The Oak leaves are unfurling across the Willamette Valley and along with the Scotch Broom in bright yellow bloom, the lilac and wisteria in explosive aromatic perfume and the birds and frogs driving everyone who keeps their windows open crazy….. it is officially springtime in Oregon’s Willamette Valley!
Unlike the past two winters which were deeply dark and terribly wet and reminiscent of a Tim Burton film, this winter was short and sweet; almost as if it did not happen. We enjoyed many mild days with clear weather and even a whole mess of sunshine which helped the cold months fly right on by. We saw much less of the shades of grey and dark turquoise and much more of the baby blue white and gold in the skies. Is this a sign of things to come? Are we seeing a shift in the La Niña weather pattern which has been hovering over us incessantly for the past two years like that dark cloud over Winnie the Pooh’s Donkey friend Eeyore or the dust cloud which obscured that unfortunate messy kid in Charlie Brown’s gang? Too soon to tell, but I’m going to guesstimate an excited and exasperated YES.
Now let me back up a moment if you will, because many of you have heard me praise the cool, late and less than sunshiny
vintages of 2011 and 2010 as: “two of my favorite back to back Oregon vintages ever” and you are correct. I did say that. It goes along with my new theory and that is this: “The years that are hardest on the human spirit can make the most uniqe and sometimes the greatest of wines.” 2011 and 2010 were indeed cooler and later years than most. And we did see more rain in spring and summer months than in recent memory. In fact at one point during each vintage I honestly wondered if we would ripen fruit at all and, was mentally walking myself through the theoretical steps of how one would appeal to the government for emergency relief funds and wondering if my neighbors were doing the same. But lo, it only took a few brief moments of panic to quickly remember why I was growing wine grapes in Oregon….why the pioneering families had come to Oregon against all odds to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay when their Californian counterparts had warned them that it simply could not be done? Cool climate varietals only express their true majesty in a cool climate.
So while we were all nervously watching the skies and listening to visitors in our tasting rooms saying things like “Well I have never seen such bad summertime weather in all my life, and I’m from Iceland” our Pinot Noir grapes were slowly and steadily and happily ripening to perfection. And it took two whole years of suffering to discover what we already knew. There is a reason Oregon stays green all year long. There is a reason why Portland has so many more of the greatest coffee roasters, beer brewers and artisan distillers per capita than anywhere else in America. There is a reason why our state animals are Ducks and Beavers and our tree is the Douglass Fir and not the palm tree……..
It is cool in Oregon. It rains a lot here. We’re all kind of pale, somewhat bloated and marginally depressed or exasperated with the rains, but we’re creative as hell, definitely thirsty, armed with an insatiable appetite for Chanterelle mushrooms and anything that has bacon on it and the sometimes miserable climate and all that it brings just happens to be perfect for crafting world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnays. When the sun does shine in Oregon (which often times can be most of May, June, July, August and September and sometimes October, with many days in November and February possible….) It is one of the most utopian places on earth. But that being said, we still cram fruits and vegetables into preserving cans like jealous hoarders while sipping IPA’s and mashing grapes with our feet in hopes of experiencing a little “bottled sunshine” effect while in the depths of December’s den.
In short, the 2011 and 2010 vintages are nothing short of a pair of brilliant success stories. They re-tell the Oregon story as it was then and as it is today. These vintage wines refresh our spirits and palates and remind us that wines can be gorgeous and complex at alcohol levels below 13.5%. They remind us of the giants whose shoulders I have been riding upon throughout my 14 year career here in Oregon. Men and women with names like Lett, Erath, Ponzi, Adelsheim, Campbell and others who had to face vintages like 2011 and 2010 with borrowed farm equipment and amateur wine knowledge in a wild new landscape that they knew little about and in a wine economy and market that cared very little, if at all, about Oregon Pinot Noir. But they did have a strong feeling that it would work. And now look at the fruits of their labors; 45 years later Oregon Pinot Noir is not only a world class wine category but also an achievement of enormous proportions for the Pacific Northwest and the new world of wine.
Only after all of the crocus and daffodil flowers have pushed and wilted, cherry blossoms have bloomed and fallen, leaves of all shapes and sizes have budded out on all of the trees, the honey bees are busy at work, and the rose festival has bid farewell to its last sailor and packed up the Ferris wheel, only then will the grapevine buds swell and burst open with young shoots reaching skyward. Now it is officially spring and now it is time to get busy making some 2012 Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnays!