From “Emerging” to “Established:” Lessons and Suggestions to Develop an Emerging Wine Region

By: Denise M. Gardner

It’s hard to believe the Willamette Valley was nothing more than a handful of individuals with a passion for planting grapes in the unknown territory of Oregon 50 years ago.  Today, the valley is a mosaic of hillside vineyards, farmland, and architecturally stunning wineries that decorate the land.  A quick visit to McMinnville puts you right into the heart of Oregon’s wine country, and around every corner is a constant reminder that Oregon produces wine.

View of Willamette Valley from Penner-Ash Vineyards

View of Willamette Valley from Penner-Ash Wine Cellars

 

Penner-Ash Wine Cellars

Penner-Ash Wine Cellars

 

View of the Willamette Valley from Bethel Heights Vineyard.

View of the Willamette Valley from Bethel Heights Vineyard.

The Willamette Valley in Oregon is a great example of an emerging wine region that managed to “turn the tides” and be considered a serious wine-growing region for North America in such a short timeframe.  Very few regions have managed such “overnight” success, although in talking with some of the founding producers, one can see that it was not an easy road.

Listed below are a series of memories, suggestions, and lessons that I recorded in talking to some of today’s premier wine producers in the Willamette Valley.  While I learned various skills utilized on the production floor, I found myself captivated by the genuine way people in the wine industry documented their growth and current success.  Such ideas are, perhaps, pivotal for emerging producers in Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic regions that want to expand their reputation beyond that of the local radius and into the glasses of connoisseurs around the world.

One: Education is Key

One of the first things that several of the winemakers expressed as a necessity for emerging regions was education.  The market professionals (i.e., sommeliers, chefs, distributors), consumers, and industry members all need to be addressed and educated in some way.

Some winemakers were quick to admit that the founding fathers of Oregon’s Willamette Valley did not know what they were doing all of the time.  Many were coming from UC Davis’s viticulture and enology program, which focused on production in California.  To grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, new growers knew they needed a cooler climate, which is what led them to Willamette.  However, the change in climate brought its own challenges in disease pressure, figuring out which grapevine clones were best suited for Willamette’s terroir, and how to make wine that not only represented the region, but would be valued by consumers as well.

However, the one tie that kept everyone together was education.  Growers and winemakers worked together extensively with one end goal: make good wine.

Nothing captures the motivation and awareness of improvement more than the 2012 documentary, “Oregon Wine: Grapes of Place,” which you can watch free on your personal computer: Oregon Wine: Grapes of Place OPB Special

Investment in education for the industry requires:

  • Awareness of quality (what makes a good wine)
  • Adhering to quality standards in the vineyard and in the winery.  True, quality starts in the vineyard, but it ends in the winery. It is not good enough to adhere to good viticultural practices while putting the production of wine at a lower degree of importance.
  • Bring in expertise and listen to their criticisms or suggestions.  It is not easy to have someone comment on a wine that you love; I know.  But, as a winemaker, it is your responsibility to learn and adapt.  Understand the perspective of these people and work with them.  It will progress quality farther than you can do alone.
  • Value education and research; support it.  Focused research answers questions that cannot be answered in the field, alone.  Additionally, educational institutions should provide forums for conversation so that they can also learn from the industry.
Oregon State University Teaching Winery

Oregon State University Teaching Winery

The second component to this is education for the market and consumers: it is up to the wine industry to convince people they are making good wine.  The first step in this is to make good wine.  (You have to know the answer as to what makes good wine.  See above.)

It was not surprising to me that one winemaker expressed that she still needs to work hard to sell wine.  Despite the years of success that the Willamette industry has had, she indicated that it’s still a challenge to get the retail industry and consumers to adapt to new things.  I think the lesson in this is: it will never be easy.  As the winery, you will also have to work to push your product, even if the winery grows or gains worldwide attention.  Preparing for that challenge can be a huge advantage as more consumers become aware of your product.

Two: Adapt to Growing Pains

One theme that was brought up routinely through my visit to Willamette was the fact that “in the beginning” of the industry, people sought out individuals that had expertise and they took the time to learn what they did not know.  This is quite a humbling experience for individuals that may not have had the expertise in winemaking that they initially wanted.  However, overcoming this hurdle and taking suggestions from all employees really helped progress the quality of Oregon wines forward.

Many wineries also invested in gaining outside experience: getting an education at UC Davis, consulting with individuals from Burgundy, or studying in Burgundy for a base education in making Pinot Noir, for example. Through this education and experience, they made changes to grape growing and winemaking practices within the region quickly.

How can wineries in the Mid-Atlantic improve their knowledge base or production techniques?  Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Hire employees that have expertise in the job.  Do not assume you can teach anyone winemaking; it is not a recipe.  All established regions eventually get to this point, which requires alterations to how the business aspect of the industry functions.
  • Offer to help fund educational opportunities for your employees that may need to understand more about their job at hand.  There are many programs available to do this, including the online Harrisburg Area Community College Viticulture and Enology Associates Degree program and local Extension programs.
  • Encourage your production staff to participate in “harvest-hop” experiences.  (See below)
  • Organize and work together, and assume you will not always agree, but your agenda should be the same to be effective.  If you watch the documentary above, extensive collaboration amongst the wineries was key to their early success.  They swam and sank together.  This got the industry political power and allowed them to be pioneers in enhancing their wines with the support of each other.  One difference with the Oregon wine industry, however, is that they were varietally-focused on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris from the onset of the industry’s development.  While this may not be the case for a state like Pennsylvania, it does not mean that a few varieties could not be set aside to start improving upon collaboratively, while allowing room and growth for the various other products produced at individual wineries.

Quote_Dick Erath

  • Identify your niche as an industry and go after it.  In the case of Oregon, this niche became recognition that they were not Burgundy Pinot Noir and they were not California Pinot Noir.  They were somewhere in the middle, in their own niche market, and they gained local support as well as industry recognition. After hearing the recent lecture on wine typicity and terroir at last week’s Pennsylvania Quality Assurance (PQA) workshop, I realized that Willamette is still working to define Willamette Pinot Noir typicity.  The fun thing about being in their current position is that in tasting a lot of wines, one can actually see a typicity emerge.
  • Do not underestimate the ability to be creative.  Pennsylvania routinely debates whether the industry can be taken seriously given the high production of sweet native varieties or various formula wines.  However, I will note that even within an established, serious wine industry, one could find hints of creativity that had mass appeal.  One of my favorite examples of this was Cugini Sparkling Grape Juice from Ponzi Vineyards.  When made well, these products or other wine styles can help gain market share.  However, quality is important in these products, too.  They cannot be an outlet for flawed product with a hope of gaining reputation.
Cugini Sparkling Grape Juice by Ponzi Vineyards

Cugini Sparkling Grape Juice by Ponzi Vineyards

  • Scaling Up Requires Adaptation.  One challenge that is noticeable in any food production facility is the natural growing pains that come with increasing production volume: the product does not taste the same, parameters cannot be monitored the same was as they had in the past, techniques need to be altered, more staff is required for maintenance, etc.  The greatest lesson I learned in Oregon is to prepare for these changes.  Search out industry expertise that can help you avoid mistakes.
The addition to A to Z Vineyards production facilities.

The addition to A to Z Vineyards production facilities.

While not a growing pain, per se, but something I noticed: many of the productions stayed relatively small over time.  Most fermentations were taking place in 2 – 3 ton fermenters, and there was a general preference to keep processing operations on the smaller side.

2 - 3 ton fermentors were preferred by most wineries visited in Willamette Valley

2 – 3 ton fermentors were preferred by most wineries visited in Willamette Valley

This allowed greater control over individual lots and flexibility in blending.  Most productions maintained a portfolio of under 20 wines, but may have had hundreds of separate lots or barrels that were blended together to create a specific wine.

What was interesting to me was to taste the various vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs and find very dramatic differences (and preferences) for the wines.  Blending is a valuable tool to winery, and having the knowledge of how to utilize this technique can be quite advantageous to an emerging region, especially one with a varying annual climate.

Three: Gain Experience

This is a big one, and it can seem daunting.  However, all wine regions stem from humble beginnings.  It is possible to gain experiences that help shape the quality of winemaking over time.

Humble beginnings on display at Ponzi Vineyards' tasting room

Humble beginnings on display at Ponzi Vineyards’ tasting room

Harvest Hops: Harvest hopping involves jumping between the north and south hemispheres to participate in harvests (the southern hemisphere harvest in our winter months).  Many people on the west coast utilize a few years of harvest hopping to gain experience and knowledge about various winemaking practices.  This not only improves an individual’s education, but also provides confidence in the cellar.  Not to mention that the enhanced awareness of wine quality from a different region improves the winemaker’s sensory perceptions.

Educate Children That May Take Over the Family Business: If your children have an interest in production, make them get an education in the area before signing them onto the family business.  Most of the successful wineries require future generations to get some sort of education before joining the family business, and in the case of production, many require their kids to go oversees to get other production experiences that can help grow and change the family winery.  This not only helps progress the business, but facilitates long-term planning.

Attend Educational Events: One large difference that I saw in Oregon compared to other wine regions is the value they place in educating themselves routinely.  People make a large effort to attend research-based and trouble-shooting meetings on an annual basis.  They recognize the value in education and that there is always something new to learn.

If you would like to be better aware of educational and research opportunities in Pennsylvania:

Train Your Palate: This is a key skill that is required to make high quality wines.  It’s also a great skill to learn to enhance selling strategies to consumers.  Knowing wines pertaining to various regions and producers expands your palate memory.  From a winemaking perspective, it can help alter processing decisions to tailor the style of your wine.  From a retail perspective, it can help more formally communicate with consumers and make more wine suggestions (from your winery) that is tailored to their preferences.

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