Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Oregon wine industry: Current state and futures

Wine production in Oregon owes its existence to a band of hardy pioneers (Richard Sommer, David Lett, Charles Coury, Dick Erath) who ignored the conventional wisdom which held that the state was too wet and too cold to produce the quality of grapes required to make fine wine.  After over 40 years of grape growing and producing quality wines, the pathfinders, and those who followed closely behind, have conclusively refuted the arguments of the "soothsayers" and Oregon is now recognized as one of the world's leading cool-climate wine regions.  In this post I will examine the characteristics of Oregon as a winemaking region. The information provided is based on a telephone interview with Dr. Patricia Skinkis -- Viticulture Extension Specialist and Assistant Professor at Oregon State University (OSU) and member of the school's Oregon Wine Research Institute (OWRI) -- as well as a variety of secondary sources.

According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Oregon 2011 wine grape production was 41,500 tons, a 33% increase over 2010 levels.  Production was distributed over a large number of grape varieties but Pinot Noir (23,726 tons) and Pinot Gris (6,046 tons) were by far the largest contributors.  The next leading varieties, contrastingly, were Chardonnay (1,923 tons), White Riesling (1,899 tons), and Syrah (1,319 tons).  Planted acreage in 2011 was 20,400 and, with average yield of 2.37 tons/acre, only Merlot, Muller-Thurgau, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and White Riesling produce above the great-wine benchmark of 3 tons/acre.

With the exception of the regions shared with Washington and Idaho, the Oregon wine growing regions are concentrated in the valleys that lie between the Coast and the Casacade Ranges.  By functioning as a barrier to the warm, moist air flowing in from the Pacific Ocean, the Cascade divides the state into western (third of the state; heavy precipitation; moderate temperatures) and eastern (two-thirds of the state; low precipitation; more extreme temperatures) climatic zones.   

Source: Erath Winery
According to Dr. Skinkis, the climate in Oregon, while challenging in regards to grape growing, also has its benefits. The challenges include precipitation, limited days of sunshine placing the region at the edge of berry-ripening days, cooler temperatures, regular frosts in autumn, and large variation in weather from year to year rendering vineyard management tricky. The benefits include the moderating effect of the Pacific Ocean, clear definition of grape varieties that can be grown in each area, a good mix of cool-climate (in the north) and moderate-climate (in the south) varieties, long growing seasons, and full, but gradual, ripening of varieties.

According to Dr. Skinkis, the wine industry in Oregon is small (840 growers and 419 wineries) with the average grower working 20 acres of land.  Most of the businesses are family-owned, many as second careers.  In the cooler climate of the north, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Chardonnay are the varieties of choice while the warmer southern climes gravitate to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.  Pinot Noir (12,560 acres), Pinot Gris (2,590 acres), and Chardonnay (950 acres) represent the largest share of plantings in the state.  Overall, 63.6% of the grapes grown in the state are red varieties.

Dr. Skinkis sees a lot of interest in the industry in biodynamics but not many of the growers are Demeter-certified.  Instead a number can be classified as sustainable with LIVE as the most common certification and a large number of organic practictioners (The related panel at the Portland Wine Bloggers Conference lumped these viniviticultural practices together under a "sustainable" umbrella in that, according to the panel, they all focus on safety; safety of the workers in the vineyards, safety of the consumer, or safety of the environment.  The panel saw sustainable as poorly defined and the lowest standard as it allows the viticulturist to "ebb and flow" according to conditions.  Organic was more rigid but the certification of the grape versus the wine was viewed as very complex. Biodynamic was described as a self-nurturing universe.  Natural winemaking calls for a conscious decision to intervene as little as possible during the process. (See here for my post on natural wine.) LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) is wine-grape-specifc and, according to the panel, is more rigorous in looking at the system than either organic or biodynamic.  According to LIVE, 275 vineyards and 35 wineries in oregon are LIVE-certified.).

The industry works closely with OSUs OWRI (a Working Group of individuals who focus on wine-related issues) to address issues of concern.  The industry's focus today is on increasing fruit quality and improving yield, according to Dr. Skinkis, and she assists this effort by (i) providing new information and research and (ii) integrating applied research and Extension outreach for the benefit of winemakers, growers, and owners.  The areas of viticultural research that are currently being pursued are (Dr. Skinkis):
  • Economic -- understanding the economic impact of different vineyard management practices
  • Sustainability -- the economics and environmental effects of this approach and the role of cover crops in this area
  • Yield management -- what level of fruit is the vine to ripen (Yield has become a measure of quality)?
Enological research is being pursued in the areas of microbial spoilage, color stabilization, and flavor and aroma compounds.

For the future, Dr. Skinkis envisions the research needs of the industry  pivoting to the following areas:
  • Increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of managing grapes in a cold environment and the roles of nutrients and canopy management in that process
  • How to better manage for vine balance (versus today's focus on yield management)
  • New ways to manage troubled fermentations (Two potential paths are new yeast strains or a better understanding of native yeast strains.).
The work of a band of pioneers and the cooperative efforts of a second wave have served to lift the Oregon wine industry from a pooh-poohed concept to a strong, well-regarded presence on the world wine stage.  Using Burgundy as its north star, the industry has selected an industry structure and a variety mix that works perfectly for its geographic location as well as the persona of its practitioners.  The region's future remains ahead of it.

In future posts I will examine the Oregon AVAs in detail.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. Another thoughtful, well researched post, Keith - thank you. An excellent read. I find the number of OR wineries practicing(in whole or part) Biodynamics interesting contrasted against the few (relative) that pursue actual certification. Especially considering Demter is based in OR.

    And... was great to catch up in Oregon. Look forward to the AVA post(s).

    1. Thank you very much Frank. The WBC12 panel identified the cost (time and money) as a deterrent to Demeter certification. Also enjoyed seeing you in Portland and look forward to our next encounter.