Oregon wine’s enduring relationship with Virginia

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Bill Curtis of Tastings has long been a champion of Oregon wines, in particular the wines made by Michael Etzel of Beaux Frères winery. Photo by Amy Jackson Bill Curtis of Tastings has long been a champion of Oregon wines, in particular the wines made by Michael Etzel of Beaux Frères winery. Photo by Amy Jackson

In most wine shops and restaurants in Virginia, you’ll find an excellent Oregon wine selection—one that locals may take for granted. But Virginia’s high-quality Oregon wine niche is no accident, it’s driven by a core group of passionate people.

Though Oregon’s pre-Prohibition wine history dates back to the 1840s, today’s winemakers put down roots in the 1960s. In 1985, Beth and Rob Crittenden worked a harvest in Oregon and got to know many of the winemakers long before the state’s wine renaissance dazzled the rest of the country—and they loved the Northwest wines their friends grew and produced.

Shortly after the couple moved to Virginia to be closer to family, they founded Roanoke Valley Wine Company in 1994. “When we first moved here,” says Beth, “there were just a handful of Northwest wines” available in Virginia. The Crittendens aimed to fix that. They introduced Virginia to the Oregon wines of Brick House and Eyrie, and carried the wines of Cameron Winery and Patricia Green from their first vintages.

“We were the first distributor in the United States to offer Oregon wines as a central focus,” says Rob. “Many wines were available in Virginia years and years before they were available in larger markets. For that reason, Virginians have had, and still have, access to the best of Oregon.”

That access was eagerly accepted by the local wine community. “When we first introduced Oregon wines in Virginia, only a few potential customers even knew that Oregon made wine,” says Rob. “Luckily for us, they were open-minded. …Early adopters included Bill Curtis at Tastings, Robert Harllee at Market Street [Wineshop] and Elaine Futhey at the C&O.”

Because most Oregon wineries are small, typically family operations, “Oregon producers have always embraced direct relationship-based marketing of their wines,” says Brian O’Donnell, winemaker at Belle Pente Vineyard & Winery.

Dry-farm advocate (no use of irrigation) John Paul, owner of Cameron Winery and planter of the inimitable Clos Electrique vineyard, says, “When we have time, we personally go on the road to sell our own products. I have to believe that the authenticity of that approach is not lost on the consumers here or elsewhere.”

The popularity of Oregon wines in Virginia “is because of people like Beth and Rob and their amazing team,” says Rob Stuart of R. Stuart & Co. “They are all about small, family producers living real lives. There is such a disconnect these days with large corporate conglomerate producers and the consumer. RVWC is giving the Virginia market a reconnect to what we all seem to crave, a personal connection between the producers and the consumers.”

There is a growing eagerness to embrace the high quality wines of Oregon that catches its winemakers off guard. “Mainly you will find me on a tractor, so, imagine my surprise, along with my distributor, when a wine director in D.C. ushered us back during dinner service to taste my wines,” says Jim Prosser of J.K. Carriere Wines based in Newberg. “The deer on my hill don’t show a deference, [but I] guess [the reception of Oregon wines is] different on the East Coast.”

Because light red wines go so well with a diversity of foods, pinot noir has become the go-to grape in many dining situations. “Since Oregon pinot noir is compatible with so many different types of foods, it is a natural choice for this more casual, small-plate-oriented method of dining,” says O’Donnell. “Heavier red wines are far less versatile at the table. That is why you find pinot noir—and especially Willamette Valley pinot noir—gaining in popularity in America’s top restaurants.”

Prosser echoes this notion. “Wines of energy lift themselves out of the glass and represent; they offer moments of epiphany,” he says. “Oregon wines have energy and that will bode well for their intersection with food, wherever, however you find it.”

Chris Dunbar of The Alley Light in downtown Charlottesville nods to the Oregon wines on his wine list. Currently, “we serve the Omero Cellars pinot noir by the glass, and have Beaux Frères, Ken Wright and Domaine Serene by the bottle. Oregon’s cool climate produces a similar taste profile to Burgundy—Robin’s favorite wine region—which always pairs well with food,” says Dunbar, referring to the restaurant’s chef and co-owner Robin McDaniel. “Conversely,” he says, “I love the under-appreciated Alsatian varietals—pinot blanc, pinot gris and riesling” from Oregon.

“Oregon wines are some of our most popular,” says Farrell Vangelopoulos at The Ivy Inn. “With our all-American wine list, Oregon is a natural fit. The pinot noirs are so elegant and expressive.”

At Market Street Wine, co-owner Thadd McQuade says, “Oregon has long been a home to idiosyncratic free-thinkers. Wineries like Biggio Hamina and Illahe have irrefutable personality, aromatic complexity and are standard-bearers of the natural, non-interventionist winemaking that we value and support.”

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