On the Oregon Trail

By Celia Strong

So, this week we’re going to go to Oregon to see some really good wines.  Interestingly, while Oregon really has built their wine reputation on two specific grapes, we’re going to “discover” others. The wine industry in Oregon dates back to the 1840’s, but it’s just since the 1960”s that’s it’s really become part of what we all think of as the American wine business. Today, with slightly over 300 wineries, a large tourism business has developed around wine tasting.
Wine has been produced in Oregon since 1847,  when the first vines were planted in the Oregon Territory.  Throughout the nineteenth century, there was experimentation with different varietals and in 1904, an Oregon winemaker won a prize at the St. Louis World’s Fair.  During Prohibition, wine making stopped, like everywhere else in the U.S.  After being “dormant” for years, the Oregon wine industry started to rebuild in the 1960’s.  At that point several California winemakers came north across the border and started planting Pinot Noir grapes in the Willamette Valley.  More out-of-state winemakers came in the 1970’s and the Oregon industry started to get organized.  Due to some lucky foresight, the land-use laws of Oregon did not allow the rural hillsides to be used for housing tracts so lots of suitable land was available for vineyards.  In 1979, Eyrie Vineyards entered a 1975 Pinot Noir in the Wine Olympics.  From this point on, Oregon Pinot Noirs have continued to receive international recognition.  During the 1980’s and the 1990’s,  the number of Oregon wineries and the accolades they received continued to grow.  They also developed strong ties to the Burgundy region in France, passed state laws to promote wine making and wine distribution, found a focus on “green” wine making and established several new AVAs.  By 2009, the were 453 wineries in Oregon and they were the third largest wine producer in the United States.
Oregon wines are marketed as “varietals” like those from other states.  The wines are labeled with their grape variety and, by Oregon law, for most varieties the wine must be made from 90% that variety. Pinot Noir is the grape for Oregon’s most famous wines.  The state is regarded as one of the premier Pinot-producing regions in the word.
There are three basic wine producing regions in Oregon.  The Willamette Valley AVA covers about 5,200 square miles and stretches from the Columbia River in the north to just south of Eugene in the south and from the Coast Range in the west to the Cascade Mountains in the east.  It is the largest AVA in Oregon and contains about 200 of the total wineries.  The climate here is mild all year with cool, wet winters and warm,dry summers.  The Southern AVA is a fairly new combination of the Umpqua Valley AVA and the Rogue Valley AVA.  And other AVAs include the Columbia Gorge AVA, the Walla Walla Valley AVA and the Snake River AVA.
Our wines today come from a winery called Firesteed.  This really is a unique winery because until very recently they weren’t a winery at all.  In the early 1990’s, wine consumers in the United States wanted good quality varietal wines at affordable prices.  (So what else is new?)  During those years, Howard Fossbach represented the interests of wineries in the Northwest.  He saw the need for more affordable wines but also knew his clients with wineries and tasting rooms had too much overhead to make more affordable and good bottles of wine.  He came up with a great source of Pinot Noir grapes, a winery with extra room and a highly-regarded winemaker with spare time.  And, in 1992, the first vintage of Firesteed Pinot Noir was made.  For nearly ten years, Firesteed was known as a “virtual winery” because of their unique approach to the business.  They used grapes from various sources and facilities at two different wineries. Finally in 2003, Firesteed was transformed from a “virtual winery.”  They bought a winery about 13 miles west of Salem in the Willamette Valley. Over the following years, their Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris wines have become well known favorites for their quality and price.
But, let’s look at some more unique wines that Firesteed makes — being such a unique winery it’s almost like we need to help maintain some of their eccentricity.  For their white, go Riesling!  Going back a bit, we kind of touched on the relationship between Oregon and Burgundy, France.  This is really because of the similarities in their soils, climates, etc that make their wines what they are.  Well, there’s also a touch of Alsatian soil and climate types in Oregon and that’s where this Riesling comes in. As expensive as Rieslings from Alsace, France, have become, and as good as they always are, this is our chance to enjoy this great variety. The Firesteed Riesling is a combination of fruit, spice and earth characteristics. The grapes ripen slowly in Oregon’s cooler climate which let’s the wines become very complex and layered.  They have aromas of mandarin orange, honeysuckle, lemon zest and melon.  In your glass, the wine starts out dry and crisp and light, but gains weight and texture and a minerally quality.  A perfect sipper for anytime, but a great Thanksgving find as well. And, all for $11?  True.  So don’t miss this one!
For a red wine, we’re going to Firesteed’s Cayella. This wine is the “invention” of Howard Fossbach. It’s name is a mix of several words from local Indian languages, and it is a blend of grapes grown in the Walla Walla and Columbia Valleys. Select batches of cabernet, merlot and Syrah are blended and aged in a combination of old and new barrels.  The wine is medium bodied, smooth and enticing.  It’s flavors include red and black berries, spice, chocolate, plums and so much more.  This is one of those wines that leaves your mouth salivating for more.  And, at $11 a bottle, it seems to me we can oblige.  Firesteed may have been a “virtual winery” but it’s wines sure are the real thing!  Enjoy!

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