Thanksgiving traditionally means food, family and football on TV, but for Willamette Valley wineries it also ushers in one of the biggest and most important sales weekends of the year.
Wine Country Thanksgiving is Nov. 23-25, with more than 140 wineries from Portland to Eugene opening their doors for special events, tastings and offering new releases. Some wineries, such as Ken Wright Cellars in Carlton, Ore., also host private gatherings for wine club members and invited guests the previous weekend, adding to the festivities.
Ken Wright, who founded the winery in 1994, said he figures to do 20 percent of his annual retail business around Thanksgiving.
“It’s by far the most profitable weekend we have, by a mile,” Wright said.
Wright was expecting more than 1,100 guests for a private barrel tasting Nov. 17, where wine lovers could get an early taste of 2018 Pinot noir from several nearby vineyards in the northern Willamette Valley. Harvest only just finished in October, and the wine has spent barely a month aging and fermenting in oak barrels.
Judy Erdman and Richard Stinson, self-described “wine groupies” from Portland, walked between the rows of barrels in the dimly lit winery, savoring sips of the budding Burgundy. Erdman said they never miss a chance to enjoy Thanksgiving in Oregon’s wine country.
“It’s after harvest. You get to talk to the winemakers and figure out how things went,” she said. “You’re looking to the future.”
Compared to other renowned wine regions around the world, Oregon’s wine industry is still relatively young, with the first present-day wineries established in the late 1950s.
Since then, the number of wineries in Oregon has grown to 769, along with 1,114 vineyards and $5.61 billion in annual statewide economic impact. Between 2013 and 2016, winery sales increased 46 percent to $529 million, overall retail sales increased 18 percent to $1.04 billion and wine-related tourism skyrocketed 167 percent to $787 million, according to a report released earlier this year by Full Glass Research, an independent marketing company based in Berkeley, Calif.
Tourism and direct-to-consumer marketing are at the heart of Wine Country Thanksgiving, now in its 36th year organized by the Willamette Valley Winegrowers Association. Morgen McLaughlin, the association’s executive director, said it is difficult to track the precise dollar value of the promotion, since not all wineries share their sales figures.
“It certainly is a very important tourism weekend,” McLaughlin said. “We have wineries that will see 20 to 50 people a day. Other wineries will see more than a thousand a day. It is a very important weekend for visitation.”
One winery that does share sales data, as a publicly traded company, is Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Ore. Its most recent annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows fourth-quarter revenue in 2017 at $5.9 million, more than any other quarter during the year. The first quarter brought in $4.45 million, then $5.3 million in the second quarter and $5.1 million in the third quarter.
“Typically, first quarter sales are the lowest of any given year, and sales volumes increase progressively through the fourth quarter mostly because of consumer buying habits,” the report states.
Jim Bernau, founder and CEO of Willamette Valley Vineyards, said those habits are driven by the holiday season.
“It’s the time of year when people really want to celebrate,” Bernau said. “They often will have family that travel from outside of Oregon, and people love bringing them out to the wineries to show (them) what’s happening in Oregon, and the quality of our wines.”
Wine Country Thanksgiving can trace its early roots back to David Lett, a pioneer of Willamette Valley Pinot noir, who founded the Eyrie Vineyards in McMinnville, Ore. with his wife, Diana, in 1965.
By the early 1970s, no wineries had opened tasting rooms, but Diana Lett remembers envisioning what would become their first Thanksgiving get-together. It was just before harvest in 1974 when she and David were having dinner with local Gary Lawrence, and they thought it would be fun to put on an event featuring Eyrie wines and art.
“We decided that an ideal time would be the weekend right after Thanksgiving, since we would be done with harvest and people would be looking for something to do with their relatives,” Diana Lett said.
The winery, located in a former food processing plant, transformed into a beautifully decorated tasting room and art gallery, she remembers, with music from their friends Timothy Swain and his Early Music Calliope group. Their other friends, Hank and Helen Hazen, brought in their crepe cart, and guests were lined up all the way around the block.
Diana Lett said they had no idea their little celebration would become the industry’s signature annual event.
“We weren’t trying to think that far ahead,” she said. “We hoped there would be a small industry that would grow here.”
McLaughlin, with the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, said things have changed between then and now as more wineries have tasting rooms open year-round with regular hours, along with wine clubs and online shopping. Thanksgiving and Memorial Day weekends are no longer the only times when wineries have guests, though the holidays remain important fixtures on the their calendar.
“I think what’s fun is all of the wineries offer very different experiences,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a good time, too, to look for wineries that you may not have ever visited, or a chance to explore new places.”
Bernau, with Willamette Valley Vineyards, said their goal is to tell the story of Oregon through wine, from Pinot noir from the lush Willamette Valley to Rhone varieties, such as Syrah, in the more arid climates of the Walla Walla Valley.
“Oregonians have so much pride in their state, and what this does is it allows them to really see what our state can do,” Bernau said. “We love telling the Oregon story through wine, while serving as good stewards of the land.”
Not surprisingly, Bernau said the 2018 vintage is shaping up to be another high-quality year. The summer was certainly dry, but not too hot for the grapes, while deep volcanic soils were able to hold enough moisture for the vines to stay productive.
For the first time he can recall, Bernau said there was no rain during harvest, which made for ideal working conditions in the vineyards.
“I would say this was probably the most idyllic harvest I can remember,” Bernau said. “It was just extraordinary. I just hope the wine turns out as beautiful as the summer was.”
Steve Robertson, owner of SJR Vineyard and Delmas Winery in Milton-Freewater, Ore., said conditions were similarly good on the east side of the state. The region experienced a wet spring, which put enough moisture in the ground leading up to a hot summer.
Perhaps most critically, Robertson, who also serves as president of The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area, said things cooled down “beautifully” in August, which allowed the grapes to preserve acids and maintain flavor profile.
“Things need to cool down at the right time,” Robertson said. “Otherwise, you don’t have a very interesting flavor component.”
Neither region should be concerned about smoke taint from wildfires burning across the West, Bernau and Robertson both said. Southern Oregon, on the other hand, is having to defend the quality of its crop after Copper Cane, a winery in California’s Napa Valley, canceled 2,000 tons of grapes just before harvest, citing smoke damage.
The cancellations came just before harvest, leaving vineyards without enough time to recover. Shipments were valued at $4 million, putting those growers in a major financial bind.
“Hopefully, these people will be able to survive for another year,” said John Pratt, owner of Celestina Vineyard in Medford, Ore., and president of the Rogue Valley Winegrowers Association.
To support the affected vintners and defend the region’s quality, a group of Willamette Valley wineries — including Willamette Valley Vineyards and the Eyrie Vineyards — purchased over 140 tons of the grapes to make Pinot noir, Chardonnay and rosé under the name “Oregon Solidarity.”
“We wouldn’t have brought that fruit in if we thought it was (tainted),” Bernau said. “We might have the best vintage in Rogue Valley history, and it might be unbelievably rare.”