Just more than fifty years ago, wine pioneer David Lett planted the Willamette Valley’s first pinot noir vines on the slopes of the Dundee Hills and uncorked an industry. Now home to more than 500 wineries, Willamette Valley has experienced rapid growth, and the pinot noir produced in the region continues to attract international acclaim.
In 2016, Wine Enthusiast magazine named Oregon’s Willamette Valley its 2016 Wine Region of the Year for the annual Wine Star Awards. Started in 2000, the Wine Star Awards celebrate leading individuals, companies and regions in the wine industry.
Chosen via a rigorous selection process by the magazine’s editors, the Willamette Valley was up against stiff competition—other nominees for Wine Region of the Year included Champagne, France; Crete, Greece; Sonoma County, California and Provence, France. Still, Paul Gregutt, contributing editor for the Pacific Northwest, said he felt his nomination had a very good chance. Citing Oregon’s international recognition and recent wine investments, he considered the recognition deserved and in good taste.
Gregutt first visited Yamhill Valley in the mid-1980s and has watched the region’s evolution from its early days. His first tasting trip included stops at wineries such as Erath, Eyrie, Ponzi, and Rex Hill, plus Nick’s Italian Café in McMinnville.
“I was impressed by the visual beauty of the region,” recalled Gregutt, “and though the wines were not nearly as polished as they are today, there were certainly some gems, and a lot to recommend, which I did, and continue to do.”
With news of the Wine Star Award still soaking in, the Yamhill Valley wine community remains pleased, but not smug, about the recognition.
Harry Peterson-Nedry, founder of Chehalem Wines on the outskirts of Newberg, said that winemakers are “realistic about the mammoth marketplace in which we play, and what it takes to get due acknowledgement.” He said the honor inspires winemakers to appreciate the area’s roots while looking forward to inevitable growth.
“We are just realizing our potential as a wine region,” he added. “After all, we are still getting discovered by people, even though we’ve been at it more than fifty years.”