Whether you’re falling in love with Oregon’s wild, dramatic landscape for the first time, or you consider it an essential part of who you are, seeing it is one thing. To fully know it, one must taste it. And grapes, or more precisely, wine, is the single best way to do that.
To put your nose into a glass of translucent red pinot noir or golden pinot gris is to experience every nuance of Oregon’s stunningly diverse land and the cool climate of the Willamette Valley’s hillsides. What is revealed on the palate are the natural gifts of the locale – enough sunlight and warmth to ripen the grapes, with cool evenings to retain varietal character.
A prime place to indulge in Oregon terroir is at Elk Cove Vineyards, one of the state’s pioneers in the wine industry. They don’t grow grapes there because it’s easy, but because of the beautiful, complex flavors they derive from the pinot varietals. For instance, their pinot gris is hand-harvested from some of the oldest pinot gris vines in Oregon, dating back to 1985.
On a misty day in 1974, in the steep foothills of the Coast Range, Pat and Joe Campbell planted their first grapevine in the shallow soil, and Elk Cove Vineyards was founded. The land had been settled by homesteaders, but this time the Campbells were the pioneers – of Oregon’s wine industry. Fewer than ten wineries existed in the state then.
The endeavor was in their family’s history. Pat’s great-grandfather immigrated from Switzerland to Oregon and grew grapes and made wine prior to prohibition. Her parents ran an orchard in Parkdale, at the foot of Mount Hood. It was there that Pat and Joe met, as teenagers picking strawberries for spending money. Joe went on to Harvard, then Stanford Medical School, and taught himself the science of winemaking, collaborating with other fledgling winegrowers to learn from their achievements and struggles.
The five Campbell kids grew up working summers in the vineyards at Elk Cove. By 1979, the family proved they were on their way to making world-class wines when their 1978 Riesling won gold at the Oregon State Fair, the Tri-Cities Wine Festival, and the Seattle Enological Society annual tasting. In 1985, when Wine Advocate magazine famously “discovered Oregon,” their region was finally on the map.
Today, Oregon has about 500 wineries, and is one of the nation’s top grape growing regions. Elk Cove has grown, too – ten times since when it began, with five vineyard sites and 250 planted acres. Pat and Joe’s son, Adam, oversees it and is the winemaker, continuing the family tradition of creating hand-crafted, estate-grown, cool-climate wines, such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Rieslings that rival the best in the world.
“High quality wine really starts in the vineyard,” says Adam. “The time I spend stomping through our 250 acres of vines not only helps us make good decisions in viticulture, it also informs our winemaking decisions. Good winemaking is a mixture of art and science… But at the end of the day, I need great vineyard sites and impeccable farming to make phenomenal wines.”
With associate winemaker Heather Perkin, they strive to balance the acid to fruit flavor in their white wines and produce elegant and robust pinot noirs.
“Every year is a clean slate – a new growing season and a new harvest with different fruit profiles, flavors and structure,” she says. “Endless possibilities to improve on last years blends. And the view is spectacular!”
Pat and Joe are retired now, but when you stop by the vineyard and tasting room, you may see Pat working in the flower gardens, and Joe might pour you a glass of his Condor wine, a Pinot Noir that gives back – sales of this exceptional 2012 vintage benefit a program to help feed families in need in Peru.