Sister Willamette

Humor me for a moment, and let me describe a wine region.

Shaped largely by glaciers during the last ice age; maritime environment; marine sediments shaping the soil makeup; a relatively young wine industry punctuated with recent awards and praise; close proximity to a major city; many local restaurants supporting the industry with farm-to-table initiatives; and fantastic, passionate people both working in the industry and supportive of it.

soil layers Alexana

Soil layers from the tasting room at Alexana Vineyards

Of course, I’m talking about the Long Island wine region, right? We are North-Forks, so what else could I be talking about . . . except that I’m not. North-Forks recently visited the Willamette Valley outside Portland Oregon and while speaking with winery staff, managers, and even wine makers, was surprised how much this region—on the other side of the country—had in common with Long Island, specifically the North Fork wine region.

White Rose Winery landscape

View from the White Rose Vineyards

Originally we had no intention to talk about this experience, but our experiences suggested more and more that we had arrived at a region that could almost be described as a sister to the North Fork: a bigger sister, but family nonetheless.

Let me first describe the Willamette Valley wine region so that we can clarify that on some terms we are stretching a little. The Valley consists, actually, of four distinct wine regions, each noted by location to the valley (within or outside its geography), soil, and topography. Without getting too deep into the minutiae, as this isn’t a piece about Willamette, my comparison is more direct to within the valley itself. Within this region, there are about 500 wineries as well as many small towns and countless farms. It has four seasons, and although their winters are milder (about five inches of snow total), their weather and growing seasons nearly mirror our own. The most significant difference is probably rainfall; this is the Pacific Northwest after all. The North Fork tends toward less rain, more humidity and sunnier, whereas the Valley relies on steeper hillsides to channel rain away.

Napa Valley growers who saw the potential the region possessed for Pinot Noir planted the first vineyards in the Valley less than 40 years ago. Initially they struggled because they trained their vines the way they knew from Napa, using the leaves to shade the grapes from the sun. They quickly learned that because the sun isn’t as prevalent, to utilize leaves to maximize photosynthesis and to keep rain off the grapes.

The North Fork was first planted 40 years ago by people who saw a potential for the region to support Merlot. Initially they trained their vines in the Napa style but soon learned that heat was not the problem but humidity. Training the canopies taller maximized photosynthesis while allowing the fruits to have good air circulation to keep fungus, mold, and rot at bay. Today there are approximately 50 wineries as well as many small towns and farms.

The geography of the two regions does differ significantly. Most significant, as part of an island, the North Fork is region is surrounded on three sides by water. It is

Vineyards at Winderlea

Rolling hills at Winderlea

also largely flat, with some hills and cliffs formed by glacial terminal moraine. The Willamette Valley is very hilly with long-view vistas, reminiscent of Tuscany.

In both regions, there are wineries that are large producers, although there are several in the Valley that are true industrial producers, producing tens of thousands of cases of wine each year. The majority of producers in both regions are small, varying between a few thousand cases and just a couple of hundred. Some of these producers—in both regions—sell exclusively in house and to restaurants: they are small boutique producers and often sell out each year. Others produce enough that they are slowly conquering markets in the surrounding cities and slowly growing elsewhere.

This was interesting to learn because the North Fork really has limited distribution channels west of Manhattan. When compared to Willamette on a percentage basis—comparing 500 wineries to 50—the distribution depth is probably about the same.

Farms surround both regions; we saw lots of corn, squash, potatoes, and “U Pick” signs. The restaurants in both regions recognize that with all the food available right outside their doors that farm-to-table is a worthy pursuit. We have seen restaurants in both regions that had extremely limited local selections and instead choose to carry Napa and European wines, but these are the exception rather than the norm.

While speaking with the winery staff, we discussed their day-to-day workings. Willamette wineries as a rule close earlier year-round: by 5PM, most close, even on weekends. Club members and wine tourists visit the tasting rooms during the week when tasting room staff can take the time to discuss what they’re trying. On the weekends, the tour busses and limos come out from the city and suburbs, and the wineries offer them live music and events like pairing dinners to keep them coming. They struggle with the desire to have these masses of people visit while retaining the one-on-one experience in the tasting rooms, and many wineries either have banned groups over 12 or require them to set and keep specific appointment times, often ending by 1PM.

Sokol Blosser Vineyards

Views from Sokol Blosser

Perhaps the largest difference we noticed is where the North Fork benefits by having only 50 wineries. Having a restrictive geography that allows for only two east/west roads gives the North Fork wine region the ability to make it very easy to find every winery. In Willamette, stumbling across a great find is nearly impossible without a plan and GPS. Winery signs abound, but sometimes require several turns off the main road to come across.

This year, New York State won Wine Enthusiasts “Wine Region of the Year”, beating out Champagne, Chianti, and Sonoma. In 2011, the Willamette Valley was a runner up for the same award, losing to Prosecco in Italy.

While it is very easy to explain why the regions are so different, North-Forks found it amazing how similar they were. Taking sheer numbers and the visual geography out of the equation, we saw a wine region that has suffered the same growing pains, drew the same criticisms, and eventually proved the critics wrong by producing award winning, world-class wines. While the Willamette may be better known worldwide, this arguably has much to do with several large-scale producers introducing the world to the region. So while they don’t look at all alike on the surface, as two wine regions of about the same age with similar concerns and successes, North-Forks believes we can each learn a lot from each other, and believe calling the Willamette Valley our honorary sister region strikes a perfect cord.

 

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