The Willamette Valley Wine Region

The Willamette Valley wine region, located in Northwest Oregon, is home to twelve American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), including its own. In terms of vineyard area, it consists of over 2,600 acres of vines and is second only to the Walla Walla Valley in Southeastern Washington. The history of the Willamette Valley has been being written since the 1960s and, today, the region produces more than six million cases per year. Here is everything you need to know about one of Oregon’s best-known wine regions, the Willamette Valley!

The Scene in Willamette Valley

Oregon’s Willamette Valley has quickly become known for Pinot Noir, but it also home to numerous other grape varieties. The Willamette Valley has been dubbed the “Burgundy of the New World” because of its striking resemblance to the famed French wine region. The Willamette Valley is ideal for cultivating Burgundy grape varieties, including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Did You Know: The Willamette Valley holds two-thirds of Oregon’s wineries and vineyards and is home to more than 700 wineries.

The valley’s varied topography, outstanding soils, and mild climate provide a perfect habitat for growing grapes. The local winemakers are placing the valley on the map with their rare and beautiful wines.

The industry is cooperative and down-to-earth, as if you were engaging with your neighbors instead of huge businesses.

History of Willamette Valley

Prior to the production of wine, the Willamette Valley was renowned for its timber. Farmers farmed various crops, including berries, Christmas trees, and hazelnuts

The wine industry began to flourish commercially in the 1960s. David Lett (nicknamed “Papa Pinot”) spent his honeymoon in 1965 in the valley’s heart, working on what would become The Eyrie Vineyards.

The first days resembled the Wild West. Although many winemakers were trained at UC Davis, they disregarded scientific advice and moved their wineries north.

See also: History of Willamette Valley Timeline

Early winemakers had to deal with pests that ate the grapes along with Oregon’s famous rain, which caused mildew in the vineyard. But over time they improved their techniques and wines.

In 1976, Eyrie Pinot Noir was judged against some of the most renowned Old World brands in the Wine Olympics, a very popular tasting.

Joseph Drouhin, a well-known Burgundian, bought everything the valley had to offer. He put his money in a famous estate in the Dundee Hills, which was not far from where Eyrie’s first vines were planted. During the 1980s and 1990s, wineries such as Ken Wright, Archery Summit, Domaine Serene, and Beaux Frères gained recognition for their wines.

In the Willamette Valley a burgeoning wine culture had identified the optimal spot for the fussy Pinot Noir grapes. The region’s remarkable vintages have garnered critical praise and many fans worldwide.

History of Willamette Valley

What is the Climate in Willamette Valley?

The Willamette Valley wine region is generally cooler and wetter than other wine-growing regions in the United States, and it is known for its long, cool growing season. Average temperatures in the region range from about 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to around 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. The growing season in the region typically lasts from April to October, with the peak of the harvest occurring in September and October.

Rainfall in the Willamette Valley wine region is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, with an average of about 35 inches per year. The region is generally humid, with relative humidity averaging around 75% throughout the year.

The climate of the Willamette Valley wine region is well-suited to the production of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, which are the dominant grape varieties grown in the region.

The First Willamette Wineries

There are several wineries in the Willamette Valley region of Oregon that have a long history of wine production. Some of the oldest Willamette Valley wineries include:

  • Eyrie Vineyards: Established in 1966 by David Lett, Eyrie Vineyards is one of the oldest wineries in the Willamette Valley.

  • Adelsheim Vineyard: Founded in 1971 by David Adelsheim, Adelsheim Vineyard is one of the oldest wineries in the Willamette Valley.

  • Erath Winery: Founded in 1972 by Dick Erath, Erath Winery is a well-established winery in the Willamette Valley that has been producing high-quality wines for decades.
  • Bethel Heights Vineyard: Founded in 1977 by Terry Casteel and Pat Dudley, Bethel Heights Vineyard is another one of the oldest wineries in the region.

  • Ponzi Vineyards: Founded in 1970 by Dick and Nancy Ponzi, Ponzi Vineyards is one of the pioneers of the Willamette Valley wine industry.

  • Sokol Blosser Winery: Established in 1971 by Susan Sokol Blosser and Bill Blosser, Sokol Blosser Winery is another one of the oldest wineries in the Willamette Valley.

  • Elk Cove Vineyards (1974)

These are just a few examples, and there are many other wineries that factor in the history of Willamette Valley.

Erath Wine History, Willamette Valley

At top, the former Prince Hill Vineyard and home owned by Dick Erath (Now owned by Silver Oak / Twomey)

Mid-Guard Wineries

There are several wineries in the Willamette Valley region of Oregon that were founded in the 1980s and 1990s. Some examples include:

  • Archery Summit: Founded in 1993 by Gary Andrus, Archery Summit is a relatively newer winery compared to some of the others on this list, but it has quickly become one of the most respected wineries in the region.

  • Penner-Ash Wine Cellars: Founded in 1998 by Lynn Penner-Ash and Ron Penner-Ash, Penner-Ash Wine Cellars is a well-known winery in the Willamette Valley.

  • Domaine Serene: Founded in 1989 by Ken and Grace Evenstad, Domaine Serene is a highly regarded winery in the region known for producing high-quality Pinot Noir.

  • Stoller Family Estate: Founded in 2003 by Bill Stoller, Stoller Family Estate is a newer winery in the region, but it has quickly gained a reputation for producing top-quality wines.

  • Patricia Green Cellars: Founded in 1999 by Patricia Green and Jim Anderson, Patricia Green Cellars is a small, family-owned winery that focuses on producing high-quality Pinot Noir.

  • Domaine Drouhin Oregon: Established in 1988 by Véronique Drouhin, Domaine Drouhin Oregon is a winery that produces a range of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris wines.

  • Cristom Vineyards: Founded in 1992 by Paul Gerrie and Steve Doerner, Cristom Vineyards is a winery that focuses on producing single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

  • Chehalem: Founded in 1982 by Harry and Nancy Peterson, Chehalem is a family-owned winery that produces a range of high-quality wines from the Willamette Valley.

  • Argyle Winery: Founded in 1987 by Rollin Soles, Argyle Winery is known for its sparkling wine production.

  • St. Innocent Winery: Founded in 1988 by Mark Vlossak, St. Innocent Winery is known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.

Newer Wineries in the Willamette Valley

  • Division Winemaking Company: Founded in 2010 by Thomas Monroe and Kate Norris, Division Winemaking Company is known for its unique and terroir-driven wines.

  • Great Northern Wine Co.: Founded in 2016 by Dave Petterson and Liz Armstrong, Great Northern Wine Co. is a small winery focused on producing wines from cool-climate grapes.

  • Helioterra Wines: Founded in 2013 by Eric Nelson and Anna Matzinger, Helioterra Wines is known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.

  • ROCO Winery: Founded in 2002 by Rollin Soles and Corby Stonebridge-Soles, ROCO Winery is known for its Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris wines.

  • J. Christopher Wines: Founded in 2005 by John Paul, J. Christopher Wines is a small, artisanal winery that produces a range of wines, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah.

  • Big Table Farm: Founded in 2005 by Brian Marcy and Clare Carver, Big Table Farm is a small winery known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.

  • The Four Graces: Founded in 2001 by Bill Steele, The Four Graces is a winery known for its Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc wines.

These are just a few examples of popular wineries that have been founded more recently in the Willamette Valley. There are many other wineries in the region that have also been established in recent years.

The Missoula Floods and Willamette Valley Wine

The Missoula Floods were a series of massive flood events that occurred during the last ice age, between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. The floods were caused by the breaching of ice dams that had formed on the Clark Fork River in present-day Montana. When the ice dams broke, they released huge volumes of water that rushed downstream, carving out the Columbia River Gorge and reshaping the landscape of the Pacific Northwest region of the United States.

Missoula Flood illustration

The Missoula Floods had a significant impact on the landscape of the Willamette Valley wine region, and this has played a role in the development of the region’s wine industry. The floods deposited layers of sediment across the valley, which helped to create the fertile soil that is now known for its agricultural productivity. This fertile soil, along with the region’s mild climate and long growing season, has made the Willamette Valley an ideal place for grape cultivation.

The landscape of the Willamette Valley was also shaped by the Missoula Floods, and this has had an impact on the region’s wine industry. The floods formed many of the rivers, streams, and valleys that are found in the region today, and these waterways help to provide the irrigation that is necessary for grape cultivation.

Overall, the Missoula Floods had a significant influence on the development of the Willamette Valley wine region, and they continue to play a role in the region’s wine industry today. The fertile soil, mild climate, and unique landscape of the region are all factors that contribute to the quality of the wines produced in the Willamette Valley.

The Historic Lands of Willamette Valley

The Willamette Valley region of Oregon was historically inhabited by several Native American tribes, including the Kalapuya, Molalla, and Tualatin tribes. These tribes lived in the region for thousands of years before European settlers arrived, and they had a rich and diverse culture that was closely tied to the land.

The Kalapuya tribe was one of the largest and most influential tribes in the Willamette Valley region. The Kalapuya lived in small villages throughout the valley, and they were known for their expertise in hunting, fishing, and gathering. They also cultivated a variety of crops, including camas, a type of root vegetable, which was an important food source for the tribe.

The Molalla tribe was another Native American tribe that inhabited the Willamette Valley region. The Molalla were known for their skilled horsemanship and their expertise in hunting and gathering. They also had a rich spiritual tradition and were known for their elaborate ceremonies and rituals.

The Tualatin tribe was another Native American tribe that lived in the Willamette Valley region. The Tualatin were known for their expertise in fishing and their sophisticated system of governance. They also had a rich spiritual tradition, and they were known for their elaborate ceremonies and rituals.

There are several Native American tribe names that are the same as or similar to the names of cities, counties, or other places in the Willamette Valley region of Oregon. Here are a few examples:

  • Salem: The city of Salem is named after the Salem tribe, which was a Native American tribe that inhabited the Willamette Valley region. The Salem tribe was part of the Kalapuya confederation of tribes, and they were known for their expertise in hunting, fishing, and gathering.

  • Molalla: The city of Molalla is named after the Molalla tribe, which was a Native American tribe that inhabited the Willamette Valley region. The Molalla were known for their skilled horsemanship and their expertise in hunting and gathering. They also had a rich spiritual tradition and were known for their elaborate ceremonies and rituals.

  • Tualatin: The Tualatin River and the Tualatin Valley are both named after the Tualatin tribe, which was a Native American tribe that lived in the Willamette Valley region. The Tualatin were known for their expertise in fishing and their sophisticated system of governance. They also had a rich spiritual tradition, and they were known for their elaborate ceremonies and rituals.

It is important to remember the Native American history as reflected in the many tribe names that live on in the names of Willamette Valley and its wines. 

Click here for a map of U.S. Wine Regions correlated with Native American Tribal Lands. 

What is the Future of Willamette Valley Wine?

The Willamette Valley wine region is a well-established and highly respected wine-producing region, and it is likely that the region will continue to be an important player in the global wine industry in the future. The region has a long history of wine production, and it is home to many wineries that have a reputation for producing high-quality wines.

There are a few factors that suggest that the Willamette Valley wine region has a bright future ahead. First, the region has a relatively long growing season, which allows for the production of a wide range of grape varieties. Second, the region has a unique climate that is well-suited to the production of certain grape varieties, particularly Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Finally, the region has a strong reputation for producing high-quality wines, which will likely continue to attract wine consumers and winemakers to the region.

Overall, it is likely that the Willamette Valley wine region will continue to thrive in the future, and that it will remain an important player in the global wine industry.

How Will Climate Change Effecting Willamette Valley? 

Like many other wine-growing regions around the world, the Willamette Valley wine region in Oregon is likely to be affected by climate change in the coming years. Some of the ways in which climate change may affect the region’s wine industry include:

  • Warmer temperatures: As the global climate warms, the Willamette Valley wine region is likely to experience warmer temperatures, which could have a number of impacts on grape cultivation. For example, warmer temperatures may lead to earlier bud break and ripening, which could affect the timing of the harvest. Warmer temperatures may also lead to an increase in heat-related stress on grapevines, which could result in reduced grape yields and quality.

  • Changes in precipitation patterns: Climate change is likely to lead to changes in precipitation patterns in the Willamette Valley wine region. This could include an increase in extreme weather events, such as droughts or heavy rainfall, which could have a number of impacts on grape cultivation. For example, drought conditions could lead to reduced grape yields and quality, while heavy rainfall could lead to issues with soil erosion and vineyard flooding.

  • Changes in pest and disease pressure: As temperatures warm, it is likely that the Willamette Valley wine region will experience changes in pest and disease pressure. For example, warmer temperatures may lead to the expansion of pests and diseases that were previously limited by cooler temperatures. This could lead to increased pressure on grapevines and reduced grape yields and quality.

Overall, climate change is likely to have a number of impacts on the Willamette Valley wine region, and it will be important for winemakers in the region to adapt to these changes in order to maintain the quality and productivity of their vineyards.

Want to plan a vacation or honeymoon to study the history of Willamette Valley? Visit our touring partner here: Wine History Tours

Want to read more on Willamette Valley Wine? Try out these books!

, The Willamette Valley Wine Region, The Willamette Valley Wine Region

References:

[1]“Welcome to the Willamette Valley: Oregon Wine Country.” n.d. Willamette Valley. Accessed August 26, 2022. https://willamettevalley.org.

2“A Wine Guide to Oregon’s Willamette Valley.” 2022. The Manual. May 11, 2022. https://www.themanual.com/food-and-drink/willamette-valley-wine-guide/.

3“What You Need to Know about the Willamette Valley AVA | Youngberg Hill Vineyard & Inn.” 2019. January 26, 2019. https://youngberghill.com/blog/willamette-valley-ava/.

4“What You Need to Know about Willamette Valley Weather and Planning Your Trip | Youngberg Hill Vineyard & Inn.” 2019. October 10, 2019. https://youngberghill.com/blog/willamette-valley-weather/.

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