Oregon's Wine Story
The Willamette Valley is the same latitude as Burgundy, France; and shares a similarly mild climate aptly suited for growing grapes. Additionally, like France's Terroir; the Willamette Valley floor is exceptionally fertile. Volcanic rocks rich in iron and magnesium rolled into the valley during the Pleistocene era floods. The resulting red, silty-clay loam known as Jory soil measures four to six feet deep and is unique to the region. It is so special that it was named Oregon's "State Soil" in 2011.
While Jory soil is predominant across the Willamette Valley, it is not exclusive. In fact, the soil composition across the valley varies enough to create distinctive mini regions that all support different attributes in grape growing. In the Eugene, Cascades & Coast region where the south end of the Willamette Valley is embraced by gently rolling hills, the soil includes Bellpine, a loamy soil that drains well. Grape roots tend to grow deeper in Bellpine, pushing down further into the earth; and the resulting grapes trend to smaller-sized orbs with greater flavor concentrations. When tasting wine, ask about the vineyard's soil type and the resulting benefits to the grapes.
With prime terrain for agriculture, and in particular for cultivating the finicky Pinot Noir grape, Oregon wineries have gained international recognition for their achievements. In 1979, Oregon winemaker David Lett, known locally as "Papa Pinot," entered his 1975 Eyrie Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir in France's Wine Olympics. When the blind tasting ranked his wine in tenth place, wine connoisseurs sat up and took note (after they got over the shock!). Since then Oregon winemakers have repeatedly proved their rightful place among top international wines. Other grapes that do well here include Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling.
In 1984 Willamette Valley was recognized as an official American Viticultural Area (AVA). The Willamette Valley region was declared "Region of the Year" by Wine Enthusiast magazine in 2016.
In 2021, this region was further divided by newly recognized AVAs. One of these outstanding distinctions is the Lower Long Tom AVA in Junction City with a dozen wineries and established vineyards. A popular wine corridor known as the Territorial Wine Trail follows Territorial Highway across the sprawling rural farmlands connecting small towns. You can also follow the South Willamette Wine Trail to taste wines from some of the top wineries.
The boutique Pfeiffer Winery near Junction City sells exclusively from their tasting room. You can't find this wine at stores, or even in local restaurants. However, Pfeiffer Winery's 2007 Pinot Noir Blue Dot Reserve was selected to represent Oregon Pinot Noir at the 2009 Obama inauguration. The "Presidential Pinot," is just one of many interesting back-stories to Pfeiffer Winery. And the best place to hear these stories is at one of their popular "Pinot Clinics" held frequently at the winery.
The largest and most iconic local winery is King Estate, known for its award-winning wines and sustainable farming. Enthroned on a vineyard-covered hill, this European-inspired facility offers a world-class wine country experience complete with sweeping picturesque views, an elegant tasting room, a top-notch on-site restaurant, and exquisite events. From their solar panels to their raptor program, King Estate serves as a leader for organic wine production.
Today there are wine tour companies springing up around the growing wine industry so it is easy to plan a day exploring wine country. Locals are extremely proud of Oregon wines and you will find regional wines on many restaurant menus and in local bottle shops and natural food stores. Alaska Airlines has even partnered with the wine industry so that Oregon wines fly free when visitors are taking their precious purchases back home. If you like wine, or just want to learn a little more about it, the unpretentious, uncrowded and award-winning South Willamette Valley's wine county is just the place to visit.