Oregon’s wine industry has come a long way since 1989, when Grace and Ken Evenstad purchased a 42-acre hilltop estate in the Dundee Hills and laid the foundation for their luxury, Pinot Noir-focused winery, Domaine Serene. “There were about 20 other winemakers in the state when we first started out,” says Grace. “Since then, the industry has grown tremendously—today, there are more than 700 wineries throughout Oregon.”
Other notable gains have corresponded with the proliferation of wineries across the state. Around 1,050 vineyards are now planted in Oregon, according to the Oregon Wine Board, up from just 480 in 2000. Last year, the state produced 3.6 million cases of wine, up 6% from the year prior, and saw revenue jump by 4% to $551 million. In terms of retail price per bottle, Oregon wine now crushes its domestic competition: The state’s average bottle price hovers around $16 a 750-ml., far exceeding the median cost of wine from Washington ($10) and California ($7).
While high-end Pinot Noir remains the beating heart of Oregon’s wine business, that landscape is rapidly evolving to include greater diversity. Increasingly, winemakers are incorporating other varietals into their portfolios, and experimenting with different wine styles in the process. In addition, alternative packaging has taken off throughout the state, as producers look to capitalize on both canned wine’s global triumphs and an on-the-go demographic.
Such steady success, coupled with comparatively inexpensive vineyard prices, has attracted the attention of outside players. Newcomers are flocking to Oregon in droves to stake their claims, hailing from the neighboring states of California and Washington, and even from as far away as France. Though these changes have yet to disrupt the boutique nature of the state’s industry—around 70% of winemakers still deplete fewer than 5,000 cases a year—longtime Oregon producers are divided on whether they’ll ultimately benefit from the ongoing outside saturation.
Beyond Pinot Noir
Oregon’s original winemaking success was spurred primarily by a single varietal: Pinot Noir. Though 72 grape varieties are grown throughout the state, Pinot Noir is the most popular by far, accounting for 59% of Oregon’s total production. The most renowned iterations of Oregon Pinot Noir are sourced from the Willamette Valley; given the AVA’s positioning on the 45th parallel, comparisons to France’s Burgundy region are often made, further underscoring both the quality and price point of the wines.
In spite of the anchor that Pinot Noir has provided for Oregon, a growing number of Oregon producers are now widening their focus and highlighting the state’s impact on other varietals. “Even though Pinot Noir represents the majority of our portfolio, we want to emphasize that Oregon isn’t just a one-grape region; there are other extraordinary wines produced here,” says Rob Alstrin, sales and marketing director at longtime Willamette Valley producer Argyle Winery. “Oregon Chardonnay, for example, is finally gaining good momentum and recognition in the trade and with consumers, as are Oregon sparkling wines.”
In support of Oregon Chardonnay’s uphill trajectory, Argyle is set to relaunch a Chardonnay within its super-premium Reserve tier next summer. Alstrin notes that the winery discontinued its Reserve Chardonnay eight years ago, choosing instead to focus on other wines, but is now bringing it back due to its great potential at retail and as a high-end glass pour. The new wine will join an entry-level Willamette Valley Chardonnay ($20) and two high-end offerings—Nuthouse ($40) and Spirithouse ($60)—in the Argyle Chardonnay lineup.
Argyle’s extensive portfolio of sparkling wines has also been seeing growth. “As a benchmark producer of Oregon sparklers, it’s always been a great category for us, but now it’s truly taking off,” Alstrin says. “There aren’t many other wineries in the state doing significant sparkling volume right now, but we believe sparkling wine could eventually reach a notoriety similar to that of Oregon Pinot Noir.” The winery’s estate-grown vintage brut ($28) is the top-performing, largest-volume sparkler in the bubbly portfolio, which also includes the 2008 Extended Tirage Brut ($80) and a Brut Rosé ($50), among others. Across all wines, Argyle currently produces around 80,000 cases.
Among the other established players branching out beyond Pinot Noir is Domaine Serene, which is set to debut a sparkling wine program of its own this New Year’s Eve. “A lot of producers in Oregon are starting to experiment with sparkling wine, but for the most part they’re only dabbling, releasing wines a year after they’ve been made,” says Domaine Serene president Ryan Harris, noting that some of the sparklers within the winery’s new tier have spent eight to ten years in the bottle. “We decided that if we were going to do this, it was going to be at the highest level of quality—we want to compete at the top end of the market.” With that goal in mind, the winery brought on a consultant from Champagne to aid in its sparkling wine production. Domaine Serene’s sparkling series includes seven wines ($80-$300), ranging from blanc de blancs to brut to vintage brut rosé.
In another major move outside of Pinot Noir, Domaine Serene opened a new winery dedicated solely to Chardonnay, white Pinot Noir, and sparkling wine production earlier this year. The new facility, which uses the same gravity-flow model as Domaine Serene’s Pinot Noir winery, features a cold room, increased tank space, and expanded barrel storage. “We knew that we needed to separate the Pinot Noir production from the Chardonnay, and give our Chardonnay more attention—that segment is growing, and we believe in Oregon Chardonnay’s potential,” Harris says. He adds that Domaine Serene has almost doubled its Chardonnay acreage over the last three years, producing more grapes for its Evenstad Reserve Chardonnay ($65) and single vineyard Chardonnays ($75), among others.
Meanwhile, Seattle-based Precept Wine—which markets two Oregon brands, Battle Creek and Primarius—harvested its first Oregon Chardonnay this year, as well as grapes intended for its inaugural sparkling wine, a blanc de noirs. “Our winemaker, Sarah Cabot, has been excited at the prospect of an Oregon sparkler,” says Precept’s CMO Alex Evans. “Given the rise of domestic sparkling wine overall, it’s the perfect time for such a wine.” Once released, both the Chardonnay and sparkling wine will fall under the Battle Creek label, which Evans refers to as Precept’s flagship Oregon brand.
In southern Oregon, Chardonnay’s rise is also apparent. Lindsey Zagar, marketing and events manager at Rogue Valley AVA-based Del Rio Vineyards, notes that while Pinot Noir is one of the winery’s top-sellers, other varietals, including Chardonnay, are strong performers. “Southern Oregon is pretty unique from other parts of the state—we’re not just Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris,” she says. “It seems like we’re always selling out of our Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, and our Muscat-based Jolee rosé is the top-selling rosé in Oregon.”
Elsewhere, Dobbes Family Estate—another Willamette Valley mainstay—dove into the sparkling category for the first time last year with the launch of the Elements ($26 a 750-ml.) range. Its inaugural effort, Elements Oregon Bubbles, was a white sparkler that supported a local Oregon nonprofit group called the Washed Ashore Project. The 2018 release is a sparkling rosé that benefits the National Forest Foundation’s Eagle Creek Restoration Fund, which is dedicated to rehabilitating a 48,000-acre section of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area that was left devastated in the aftermath of the Oregon wildfires. Each future Elements release will also be a wholly unique wine that aids a different Oregon-related cause or organization. “Pinot Noir is our claim to fame in Oregon, but sparkling wine is growing, and I think we’ll continue to see more interest,” says Dobbes Family Estate CEO Gretchen Boock. As with Argyle and Domaine Serene, Chardonnay is also a burgeoning segment for the Dobbes Family Estate portfolio, and Boock says it will eventually displace Pinot Gris as the winery’s No.-2 offering behind Pinot Noir.
Popularizing Canned Wines
Aside from more robustly exploring other varietals, Dobbes Family Estate has also invested in alternative packaging via its Joe To Go line. “For me, the most exciting trend right now is canned wine,” Boock says. “It’s a huge category that’s growing incredibly fast, and there are new players coming in every day, especially from Oregon.” The canned Joe To Go range—an offshoot of Wine By Joe, Dobbes Family Estate’s more accessible, everyday line—launched in late 2017, and is now distributed throughout 31 states. The label includes Pinot Gris and Rosé expressions ($7 a 375-ml.), and will add a third varietal, Pinot Noir, join in January.
As Boock notes, Dobbes is far from the only Oregon producer to play in the canned wine space. The Stoller Wine Group, parent company of Stoller Family Estate and Chehalem Wines, launched its Canned Oregon line in July, marking its first foray into alternative packaging. The new brand features four wines, all retail-priced at $6 a 375-ml.: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, a sparkling white, and a sparkling rosé. Ultimately, the company hopes to see the brand take off on its own merit, and not as a result of its attachment to Stoller Family Estate.
The company notes that Canned Oregon was born from the idea that there’s a new generation of wine drinkers proliferating across the U.S., many of whom care as much about portability as they do quality. In its first year on the market, the brand posted volume of around 15,000 cases, with the rosé sparkler leading the pack.
The pinnacle of Oregon’s canned wine industry is Union Wine Co. In 2014, the company launched its Underwood label in 375-ml. cans, inadvertently igniting the canned wine craze. The winery’s commitment to alternative packaging has since stayed strong. “We’ve remained very bullish on cans,” says Union Wine Co. founder and owner Ryan Harms. “This year, we increased production by 95%, and put 55% of our wine into cans, totaling 244,000 cases.” Such substantial production increases came thanks to Union Wine Co.’s new winemaking facility, which opened in March and more than doubled total volume capacity.
Though the winery’s initial canned lineup was limited to Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, today it encompasses rosé, white and rosé sparklers, a white blend, and wine coolers (all ranging from $6-$7 a can). Following the success of the Underwood Riesling Radler—comprised of Oregon Riesling, hops, and grapefruit—Harms is especially keen on premium wine coolers. “The growth we’ve seen in premium wine coolers is very encouraging, and we’re looking to expand our line,” he says, adding that the winery is set to release a tropical-tasting wine cooler made in collaboration with Top Chef winner Mei Lin in the near future.
Ryan Sharp, founder and owner of Portland urban winery Enso, has likewise found success with innovative, wine cooler-style offerings, thanks to his Portland Sangria brand. The label originally launched in 2010 as an exclusive draft offering at Enso’s tasting room, comprised of leftover wine and berry juice. Demand was strong, and Sharp began packaging and selling the wine under the Portland Sangria name nearly five years ago. Today, there are three offerings in the portfolio (all $20 a 4-pack of 12-ounce cans): Raspberry Loganberry Cardamom, Lemon Ginger Rosemary, and Blueberry Basil.
Sharp sees innovations like Portland Sangria as critical to Oregon’s future winemaking success. “When you get locked to a particular grape, as Oregon is with Pinot Noir, there’s a lot of momentum that can be built around that—you can galvanize around that single varietal,” he says. “But in order to stay interesting and entice consumers in the long run, innovation ultimately needs to stay strong.” Along those lines, Sharp plans to roll out a kegging program for Portland Sangria next year, and introduce another flavor to the brand’s lineup.
Alternative varietals, packaging, and styles aren’t the only factors shaking up the Oregon wine industry. In recent years, major companies from California, France, and beyond have made their mark on the state—among them The Family Coppola, which acquired Vista Hills Vineyard in October 2018; Foley Family Wines, which snapped up the Acrobat brand from King Estate in April 2018; and Burgundy-based négoçiant Louis Jadot, which launched its first Oregon wine from the Résonance vineyard in 2016.
The majority of these outside producers are looking to capitalize on Oregon Pinot Noir, launching or acquiring brands that are, for the most part, entirely focused on the grape. Washington-based Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, for example, first joined the Oregon fray in 2006 with the purchase of Erath, maker of the state’s largest Pinot Noir label. Erath’s Oregon-appellated Pinot Noir is the focal point of the portfolio, and is the country’s top Pinot Noir in Nielsen channels. The brand also offers a number of single-vineyard, estate-selection, and luxury Pinot Noir expressions, as well as limited amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and rosé of Pinot Noir.
California’s Copper Cane Wines & Provisions has been very active in Oregon, largely through Pinot Noir. The company launched its first Oregon label, Elouan, in 2015 with a Pinot Noir ($24), and has since added Chardonnay ($24), rosé ($22), and two high-end, small-lot Pinot Noirs—Missoulan Wash Willamette Valley Reserve and Klamath’s Kettle Rogue Valley Reserve (both $48). More recently, the company debuted the Willametter Journal Pinot Noir, a $30 release that’s sourced entirely from the Willamette Valley.
While Copper Cane’s Oregon brands have been a commercial success—founder Joe Wagner notes that Elouan is up over 40% this year, and that half of the first run of the Willametter Journal has sold—they’ve recently come under fire from Oregon winemakers and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau alike for the copy on their labels. Though both Elouan and Willametter Journal feature fruit sourced entirely from Oregon, the wines are vinified in California, and therefore must carry an Oregon AVA designation. At issue for Elouan is the use of sub-AVA names on the label despite that designation. “We do state Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue on the back label on a map of Oregon,” Wagner says. “We want to convey a sense of place and imagery.” Willametter Journal is being similarly scrutinized for its mentions of the Willamette Valley, and what Wagner otherwise refers to as “romance copy.”
For Tom Monroe, founder and owner of the Southeast Wine Collective in Portland, such labeling discrepancies only serve to muddle the carefully cultivated identity of Oregon and, more specifically, the Willamette Valley. “The everyday wine drinker doesn’t really know that much about the small-yield, site-specific wines that make up the majority of Oregon’s wine industry,” he says. “So when people use grapes from the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys—where the expressions of Pinot Noir are totally different from those found in the Willamette Valley—and place an Oregon label on their wines, misconceptions abound.”
Aside from being the production site of Monroe’s own label, Division Wines, the Southeast Wine Collective acts as an incubator for a number of boutique winemakers, and houses a restaurant space as well. Monroe says that moving forward, boutique winemakers such as himself and those he works with at the Collective will need to find a way to balance the greatness of the state alongside the reality that, as its wines grow more popular, out-of-state winemakers will continue to plant their flag in Oregon.
Similarly, Domaine Serene’s Grace Evenstad has concerns about the impact of newcomers on the state’s prestige. “Over the years, Oregon has developed a reputation for high-quality wines, and high-quality Pinot Noir especially,” she says. “To do it as well as many producers are doing now takes time. My fear is that, given this reputation, new players will rush in, without that top quality in mind.”
Not all, however, are as skeptical of the intentions of outside players. Dan Lech, wine director at Ball Square Fine Wines in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has applauded the efforts of the major players and their impact on Oregon’s wine industry. “Everybody wants to have a little piece of Oregon right now, and I believe there’s room for that activity,” he says. “The identity of Oregon being what it is—small producers, limited quantities—will hopefully ensure that when these bigger companies come in, they can’t muddy the quality or character of the state.” Ball Square carries around 45 Oregon wines, including boutique brands and those from the likes of Jackson Family.
In southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley AVA, Quady North winemaker Herb Quady likewise believes that the ongoing pursuit of Oregon by outside actors serves as a boon for the state, as long as they respect winemaking tradition. “When a major winery takes a stake in a new region, it represents the region’s staying power,” Quady says. “What really matters when they come in, though, is what kind of an enterprise they are. Are they making a short-term play, or are they willing to invest in and be consistent with the norms and values of the Oregon wine industry?” While Quady notes that southern Oregon has yet to see the investment that’s hit the Willamette Valley, he expects the region will gain more recognition, both organically and through acquisitions, in the years ahead.
Union Wine Co.’s Harms is also enthused by the acquisition activity—and optimistic about the future of Oregon in general. “I’m excited to see the continued investment in Oregon wine from outside of the state,” he says. “The category continues demonstrating solid double-digit growth every year—it’s an indication of the larger global wine companies beginning to value Oregon, and seeing it as an appellation that their portfolios need.”