Despite a wine-growing legacy that dates to the late sixties, Oregon wine country still feels young. I see it in the tasting rooms, when those pouring the wine often neglect their customers. Whether too occupied with chasing a “big sale” or simply untrained in hospitality, I am never sure. But the recurring trend is troubling for one who actually wants to taste the wine. I see it too in the increasingly long lists of varietals available at a single winery. With less knowledge from past generations to draw on and few restrictions on what may be grown, vintners seem to be still testing the waters, and testing the market.
And finally, I have had some excellent Pinot Noir Blancs this spring, notably that of Ghost Hill Cellars. But seeing these white versions of our most prevalent grape has given me pause. Pinot Noir is notoriously challenging to grow and vinify. It mutates easily and many a winemaker will pass on the wisdom that even looking at the grape wrong will spoil the wine. It is understandable that Pinot Gris and Chardonnay may hold less interest for winemakers now, but there are so many other untapped opportunities in white grape varietals! Imagine the possibilities that exist in Northern Italy, in Spain, in Southern France… Without a “native” varietal, the options are numerous.
But now I understand the true source of my objections. This young wine region is being carved out by the forces of capitalism. And as a wine drinker who does not rely on this farm-based industry to supply a roof over my head or food on my table, I have had the luxury to develop a love for wine as art. I romanticize the vision of gnarled old vines bent by seasons of mistral winds, and the winding lane that leads to a generations-old stone cellar. I imagine the layers of dust gathering on bottles that have been laid down for decades, gently protecting the garnet colored liquid inside which has by now lost its hard edges and turned into silk. My favorite part of this image is picturing a winemaker as gnarled as those vines tapping into a barrel and tipping some wine into a humble glass for a friend or neighbor who has stopped by at day’s end. Or seeing that bottle carted off to a local feast, where it proudly sits amidst several equally dusty and unidentified bottles, simply providing joy.
And here I place my plea, from one naïve devotee with absolutely rose-colored glasses: let’s just remember to include a small dose of the idealistic in our growing industry. In between sales forecasts and weather reports, and bracing for the next market-impacting Sideways, let’s just remember the truth and beauty we all experienced that one time in that one glass of wine that has made us all follow its fickle trail ever since.