By Katherine Cole | For The Oregonian/OregonLive
Quick: Name the Willamette Valley's "Pinot Pioneers."
If you're familiar with the term, you're probably rattling off the names of winemaker-owners of established labels like The Eyrie, Adelsheim, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser, Elk Cove and Erath as you read this.
I'm going to push back a little bit. Because if you don't know names like Weber, Archibald, Knudsen and Fuqua, I'd argue that your education in Willamette Valley wine history has been incomplete.
Wineries and winemakers get all the glory. Their names are on bottles. Their photos appear in magazines. Their workplaces attract tourists. Their stories fill books and blogs.
But as the old adage goes, the best wines are made in the vineyard, not the cellar. This is apparent on the labels of many of Europe's finest wines, where headliner status goes to the vineyard or commune (small grouping of vineyards), not to the producer.
We're slowly moving closer to the European model. The Willamette Valley now has six subappellations, or smaller winegrowing zones that are cited on labels for their special soil types and microclimates. They are far larger than communes, but they're a start. And, increasingly, single vineyards are cited on wine labels.
Of course, in the Willamette Valley, many of our winemakers are also vinetenders. But there is a group of pioneers who are often overlooked because their contribution has been solely (or mostly) on the farming end of the equation.
I've been thinking about one vineyard in particular because earlier this year, the Oregon Wine Board honored two of those lesser-known pioneers when it gave its Founders Award to Jim and Loie Maresh. Also this year, the Willamette Valley is celebrating 50 years since David Lett, of The Eyrie Vineyards, planted the first pinot vines in the region. And May is Oregon Wine Month.
Maresh Red Hills, the fifth-oldest vineyard in Oregon, is smack in the center of the Dundee Hills, the historic hotspot for wine grapes that stretches roughly from Dayton to Lafayette.
Atop Worden Hill on the west side of Dundee, Maresh (pronounced "marsh") Red Hills Vineyard is the place where, 50 years ago, the road ended. And one of many plot lines in the complex story of Willamette Valley pinot noir began.
In the late 1950s, this pocket of the Dundee Hills was covered with plum orchards and prune dryers. But the Willamette Valley prune industry was dying, with growers only getting two cents per pound on the crop. Then along came the Columbus Day Storm in 1962. 100-mile-per-hour winds roared through the hills, plucking entire plum trees out of the ground as though they were golf tees. "The only good thing that came out of that storm is it completely destroyed the Oregon prune industry. And that was the best thing that ever happened to the Oregon wine industry," recalls Jim Maresh, the patriarch at Maresh Red Hills Vineyard.
In 1969, when Dick Erath appeared on their doorstep and asked them if they would consider planting pinot noir and riesling vines, Jim Maresh and his wife Loie (who died in 2000) said yes, out of desperation. But the process of converting their farm to grapevines wasn't easy. Their banker wouldn't loan them the funds to build a greenhouse because, as Maresh recalls, "he said, 'You can't grow wine grapes in Oregon.' "
Meanwhile, developers were busy divvying up surrounding Dundee Hills farmland and planning subdivisions. Later, an asphalt factory, complete with noxious, vine-choking fumes, would be slated to be built on a quarry nearby.