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June 28th, 2006 Jacques Von Lunen | News Stories
 

The Grapes Of Erath

Sale of an Oregon winery to a tobacco subsidiary gins up concerns about industry corporatization.

     
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Online wine lovers are sour about the fate of these Erath Vineyards grapes.
IMAGE: AP PHOTO/GREG WAHL-STEPHENS
The purchase of one of Oregon's pioneer wineries by the makers of Skoal chewing tobacco has offended some local online grape connoisseurs worse than a chilled bottle of red.

The sale announced last month by Dick Erath of his award-winning label to Ste. Michelle, a Washington-based subsidiary of U.S. Tobacco, was heralded in Northwest newspapers as validation of Oregon's growing wine industry.

"This is a positive for all concerned,'' fellow Oregon wine pioneer Dick Ponzi told The Oregonian. Similar laudatory sentiments from the state's vintners were in an Associated Press article that ran in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

But the takeover of an Oregon icon by out-of-state suits stirred a more dour response among online bacchantes.

OregonWines.com, a wine-marketing website started by a handful of local connoisseurs, responded with an editorial painting the sale of Erath's Dundee winery as a harbinger of doom for this homegrown cottage industry.

OregonWines representative David Anderson told WW he's worried about small vintners letting corporations take over the Willamette Valley.

Anderson says the labels under the Ste. Michelle umbrella produce fairly homogeneous cuvées that threaten the state's tradition of artisanal winemaking.

Following the editorial, bloggers on OregonWines.com and WinePressNW.com also voiced concerns over the pending demise of their beloved boutique vineyards.

Some insiders disagree with this doomsday vision.

Dave Adelsheim, one of the vintners quoted in the Oregonian story, told WW that Anderson's online editorial was "lame" and emphasized Ste. Michelle's history of preserving the character of any winery it's bought.

Casey McClellan, a neighbor of Ste. Michelle's Walla Walla, Wash., vineyards and a former member of the wine boards in Oregon and Washington, says there's a trend towards consolidation in the industry, but that it hasn't stifled the birth of other smallwineries.

Ste. Michelle (which controls half of Washington's wine production, according to the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers) had been looking to add an Oregon pinot to its portfolio. Washington's climate and soil aren't generally suitable for that grape, but Oregon's are.

The Erath label shipped out 53,000 cases last year, making it the largest producer of that varietal in Oregon, according to the Oregon Wine Board.

Dick Erath, now 70, was among the first to plant pinot seedlings from Burgundy in the Willamette Valley, back in 1967. In the 1980s, pinot growers from Burgundy found their land exploited to the fullest, and searched the world for a similar terroir (soil and climate profile). They found the closest match in the Willamette Valley.

Erath Vineyards general manager Steve Voylsteke says, "Ste. Michelle is not going to be the last entity to come into Oregon." But he adds that the risk of making pinot noir will deter most corporations.

Sandy Thompson, owner of Mount Tabor Fine Wines, a Portland seller of small-batch Oregon wines, doesn't think big business would buy up small Oregon wineries because Oregon doesn't offer enough harvestable acreage to warrant large-scale corporate attention.

Yet while some say Oregon's output is simply too small for big profits, the total statewide area planted with pinot noir has more than tripled, from 2,359 acres in 1992 to 7,974 last year. During the same period the price per ton more than doubled.

If the demand (and price) for pinot continues to rise, who's to say large producers won't want to increase the supply, and buy more property in Oregon?

Jessica Sandrock, a research horticulturalist with Oregon State University's Department of Horticulture, says, "The industry has not maxed out."

Don Lange, owner of a small winery near Erath's, does not anticipate further sales of wineries, explaining that growing wine in Oregon remains a labor of love immune to temptations to sell out to conglomerates even if there's a bad harvest.

"There are a lot of really small producers, who choose to remain small,'' Lange says, tracing the success of Oregon's wineries to "generations of care." "A bad year wouldn't make them turn and run."

 
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