The Willamette Valley AVA sits inside the Willamette Valley in Oregon. It spans from the Columbia River in the north to the southern tip of Eugene and from the Oregon coast on the west to the Cascade Mountains in the east. It is the largest, and most popular, of Oregon’s AVAs: it’s 5,200 square miles (150 miles long and about 60 miles wide) and contains over 200 of Oregon’s 700+ wineries. Willamette contains six sub-AVAs: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton.

Courtesy of WineryDogs.com

Pioneers began planting grapes during the Gold Rush Era, but modern Willamette Valley winemaking didn’t pick up until 1965 when David Lett, Charles Coury and Dick Erath (separately) left the California wine-boom to try their luck in Oregon. Despite negative reinforcement from their UC Davis alma mater, they successfully planted the first Pinot Noir grapes in the Willamette Valley. Within a decade, David and Ginny Adelsheim, Ronald and Marjorie Vuylsteke, Richard and Nancy Ponzi, Joe and Pat Campbell, Susan and Bill Sokol Blosser and Myron Redford all migrated to the new northern wine-region, planting everything from Pinot to Chardonnay, and even Riesling.  In 1979, David Lett entered his 1975 Pinot Noir in the 1979 Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades and beat out some of France’s best labels, basically putting Willamette Valley, and Oregon in general, on the winemaking map.

Davi and Diana Lett, Harvest 1970. Courtesy of EyerieVineyards.com

When it comes to climate and soil type, the Willamette Valley varies greatly from region to region. The valley itself is protected by the Coast Range to the west, the Cascades to the east as well as a series of hill chains to the north. Portions of the Willamette run along the Oregon coast, while others, on the eastern side, are more affected by the actual Willamette River. Suffice it to say, that terroir is just as varied as our famed Napa county.

This week, for this first study in Willamette wine, we’ll be taking a closer look at the wines from Illahe Vineyards, located just west of the river in Dallas, Oregon.


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