It’s no secret anymore: Oregon—especially Oregon’s Willamette Valley—is a treasure trove of great Pinot Noirs. What many don’t know, however, is that for those who are money conscious when it comes to purchases of wine (and if this isn’t you, bless you—please continue enjoying your La Tâche and let us know how it is), Oregon, when it comes to affordable Pinot Noirs, is the Holy Grail, a unicorn, and El Chupacabra wrapped into one.
30 seems to be the number at the top of the range as far as what the everyday consumer considers an affordable Pinot. Sure, everybody would love to pay $12 for a great Pinot, but let’s get real. There is no such thing as a great Pinot Noir for twelve dollars.
It’s quite revelatory, and almost incredulous, to see just how many great Pinot Noirs, made in Oregon and available for $30 or under, are on our list. It’s, dare I say, an awesome list—capturing the breadth of talent, the diversity of terroirs, and the depth of expression going on in Oregon winemaking right now.
Our list covers the old and the new, and everyone in-between—that is, there are the ones who have been around before Oregon was even considered a viable winegrowing region (late 1960s/early 1970s) and then the ones who got in on the action after everybody started noticing that Oregon made great wines. This makes for an incredibly competitive environment today, where the consumer comes out the winner because intense competition spurs the utmost in quality, but also something that Oregon winemakers are determined to never lose sight of—and that’s a special sense of community. Core to the identity of the Oregon winemaking region is community, and it’s no illusion—you can taste it in the wines. Honest.
What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love & Understanding?
Wanting to really drill down and get to the core of why Oregon is a special place for wine, I posed the question to several wineries represented on our “Greatest” list, as well as to the wine companies that own some of these wineries or distribute their wines. The answer I got, in the aggregate, could really be boiled down to an Elvis Costello song.
THE CORKSCREWER REPORT (TCR): What’s special about Oregon wine?
THOMAS HOUSEMAN [Winemaker, Anne Amie]: I would like to state that I could answer your question many ways. Oregon is a very special place. We like to talk at length about what a wonderful mix of latitude, climate, and soils we have. As a winery, we are lucky to have two amazing estates, and complete control over the farming of those estates. But, you asked me a broad question not about Anne Amie, but about Oregon wine in general.
The answer to that question is simple. It’s the people. When someone has a piece of equipment that breaks, others come to the rescue. When mother nature threatens us with a challenging vintage, we meet as an industry to share ideas. When Northern California recently was devastated by fires, we immediately banded together as an industry to set up collection points at wineries for supplies to send down, then put together a charity tasting event as an industry to further raise money. We are not faceless corporations making factory wines. We are friends, families, and inspired cohorts first. We are businesses second.
There are very few places in this harried world that still have this mentality. And, despite all the other marketing-friendly responses I could have given you, I’m thankful to be a part of a winemaking community. We hope that shows in our wines as well. They are authentic. Like us.
RYAN PENNINGTON [Director of Communications, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates]: Oregon occupies a unique place in the world of wine, in the middle stylistically between Burgundy and California. We are incredibly proud to carry forward the legacy of Erath, one of Oregon’s pioneering wineries and the best-selling Oregon Pinot Noir. It is exciting to see so many people from across the country and around the world discovering Oregon and coming here to join our industry. The future is very bright for Oregon, and we’re honored to be a part of that.
HARRY PETERSON-NEDRY [Founder & Co-Owner, Chehalem]: Oregon is a diverse winegrowing landscape. Some of it is established, such as the Willamette Valley with its Pinot Noir hyperfocus, and other regions still solidifying styles, confidence and grape varieties onto which they will hitch their wagons.
(Harry Peterson-Nedry cont.)
Pinot Noir succeeds in the Willamette Valley because of sameness and diversity. We honor the ultimate moderating climate that protective mountain ranges on all sides provide, giving a relatively cool climate even in this day of global warming. And, we dance excitedly as we describe the wild differences between the varied terroirs reflected in our sub-AVAs. The Willamette Valley is a perfectly primed canvas onto which we can bring to life complex interpretations of what Pinot Noir and key delicate white varieties should be.
The Willamette Valley is the nexus of cool protective climate, exciting hillside soils, and winemakers who are equal parts artists and scientists. With a common vision, we naturally protect, innovate, honor, collaborate, then celebrate. And usually, it’s about Pinot Noir.
We’re a new wine region at 53 years—just look at the faces of our passionate winemakers, fuzz on the cheeks, stars in their eyes and fire in the gut! And excited white hairs still there, having passed the baton, watching the race with pleasure.
Before we present our list, I would like to tackle the subject of the exciting element of change that’s happening, as an influx of corporations, both domestic and foreign, winemakers and wine producers, and other players have, and are, setting their stakes in the soils of Oregon—whether through land purchases, acquisitions or infusion of capital. At the same time, new wineries have set up shop at a record pace over the last decade. Furthermore, the small, independent, often family-owned wineries are hanging on and sticking around.
The Oregon wine region is this astonishing mix of mom-and-pop and increasingly big & corporate and those that are defining the middle ground.
The Ponzi winery was established in 1970, which makes them one of the founders of the Oregon wine industry, and is now being run by second-generation family, Anna Maria and Luisa Ponzi.
TCR: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the Oregon wine region over your winery’s long history?
MARIA PONZI [President, Ponzi Vineyards]: When we moved here nearly 50 years ago, it was with a spirit of adventure and a dream of making some of the world’s best Pinot Noir. Even though we came with no experience and very few recognized the Willamette Valley or the wine varietal, my parents were obsessed with the grape, and the wine, and were determined to make it happen. Now, there are nearly 800 wineries in the state, many who are here because the Pinot Noir category is a necessary part of their business plan. We now share the wine community with people outside of Oregon and from other industries who have not only discovered Pinot Noir’s beauty, but its importance in the global wine market. I guess I would simply say, our challenges have shifted from learning how to grow and make this beautiful wine to staying authentic to it in a highly competitive marketplace.
Ron and Marianne Lachini planted their first vine in 1997 and established their namesake winery shortly thereafter to focus entirely on producing Pinot Noir.
TCR: As a family-owned winery that’s been doing this for 20 years, how would you describe the unique environment of Oregon’s wine industry? And will it be able to retain its identity the bigger it gets?
RON LACHINI [Owner, Lachini Vineyards]: I believe so. Fortunately, geography plays a unique role in the Willamette Valley. As is similar to Burgundy, most of our vineyards are planted on hillsides, where it is much more difficult to identify larger parcels with suitable terrain that is desired by the bigger players. As you can see with recent acquisitions by Jackson Family Wines, putting together a portfolio, each brand/vineyard has remained independent. While change is inevitable, I think most of us growing in Oregon are committed to the land first vis a vis just building a virtual brand. This is quite evident when considering the shortage of bulk wine supplies in Oregon.
Larry Miller is a veteran of the Oregon wine industry and his Stangeland vineyards and winery is the embodiment of the independent, micro-establishment that’s so vital to the identity of the Oregon wine community. Three of his Pinot Noirs are represented on our list.
TCR: From the perspective of an independent, micro-producer, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the years?
LARRY D. MILLER [Owner, Stangeland]: Some of the biggest changes I have seen (in my 40 years as a grower) include the international infusion of investment, winemakers and other industry people coming to Oregon from other wine regions to make world class Pinot Noir. There is still an excitement and enthusiasm in our industry in Oregon. Of course, we all hear about the large corporate investments here—which really validates our choice to get involved years ago. I’m proud to be a native Oregon winemaker, I feel this industry has been a great benefit to our state agriculture and tourism and has provided an international recognition of Oregon which never existed prior to the evolving wine industry.
Now Then: the List
There are 26 Pinot Noirs from Oregon on our list of America’s Greatest Pinot Noirs for $30 and Under. We’re confident the list is a comprehensive view of Oregon’s finest—big names/small names, independent/corporate-owned, tiny distribution/huge distribution, pioneers, upstarts and middle-agers, contemporary and traditional—that have offerings in the “affordable” price category. I’m sure we missed a few. Hope to catch them next time.
*See our companion piece: REVIEWS: Oregon’s Greatest Pinot Noirs for $30 and Under for reviews of each of the wines on our list above.*
Our Top Scorers
The wines of Cristom and Johan Vineyards garnered our highest ratings, at 93 points. Our selection was not by design, but these two wineries happen to represent the different ends of the spectrum as far as how a great, affordable Pinot Noir comes together, after its arduous journey, to its final destination—inside the bottle.
Cristom’s Mt. Jefferson Cuvée comes together from various sources throughout the Willamette Valley, along with some estate fruit, and is produced at a relatively large volume and enjoys relatively wide distribution among restaurants, shops, etc. throughout the U.S. In contrast, Johan’s Estate Pinot Noir comes together only from vineyards they own (hence, the “estate” designation) and, thus, they exert complete control over all practices in the winemaking process; it is a small production wine, it’s hard to find unless you live in Oregon, plus the wine is certified biodynamic/organic.
In other words, there’s many paths to get the magic to happen. Here’s Cristom:
TCR: After more than 20 vintages of the “Mt. Jeff,” what’s the key in keeping your classic Oregon Pinot fresh—and perhaps even better than ever?
TOM GERRIE [Owner and Winegrower, Cristom]: Mt. Jefferson Cuvée is the embodiment of the Cristom style—marrying exceptional fruit with native yeast, whole-cluster fermentations and extended ageing in French oak. We continue to buy outstanding fruit from all over the Willamette Valley—some vineyards have remained consistent throughout every vintage of Mt. Jeff, and we continue to broaden the sources adding heralded vineyards of pedigree.
(Tom Gerrie cont.)
The heart of the Mt. Jefferson Cuvée, though, comes from our Estate in the Eola Hills. Most of our vines on our Estate are now more than 20 years old and only just beginning to show the power, complexity, depth and elegance that we come to expect from great Pinot Noir. The combination of our five-person winegrowing team with more than 105 years’ experience farming the Cristom Estate and vines producing superb quality fruit is showcased in the Mt. Jefferson Cuvée bottling. And, what’s more, is that we have been planting another Estate vineyard for the past four years, promising that Mt. Jeff will continue to evolve as it becomes more and more Estate fruit and Eola-Amity Hills driven.
TCR: What, in particular, about the Willamette Valley’s terroir sets it apart from the rest of the winegrowing regions of America? Also, why is biodynamic/organic practice, philosophically speaking, important to your winery?
DAG JOHAN SUNDBY [Owner, Johan Vineyards]: The Willamette Valley provides all the macro and micro climatic influences necessary to successfully grow quality wine grapes without an exaggerated manipulation of the process. From a higher perspective, holistic collective individualism is a focus, or shift in consciousness, towards the integration of ancient cosmological knowledge, and understanding, with today’s modern technologies, or mindset, without disturbing the ‘natural cycles of life.’ As a farming complex, we have a strong emphasis in keeping the operation ‘enclosed,’ or protected, from outside influences. This philosophical standpoint is expressed through our biodynamic farming practices and carried through the winemaking process. Let intelligence flow intelligently.
DAN RINKE [Winegrower, Johan Vineyards]: We feel that the Willamette Valley’s unique combination of its cool climate, undulating hillsides and the sedimentary and volcanic soils make it the perfect place to grow cool climate grape varieties. To talk directly of Johan Vineyard’s terroir, we need to look at several things:
The climate at Johan is dictated by the influence of the Van Duzer Corridor, an East to West running gap in the Oregon Coast Range. This gap funnels maritime breezes into the interior of the Willamette Valley on a daily rhythm during the growing season. Johan Vineyards is situated right in front of the Van Duzer Corridor and takes full advantage of its cooling effect.
The aspect of the undulating hills where Johan sits also contributes to the complexity of the wines. Johan sits on the rolling hills of the Oregon Coast Range foothills and faces in many different directions. The vast majority of the vineyard is east facing, but we also have south, southwest, and north facing blocks. This stretches out our harvest over several weeks and gives us a lot of different wine to work with and blend—adding to complexity.
Finally the soil… You can’t talk about terroir without talking about soil. Johan’s hills were created from marine sedimentary uplift followed by deposits from the Missoula floods. When the floods hit the hills of what is now Johan Vineyards, it scoured off the old topsoil that existed and deposited a small amount of sediment made up of all the areas the water traveled, including deposits of granite from Montana and Idaho.
Lastly, people forget the influence of the farmer on the terroir. Our biodynamic/organic farming practices are important to our winery because we strive to close the loop and try to exclude outside inputs so we do not bastardize the terroir.
“Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss…” goes the iconic lyric of The Who song. While Roger Daltrey may have been singing about the political discontent of the early 1970s, there’s something apropos about the band’s twist on one of the great truisms of life: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Of the Millennial generation, Taylor Pfaff has to be one of the youngest co-owners of an Oregon winery, Left Coast Cellars (est. 2003). Here’s his perspective on plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
TCR: As one of the newer “kids on the block,” how would you describe the exciting mix of old and new happening in Oregon wine?
TAYLOR PFAFF [Family Ownership, Left Coast Cellars]: The Oregon wine industry is a great place to be. In many ways we are still building the Oregon brand as a whole, and this has created a real sense of community and camaraderie amongst Oregon wine producers. We are very much of the opinion that what’s good for Oregon is good for us. The established wineries are very welcoming to newer operations—and we try to extend a similar hand to newer producers as we continue to build our reputation nationally. Oregon only accounts for 1% of U.S. wine production, so the sky is really the limit for potential future distribution as long as we maintain our regional commitment to making quality wines.
On that point, of how the sky’s the limit for Oregon wine’s future, we have to remind ourselves that Oregon wineries do make other wines besides Pinot Noir, but, perhaps more importantly for the future prominence of the wine region, great Pinot Noir is starting to get noticed from outside of the Willamette Valley. Sue and Terry Brandborg are one of the pioneers of Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. Their namesake winery was named 2015 Oregon Winery of the Year by the Wine Press Northwest.
TCR: What drew you to the Umpqua Valley to establish your winery in 2002?
SUE BRANDBORG [Cofounder, Brandborg Vineyard & Winery]: Terry and I searched for cool coastal river valleys to grow and make our beloved Pinot Noir. Terry had been making Pinot Noir commercially since founding a small winery in Fairfax, California, in 1986, working with Pinot from Anderson Valley and Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley. I joined him in San Francisco in 1999, and we started to search for our own site. Though part of the large Southern Oregon AVA is generally thought of as a warm, dry region, the Umpqua Valley is very diverse—with a cool maritime climate in Elkton, warming as you head south. We source our Pinot Noir from several vineyards in the cooler northern 1/3 of the Umpqua, all in proximity to the Umpqua River and enjoying that cooling influence.
Another aspect of the “generation next” vibe happening in Oregon is the increased presence of wine companies located outside of Oregon taking great interest in partnering or representing wineries/winemakers of the region. Precept Wine, based in Seattle, is the leading and largest wine company in the Northwest. They have partnered with Oregon winemaker Sarah Cabot, and three of her wines are represented on our list—two from the Primarius label and one from Battle Creek Cellars.
TCR: How does Oregon factor into your company’s business strategy?
CHANTELLE LUSEBRINK [Communications & Public Relations Manager, Precept Wine]: We are drawn to Oregon because of how special it is to the story of Northwest wine. Precept Wine, the largest, privately-held wine company in the Northwest, is Northwest through and through, founded by wine enthusiasts who have deep roots in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. We own our own vineyards, work our own fruit, and our winemakers craft exceptional wine in our wineries throughout the region. We don’t just represent wine brands, we believe in cultivating wines from our vineyards to the tables of consumers throughout the world.
Brooklyn, New York-based The Artisan Collection, an importer focused on small, artisanal, family-owned wineries partnered with Oregon winemaker/proprietor John Grochau of Grochau Cellars to produce the Besadien Pinot Noir, which the company distributes.
TCR: As a leading wine importer based in Brooklyn, what are some of the factors in deciding who you want to represent?
LIZA DICKINSON [Marketing Director, The Artisan Collection]: We seek passionate winemakers with whom to partner. We strive to find what is not only authentic, but also unique. Our winemakers seek to showcase the best attributes of the varietals and the land, using winemaking techniques that are non-interventionist and that emphasize the importance of attention to detail, starting with the vine. Native yeasts are used and, where possible, the wines are bottled with minimum or no fining or filtration.
Innovation in the New Frontier
Where is Oregon, one of the true, still largely undiscovered new frontiers in American wine, headed? No one seems to know exactly. But everyone’s excited about it.
TCR: Walnut City started in 1999—when the Oregon wine region wasn’t yet at the level of global recognition it’s experiencing now. Where have you been, where are you at, and where are you going?
ROBERT BURDEN [Brand Manager, Walnut City WineWorks]: Changes in viticulture and the sophistication of farming practices come to mind first. Almost 20 years before Walnut City was up and running, our journey began in vineyard management. Back then, it was all about small parcel hunting and intuition. The pioneers of viticulture in the Willamette Valley were driven as much by curiosity and spirit as they were by formal education in viticulture and oenology—it was very much a new frontier. A great deal of trial, error and exploration had to occur to get to where we are today.
We now are experiencing a time of incredible collective talent—both from over 50 years of context in the Willamette Valley and newcomers from all over the world bringing their own viticultural, and specifically Pinot Noir, skill sets. With the different layers of specialized skills that come together, from soil experts and vineyard managers to winemakers and marketing/sales managers, there is now a balance that allows wines from this tiny region to enjoy such a tremendous reach.
TCR: Silvan Ridge has been around a while, since 1979. What opportunities do you see ahead?
JP VALOT [Winemaker, Silvan Ridge]: It’s an amazing time to be growing grapes and making wine in Oregon. Innovation is happening all around us. For example, Silvan Ridge will be the first winery in the Northwest to use ozone in the vineyard. Ozone has been used in the winery for several years, and now we’re extending the application to the vineyard. Basically, Silvan Ridge will be reducing chemical use in the vineyard by spraying ozonated water. Implementing the technology will eliminate pesticide usage in our vineyard which, in turn, prevents them from ever entering the groundwater. Pretty cool stuff. Looking ahead, I see no slowdown in the rapid innovation taking place within the world of wine. I’ll amend my first statement… it’s an amazing time to be drinking Oregon wines!
TCR: Gothic was launched in 2009, and you’re already a success story. Thoughts on the future?
WILLIAM TIGERTT [Proprietor, Gothic Wine]: Oregon is a wine region finding its feet and voice. Amazing wines and progress have been made in its short history. The exciting part is what has yet to be discovered. There is still so much territory to explore—I feel some of the best vineyard sites in the state haven’t been planted yet.