OREGON CITY — They’re using fitted sheets this year to cover their “punch down” vats and keep fruit flies off the “really young” Leon Millot wine beginning its fermentation process. The advantage over plastic coverings, co-owner Jan Wallinder said, is that the bedsheets can be washed and used again, of course.
That may sum up an overlooked facet of Oregon’s high-flying wine industry as the 2017 grape harvest is under way. For all the praise and prestige accompanying the Pinot noir producers of Yamhill County and elsewhere in the Willamette Valley, smaller and lesser-known vineyards are chugging along just fine.
Wallinder and her husband, Rob Webb, own and operate Forest Edge Vineyard south of Oregon City and about a half-hour drive out of Southeast Portland. They’re among 15 relatively small, independent operations that make up the Cascade Foothills Winegrowers on the east side of the Willamette Valley.
Forest Edge produces an average of about 500 cases a year and sells at an on-site tasting room, at farmers’ markets and on-line. You won’t find their wines at grocery stores, but as Webb said, “It keeps the two of us more than busy.”
For perspective, the Oregon Wine Board says the state’s wineries are primarily small to mid-sized family operations, and about 70 percent produce less than 5,000 cases a year.
The Cascade Mountain foothills is a slightly cooler growing region than the opposite side of the Willamette Valley, but producers such as Webb and Wallinder — like vintners in the Columbia Basin and Southern Oregon — tweak their operations to take advantage of what they have.
Forest Edge grows Pinot noir and Chardonnay grapes, but also the unusual Leon Millot variety, which produces a lighter red wine. They have some Gamay Noir grapes as well. They don’t make $45-bottle Pinot noir. Most of their wines sell for $11 to $14, with a port-style dessert wine going for $25. An $11 chilled wine that sold well over the summer was Forest Mist, a blush-like blend of Pinot noir and Chardonnay that they don’t make every year.
Wallinder and Webb bought the property in 1984 and do most of the vineyard and wine-making work themselves, including bottling and labeling. They use a “minimal prune” canopy management system that probably costs them some yield, but eases the work load. “It works for us,” Webb said. For many years they’ve employed members of an extended family — most of whom have regular full-time jobs or are students — to help pick the grapes.
Webb is the winemaker. He relies on sugar levels, called brix, plus acid and pH tests and his own taste buds, to know when its time to pick.
“My approach is, science on a need-to-know basis,” he joked.
The couple have 45 acres, most of it forested. Their house is a geodesic dome, they irrigate the grapes with captured rainwater and generate enough electricity with their solar system to sell it back to the grid, and produce more than they use.
Like all Oregon vineyards, Wallinder and Webb had to deal with a growing season that was marked by wild weather swings. An extraordinarily wet winter and spring was followed by a summer that was hotter and dryer than usual. Webb said they had to cut and drop some Pinot clusters due to sunburn. Then, to complete the cycle, came several days of cold rain in mid-September.
People involved in Oregon’s wine industry are eternally optimistic — even a bad year for grapes is likely to be described as providing a showcase for winemakers’ talents — but they appear pleased with the early take this year. “Looks like we’ll have another bumper crop,” said spokeswoman Michelle Kaufmann of Stoller Family Estate.
In 2016, Oregon’s winemakers increased sales 12 percent to $529 million, planted 2,400 more acres of grapes and opened 23 new wineries in 2016, according to an annual census commissioned by the Oregon Wine Board.