An economic snapshot of Oregon agriculture shows the usual heavyweights at the top of the list: Cattle and calves, greenhouse and nursery products, and stalwarts such as hay, milk and wheat.
Wine grapes? They’re way down the list behind such blue collar crops as onions, potatoes and ryegrass. But ask a visitor or an urban Oregonian to name the state’s top agricultural product and they’d probably guess Pinot Noir wine.
They’d be wrong, but such is the swagger of Oregon’s wine industry. Although still small compared to the wine-making regions of California and Europe, it’s established a international reputation for making high-quality, expensive wines. Among people who don’t mind paying $25 or even $45 a bottle, Oregon wine is a drink of choice.
Statistics bear out the industry’s continued growth. The number of vineyards, acreage planted and crop value have increased sharply nearly every year since 2001, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Cash receipts for wineries hit $94 million in 2012, a record. The state has nearly 850 vineyards operating on more than 20,000 acres.
According to the Oregon Wine Board, the state’s wine industry employs 15,000 people and has a combined economic impact approaching $3 billion annually. It has been at the center of Oregon’s emergence as a place known for fine food and drink.
Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism department, cites a study that showed 55 percent of visitors engaged in “culinary activities” while here, compared to 17 percent nationally. Nearly one-third of visitors purchased Oregon products several times after returning home, with 37 percent of them buying wine — by far the most-frequently purchased product.
Oregon State University has stepped up its role in the industry by devoting more staff and laboratory resources to its Wine Research Institute. The five-year-old institute draws upon campus experts in vineyard operations, wine making, entomology, soils, taste chemistry and other fields. Among the current research projects: Determining if vineyards can maintain quality while increasing yield.
The state’s reputation for high-quality wine continues to grow. This past February, marketers shipped 27,000 bottles of Oregon Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris to South Korea’s largest retailer. The shipment was the biggest to date, and marked what many believe will be the opening of a much larger Asian market.
Is there a ceiling for Oregon’s wine industry?
“I don’t think there is from a demand perspective,” said Tom Danowski, executive director of the Oregon Wine Board. “Supply is always a question mark, but there doesn’t seem be any barriers to the demand for Oregon wine.”
The majority of Oregon wines sell for more than $12 a bottle, he said, double the price of most other wines available in grocery stores or restaurants. The state competes at the high end of the market, and has found a “very receptive audience.”
“We’re in a marketplace that rewards quality and investments in quality,” Danowski said. “It’s a very serious business.”