Viewpoint

How Oregon wine came back to Canada

Photo credit: Crimson Wine Group.

In 1974 Dick Erath began to experiment with French clones of the Pinot Noir grape in the Dundee Hills of Oregon.

Until then, Oregon winemakers had used California clones, expecting to replicate the success of Northern California wineries in the Pacific Northwest. Erath was himself was a transplanted Californian who had graduated from the University of California’s Davis in the late 1960’s before more or less homesteading his winery. His experiments with the so-called ‘Dijon’ clones paid off and by the mid-1980’s he was winning awards and the wines of Oregon began to come into their own and receive recognition beyond state lines.

That first wave of popularity reached as far as Canada and by the late 80s and early 90s Oregon wines found their way to store shelves and wine lists north of the border. They found a niche audience, somewhere between the big fruit wines of Napa and Sonoma and the more reserved and elegant Pinot Noir of Burgundy. Canada looked like a pretty good market to Oregon wine producers until all of a sudden it didn’t when the economy faltered and the Canadian dollar began to sharply decline in value.

For wine exporters to the Canadian market, a low value on the Canadian dollar can be overcome in two ways. At the very high end, let’s say $100 bottles of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Grand Cru Burgundy, 20 percent extra cost doesn’t matter. Much of this tier of wine is bought on expense accounts or privately by people for whom the whole of the expense is incidental. At the other end of the range are the economies of scale put to use by big producers in places like California’s Central Valley, or bottles whose price is kept low from European Union agricultural subsidies.

A very unscientific search on my provincial liquor monopoly’s website brought up a little over 80 Oregon wines available, or at one time available, for sale. The prices ranged roughly from $20 to $200, but my estimate of a median range for what came up wold be between $30 to $50 a bottle. A wine at that price point might be described as an affordable luxury. A step up from everyday wine, it might be bought off the shelf as a reward at the end of the work week, or ordered at a restaurant at roughly twice the retail price.

Oregon produces lots of wine that costs less than an affordable luxury, Friday night wine. But those are the kind of wines they tend to export and they made up the bulk of the wines that were poured recently at a trade tasting I attended last month in Toronto. The masked attendees, at the first real life gathering of wine professionals of any size since COVID, were made up mostly of sommeliers and restaurateurs.

It makes sense for Oregon to market wines in this price range. Pinot Noir is the grape that dominates the state’s vineyards. Though it is more than evidently suited to the Oregon terroir, it’s also notoriously fickle and difficult to make cheaply. So, in this way the supply is there and ready for the demand.

In another way, there isn’t that much of a supply to choose from in the first place. Oregon is the fourth biggest wine producer in the U.S. by state. That sounds impressive until one realizes that California makes more than 60 times as much wine and sits solidly at number one with 82 percent of national production, and 95 percent of all exports. States number two and three, New York and Washington, each respectively make more than three times as much wine as Oregon as well. Competing with California for market share on cheap wine seems like it would be a pretty hard row to hoe.

If Oregon were a country, its production of wine would be comparable to all of Canada’s, and the good news is that Oregon’s relatively low production affects its export strategy in a way that benefits Canadian wine drinkers. Like Canadians, Oregonians tend to drink most of their wine, and most of the rest gets poured into the glasses of their fellow Americans. While it might be prestigious to export to a wine loving country like France, or even the U.K., for the volume reasons outlined above, it’s not very practical. Even before the challenge of building a brand for Oregon wines and marketing them abroad, they’d have to be shipped. In North America they only need to be trucked, and Google Maps tells me it’s a 39 hour drive from Portland to Toronto, and just six hours to Vancouver.

It’s one thing to have our market desired, but how do Canadian wine enthusiasts know they’re truly being courted? In romantic terms, it’s because the Oregon wine producers are putting their money where their mouth is. One of the producers I met at the trade tasting was Greg Burger of Yamhill Valley Vineyards. Burger’s father Denis and mother Elaine McCall established their winery in the mid-1980s, when Dick Erath’s Dijon clones were taking over and Oregon wine began to get noticed. While I was enjoying their food-friendly and bright red fruit Estate Pinot Noir 2017, I asked him how much it cost. It was right in that $30 spot, so then I asked him quietly if that wasn’t more or less how much it cost in U.S. dollars at his cellar door? It is.

The upshot is that Oregon producers of affordable luxury wines see opportunity in the Canadian market and are willing to discount their product to make-up for our weaker purchasing power. A bottle of Oregon wine sold in Canada for $30 is really worth more like $40, plus whatever duties and import taxes. That makes the luxury all the more affordable, at least in my mind.

Like most New World regions (and many Old), there is a spectrum of production for Oregon wines, and Pinot Noir in particular. Some of this climate-based, depending on the site, and some is due to the technique of the winemaker. The Oregon wines that interest me tend to be lighter with good acidity to go with food and bight red fruit flavours like cherry and cranberry. Here is a very meagre list of some producers whose wines I have enjoyed recently and are worth looking out for.

Adelsheim Vineyard – https://www.adelsheim.com/

Alexana Winery – https://www.alexanawinery.com/

Elizabeth Chambers Cellar – https://elizabethchamberscellar.com/

Erath – https://www.erath.com/

Left Coast – https://leftcoastwine.com/

Pearce Predhomme – https://www.npwines.com/

Troon Vineyard – https://www.troonvineyard.com/

Wine by Joe – https://winebyjoe.com/

Yamhill Valley Vineyards – https://www.yamhill.com/

P.S. I don’t believe in “turkey wine” and subscribe to the minority view that trying to pair any wine with the Thanksgiving meal is a fool’s errand because of typically wide array of foods served. However, if one were to pair a wine with just the meat of the bird and a little tart cranberry sauce, then Pinot Noir from Oregon would be just fine.

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