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Founders of the Willamette Valley and New Founders Tour!

a person standing in front of a building

The history of wine in the Willamette Valley is a fascinating story populated by forward thinking, risk taking, and innovative people. It’s a tale worth knowing if you live here or plan to visit. Collaboration is the concept that applies both to our founders and, 50 years later, the Willamette Valley wine community. I choose to start this history lesson in the 1960’s (although the first vines in Oregon were planted in the 1880’s, see mention below on Reuters Vineyard) as the roots of those pioneers who came to the Valley remain and have grown to world class status, often headed by second-generation family members.


The Pioneers

The first families of the Willamette Valley include Charles and Shirley Coury (Charles Coury Vineyard-now David Hill), David & Diana Lett (The Eyrie), Dick & Lois Erath (Erath Winery), David & Ginny Adelsheim (Adelsheim Vineyard), and Dick & Nancy Ponzi (Ponzi Winery). Some of these winemakers came with a formal education from University of California Davis, but all agreed that the Willamette Valley had potential to grow Pinot Noir grapes in the style of French red Burgundy, which relies on a cool climate, elevation and superior soils. The Letts are credited with planting the first 3000 vines of Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley in 1965. Rumor has it that Diana was gifted a shovel as a wedding gift and spent her honeymoon alongside David planting vines.


The Land

Each family purchased land, tore out overgrown orchards, christmas tree and nut farms, as well as blackberry brambles to plant the first vines. The story goes that Charles Coury brought his pinot noir vines from Burgundy, first called the “suitcase clones,” now named the Coury clones, which then became the most widely planted in the valley. They planted in 1966 and waited for 3 to 4 years as the vines matured to the point of creating a crop large enough to harvest, followed by fermentation, storage in barrels, then bottles. Six to seven years from their first planting in Forest Grove, the Coury’s released their first vintages in the mid 1970’s. This site was formerly Reuters Vineyard planted in the 1880’s and abandoned since prohibition where Coury experimented with dozens of varieties and clones, many of which are still used in David Hill and Golden Cluster wines. Thanks to the sandy loess soil, which is not hospitable to the pesky Phylloxera root louse, these vines still produce today. (see our blog post on the subject for more details: )


Marketing The Wine

After the wines were released, the road was not easy. Local folks didn’t believe the valley could produce decent wine and assumed the vines would drown in Oregon’s wet and muddy climate. Few locals visited the wineries,  and few restaurants or wine stores agreed to carry their wines, assuming the best wines came from California and France. Many were initially unwilling to give their backyard wineries a chance. Nancy Ponzi (credited with founding the International Pinot Noir Celebration and Salud! a free healthcare program for winery/vineyard workers) traveled from the valley to Portland wine establishments hawking Ponzi wine from the trunk of her car.


The Big Break

The reward for years of hard work came in 1979 when David Lett entered his 1975 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir in the Gault Millau Wine Olympiad. This wine competition was sponsored by a French restaurant and wine guide (and competitor to the Michelin Guide) founded by Henri Gault and Christian Millau in 1965. In a blind tasting of Pinot Noirs from around the world, The Eyrie entry placed in the top 10! The wine world noticed and Oregon wine subsequently burst onto the international wine scene. Robert Drouhin, a fourth generation Burgundy producer, was incredulous and suggested a second tasting in 1980. The results repeated with The Eyrie again placing in the top 10. Drouhin was convinced that the Willamette Valley had potential and proceeded to buy a vineyard in the Dundee Hills, now called Domaine Drouhin Oregon. Currently his daughter Veronique, a fifth-generation winemaker, is at the helm.


The Next Pioneers

Following the first families in the early 1970’s were these wine pioneers: Bill Blosser & Susan Sokol (Sokol Blosser Winery), Bill Fuller (Tualatin Estate Vineyard), Ken & Penny Durant (Durant Vineyard), Cal Knudsen (partnered with Dick Erath to form Knudsen Erath, now Knudsen Vineyards), Pat & Joe Campbell (Elk Cove Vineyards). They have all contributed to the success of the valley and continue to collaborate and support new winemakers who are bringing innovation and experience from far around the world to improve our wine reputation. From the first vineyard planted in 1965, the Willamette Valley now boasts over 700 wineries!


From 1960’s to Today

When you visit the Willamette Valley today, most of these wineries still exist and are run by the original founders and their children. A visitor can taste among the vines, barrels, as well as scenic tasting rooms. They can enjoy unsurpassed views of the hills and valleys filled with vineyards, douglas fir and old growth oak forests; fields of blueberries, hazelnut trees, and crimson clover. These pioneers have inspired many to follow in their path and forge their own. Although Pinot Noir remains the king in the Valley at 69% of acres planted, many other grape varieties are grown here including Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Tempranillo, Syrah, Viognier, Pinot Blanc, Gamay Noir, and Gruner Veltliner. Across the state, Oregon grows 72 varieties of Vitis Vinifera, the noble grape species of wine.


The New Founders Tour!

If you are a history buff who appreciates learning about the origins of the wine industry in the Willamette Valley, our new offering is for you. We are pleased to announce the addition of our Founders Wine Tour. This premium wine experience will include visits to 2-3 of the original wineries that put Oregon on the wine industry’s map: Eyrie, Adelsheim, Ponzi and Knudsen. Visitors can choose between vineyard walks, wine & food pairings, library flights, barrel tastings and cave/production tours. Available to groups of 4-6 people and customizable to meet the preferences of our guests. Contact us for details to create a unique and memorable tour and make some memories!



Willamette Valley Wineries by Barbara Smith Randall 2017

Charles Coury Vineyard, OR by Lewis Kopman 2021


Pinot Girl by Anna Maria Ponzi 2020

Oregon Wine Board Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report 2020

Oregon Wine Almanac 2023