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Unexpected Spotlights on Oregon

What all the attention might mean
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 3, 2013 4:03pm ET

It was a seminal moment in Oregon's wine history when Robert Drouhin, of Burgundy's celebrated Maison Joseph Drouhin, bought a 225-acre rolling hillside in Dundee Hills in 1987, planted what is now a 90-acre vineyard and built a winery. It was like a stamp of approval. Everyone cheered.

Drouhin's success bolstered the state's burgeoning reputation as a source of great Pinot Noir, mostly created by homegrown talent and owners. They have attracted increasing interest and investment by outsiders, and this year the action has been fast and furious.

Last spring California-based giant Jackson Family Wines bought nearly 700 acres of prime Willamette Valley vineyards. Precept Wine Brands, one of Washington's largest wine companies, added 374 acres to reach a total of 600 in Oregon. And Bacchus Capital Management, the California private equity fund whose portfolio includes Qupé in Santa Barbara County and DeLille in Washington recently invested in Oregon's Panther Creek Cellars, Wine by Joe and Dobbes Family Estate.

The biggest ripples, however, came in late August when another Burgundy firm, Maison Louis Jadot, purchased the 32-acre Resonance Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Owner Pierre-Henry Gagey and winemaker Jacques Lardière are among the biggest names in the world of fine Burgundy.

This isn't the first time since Drouhin's investment that Burgundians have gotten involved in Oregon. There have been consulting arrangements, currently including Dominique Lafon at Evening Land and Louis-Michel Liger-Belair at Chapter 24. Previously Patrice Rion made a lasting impact with Chehalem. But ownership is different.

If Oregonians seem conflicted about all the attention, and they do, it might be because other recent forays into their state by outsiders have not always come out as promised. In the 1990s, for example, California-based Premier Pacific Partners bought up land, planted vineyards, but failed to sell the attached home sites to make it all pencil out.

The vineyards turned out to be great sources for some of Oregon's first-rank winemakers, however. Penner-Ash and Soléna made outstanding single-vineyard wines from Zena Crown, in Eola-Amity Hills AVA. Others incorporated grapes from the several vineyard sites into outstanding Willamette Valley blends. Now those vineyards belong to Jackson. Although the Jackson family hasn't announced any specific plans, I can't imagine they'll limit such good grapes to their commercial La Crema blends.

In another (relatively) recent high-profile investment, Washington's biggest wine company, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, added Erath to its portfolio in 2006. Although the wines have maintained their style and continue to be good, improvements have been incremental, not the big jump in excellence some of us expected.

Jadot's purchase of Resonance is on a much smaller scale but it's intriguing because it feels like the start of something bigger. The small vineyard has made some of Oregon's most memorable Pinot Noirs, especially in the hands of Peter Rosback at Sineann. I can't wait to see what Lardière does with it.

I don't expect Gagey and Lardière to be satisfied with one estate vineyard, either. If this works out as well as they hope, don't be surprised if it expands into a multi-vineyard domaine. That Ken Wright can make so many distinctive wines from vineyards scattered around Willamette Valley has not been lost on them.

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Greg Malcolm
Greg Malcolm, St. Louis, MO —  September 3, 2013 6:00pm ET
As an Oregon Pinot Noir consumer, I find the Jadot investment much more intriguing than the investments by Jackson, Precept and Bacchus. Other interesting developments are in the new/newish winery front. There are new ventures that are producing some very nice Pinot Noir.
Jan Fridrichsen
Birmingham, AL-USA —  September 3, 2013 9:47pm ET
I wonder whose taxes are higher, Burgundy or Willamette? As much as I love wine, it crazes me to understand how much wine pricing is tax-based or driven by taxes. If we paid the same tax for peanuts or cotton, would we blithely accept it as we do for wine?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  September 4, 2013 2:25am ET
Jan, France's laws of inheritance can affect the passing down of vineyard land (the main reason the vineyards are divided into such tiny fragments). What the market will pay for a given Burgundy depends on the appellation and the reputation of the winery. It's not about how much it costs to run the winery (including taxes) and make the wine but how much the market will pay, and for Burgundy, it seems it will pay quite a lot.

That said, it has to be a thrill for Gagey and Lardière to contemplate what to do with an entire 19 acres in one place. Practically unheard-of in Burgundy.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Whitesville, KY —  September 4, 2013 11:23am ET
A lot of exciting things are happening in the Willamette Valley. One of the biggest challenges for them going forward is the huge expansion of acres planted to grapes. Many of the wineries currently do not have much national distribution, and they are going to find it increasingly hard to sell their juice in the rapidly growing market. I expect more and more of the small wineries, that have been the life of the WV, to be swallowed soon by the behemoths. Whether that will be good or bad, time will tell.

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