American winemakers have long sought instruction and validation from prestigious Old World producers. In 1987, Oregon Pinot Noir gained credibility and encouragement when Robert Drouhin of Beaune grower and négociant Maison Joseph Drouhin, a leader in Burgundy since 1880, bought a 225-acre erstwhile wheat field and Christmas tree farm just around the corner from David Lett's vineyard, and there established the Domaine Drouhin winery.
Drouhin's investment in Oregon was made after long study and some hesitation. He first visited the state in 1961; the strong showing of Lett's 1975 Eyrie Pinot in the Gault-Millau tasting strengthened his interest, especially after he confirmed the results against some of his own wines. At Drouhin's request, vintner David Adelsheim had been scouting for suitable land. He took the Burgundian to see the property in 1987, during the first International Pinot Noir Celebration, a Willamette Valley wine festival.
"I checked the statistics on climate, asked for all the geological maps and, more important, I walked the ground," Drouhin says. "I remember looking at the slopes, the texture of the soil, the vegetation that was there, asking about springs in the area. It's a classical approach. Even so, I hesitated because the soil was so different from Burgundy. How was it possible to produce a good wine?"
But, remembering the Eyrie 1975, he got out his checkbook.
Robert's daughter, Véronique, who had completed an advanced degree in enology, jumped at the chance to do something on her own when her father put her in charge of the Oregon winery. She worked vintages at Eyrie, Adelsheim and Bethel Heights to get a feel for Oregon wine, and started making wine from purchased grapes while the vineyard took shape.
The Drouhins brought a fresh perspective to Oregon, building the state's first gravity-flow winery, planting its first Burgundy clones and introducing close-spaced vineyards—all innovations that have been followed extensively.
The proof is in the wines, the better vintages consistently rating around 90 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, with some recent special bottlings inching higher.
Tasted recently at the winery, the debut 1988, made from purchased grapes, is a pretty red with modest Pinot character, still showing suppleness and spicy flavors. The first vintage made with some of the estate fruit, 1990, has more life, with pretty cherry, sage and red currant flavors that persist nicely. The 1994, a really ripe vintage, shows richness, intensity and freshness, but everything is well-integrated.
These days, Véronique Drouhin-Boss can look back on 15 vintages, including a reserve bottling named after daughter Laurne, 10, and another named after daughter Louise, 7. Not surprisingly, the reserve barrels always seem to come from sections of the 80-acre vineyard with close-spaced vines. Other vintners would likely bottle each of these sections separately, but Drouhin-Boss prefers to make one good blend, as the Burgundians do to make village wines, often blending several vineyards. The reserve bottlings are barrel selections.
"It's not going to take 2,000 years as it did in Burgundy, but we're still trying to nail down specific sites and learn how to work with them," she says. Being a Burgundian, she is naturally cautious in assessing the progress so far. "I'd say we're somewhere between a Bourgogne Rouge and a village-level wine."
The Drouhins have learned a few things from their Oregon experience that they think have made their Burgundies better. "We saw growers in Oregon removing leaves from the vines to give the bunches more exposure to the sun," Drouhin notes. "We started doing that in Burgundy, and we get more even ripeness."
Oregon's Pinot Noir pioneers, including Lett and Ponzi, started on a shoestring. Domaine Drouhin gave the state and the grape a new dynamic. In the 1990s, Oregon started rolling out wines from producers with pockets deep enough to pay for state-of-the-art equipment and with experience making successful wines elsewhere.
In California, where well-financed wineries abound, the best producers were not far behind, and the list of successful Pinot Noirs grew longer by the year.