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Pinot's History in the Willamette Valley

While in Oregon's northern Willamette Valley, visits to two wineries in particular -- The Eyrie Vineyards and Domaine Drouhin Oregon -- will lend a fascinating historical perspective to your trip. Both play major roles in Oregon's emergence as the place for Pinot -- one winery as a pioneer, the other as an illustrious convert to the region's greatness.

It wasn't always assumed that Willamette Valley could someday rival France's Burgundy for Pinot supremacy. In fact, for years the audacity of making such a comparison might only have provoked laughter from the wine connoisseurs.

Thank goodness for the rebelliousness of youth.

Beginning in the late 1950s, a devoted group of young wine-makers began exploring Oregon as a location for world-class wine. Chief among these pioneers were several recent graduates of the prestigious University of California-Davis wine program, who had been advised by their professors to not even bother trying to grow quality wine grapes in Oregon. According to the experts, the climate was simply too cool, too wet, too unpredictable.

But after spending time in France, winemakers such as Charles Coury and David Lett observed that climatic conditions in famous French regions -- most notably, Burgundy and Alsace -- were never a sure bet, either. They became convinced that cool-climate French varieties, including Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, would excel in Oregon. As we now know, they were right. But without an astonishing wine competition result, it might have taken the world a very long time to notice.

In 1979, French publisher Gault Millau staged a "Wine Olympics" featuring hundreds of wines from all over the world. In this blind tasting, Lett's 1975 Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve Pinot Noir surprised everyone with a third-place showing, upstaging a number of distinguished French Burgundies. Thinking this result might be a fluke, Burgundy wine merchant Robert Drouhin decided to stage a rematch the following year. This time, Lett took second, barely losing out on first place to Drouhin's own 1959 Chambolle-Musigny.

Had Oregon Pinot Noir finally arrived? Within a few years Drouhin himself purchased a Willamette Valley estate, and built his own vineyard, Domaine Drouhin Oregon. Lett bought The Eyrie Vineyards and a host of others, and has been producing many of the world's most highly regarded Pinot Noir wines ever since. Stop by their tasting rooms and enjoy a glass of Oregon history.

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