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Growing grapes in the Willamette Valley

Viticultural areas 
Site selection 
Land prices
Grape varieties
Phylloxera 
Costs 
Is there a market for your grapes?



Updated January 2007


The Willamette Valley's modern wine industry began in the 1960s when a few pioneers, who believed in the Valley's potential to grow world class cool weather grapes, like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling, planted some vineyards. David Lett, Dick Erath and Charles Coury were among these pioneers. In the 1970s the Ponzi, Blosser, Adelsheim, Campbell and Fuller families followed. These individuals, working mostly on small budgets and at other jobs to stay afloat, set the stage for the phenomenal growth that brought the Willamette Valley from a totally unknown area to an internationally recognized winegrowing region whose wines are treated with respect worldwide.

In 1970 there were less than five wineries in the Valley. Today, there are more than 300 wineries and 14,000 planted acres of vines. The exceptional quality of the Valley's wines has brought recognition, and an increasing number of investors from France, Australia and California. California's Napa Valley vintners have already made substantial vineyard investments in the Willamette Valley, and others are in the market. 

McLain & Associates receive inquiries from all over the U.S. and around the world as an increasing number of people seek the opportunity to become a part of this young and growing industry. Land prices in Oregon are a fraction of what you could expect to pay in the Napa Valley and other California wine areas, but industry growth has caused sharp increases in the cost of vineyard land nonetheless, and this trend is expected to continue.

Viticultural areas 
A variety of areas within the Willamette Valley grow excellent wine grapes. The oldest and best known area is in Yamhill County near Portland. It's the most developed, and as a result, the most expensive, vineyard land in the state. 

Recently, six new American Viticultural Areas were accepted by the Federal government in Yamhill County and portions of Washington and Polk Counties. These include the Chehalem Mountains, Yamhill-Carlton, Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills, McMinnville and Eola-Amity Hills.

Outside the of the new AVAs are a number of highly thought of vineyards and wineries in each of these counties. Further south, Benton County and Lane County have an increasing number of wineries and vineyards also doing well and producing fine wines.

Further south, Benton County and Lane County have an increasing number of wineries and vineyards that are doing well and producing fine wines. 

A site that meets the selection criteria anywhere in the Willamette Valley should produce excellent fruit. Beyond that, your choice of location may be determined by personal preferences, such as proximity (or lack thereof) to a major metropolitan area, highway access, or being close to the "heart" of the Oregon wine industry on Dundee Hill.

Site selection
Wine grapes grow predominantly on hillsides in Oregon, as a form of natural frost control, and the presence of silty clay loams that are neither too fertile nor too barren. Cold air is very much like water - it settles near the ground, then flows downhill away from the vines. 

A variety of sedimentary and volcanic soils, excellent for grape production, are found on many of the hillsides, whereas on the Valley floor the soils are generally too rich or too wet. Growers fear being too low (frost) or too high (cold). Water holding capacity in the soil can be too high, which results in over-vigorous growth, or too low, which means an early shut-down in growth. The steepness of a site, and direction of the slope, affect the heat at the various times of the day. 

Opinions vary wildly on these issues, depending upon, shall we say, the bias of the speaker. We try to recognize this and learn as many opinions as we can. Ultimately, a prospective producer must balance a number of considerations. A good approach is to find wine you like and talk to the makers about the elements of production.

Land prices

A major consideration in site selection is, or might be, price. Bare land in Polk, Benton and Lane counties is generally half, or less than half, the price of similar land in Yamhill or Washington County.  These counties are good for growing grapes, but they aren't as well known and further from the Portland metro area and the "heart" of Oregon's wine country. 

Vineyard-suitable bare land prices vary from a high of around $35,000 per acre on the Dundee Hill to a low of around $6,000 in the "hinterlands." Land for less can be found occasionally, but most farmers know the value of their land. 

Whether or not the owner can build a residence on the property is another major consideration. With some exceptions, the rule of Exclusive Farm Use (EFU) zoned ground in Oregon is clear: If there is no existing residence, be it a stick dwelling or a mobile home, the only way an owner can live on the land is by proving to the government that a minimum amount of farm gate income for two consecutive years, or three of the past five years, has been produced. Minimum farm gate income is set at $80,000, regardless of the size of the property,  for high production soils, and $40,000 for low production soils. Most desirable vineyard soils have a higher value. Ordinances vary by county and there may be other means of gaining a homsite based on the particular criteria of that county.

Land with existing dwellings carry unlimited replacement rights of any size anywhere on the property. Economic laws dictate that a property carrying the immediate right to live upon it without the income requirement are more valuable than those without. Therefore, homesite approvals have a commodity value independent of land value, although it can't be traded. Currently, that value ranges between a low of $100,000 to a high of around $350,000 (as of January 2007; subject to change). Proximity to metro areas is once again the prime factor.

Grape varieties
 
Willamette Valley growers focus their attention on producing high-quality Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grapes. The new varieties getting attention from growers and consumers are Pinot Blanc and the new Dijon clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Riesling grapes come in fourth as the most-planted variety in the state. Oregon produces some of the world's finest Riesling wines.

Pinot Noir is the grape of choice for many Willamette Valley growers because the demand for the fruit and the finished wine are high. Many industry experts feel that Pinot Blanc will be the next major grape grown in Oregon, along with new clones of the old standards.

In Southern Oregon, Umpqua and Rogue Valley growers are producing eye-opening Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Bordeaux blends, as well as newer Italian and Spanish varietals like Tempranillo. 

Phylloxera

The root louse Phylloxera was discovered in Oregon in 1990. It is spreading slowly, but will eventually be found throughout the Valley. Most Oregon vineyards are planted on own-rooted stock, and many growers continue to plant non-resistant stock. Grafted rootstock, once rare, is now available from a number of nurseries (with a one year wait in most cases). Matching rootstocks with soils and sites is an evolving science; we have a few recommendations for consultants.

Costs
You can expect vineyard development costs to range from $15,000 to $25,000+ per acre, but that depends on many factors: irrigation, grafted or non-grafted vines, vine spacing, trellis type and other variables all play a part. For further information on this subject, and other aspects of winegrowing in Oregon, read Oregon Viticulture, edited by Edward Hellman. Broker Mike McLain is the author of the section dealing with the Willamette Valley AVA.  

Is there a market for your grapes?
 
Absolutely! The marketplace currently absorbs all the Oregon Pinot Noir we can produce, and wineries compete for the available fruit. 

Many wineries are willing to enter into long-term grape contracts with new growers, particularly if they can have some input into the varieties planted and viticulture methods used to produce fruit that meets their particular needs. 

Industry experts do not see the demand for fruit diminishing in the foreseeable future because the demand for Oregon wines is growing and new wineries are going into production regularly. It's a safe bet that a high-quality fruit is probably always going to have a buyer.

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