The rise of Oregon Pinot has been well documented. It now is attracting major investment by the country’s largest wine producers. But there’s just as many stories about dozens of other varietals grown in the Yamhill Valley, which made their way into local production in a variety of ways.
When Carl Dauenhauer of Hauer of the Dauen started his family-run vineyard in 1980, he planted Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir.
“Back in those days, that’s what was most popular,” he said, adding how Pinot Noir was the outlier of the first plantings, the whites by far the most commercially successful. “Pinot Noir was just over to the side and we sold mostly white wine grapes.”
In 1987, the farm expanded its grape ranges by planting Gamay Noir and Lemberger. The first, Dauenhauer says, is a much more palatable wine with a long flavor to it, useful in the beginning for mixing with Pinot for its “nice blueberry color.” The latter, provided by Erath Vineyards founder Dick Erath, was selected because Dauenhauer — the grandson of a German immigrant — felt he needed to grow grapes connected to his ancestry.
Lemberger, described by Dauenhauer as a step away from Cabernet Sauvignon, is a red varietal from the Franconia region in southern Germany that is relatively obscure in America.
“We could have bought Cab or Merlot, but we wanted something that represented us,” he said. Several European winemakers have visited the winery, located a few miles west of Grand Island and part of the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, because of Lemberger wine, Dauenhauer said, who started a winery with his own family in 1999.
There are many reasons vintners and vineyard managers of the Yamhill Valley choose to work with less common, less proven grapes here: curiosity, market influences, embrace of the challenge, recognition of its success in European regions with similar climates. It might just be pure ignorance.
“Coming from California, we had no idea what would work up here,” says Patty Green, owner of Deux Vert Vineyard, in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, with her husband Mike. “Total ignorance.”
To avoid competing with the rising popularity of Pinot, the Greens started their vineyard in 1994 with two lesser known white varietals: Melon (Melon de Bourgogne) and Viognier. The first they liked when introduced to it during a visit to Panther Creek Cellars. Then-winemaker Ken Wright helped it earn a local following, Mike said. The Viognier they planted because it was a favorite in California and they felt there was a market here for it.
“When we were interviewing for a vineyard manager, one guy shook his head and thought we were nuts,” Patty said.
Another interviewee, Bruce Biehl, now owner of Eugene Wine Cellars, had taken several trips to the Rhone wine region in Southern France where his brother, Brad, was a winemaker, and also believed in the potential of those wines in the Yamhill Valley. “That’s all the encouragement we needed.”
The following year, they planted Syrah, another Rhone grape like Viognier. “Then we got smart and planted Pinot Noir,” Mike quipped, and more Syrah. They moved from Oakland in 1998 and Mike took over operations on the vineyard in 2000. They soon added a fifth varietal to the land, a half-acre of Tempranillo, a Spanish grape grown in similar climates. Patty produced wine from those grapes for several years, but now it goes to Rob Stuart Wine Co.
“It was a labor of love,” Patty said. “I loved making wine but hated selling it.”
While challenging times existed for some of Deux Vert’s crop, it has no problem today selling grapes not named Pinot.
“In the last five years we have had a waiting list for all the esoteric varietals,” Mike said. “I call it my vineyard portfolio. It provides an opportunity to work with winemakers I wouldn't normally be in contact with. It also provides a safeguard for when the Pinot market is being volatile.”
Markets have grown for dozens of other varietals from the six local AVAs, like Muscat, Grüner, Müller-Thurgau, Friuliano and so on. Still, selling the unknown is never easy.
“Gewürztraminer’s biggest problem is that no one can pronounce it,” Dauenhauer joked.
They also pose a challenge to growers and vintners to properly produce the grapes and wines. Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards spent eight years learning how to produce quality Chasselas Doré before the winery released a vintage.
“I couldn’t figure out how to make it,” he said. “That’s the problem with new varietals in new areas.”
Eyrie Vineyards had been growing the grape since the '60s without knowing it. The vines came from California, disguised as Muscat, with founder David Lett. Eventually, a Swiss researcher visited and identified it as Chasselas, the most popular white variety in Switzerland. (A similar case occurred with Melon, which was believed throughout California as Pinot Blanc, and was brought by David labeled as such.)
In 2013, Jason realized he had been letting the Chasselas grapes ripen too long, as long as his Pinot Gris. “When you do that, it tastes like canola oil,” he said. “I picked it at a level of ripeness way before any of the other grapes grown in the area. At 9.25 abv. At that level, it’s just right.”
Jason’s newest varietal is Trousseau Noir, from the Jura region in southeast France. He was the first to plant the grape in Oregon, joining a dozen or so California vineyards. Why take the leap of a faith an that uncommon grape will work here?
“The same reason my dad planted Pinot Noir here: the climate creates the opportunity,” he said. “You can impose style in the winery, but if you’re not getting style from the vineyard, then you’re not growing it in the right region.”
Jason said people are always fascinated with what’s new and unusual in the market. But attention spans can be short in the wine industry, he added, and a varietal may seem destined to succeed but find the market’s moved on after a few years.
With thousands of varietals grown in European regions influenced by the Mediterranean climate, there’s potential for a large number of new varietals that could grow well in the Yamhill Valley. Growers and winemakers will continue to be led by their curious nature, pioneering spirit, sense of adventure and even ignorance, so that the local wine industry is ever-changing.