Nothing about the release of Oregon Solidarity wines was planned in advance.
Last year, when a California-based winery abruptly rejected 2,000 tons of grapes from Southern Oregon just days before harvest over concerns of smoke taint from wildfires, a group of Willamette Valley winemakers rushed to save as much of the stranded crop as they could.
The effort resulted in a unique vintage of Pinot noir, Chardonnay and rosé wines that have garnered acclaim and recognition within the industry. On Nov. 5, Wine Enthusiast announced that Oregon Solidarity has won the 2019 Wine Star Award for Innovator of the Year.
"Today's leaders honor the importance of mutual respect and cooperation, especially in times of need," writes Paul Gregutt, contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast. "As a shining example of these touchstone beliefs, Wine Enthusiast names Oregon Solidarity as the 2019 Innovator of the Year."
More than anything, Oregon Solidarity was a humanitarian effort to assist Rogue Valley winegrowers facing a sudden crisis.
Copper Cane Wines & Provisions, based in Rutherford, Calif., buys winegrapes from about 50 growers in Southern Oregon, but in 2018 it cancelled contracts for more than 2,000 tons of grapes — representing about $4 million. The reason, ostensibly, was due to heavy smoke from the region's wildfires, which can tarnish the flavor of the fruit.
With only days until the fall harvest was set to begin, growers did not have enough time to find new buyers, leaving grapes to rot on the vine.
Christine Clair, winery director for Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Ore., said they reached out to the growers within six days of receiving their cancellation letters. After an independent lab verified levels of smoke compounds in the affected grapes did not exceed quality standards, the winery decided to buy up as much of the crop as possible at full contract price.
"We wanted to make the growers as whole as possible," Clair said.
Willamette Valley Vineyards purchased 150 tons of grapes, at $323,000. Together with King Estate Winery in Eugene, Silvan Ridge Winery in Eugene and The Eyerie Vineyards in McMinnville, the coalition made 7,500 cases of wine released earlier this year.
All proceeds from sales will be donated to Rogue Valley Vintners, a nonprofit organization that supports Rogue Valley winegrowers and producers.
"I think (Oregon Solidarity) has helped shine a bright light on the values of the Oregon wine industry, that we were able to come together," Clair said.
Though it was a one-time solution to an immediate problem, Clair said the project does provide a blueprint for the industry if they are ever threatened again by a natural disaster or outside conflict.
"My hope is that it's just another example of how Oregonians can take care of each other," Clair said. "Hopefully it just provides our industry with inspiration for how to come together if something bad were to happen again in the future."
Jim Bernau, founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Ed King, co-founder and CEO of King Estate Winery, will accept the Wine Enthusiast award on behalf of the coalition at the 20th annual Wine Star Awards, Jan. 27 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
"We are honored that our collaboration has been selected to receive this prestigious award," Bernau said in a statement.