Oregon wines improving

Quite a bit has been made of the 2008 Oregon pinot noir.

I believe that this might be the best overall vintage we have experienced in many, many years. I have tasted more than 50 of the little beauties and have found that almost every pinot tasted has been very, very good. We have found our stride in Oregon on this grape and continue to find new pathways to increase quality.

When I first arrived in Oregon to begin my retail business, which was in 1980, the Oregon wine business was just an infant. There were a few good winemakers (David Lett of Eyrie being the real champion of the grape) beginning to understand what pinot noir was about.

As time went on, knowledge was shared about the vineyard and the cellar, and things began to pick up on the quality scene.

I ran the first Southern Oregon all pinot noir tasting in 1981, at my business, the Ashland Wine Cellar. The price was $3 a person to taste these wines. I stuck in two French Burgundies among the eight Oregon pinots and let the dice roll. At the end of the evening, one French Burgundy landed the first slot, Eyrie second, and the second French Burgundy came in third. Beforehand, I had handed out a chart on wine descriptors listing adjectives from really poor taste sensations to those adjectives that highlighted fine taste sensations. I understand today that this tasting between France and Oregon was probably not very fair on many levels but, nonetheless, it was illuminating.

The five bottom wines rated very poorly with words such as "microbial," "stinky" and "thin" as key poor taste sensation write-ins. A couple of the wines were very "corked" and there was volatile acidity in almost every Oregon wine sampled except for the Eyrie. Overall tasting notes did not bode well for my new state and I went home feeling downcast.

Shortly thereafter, I was asked to judge the Oregon State Fair, and tasted 30 or so pinot noirs. There were judges from New York, Chicago and Napa Valley. I believe this was in 1983, and I was moved by the improvement in just a couple of years on the overall quality of Oregon pinot noir. The wines had lost much of their flat flavors and had replaced heavy wood and microbial flavors with real elegance. This was a good thing for the industry to have "professionals" from very wine-savvy places taste pretty good pinot from Oregon. I think about 15 percent of those entered took home medals, which was a very nice showing for such a young industry.

One of the crazy notions which filled many of the bottles of Oregon pinot noir at that time, was the belief that "more" was "better" in the winemaking scene. I remember so many pinots with horrendous amounts of new oak as well as an elephant foot on the press. Many, and I would say the majority of pinot, were way over-oaked and tannic as a result of very heavy-handed winemaking. This heavy-handedness came from either inexperience or a misunderstanding of the delicate balance pinot noir requires to be made into a nice bottle of wine. By 1990, there were still some microbial problems, but the heaviness seen earlier in the pinots had, for the most part, disappeared. What remained were wines which smelled, felt and tasted like the grape, not of a freshly hosed wooden deck.

The other nice thing which happened was improved vineyard management. This increase in fine practice management of vineyards resulted in better raw material for the cellar. Practices such as dropping the tonnage to quality levels, as well as canopy management, understanding where pinot did well and where it did poorly resulted in some very nice, moderate, high-quality yields. Today, as I look back these 31 years, I am profoundly proud of what these fine men and women have achieved in the world of not only pinot noir but in the overall scope of the Oregon wine scene. I am very excited to experience what lies ahead and how, today, Oregon is really making an impact not only on the national wine scene but on the worldwide scene as well.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.

Share This Story