The Wine Bunch

Of the News-Register

A lot of ink has been put to paper over the years about Oregon’s wine pioneers—who arrived first, when they founded their wineries, when they planted their first vines and when they made their first wine.

What follows is an effort to sift through all of that and put the proper dates to it. The aim is not so much to establish bragging rights, but to provide an at-a-glance chronology of the origins of one of Oregon’s most dynamic and exciting industries. 

Fortunately, most of the principal players are still around. That’s rarely the case with such historical endeavors. Typically, we’re looking too far back for that.

For the purpose of perspective, let’s start at the very beginning. These folks are long gone. But what they did and when they did it have been reasonably well established.

The first vineyards in this part of the country were planted by Dr. John McLoughlin of the Hudson Bay Co. at Fort Vancouver in the 1820s. Peter Brent and Henderson Luelling brought additional cuttings to Oregon in the 1840s, but the types of grapes they grew and other details have been lost to history.

In the early 20th century, German immigrant Ernest Reuter operated a thriving winery near the Washington County community of Forest Grove. And there were a handful of others.

Then along came Prohibition. Oregon’s smattering of wineries went by the wayside when the so-called “grand social experiment” imposed official abstinence across the land for the next decade and a half.

The year after repeal of the 18th amendment in 1933, what would become Oregon’s first post-Prohibition winery began life as a distillery. Then called Columbia Distillers, the Salem venture was initially dedicated to brandies, cordials and liqueurs.

Later renamed Honeywood Winery in honor of founders Ron Honeyman and John Wood, it remains in operation today. It’s primary focus is fruit and berry wines.

Richard Sommer holds the undisputed distinction of being the first new-wave winemaker to introduce — or, perhaps, reintroduce — vitis vinifera grapes to Oregon. This is the species that accounts for virtually all of the table wines of Europe.

Sommer was an agronomy graduate of the University of California at Davis, the nation’s premier institution for budding winemakers.

When he set out to grow grapes and make wine, he made the then-heretical choice of Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. He established Hillcrest Vineyard near Roseburg in 1961. 

Though the start occurred down south, the heart of the action quickly moved north. Most of the pioneering wineries called the Yamhill Valley home, trailed by the Tualatin Valley.

In 1963, another UC Davis grad, Charles Coury, completed a master’s thesis touting the potential of Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley for cool-climate wine-grape growing. Intent on proving his point, within two years, he had moved to Oregon and purchased property near Forest Grove.

Not coincidentally, this was the same land on which Reuter had operated his vineyard and winery prior to the Prohibition era. Coury was growing grapes on it again by the mid-1960s. It was then known as Vine Hill and is now called David Hill.

Coury’s winery only lasted from 1970 to 1977, and was replaced by Laurel Ridge, so he is often overlooked as the patriarch of northern Oregon wines in favor of his more successful friend and contemporary, David Lett.

Affectionately called “Papa Pinot” by the Oregon industry, Lett joined his wife, Diana, in establishing The Eyrie Vineyard in Dundee in 1966. They used cuttings planted the previous year near Corvallis.

Lett produced his first Eyrie wines in 1970 at a former turkey processing plant in McMinnville. His son, Jason,  assumed the reins as general manager and winemaker in 2005.

With David Lett's death in 2008, Jason joined his mother, Diana, as owner of the Yamhill Valley and northwestern Oregon's oldest ongoing, vinifera-based winery.

Dick Erath came to Dundee in 1968. He planted his first vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains in 1969 and made his first wine in 1972. 

That year, Erath produced all of 216 cases. These days, the winery in the heart of the Dundee Hills is owned by St. Michelle Estates and produces upwards of 70,000 cases a year.

Dick and Nancy Ponzi came to the Willamette Valley from California in the late 1960s. They planted their first vineyard just southwest of Beaverton in 1970 and made their first wine — pinot noir — in 1974.

The Ponzis’ children, Luisa, Maria and Michel, now run the winery. Head winemaker Luisa is married to Eric Hamacher, one of the noted new breed in Oregon winemaking, who co-founded The Carlton Winemakers Studio in 2002.

Tying the Ponzis for first year of operation in Washington County were Ron and Nancy Vuylsteke, who established their Oak Knoll Winery near Hillsboro in 1970.

Oak Knoll’s first varietal wine was a 1974 pinot noir. The winery is also noted for fruit and berry wines, and a sweet white wine made from the native American grape, niagara. 

The Vuylsteke’s five sons are all in wine or related businesses. John and Tom work at Oak Knoll, Steve is general manager at nearby SakéOne, Doug makes wine for Sokol Blosser and Ron II works as a consultant to the California wine industry in the Napa Valley.

The year 1971 saw two more prominent Yamhill County wineries come on the scene — Adelsheim Vineyards in the Chehalem Range off Highway 240 and Sokol Blosser Winery in the Dundee Hills between Dundee and Lafayette.

David and Ginny Adelsheim — that’s pronounced Adels-heim, not Adel-sheim — made their first wine in 1978. After working out of a converted barn for almost two decades, they brought a new, showcase winery on line in 1997.

Bill and Susan Sokol Blosser made their first wine in 1977. Their son, Alex, joined the winery in 1998, and their daughter, Alison, came on board in 2005. The two are now co-presidents of the winery.

The third winery to open in Washington County, Tualatin Estate, was founded northwest of Forest Grove in 1973 by Bill and Virginia Fuller.

Fuller worked for famed Napa Valley winemaker Louis Martini before coming to Oregon. Tualatin, which made its first wines from Washington grapes, had gone all-estate by 1981.

Joe and Pat Campbell established Elk Cove Winery in the coastal hills southwest of Gaston in 1974. They made their first wine three years later. Their son, Adam, assumed the winemaker duties in 1995 and is now general manager.

Myron Redford came to Oregon the same year the Campbells launched their operation. He initially went into partnership with Jerry and Ann Preston, who had planted a vineyard near Amity in 1971. 

Eventually buying out the Prestons, Redford opened his Amity Vineyards winery in 1976.

A year later, in 1977, twin brothers Ted and Terry Casteel started Bethel Heights Vineyard with their wives Pat Dudley and Marilyn Webb and Pat's sister Barbara Dudley. It was the first vineyard and winery in the Eola Hills. 

All of these pioneering northern Willamette wineries remain in the hands of their original owners or families with the exception of Erath and Tualatin Estate. 

Tualatin was sold to Willamette Valley Vineyards of Turner when Bill Fuller retired in 1997. Erath sold the winery to St. Michelle in 2006 but retains his Prince Hill Vineyard in the Dundee Hills.

I’d like to say this is the last word on the subject, but…. 

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