Willamette Valley Early History
Much has been written about the history of the Willamette Valley. In this article, we’ll explore the area’s founding and discuss a few key early history events that have shaped the Valley’s wine industry over the course of its history. And we’ll also delve into some of the region’s oldest vineyards and wineries. So, join us as we journey through the Willamette Valley’s early history.
The Founding of the Willamette Valley
The world-famous Willamette Valley, which lies in the heart of Oregon wine country is bounded on the west by the Oregon Coast Range and the Cascades to the east. This area was first explored in 1806 by feted American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Their brief expedition to the northern edge of the valley did much to open the way for subsequent American settlers to find this beautiful valley and open up its fertile farmland.
Skip forward to the 1840s when a wave of immigrants mostly from the Mississippi Valley arrived in the Willamette Valley. These settlers, drawn by the accounts of the valley’s good farmland and mild climate, came to the region with a strong desire to make their way in this untamed frontier. The immigrants built temporary shelters until they could carve out permanent homes. They cleared the land of its thick forest and stumps (logging had not yet come into full swing), grew crops, and began to raise livestock.
A Tradition Begins
There is much conjecture as to who first introduced the region’s now-iconic wine grapes. According to Paul Pintarich in his 1997 tome The Boys Up North, it was Henderson Luellen in 1847 who was the first to plant wine grapes in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. However, Luellen’s grape cultivation was for his own wine production and consumption purposes, and it wasn’t until the 1880s that the wine industry began to emerge in the Willamette Valley. At this time, several German immigrant vintners, including Edward and John Von Pessi and Ernest Reuter, began producing small amounts of wine for sale.
Ernest Reuter would go on to gain recognition for his klevner (German for pinot blanc) which he made from grapes harvested from Wine Hill, which is just west of Forest Grove, the modern-day site of the David Hill Winery.
The Willamette Wine Industry Begins to Flourish
Despite its early beginnings, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the Willamette wine industry began to flourish. By that stage, the population of the region had grown, and it was becoming increasingly clear that Willamette Valley vineyards were capable of producing high-quality wines.
When David Lett planted the first Vitis vinifera vines in the volcanic red Jory soils of the Dundee Hills in 1966, he had no way of knowing that he was laying the foundation for a booming industry. At the time, Oregon was a relatively unknown region when it came to wine production, and most vineyards were focused on producing other cool climate varieties like pinot gris and chardonnay. The progenitors of the Willamette Valley wine industry, like Lett, took a gamble on pinot noir, and it paid off. This varietal is what the region is world famous for today and has brought home huge amounts of success and accolades for the region’s wine producers. Indeed, in 2021 it was a Willamette Valley winery that took home a Best of Show honor for Pinot Noir (the first such occurrence at the annual Oregon Wine Competition). Four other Willamette Valley wines received Best of Class honors.
Growth of the Modern Willamette Wine Industry
Willamette Valley had a meager 5 bonded wineries and only 35 acres of vines in 1970. Today, the region is home to more than 700 wineries and over 17,200 acres of vines. Most of Willamette Valley’s wine production happens in a 40-mile crescent-shaped region that spans six subregions, or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas): Dundee, Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill Carlton, McMinnville, Eola-Amity Hills, and the Chehalem Mountains.
Some of the Oldest Wineries in the Willamette Valley
Ken Wright Cellars
Ken Wright Cellars is one of the earliest pioneering wineries within the Willamette Valley, having been founded in 1994. Their commitment to sustainability and quality shines through in the execution of every single bottle they produce. Their philosophy is simple: “the craft of wine growing is one of stewardship rather than manipulation.” With this in mind, the Wright team works hard to source the finest grapes from some of the oldest and most highly-regarded vineyards within the region. This commitment to excellence, combined with their commitment to organic certified practices, has earned them well-deserved recognition as one of the most respected wineries in the Willamette Valley. By carefully studying the soil, vines, and tasting each vineyard personally, Ken Wright Cellars guarantees that the final product truly showcases nature’s true character.
The journey of Bethel Heights began over four decades ago when the Casteel family arrived at an abandoned Walnut Grove in the Eola Hills district. What they discovered there was their own unique terroir, a place where the combination of climate, soil, and vines were perfectly suited to producing world-class pinot noir and chardonnay. Since that time, the Casteel family has been devoted to creating wines of excellence, taking great care in their farming and winemaking practices. Their commitment to natural winemaling practices, as well as their commitment to sustainability and organic winemaking, has earned them a reputation for producing some of the most sought-after wines in all of Oregon.
Beaux Frères is one of the Willamette Valley’s earliest artisanal vineyards, planting its first vines in 1988. Those original Pinot Noir vines are now a seasoned 35 years old, numbering about 2200 plants to the acre and producing some of the region’s most coveted wines. Beaux Frères has continued to focus on crafting select small-lot bottlings each vintage since its founding, creating spectacular expressions of Oregon terroir which continue to be highly sought after by wine enthusiasts around the world.
The Lee Family’s early history in Dundee Hills is representative of the early history of winemaking in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In 1971, the Lee’s bought a 200-acre former walnut orchard that featured prime grape-growing terrain: two gentle slopes providing the ideal southern exposure, cool evening breezes, and a soil mix perfect for ripening wine grapes. The entire family was involved in the planting of the vineyard, and by 1972, Knudsen Vineyard had 30 acres planted, making it the largest vineyard in the Willamette Valley. By 1975, with 60 acres planted, it was also the largest vineyard in Oregon. The result today is 228 prime acres dedicated to growing the finest Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier grapes that the very best wine producers in the region have come to rely on.
Arteberry Maresh Vineyard is one of the most storied and respected winemaking properties in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Maresh family’s story is intertwined with the early history of Willamette Valley winemaking. Loie and Jim Maresh Sr. originally purchased the 27-acre hilltop farm in the Red Hills of Dundee in 1959. The Maresh Farm was eventually expanded to over 140 acres as adjacent farms were put up for sale. The decision to pinot noir in 1970 was a prescient one as the vineyard has been a premier source of high-quality pinot noir grapes ever since. Son Jim took over the family legacy in 2005 and continues the Maresh family’s significant contributions to the region’s wine industry.
Originally a pig farm before being transformed into a commune and finally brought to life as a vineyard in 1982 by Paul Hart and Jan Jacobsen, Rex Hill is considered amongst the region’s oldest pinot noir vineyards still producing today. Rex Hill has been crafting elegant pinot noirs in the Willamette Valley for over three decades and it’s commitment has helped cement the entire region’s reputation for producing high-quality pinot noir and chardonnay. The product of the vineyard’s focus on meticulous farming and serious attention to detail are wines that consistently ranked amongst the very best the region has to offer.
Shea Wine Cellars
In 1989, Dick Shea had a vision. He wanted to create a vineyard that would be the culmination of the very best techniques learned during the early years of Willamette Valley wine production. He wanted to grow grapes using a massal selection of vine stock from the region’s finest vineyards and he wanted to implement sustainable farming practices. His vision came to fruition when he planted Shea Vineyard on the sedimentary soils of Yamhill County. Today, that 200-acre vineyard is one of the most respected wineries in Oregon, known for producing some of the best pinot noirs in the world.
In the early 1970s, Oregon was not yet known for its wine. But that didn’t deter David and Ginny Adelsheim from taking a risk and planting their first vineyard, Quarter Mile Lane. The Adelsheims were part of a small group of families who saw the potential of Oregon’s wine industry and were willing to invest in it. Over the years, their hard work and dedication have paid off. Today, apart from being one of the largest and most celebrated wineries in all of Oregon, Adelsheim is also a live-certified sustainable winery. Dedicated to producing the best wines possible while also preserving the land for future generations, it’s safe to say these early pioneers of Willamette Valley winemaking have truly left a lasting impact on the region.
One of the Oldest Wineries in the Willamette Valley
Founded in 1986, Patricia Green Cellars is known for its highly sought after selection of pinot noirs that hail from vineyards spread across Oregon’s wine-producing regions. The winery is located in the Ribbon Ridge district of Yamhill County and bears the name of owner Patricia Green. Patricia has spent more than 30 years in winemaking and her acclaimed wines truly showcase the region’s terroir.
A Deep Story about Willamette Valley Wine Production
Louis Pasteur once wrote that “A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world.” In many ways, this single quote sums up much of the history of Willamette Valley wine production.
The story of Willamette Valley wine is one of perseverance, dedication, and hard work. David Lett believed that the best wines come from areas where the grapes have a more difficult time ripening. So, he armed himself with 3,000 vine cuttings and went to the Willamette Valley in 1965.
Lett could see the potential the area had for producing great wines and he knew that if he wanted to make his vision a reality, he would need to put in a lot of hard work. He planted his first vines on a small plot of land in Dundee and began to experiment with different techniques for growing grapes.
In 1970, Lett’s first vintage of pinot noir proved so personally disappointing that he couldn’t bring himself to label and sell it as pinot noir. Instead, he euphemistically called it ‘Spring Wine’. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later in 1979 that Lett produced a pinot noir the likes of which he knew he was capable of. For the first time ever, Lett had produced an American pinot noir that could hold its own against Burgundies in a blind tasting in Paris. This was a turning point for both Lett and the American wine industry. For Lett, it was a moment of validation – proof that his wines could stand up to the very best in the world. For the American wine industry, it was a sign that it could produce world-class wines that were both distinctive and delicious. Today, Lett’s legacy continues at Eyrie Vineyards, where his son Jason is making some of the most acclaimed pinot noir in the world: proof positive that the best fruits of one’s labor come as a result of struggle.
The Willamette Valley today is a dynamic, exciting place and produces some of the best wines in the world. Home to more than 700 wineries, this region truly has something for everyone. Whether it be the history, the terroir, or the dedication of the winemakers themselves, there is something undeniably special about Willamette Valley wines. And whether you’re a die-hard wine connoisseur or just a casual sipper, there’s something for you here. Taking a tour through Willamette Valley is a great way to experience the history and excitement of this region while enjoying some of its finest wines. Not only will a great Oregon wine tour teach you all about the beautiful wine this region is famous for, but it will also educate you about the early history of the region and impart some deep stories for you to take away.
So what are you waiting for? Book your Willamette Valley tour with Wine History Tours today! We specialize in bringing you the best of Willamette Valley’s history and viniculture. Contact us today and let our expert guide show you an unforgettable Willamette Valley wine tour.