual production hit 70,000 cases.
Did you know? In his famous March 4, 1999 interview with Clark Hansen, Dick Erath described the commercial wine industry in Oregon as almost non-existent.
According to accounts from the interview, Erath mentioned that winemakers (in the 1970s), including himself, struggled to get their wines the attention they deserved — fruit and berry wines were the common sights in most stores. However, thanks to the persistence of winemakers and their passion for Oregon wines, the industry is now a success. Oregon wines are now featured in elite wine tastings and winning international competitions.
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates took over the Erath winery in 2006. Their single-vineyard Pinot Noir has scored over 90 points in ratings by top industry publications. The Erath Pinot garnered 90+ points ratings in 2010 and 2012.
On this day in history
April 23, 1809 — American horticulturist Henderson William Luelling was born on this day. He was the first to plant grapes in Oregon in 1847.
March 12, 1819 — Meteorologist, American pioneer photographer, portrait painter, and renowned horticulturist Peter Britt was born on this day. He was one of Oregon’s settlers early settlers in Rogue Valley. He established the first winery in Oregon— Valley View Vineyard. Besides selling wine in Jacksonville, Britt grew grapes and semi-tropical plants like Smyrna figs, palm trees, Japanese persimmons, and Abyssinian banana trees.
Want to read more? Try these books!
- “The Story Of Erath | Erath Winery Oregon.” 2022. Erath.Com. https://www.erath.com/winery/storyoferath.
- “Oral History Interview With Richard (Dick) Erath.” 2022. Oregonhistoryproject.Org. https://www.oregonhistoryproject.org/articles/oral-history-interview-with-richard-dick-erath/#.Ynj_HZBlAu8.
- Team, Oregon, and Oregon Team. 2022. “Oregon Business – In Character: Profile Of Erath Vineyards' Founder, Dick Erath”. Oregonbusiness.Com. https://www.oregonbusiness.com/article/archives/item/4936-in-character-profile-of-erath-vineyards-founder-dick-erath.
- Photo: Belgard, T. (2022). Pioneering the Willamette Valley. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from https://www.oregonwinepress.com/pub/photo/PioneeringtheWillametteValley_Erath.jpg