David Kahn looks at Oregon's Willamette Valley and sees the Napa Valley of the future. He wants to build a lavish resort in the neighborhood of some of Oregon's highest-profile wineries.
A former sportswriter, Kahn has headed a nonprofit organization that tried to bring Major League Baseball to Portland and currently owns four teams in the National Basketball Association's development league. He thinks big. He imagines a resort like Napa Valley's Auberge du Soleil on a hillside overlooking the grapevines of Domaine Drouhin and Domaine Serene.
"The area needs it," said Kahn, who in March presented his proposal to the Yamhill County Commission. "Traditionally, great wine regions worldwide have romantic, intimate properties. Willamette Valley should have one too."
However, some of his potential neighbors object to the plan, preferring to preserve the area's agricultural charm rather than risk a too-rapid boom in business.
The burgeoning northern Willamette Valley, which counts 121 wineries between Salem and Portland, lures well-heeled visitors with its reputation for outstanding Pinot Noirs. But given the lack of upscale accommodations, most of them stay only a few hours, preferring to make the trip from Portland, which is 45 minutes to an hour away. The only options closer to the wineries are small bed-and-breakfasts or chain motels.
Kahn has proposed building a 50-room hotel, spa and restaurant on a 72-acre tract of farmland on Breyman Orchards Road in the Dundee Hills, but he needs a zoning change to do that.
At a March 2 hearing, David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards, who lives less than a mile down the road from the property, expressed fears that approving the resort would open the door to dozens of other projects that would change the bucolic landscape. At the same hearing, Susan Sokol Blosser told the commissioners that farm machinery and air cannons designed to scare off birds make the atmosphere less than idyllic. And the owner of a nearby bed-and-breakfast expressed concern about excessive traffic winding up a narrow, two-lane road that is used by tractors and other farm equipment.
More critically, Lett and other vintners hate the idea of turning potential vineyard land into a commercial property. "All of us think it's a good idea to have a nice hotel," said Lett's son Jason, who is now Eyrie's winemaker. "We're tired of putting our guests up in B and Bs too. But not at the expense of good vineyard land."
Domaine Serene, which is around the corner from the site of the proposed hotel, considered buying the land for use as vineyards but decided that it was too similar to the vineyards they currently have. Instead, the winery bought land at a different elevation. "The only reason we didn't grab it is we're trying to diversify our sources," said Tony Rynders, winemaker for Domaine Serene.
The owners of Domaine Drouhin, which also adjoins the project site, object to the lack of detail in the proposal and wonder if plantable vineyard land 15 feet from their Chardonnay vines makes sense for use as a resort. "Of all the places it can go, why here?" laments David Millman, managing director of the French-owned winery. "It just seems like there ought to be a better place. If there is a demonstrable need for a project like this, then the county should plan it."
Addressing worries such as Lett's that the project would set a precedent for others, Kahn said, "I understand why they would have concerns. But our intent is not to create a template for others to follow. We have one application for one zone change and one property. I want this to blend seamlessly into the landscape, be understated, elegant."
Friends of Yamhill County, a watchdog group involved in the debate, listed 15 alternate sites that could accommodate a project of this size. Most of them, however, were around the town of Newberg or close to the Willamette River, rather than in the thick of Willamette wine country. Such a solution would actually be similar to the situation in Napa Valley, which enforces an agricultural preservation law prohibiting development on agricultural land. Large hotels are restricted to the towns of Napa and St. Helena or on land that was already zoned for development when the agricultural preserve was enacted in the 1970s.
The issue may not be resolved for months. After a second hearing scheduled for May, the county commission may take its time coming to a decision and court challenges will inevitably delay a final resolution further. But sooner or later, Willamette Valley will have to decide how wine tourism will develop. This is a test case.