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Willamette Valley’s Early History Through Wine

Willamette Valley’s Early History

Willamette Valley 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 historical events that have shaped the Valley’s wine industry. We’ll also delve into some of the region’s oldest vineyards and wineries. So, join us as we journey through Willamette Valley’s 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 settle in its fertile lands.

Skip forward to the 1840s when a wave of immigrants mostly from the Mississippi Valley arrived in the Willamette Valley. These settlers, drawn by accounts of the Valley’s rich farmlands 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 become a successful industry), grew crops, and began to raise livestock.

A Taste of the Past: Touring Willamette Valley’s Early History Through Wine
View of the Dundee Hills facing East. Willamette Valley, Oregon.

The Willamette 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 a 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.

Did you know? The oldest winery in Willamette Valley is David and Diana Lett’s Eyrie Vineyard followed by Dick Erath’s Erath Winery (first plantings 1968-69).

Ernest Reuter would go on to gain recognition for his wine made from 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 the early beginnings of Willamette Valley wine history, 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 an unknown region when it came to wine production. The progenitors of the Willamette Valley wine industry, like Lett, took a gamble on Pinot Noir, and it paid off. Willamette Valley is now world famous for its Pinot Noir, and it is the most popular grape in the region. 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.

Did You Know: In 1970 Willamette Valley had only 5 wineries, today that number has increased to over 900!

Sunset over Dundee vineyard in Willamette History
Winter sunset over a 1974 vineyard planting in the Dundee Hills AVA

Some of the Oldest Wineries in the Willamette Valley

In addition to Eyrie, Erath, Ponzi and a few other of the earliest wineries, here is a list of some additional wineries of the late 1960s through 1990s in the Willamette Valley.

Ken Wright Cellars

Ken Wright Cellars was 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 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.

Bethel Heights

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. They discovered the area possessed a unique terroir, and the combination of climate, soil, and vines were perfectly suited to producing world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Since then, the Casteel family has been devoted to creating wines of excellence, taking great care in their farming and winemaking practices. Their commitment to natural winemaking 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.

Bethel Heights is regarded as one of the original 10 wineries in Willamette Valley.

Beaux Frères

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 2,200 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.

Beaux Freres Winery in Willamette History
Beaux Freres Winery in the Ribbon Ridge AVA

Knudsen Vineyards

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 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 that the best wine producers in the region have come to rely on.

Arteberry Maresh

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 plant Pinot Noir in 1970 was a prescient one as the vineyard has been a premier source of high-quality Pinot Noir grapes ever since. Their son, Jim took over the family legacy in 2005 and continues the Maresh family’s significant contributions to the region’s wine industry.

Rex Hill

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 their commitment has helped cement the entire region’s reputation for producing high-quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The result of the vineyard’s focus on meticulous farming and attention to detail are wines that consistently rank among the 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.

Grape harvest at Shea Wine Cellars
Harvest at Shea Wine Cellars in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA

One of the Originals: Adelsheim

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.

A Legacy Winery 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.

Did you know? Patty Green has the distinction of being Oregon’s first female winemaker. She spent more than 30 years in winemaking before her passing in 2017 and her winery’s acclaimed wines truly showcase the region’s terroir.

Couple in wine history at Patricia Green Estate
Wine Tasting at Patricia Green Cellars in the old refurbished home now serving as the Tasting Room.

A Deep Story about Willamette Valley’s 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’s 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 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 Oregon 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 Oregon 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 Noirs in the world: proof that the best fruits come as a result of struggle.

Final Thoughts

Today the Willamette Valley is a dynamic, exciting place that 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. 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.

Want to read more on Oregon wine? Try out these books!

Oregon Wine BeginningsThe First Willamette Vineyards

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