Can Pinot Gris Get a Grip on Oregon?

Marketing group seeks recognition for more Oregon grapes and wine

by Peter Mitham
Oak Knoll pinot gris
Oak Knoll Winery president Greg Lint wants his winery and others in Oregon to be well known for its Pinot Gris (such as the bins seen above, from Dion Vineyard), not just Oregon Pinot Noir.
Hillsboro, Ore.—The excitement that followed the Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium at Oak Knoll Winery in Hillsboro last June has spawned the Oregon Pinot Gris Marketing Group. The group aims to raise awareness of this grape alongside Oregon’s best-known variety, Pinot Noir—something Oak Knoll Winery president Greg Lint, a relative newcomer to the industry with just eight years under his belt—believes is much needed.

“Oregon has done a phenomenal job at letting the world know that we produce fine Pinot Noirs, but that’s it,” Lint told Wines & Vines. He repeatedly runs into distributors on his national sales trips who are familiar with Oregon and the Willamette Valley, but they won’t buy his Pinot Gris, even though the variety is the state’s second-most planted grape.

With more than 12,400 acres of Pinot Noir planted in Oregon, and just 2,750 acres of Pinot Gris, the lower profile of Pinot Gris may be understandable. It still frustrates Lint, however.

“They’re just interested in Pinot Noir, and I come back bitchin’ all the time: ‘I cannot get them to buy our Pinot Gris, our Chardonnay, Riesling, Niagara,’” he said. “Most importantly, I want them to know Oak Knoll for Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. I want them to know Oregon for more than just Pinot Noir.”

California wineries buy Oregon Pinot Gris
The challenge of diversifying beyond Pinot Noir has been facing Oregon producers for several years. They experienced the dangers of Pinot Noir’s ascendance acutely during the recession, when consumers traded down and left wineries struggling to move the relatively pricey wines made from the delicate grape.

During last year’s Oregon Wine Industry Symposium, a retrospective tasting of the state’s white wines showcased what the state could offer, including several examples of Pinot Gris.

Lint and others feel Pinot Gris presents a prime opportunity for Oregon growers, because no other state has laid claim to the variety, and it is well suited to Oregon’s cool growing conditions. King Estate has championed the variety, but its efforts haven’t been accompanied by a widespread industry movement—until now.

California-based wine publicist Jo Diaz might be called the éminence Gris behind the initiative. She has spent a decade championing Petite Sirah through PS I Love You Inc., an incorporated entity that started with 10 members and claimed 90 members in its 10th year.

Diaz hopes the Oregon group will see a similar growth curve, even though it will remain informal rather than incorporate. It officially launched Jan. 1 with eight members. In addition to Oak Knoll, Airlie Winery, Apolloni Vineyards, Christopher Bridge Cellars & Satori Springs Estate, David Hill Winery, Pudding River Wine Cellars, Terrapin Cellars and Yamhill Valley Vineyards have signed on.

The initial members were drawn from wineries that participated in the June 2011 symposium. The cost of membership is $500 per year, with membership applications to be reviewed annually.

Diaz said plans for raising awareness include not only a website but regular outreach to media and the trade. “Oregon has not had a Robert Mondavi,” she said, in explaining the state’s low profile on the national wine stage. “They’ve just been waiting for the world to find out about them.”

On the other hand, Milan Stoyanov, owner with his wife Jean of David Hill Winery in Forest Grove, Ore., said desirable Oregon Pinot Gris grapes are not new to wineries in California. Tons of Pinot Gris move south to vintners in the Golden State every harvest, a phenomenon he compared to China importing U.S. logs to mill into lumber or finished goods.

“A lot of wine consumers in the United States think of the Willamette Valley as Pinot Noir, but we are also a large Pinot Gris producer, and we’re not getting the notoriety for that. We’re really looking forward to this being successful,” Stoyanov said. “If we were selling more of it, we wouldn’t have to sell the grapes to California.”

The marketing group is also welcome news to Pinot Gris producers outside the Willamette Valley who are just learning about the initiative. Katherine Bryan of 10,000-case Deer Creek Vineyards near Selma, Ore., is new to the industry, but Deer Creek’s 2010 Pinot Gris was recognized in the most recent San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Other wineries from Southern Oregon were also recognized, and Bryan feels any efforts to promote a specific variety—and what regions outside the Willamette Valley have to offer—will help diversify the state’s reputation. “If the wineries in Southern Oregon were aware of this group…I am sure that they would like to participate,” she said. “In the end it’s going to benefit everybody.”

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