Squeezing Oregon

Wine is about a whole lot more than grapes.

By Brian Doyle

Harvest time: it's the world Series, Super Bowl, and World Cup of winemaking. And the winemaker, like any winning coach, believes that his wine made from pinot noir grapes will be among the best in the world.

A great wine begins in the vineyard. In this one outside Dundee, Ore., on a gleaming hill in brilliant sunlight, the Cascade Mountains glittering to the east and the Coast Range rolling greenly toward the west, a hundred tons of purple-black grapes the size of fingernails are waiting to be crushed.

Above the red clay hills, a hawk floats by with a writhing snake in its beak, and a thousand wasps are having the most intoxicating day of their lives. The chief winemaker, Don, curses the moles and gophers that have riddled the dirt between the vines. Twenty people are sweating like mad, picking grapes, while the intense younger winemaker, Don's son, Jesse, drives a forklift up and down the alleys between the rows, picking up bins full of grapes.

This area was subjected to what were perhaps the most powerful floods in the history of the world“incredible walls of water called both the Bretz Floods and the Missoula Floods, which thousands of years ago traveled more than 60 miles an hour and carried more than 10 times the volume of all the rivers on earth. They carved the Columbia River gorge and the coulee canyons of eastern Washington, made the Snake and Willamette rivers run backward, and dropped rocks the size of cottages all over the Pacific Northwest.

The rich, deep, red soil of Dundee is called Jory soil, after Jory Hill near Salem, where the stuff is especially noticeable. It is generally four to six feet deep, relatively porous, high in iron, and layered onto the basaltic bedrock. The volcanic nature of the dirt means that it drains quickly—a crucial virtue for the fussy, fidgety pinot noir vine, which, Jesse says, "hates to get its feet wet." Jory soil is so unusual and so identified with the Willamette Valley that it has been designated as Oregon's state soil. 

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