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'14 Tour Guide

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Washington and Oregon share hundreds of miles of border. They are the second and fourth leading wine producing states in the nation and together have well over 1,000 wineries between them. Yet the two areas could not seem more different, almost as if there were an invisible divide between them.

Let’s start with a simple lay of the land and physical appearance. It can be summed up quite simply. Oregon wine country is green; Washington wine country is not.

The majority of Oregon’s grape growing regions are located west of the Cascade crest, where a prolonged rainy season followed by a short, relatively dry summer is the hallmark of the area. Regions of the Willamette Valley can have an average of 40 to 80 inches of rainfall annually.

In contrast, virtually all of Washington’s vineyards are located east of the Cascade crest. In the deserts of eastern Washington, summer temperatures regularly exceed 90-100 degrees and precipitation is minimal. Some of the wettest areas of eastern Washington’s growing regions receive about 20 inches of precipitation annually. Many have less than half that.

There are, obviously, profound ramifications to these differences in terms of what grapes can be grown, the need for irrigation, water rights, disease pressure, etc. The difference in climates also has an enormous impact on the variation between vintages.

Washington is known for its dry, relatively consistent temperatures during the growing season. Yes, there are considerable differences between vintages but the range is, generally, fairly tight. In contrast, Oregon growers and winemakers are truly at the full mercy of each vintage, with differences in temperature and rainfall making significant differences in the quality and style of each vintage.

The differences in climate also affect the visceral experience visiting the areas. Having spent many years traveling through arid eastern Washington, the lush, green, rolling hills of the Willamette Valley seem almost shocking on each visit. One vineyard I recently went to had moss growing on the vines. I’m not sure that there’s moss anywhere in eastern Washington, let alone on the vines.

There are also tremendous differences in soils. Both Washington and Oregon were dramatically affected by the Missoula Floods, a series of massive, cataclysmic events caused by the repeated rupturing of the ice dam at Glacial Lake Missoula over ten thousand years ago. In Washington, the majority of plantings are below the levels of the flood, with the relative location dictating the specific soil types.

In contrast, in Oregon, many of the vineyards are planted above the Missoula Flood levels. The flood soils make up the floor of the Willamette Valley but are considered by some to be too vigorous for vinifera. Instead, vineyards are planted on the hills of the valley above the level of the floods with many of the soils volcanic in nature.

These differences in weather and soil have allowed phylloxera, a vineyard scourge, to take its toll in places in Oregon. This pest has devastated numerous New and Old World growing regions. Washington, however, has not had issues with phylloxera to date, though some have planted their vineyards on resistant rootstock.

One of the defining differences is, obviously, that over the years, Oregon has successfully defined itself with a single, signature grape. While there are significant plantings of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling, the finicky Pinot Noir rules the day in Oregon in terms of plantings and production. No other grape is even close. Heck, Oregon even had its own Riedel Pinot Noir glass (now called the Vinum XL Pinot Noir glass)!

While Oregon’s strong association with Pinot Noir has created some challenges in other areas of the state, like Southern Oregon, where there is a greater diversity of plantings, it has helped the state make a name for itself nationally and internationally. Oregon Pinot Noir. Meanwhile Washington continues to experiment with a multitude of different grapes - and don’t look for Riedel to be offering Washington wine stemware any time soon unless it's an all purpose glass.

Another difference is that Oregon has both vineyards and wineries close to a major metropolitan area, Portland. This provides easy access for wine tourists as well as a large, nearby consumer base. While Woodinville is in close proximity to Seattle and has a large and growing wine scene, the vineyards are almost all several hours or more away from the wineries.

This makes for a considerably different visitor experience. Many travel to spots in Washington wine country and ask, “Where are the vineyards?” In Oregon, there is no question where the vineyards are. They are often right in front of you and if not are nearby.

It is also notable that while many Oregon producers source grapes from different sites, there are considerably more wineries that focus on estate fruit compared to Washington. Many of these wineries are located within their vineyards, with some even having homes there. In contrast, the majority of Washington wineries source fruit from a variety of different vineyards, and most are physically detached from the places that they buy fruit from.

These are just a handful of the differences between these two regions. To me, these differences are fascinating and profound. The two wine regions are unique but also very much complementary. In many ways, Washington and Oregon have been on their own parallel paths. It seems strange that there are not more intersections between the regions because there are such great synergies.

This is why, as I noted at the beginning of the year, my intention is to begin covering Oregon wine in addition to Washington wine. Because I believe there is a great story to be told, not just of Washington wine and of Oregon wine, but of Northwest wine.

Now that I’ve got my feet wet – literally - look for reviews and write-ups of Oregon wine in the coming weeks and months.

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7 comments

  1. Unknown Says:
  2. Good article Sean. When Pike and Western first opened, and for several years after, we promoted "Pacific Northwest" wines since the combined number of wineries in both states was minuscule compared to today. And when we would show people a map we could point out the both vineyard areas are similar distances from Seattle.

    The combination of the two regions makes for an extremely dynamic wine producing region regardless of "borders".

    Michael Teer
    Pike and Western Wine Shop
    Soul Wine

     
  3. Sean, great compare/contrast of two great wine-growing states. I was in Oregon (and Washington) this fall and enjoyed the Pinot Noirs for sure, but found myself drinking more Pinot Gris. I think they are very underrated and should definitely get more attention since there are some wonderful PGs in Oregon. As for Washington, I haven't found a white wine that I am blown away by. Fidelitas Semillon is the primary white wine that I drink from the area, but my cellar is filled with way more Washington reds than anything else as I generally find Washington does a great job with the bigger reds. If there's a solid white that I am missing from Washington, let me know.

     
  4. Anonymous Says:
  5. We need to do more in marketing NW wines to the rest of the world. Oregon will be working with Washington at the VinExpo in Hong Kong next month. More joint efforts will help the region tell it's compelling story.

     
  6. Really glad you'll be paying attention to Oregon wines as well; Oregon wines were my gateway pour to Washington wines.

     
  7. And yet the Oregon Wine Board has to promote appellations that are generally considered "Washington" (Walla Walla Valley, Columbia Valley) because grape growers on the Oregon side of those AVAs pay into the Oregon Wine Board. Of course the Oregon-side growers in the Walla Walla Valley and the Columbia Valley want their money's worth from the OWB, which seems guaranteed to result in some consumer confusion, between State-branding and AVA-branding.

     
  8. Chris Says:
  9. Very nice article Sean. One minor quibble that you might only expect from me. You write, "Many travel to spots in Washington wine country and ask, “Where are the vineyards?”"

    With all due respect to my winemaking friends on the West side, my answer would be you aren't really in Washington Wine Country if you find yourself asking this question. :)

     
  10. Anonymous Says:
  11. For white wines try McCrea cellars, always love Sirocco Blanc. On the topic of northwest wines really liking the dry Viognier from Cinder Wines in Idaho. Been hearing good things about Semillon from Distefano with new wine maker on staff.

     

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