Oregon's wine explosion

There are no guarantees, but the industry is poised for big growth

The human mind seems predisposed to frame information in the context of the present. Only with difficulty does it look backward, and only with great difficulty does it look forward. But looking backward can be constructive and can inform us in looking forward.

Those musings stem from recent developments in the local wine industry. Seen in the context of its relatively recent and humble beginnings, they suggest we may be in the early stages of a rocket ride, but also warn us rockets can come crashing to earth with frightening suddenness.

The world first took notice of Oregon wine in the late '70s and early '80s, when local wines achieved blind-tasting breakthroughs against Burgundy's legendary grand crus. Other signal developments occurred when Burgundy's Maison Joseph Drouhin set up shop, Washington giant Ste. Michelle bought Erath, and the Austin family developed the opulent Allison Inn.

More recently, the local NW Wine Co. joined two national heavyweights, Washington's Precept Wine and California's Jackson Family Wines, in making vineyard purchases in the 400-acre range. Now comes word Jackson has acquired the showplace Grand Cru Estates winery in Yamhill, and Burgundy's Maison Louis Jadot has decided to give the Yamhill Valley another French connection.

We've often heard it suggested the Yamhill Valley is at or near the saturation point. Where else could another acre of vines possibly take root, ask locals eyeing vines covering one rolling hill after another.

For a little perspective, consider this: The Mayacomo, Callajoman, Kymus, Napa, Ulcus and Soscol tribes held what is now Napa County, California's premier wine county, all to themselves until the Spanish arrived in 1776. The Spanish proceeded to incorporate the area into Mexico, and it remained part of that country until 1848.

George Young planted the first grapevine in 1839 on his Mexican rancho, and John Patchett founded the first winery in 1859. Charles Krug followed two years later, and an industry was born.

It all came crashing down with the advent of Prohibition in 1920. During the ensuing 13 years, what had been one of America's foremost producers of wine morphed into one of its leading producers of prunes.

But today, 43,000 of Napa's 482,000 acres — 8.9 percent — are planted in winegrapes. That compares with about 7,000 of 458,000 acres in Yamhill County, or 1.5 percent, and 20,000 acres in the entire state. Napa counts about 450 wineries, similar to Oregon statewide, and some operate on a scale that dwarfs anything in our state. Yamhill County, almost identical to Napa in land area, has about 175 wineries.

Napa's neighboring Sonoma County is 6.3 percent planted, with 1,300 vineyards encompassing 64,000 acres serving 300 wineries. The concentration of plantings in Burgundy, where winemaking dates back centuries, is several times as high.

What to make of the comparisons? What goes up may well come back down, and for reasons utterly or largely unforeseen. Things change.

But assuming global warming doesn't do us in and politics delivers no blows on the Prohibition scale, the Burgundy, Napa and Sonoma models tell us the local wine industry still has potential for massive growth. We haven't necessarily seen anything yet.

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