Nestled between the Coastal and Cascade Ranges, the Willamette Valley is the agricultural home of northern Oregon. Driving southwest from Portland, the valley is punctuated by a succession of rolling hills, which were islands dotting an ancient lake 13,000-15,000 years ago. The best vineyards in Oregon sit on these hills, producing exceptional fruit on what were ancient beaches. Modern winemaking in the Willamette Valley dates back just over 50 years with three UC Davis refugees who believed that Oregon was an ideal place to grow cool-climate varieties. Between 1965 and 1968, David Lett, Charles Coury, and Dick Erath separately forged their way to the north Willamette Valley, believing that Oregon would one day become an important wine-growing region. It wasn't until David Lett entered his Oregon Pinot Noir in the 1979 Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiads, and won top Pinot Noir honors against France's best labels, that the world started to take notice of Oregon as a serious winemaking region.
The Willamette Valley became an official AVA in 1984, and 20 years later delineated six sub-appellations: Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, Yamill-Carlton, and the recently approved Chehalem Mountains. Today, there are over 500 wineries in Oregon. The wine business now ranks as one of Oregon’s top agricultural industries. The southern section of the Willamette Valley starts south of Salem and ends just south of Eugene at the Calapooya Mountain Range. The marine-air influence of the Pacific Ocean and the local formations of the Coast Range Mountains create a series of changing conditions for viticulture. This region is not only home to fine Pinot noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muller-Thurgau and Chardonnay vineyards, but also some of the warmer climate varieties such as Merlot, Marechal Foch, and Cabernet Franc. Vineyards are mainly located on thick beds of bluish-grey sandstone rock that produce firm, compact soils.
Of all the varietals, Pinot Noir is perhaps the most sensitive to changes in growing conditions; climate, soil, sun exposure, etc. In general, the cooler climate makes Oregon Pinots lighter in color, and more delicate in structure with an earthier, more "Burgundian" style. Since California Pinots ripen easily thanks to California's constant sunshine, they tend to be darker in color and have riper, darker fruit flavors.