Eating the Past: Oregon's Willamette Valley
This is Tammy Proctor. This summer as part of our annual holiday, we
planned a bike trip with friends to Oregon's Willamette valley. This
valley runs from the south end of Portland to Eugene, passing through
beautiful hilly terrain.
As I researched the trip and the region, I realized that this was a paradise for
foodies, with wonderful agricultural bounty, farm-to-table restaurants, and
wineries. So today, I want to visit Oregon's wineries, with a focus on its pinot
The Willamette Valley is named for the river that runs north/south through
this region. The north end of the valley is dominated by towns such as Dundee
and McMinnville, and in addition to its food culture – including my friend Sarah
Marcus's award-winning cheeses at Briar Hill Creamery! – it is home to more than
two hundred wineries. Further south along the river are the towns of Salem and
Albany, and of course, Corvallis, which is the site of Oregon State University.
Finally the southern part of the valley encompasses Eugene and Springfield, where
two dozen breweries vie for the traveler's attention. In other words, you will eat
and drink well in this part of the country!
The history of the Willamette Valley is an interesting one. Kalaypuan and Chinookan
peoples lived off the land, with the bounty from the river itself, but also with nuts,
berries and foraged goods from the forested landscape.
Later settlers included French fur traders and the Hudson Bay Company employees,
but these first foreigners did not substantially alter the landscape. The big change
came with the Overland migration routes, particularly the Oregon trail, that brought
large numbers of people seeking farmland.
These arrivals set to work transforming forest into farms, eventually changing the
landscape to fit their vision of the Valley. With the departure of the Hudson Bay
Company in the late 1840's and the U.S. government's removal of indigenous groups
from the valley, white settlers flooded into the region.
While voting to ban slavery in the new state of Oregon, settlers also incorporated into
the state Constitution racial exclusions. In the 1849 revised Constitution, the language
made it clear: “it shall not be lawful for any negro or mulatto to enter into, or reside” in
Such language discouraged African-American migrants, who chose to go to Washington
or California instead, leading to a very white population in the Willamette valley by
the late 19th century. This is the backdrop to the story of Oregon's vineyards.
While wine was produced in Oregon's rich soils as early as the nineteenth Century,
the pinot noir that has made Oregon famous was not planted until 1965 in Corvallis, with
the first vintage being bottled in 1967.
The winemaker was part of a group of new arrivals from California, who together
developed the Oregon wine industry. Encouraged by the success of these early ventures,
others began experimenting with pinot noir.
In keeping with Oregon's exclusionary history, it was not until 2008 that theFirst successful
black-owned winery emerged in Oregon – Abbey Creek Vineyards. Its owner, Bertony
Faustin, has produced a documentary about Oregon's minority winemakers, entitled Red,
White, and Black.
Check It out!
So what makes pinot noir so special, beyond the high prices? It's a grape
that requires very special conditions of soil and climate, so it's more finicky than some
wines to produce. It's a dry red wine but with fruity undertones, so people often talk
about it as rich tasting wine.
In terms of its other qualities, it has a high concentration of anti-oxidants and lowin sugar, so
on a scale of alcoholic possibilities – it is pretty healthy.
Mostly though, it just tastes good, and Oregon's Willamette Valley winemakers have developed a
whole tourist industry around tasting rooms, wine tours, and wine-paired high-end dinners.
There are around 700 wineries in the Willamette Valley, so visit and taste some of this bounty
For more episodes of eating the past, please visit the u-p-r dot o-r-g website.