Barney Watson flashes a smile as he talks about the "amazing" accomplishments of the Oregon wine industry.
Oregon wine grape growers have always been innovators and risk takers, he says. They had to be.
Back in 1965 when the Oregon wine industry got its start, the idea of growing European wine grapes here was considered a huge risk or just plain crazy.
The feeling among some of the experts in California was "You’re going to Oregon to plant wine grapes? You’re nuts," Watson says. "It’s too wet."
"Those early growers proved Oregon is great wine country," Watson adds. "And Oregon wines have built a reputation as some of the world’s best."
He would know. As an enologist and Agricultural Experiment Station researcher at Oregon State University, Watson has worked with the industry over the past 26 years. He is also the winemaker and co-owner of Tyee Wine Cellars near Corvallis.
"When I came here in 1975, I worked with the growers who started the industry," he says "Now I’m working with their kids."
As things have turned out, the kids are doing all right.
They and others who’ve joined them over the past 30 years have built a steadily growing and progressive industry that’s developed a habit of trying new things.
Since 1990 Oregon wine grape acreage, yield and value of production have nearly doubled. In 2001, Oregon vineyard acreage totaled 11,100 acres and growers harvested 22,800 tons of wine grapes worth more than $33 million. Oregon wineries produced 1,082,000 cases of wine.
Temperance Hill Vineyard northwest of Salem, Oregon. Photo: Lynn Ketchum
"In just three and a half decades, the Oregon industry has been able to establish itself as predominantly a very high end premium wine industry with emphasis on a few specific varieties," says Watson.
"In the north end of the state in the Willamette Valley it’s been Pinot noir, which Oregon is best known for," he says. "The quality of our Pinot noir has been recognized nationally and internationally and this has brought a lot of the public awareness for Oregon wines."
Southern Oregon has a slightly different climate that is more suited to wine grape varieties like Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah to name a few, Watson says. Some of the other varieties grown in Oregon are Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Zinfandel.
The latest trend catching on in the Oregon wine industry is the move toward certification of vineyards that meet environmentally friendly production standards. Currently growers can be certified under the Salmon-Safe and Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) certification programs, which encourage the use of more sustainable systems of production and offer new marketing opportunities. Both programs began attracting growing interest in the late 1990s.
Serafin Mosqueda, a contract worker at Temperance Hill Vineyard near Salem, picked a ton of grapes in four and one-half hours. This is the Pinot noir harvest in September of 2001. Photo: Lynn Ketchum
The Salmon-Safe Farm Management Certification Program is a conservation program aimed at helping agricultural producers adopt agricultural practices that protect salmon habitat. The program is sponsored by the Pacific Rivers Council, a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring rivers, their watersheds and native aquatic species.
Salmon-Safe agricultural practices include establishment of setbacks, or cultivation-free areas, along stream banks, use of grass strips between vineyard rows to prevent soil erosion and minimum application of pesticides to prevent chemical runoff into streams.
Program participation is voluntary and the certification process is conducted by independent auditors who conduct inspections to ensure compliance with Salmon-Safe guidelines.
Salmon-Safe participation allows growers to get recognition for practices many are already using, according to David Buchanan, co-owner of Tyee Wine Cellars and Beaver Creek Vineyards—certified Salmon-Safe in 1998—near Corvallis.
"I think there are a lot of people worried about chemicals nowadays and the Salmon Safe and LIVE programs are a good way of trying to address that concern in a way that benefits growers and consumers," says Buchanan. "Growers don’t want to use a lot of chemicals," he adds. "I think we all try to do the best we can on a sustainable basis for not only the ground, the soil, but also for the crop and ultimately the consumer. It should be a win-win situation, a win for the producer and a win for the consumer."
The marketing advantage offered by the Salmon-Safe program is that certified vineyards can promote their involvement in the program with consumers, Buchanan explains.
Certified vineyards use the Salmon-Safe logo, which is displayed on the wine bottle label. The logo tells consumers that the wine was made from grapes grown under agricultural practices that are not harmful to salmon or fish habitat.
"It’s something that makes a difference to environmentally conscious consumers," says Buchanan.
Growers, in cooperation with the Salmon-Safe program, conduct public information activities to increase consumer recognition of the logo. The marketing component of the LIVE program operates in the same way.
The Salmon-Safe and LIVE programs are similar in concept, but different in scope. The Salmon-Safe program focuses more on protecting salmon habitat—streams and rivers. The LIVE program has much broader aims.
Temperance Hill foreman Javier Garcia has worked at the 94-acre vineyard for 13 years. He's pouring grapes into bins called "harvest totes" that the vineyard will deliver to wineries. Photo: Lynn Ketchum
Sponsored by the non-profit organization LIVE Inc., the LIVE program is operated by a board of directors, most of whom are growers themselves.
"The LIVE program emphasizes a more holistic, integrated production approach to growing wine-grapes," says Al MacDonald, a wine grape grower and chair of the LIVE Inc. board of directors. "Integrated production is the European term for sustainable agriculture practices."
The LIVE program is a system of sustainable practices including: Integrated Pest Management strategies, which emphasize the use of beneficial insects to control insect pests; extensive use of ground covers in and around vineyards to prevent soil erosion, provide weed control and maintain and build soil structure and fertility; and minimum use and targeted application of pesticides to promote fruit quality and protect water quality.
The LIVE approach to production is consistent with the growers’ concerns about raising a quality product while maintaining the quality of the land, says MacDonald.
The LIVE program was originally formed by a small group of Oregon wine-grape growers who wanted to establish a process of certifying vineyards that comply with a specific set of sustainable production practices. The benefits of LIVE certification, according to MacDonald, are that it helps growers reduce costs by improving efficiency, it gives recognition to growers who use sustainable production practices, and like the Salmon-Safe program, LIVE offers a marketing opportunity.
"Consumers are interested in agricultural products produced in environmentally friendly ways," MacDonald says. "Growers who can demonstrate that they are doing this can set themselves apart in the marketplace. If two bottles of wine have the same price, one that’s marked LIVE-certified may be more attractive to the consumer."
Carmo Vasconcelos, OSU viticulturist and Agricultural Experiment Station researcher, helped introduce Oregon wine-grape growers to the integrated production concept. She was an early proponent of the LIVE program and is a member of the LIVE board of directors.
Vasconcelos was a graduate student in Switzerland when scientists there were developing an integrated production system for European vineyards in the early 1980s.
Carmo Vasconcelos packs grape samples at OSU's Woodall III Experimental Vineyard near Alpine. Photo: Bob Rost
"The history of development of integrated production began in the years following World War II when heavy use of pesticides in European agriculture began causing environmental contamination and exploding populations of insect pests with increased resistance to chemical controls," Vasconcelos says.
Under the leadership of the International Organization for Biological Control (IOBC), scientists throughout western Europe began in the 1950s to develop an approach to agricultural production that emphasizes resource management rather than broad-scale application of pesticides for insect pest and weed control.
The IOBC is an international group with scientists from many countries collaborating to develop agricultural production systems that emphasize product quality, natural resources management and environmental protection.
Vasconcelos came to OSU in 1994, and found Oregon’s growers very receptive to the integrated production concept, which eventually led to the Oregon LIVE program.
Blanca Guzman removes leaves and stems from Temperance Hill harvest totes. She gives pickers a pay ticket for each bucket of grapes. Photo: Lynn Ketchum
"The LIVE guidelines are based on the idea of the vineyard as a whole system," says Vasconcelos. "Everything the growers do throughout the year—pruning, fertilization, irrigation, cultivation, harvesting—are accounted for under program guidelines."
Biodiversity is an important goal of the program. This is achieved, in part, by encouraging populations of native plants and insects in and around the vineyard. The plant growth can then serve as cover for beneficial insects that act as controls on pest insects that may be in the neighborhood.
"Biodiversity is a key part of creating balance between the natural resources available in the vineyard and management practices employed by the grower," Vasconcelos says. "Achieving a balanced approach helps growers protect the environment while producing a quality product."
Oregon’s LIVE program was certified by the IOBC last year, becoming the first program of its kind in the United States to receive international certification. So far, 30 Oregon vineyards are LIVE certified and MacDonald expects many more will follow.
"We haven’t promoted the program that heavily to the growers yet," says MacDonald.
From his perspective as a grower, Dai Crisp says the great thing about the LIVE program is that it provides a framework that helps growers organize an effective sustainable-production program.
"The LIVE program has a list of requirements that growers have to meet for certification," says Crisp. "These requirements encompass a lot of issues that add up to a systems approach of growing grapes, which is a cost-effective and environmentally effective way to achieve sustainable production."
MacDonald sums it up another way.
"The principles of these programs represent who the growers are as agricultural producers," he says. "They care about the land they farm and they want to leave it better than they found it. At the same time they want to produce the highest quality product possible."
Because they seek the same basic goals, the Salmon-Safe program and LIVE program are cooperating to make it easier for growers to participate in both, according to MacDonald.
Tiago Sampaio of Portugal is a graduate intern with OSU viticulturist Carmo Vasconselos. Carmo helped introduce Oregon wine-grape growers to an environmentally friendly approach popular in Europe. Photo: Bob Rost
"Both are sustainable agricultural programs and we felt that growers shouldn’t have to go through two certification processes," says MacDonald. "The LIVE board of directors, in cooperation with the Pacific Rivers Council, decided that if growers meet the minimum watershed requirements of LIVE then they’re automatically approved by the Salmon-Safe program."
The LIVE and Salmon-Safe programs have been well received by Oregon growers, according to Watson. And some growers are taking the sustainable production approach even further by working toward organic certification, he says.
The organic certification program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the certification process is handled by Oregon Tilth, a non-profit research and education organization that supports sustainable and organic food production practices.
Sustainable practices have been particularly successful in Oregon vineyards for a number of reasons, says Watson. Oregon is very young as a wine-producing area, so it hasn’t experienced many of the insect pest and plant disease problems that have developed in other older production regions, such as California, he says.
"Also, Oregon vineyards tend to be small, 10–25 acres, and they tend to be geographically separated," says Watson. "This helps by making it more difficult for pests and diseases to migrate from one vineyard to another."
But, the Oregon wine industry certainly isn’t problem-free. Insect pests called phylloxera emerged as a significant problem for growers in the early 1990s and have continued to spread.
Phylloxera are microscopic aphid-like insects that live in the soil and feed on nutrients they suck out of plant roots. Plants infested with phylloxera begin to die slowly and appear wilted as though they aren’t getting enough water.
Phylloxera infestations are devastating to vineyards because the pests multiply rapidly and live below the soil surface, which makes them naturally resistant to chemical controls.
"The only way to combat phylloxera is to remove infested plants and replant using resistant rootstocks," says Jim Fisher, a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. "This method of control is very expensive, but it’s the only effective way to deal with the phylloxera problem."
Currently, some 60 Oregon vineyards have phylloxera infestations. Fisher expects that the problem will continue to spread—slowly.
Vines pulled out of an Oregon vineyard because of phylloxera, aphid-like pests. Photo: Lynn Ketchum
Oregon growers are also keeping a wary eye on a tiny insect called the glassy winged sharp shooter. This bug is not common in Oregon and only a few have been found in insect traps, but it isn’t the sharp shooter itself that worries growers.
"A member of the leaf-hopper family, the sharpshooter feeds on plant leaves," says Fisher. "It’s causing concern because the pest carries a plant disease called Pierce’s disease, which causes severe wilting and eventually kills infected plants.
"Pierce’s disease has decimated wine vineyards in California," says Fisher. "So far, the disease hasn’t been a problem here, but growers are very concerned that it could be."
Fisher is monitoring the situation to detect the problem early if it does move into Oregon vineyards.
Despite the situation with phylloxera and the potential problem with Pierce’s disease, Watson believes Oregon’s wine industry will continue its climb.
OSU enologist (winemaker) Barney Watson pours juice from wine grapes into a container for fermentation experiments. Watson has worked with state winemakers since 1975. Photo: Bob Rost
"The industry has hit its stride," Watson says. "The growers’ accomplishments have been dramatic, particularly when you consider that many of the early growers who established the industry didn’t come from farming backgrounds.
"A lot of them came from other careers such as architecture, engineering and others and were looking for a change of life. Because of that, they didn’t have any traditions that influenced their approach to growing wine grapes."
The result, says Watson, was an attitude of openness in the industry that has continued. Oregon growers have been willing to borrow practices and ideas from other wine-grape production areas, and in the process, they’ve forged and maintained strong connections with growers and researchers from other wine grape production areas in the United States and Europe, particularly France.
The people operating Oregon’s vineyards and wineries have come a long way in mastering the science, art and craft of winemaking, Watson says.
Considering how the industry has flourished in its short history, the future looks bright. Watson says simply that the Oregon wine industry’s potential is "exciting."