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Oregon Goes Boom
By Linda Murphy
Dec 31, 2013
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The pre-Christmas news that Domaine Drouhin had purchased the 280-acre Roserock property in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills AVA might have raised eyebrows, had it not been for the prior, and unprecedented, string of Oregon vineyard land grabs in 2013 by companies based outside of the state.

Domaine Drouhin is owned by Maison Joseph Drouhin, a powerhouse Burgundy negociant and vineyard holder.  Joseph Drouhin had the foresight to invest in Oregon’s Willamette Valley (in the Dundee Hills AVA) in the mid-1980s, producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from its first vintage in 1988.  Ever since, Domaine Drouhin’s wines, overseen by Beaune-based winemaker Veronique Boss-Drouhin (one of the most skilled, genuine and charming cellar rats one could ever meet), have been quality standard-setters for Oregon.

The Roserock purchase enhances the winery’s ability to not only produce more wine, but also to develop complexity in regional blends and perhaps add to its single-vineyard, premier cru bottlings, a la Burgundy.

This is a rewarding development for Domaine Drouhin, yet it pales in comparison to the giant moves made earlier in 2013 by Jackson Family Wines, based in Sonoma County, Calif., and Maison Louis Jadot of Burgundy. 

Jackson Family Wines, helmed by Barbara Banke following the 2011 death of her husband, Jess Jackson, is best known for its Kendall-Jackson brand, though its portfolio includes 30 wineries.  Banke has a passion for Pinot Noir (her own Cambria brand in Santa Barbara County is testament to that) and her 2013 purchase of 1,350 acres of land -- 315 already planted, to mostly Pinot Noir -- in Oregon’s Willamette Valley underscores her devotion to the grape. 

Banke also acquired the Soléna Estate Winery in the Yamhill-Carlton District of Willamette Valley, from Laurent Montalieu and Danielle Andrus Montalieu.  The couple will relocate their business to a winery in the Dundee Hills and keep the Solena Estate name.

Louis Jadot’s 2013 purchase of Resonance Vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton, and the relocation of its recently “retired” winemaker, Jacques Lardière, in Oregon, speaks volumes for the Pinot Noir potential of Willamette Valley, as it was made by one of Burgundy’s leading negociants.  Lardière produced the 2013 wines at Trisaetum Winery in the Ribbon Ridge appellation.  While the company hasn’t said much about its intentions, it’s fair to say that any time the French invest in the New World, they’re dead-serious about high quality and image.   

Yet another eyebrow-raising wine business bloomed in Willamette Valley in 2013, with film producer Mark Tarlov -- who founded Evening Land Vineyards in 2005 and departed that partnership in 2012 – starting with Chapter 24, named for the final chapter of Homer’s “Odyssey.”

Tarlov has brought on Louis-Michel Liger-Belair of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair in Vosne-Romanée, to work with onsite winemaker Mike “Mikey” Etzel, the 26-year-old son of Beaux Frères winemaker Michael Etzel.  I tasted the Chapter 24 Pinots pre-release in November, and they were spectacular -- pure, focused and elegant -- and made from purchased grapes.

That Burgundy- and California-based wine companies have planted stakes in Oregon solidifies the state’s importance in the world of wine, yet also impacts land and grape costs, potentially putting the Willamette Valley in a trajectory similar to that of Napa Valley, where only the rich and powerful can build wineries and establish vineyards.

Is this a good thing?  I won’t venture a guess, but I do know that many Willamette Valley winemakers proudly stick to their guns in producing affordable Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and sparkling wines.  The intrusion into Oregon by California and French wine companies is high endorsement, yet pricing remains to be seen.

During a recent visit to Willamette Valley, I heard just as many winemakers applaud the arrival of Jackson Family Wines and Louis Jadot as I did those who worry about the impact these major companies will have on the region. 

Those on the “pro” side say the recent purchases validate Oregon as a producer of high-quality wines, and that Jackson, Jadot and Drouhin have a world-wide reach, and can promote the region and distribute their wines more effectively than the smaller companies.  The “cons” fret that they will lose grape sources when Jackson and others keep the fruit for themselves rather than selling it, and that prices will rise as wineries compete for long-term contracts.  And they wonder if the 2013 deals made by Oregon outsiders are the beginnings of a flood of such purchases. 

However, there is still vineyard-suitable land available in Willamette Valley that the little guys have a shot at.  A friend of mine, Tai-Ran Niew, in 2013 purchased 80 acres of former pastureland and walnut orchards on Parrette Mountain, in the Chehelem Mountains AVA of the Willamette Valley.  He will plant Chardonnay, as Oregon winemakers are desperate for white grapes to balance out their Pinot Noir programs, and he’s contemplating adding Riesling and Chenin Blanc down the road.

Niew shopped for potential vineyard sites throughout California but found none he could afford and that could grow exceptional grapes.  He paid a fraction of the price for the Parrett Mountain land that he would have spent for similar acreage in California, and was also wooed by the less expensive labor costs and availability of water in Oregon.

“I paid 20 percent of Sonoma prices for this land,” said Niew, pointing out its red Jory soils, southeast-facing slope and 750- to 850-foot elevation.  He’s by no means wealthy nor connected, yet the situation in Oregon allows him to fulfill his dream of growing wine grapes when it was impossible to do so in California.

No wonder Barbara Banke, Jacques Lardière and other notables have found the Willamette Valley a land of plenty, and for not much money.