During these “challenging times,” anything can be done online: getting married, going to school, or partying with friends. But can they be done well?
It depends. Politely chatting with Aunt Mary over Zoom can be better for everyone involved, but online galas struggle to have the same sizzle as the ones we used to have in person.
However, there are ways to keep it interesting. The Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Auction is an annual trade event in Newberg, OR. Last year, the week-long event was held at The Allison Inn & Spa and was comprised of formal and informal tastings, educational seminars, dinners, and events for both Pinot obsessives and members of the trade and media. Although thrown to raise money to pay for marketing expenses, it’s also an excuse for the region’s winemakers and their rabid fans to get together, shake hands, and make deals. Last year, the Auction garnered more than $1 million, with the average bottle price reaching $160, a 29 percent increase over the previous year.
The Willamette Valley, and Oregon wine in general has become a critical darling and a populist favorite, which is no easy feat, by consistently producing high-quality wines on a small and sustainable scale. (For more of a primer on Oregon wine, see our sidebar).
This year, the event moved online, which initially felt like a buzz-kill, but ended up being fun in a different way, as these transitions can be. The root of the success was three-pronged. First, in the lead up to the event, 80 wineries and winemakers hosted a series of virtual tastings, one-on-one virtual meetings to introduce their wine, and discussions on the history of the region and its terroir. About 500 members of the trade participated in the meetings from August 3rd to 7th.
Second, they pivoted from merely benefiting themselves, contributing to a cause that needs more support than ever. While pre-set minimum opening bids for lots went to fund Willamette Valley marketing, all money made over that threshold benefited the James Beard Foundation’s Open for Good Campaign. Their Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans, which provide grants to small food and beverage businesses at least 51 percent owned by Black or Indigenous Americans, would receive the funds.
Third, Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum was the 2020 Ambassador for the Auction. McCollum, an enthusiastic consumer of the region’s wine, also recently launched a partnership with Adelsheim Vineyards. McCollum Heritage 91 is made from grapes grown in the volcanic soils of the Chehalem Mountains. Winemaker Gina Hennen says the 2018 wine opens “with layers of cedar spice, fresh cherries, dusty violets.” It’s available this September.
But what about the Auction itself? Held August 11th to 13th, the live close was hosted online by famed auctioneer Fritz Hatton with an appearance from McCollum. Auctioned off were 74 one-of-a-kind lots of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir from the 2018 vintage, plus six collaborative lots of 2018 Chardonnay from past and present Auction Chairs. One of the Pinots was a white Pinot Noir, an Auction first.
Once Hatton “hammered” the final lot, it was clear that between additional financial pressures felt by the industry impacted the Auction. According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurants will lose up to $240 billion in sales by the end of the year. In addition, on-premise wine sales are down 69 percent year-over-year.
The total haul was $503,000. The Auction may not have presented the obvious kind of Disney ending wine lovers were rooting for, but it still provided a sparkling cartoon rainbow in a grey and dismal landscape, because in addition to the funds raised to support education and marketing initiatives, $100,000 was raised for the Open for Good Campaign.
“The continued success of the Willamette: the Pinot Noir Auction, even in a year like 2020 and in such a different format, speaks volumes about our amazing bidders, industry sponsors, participating wineries, and WVWA team. We are so proud to be donating a substantial sum to the Open for Good Campaign, to support Black and Indigenous restauranteurs,” Domaine Drouhin Oregon’s Managing Director and 2020 Auction Chair David Millman says. “I can’t wait to help incoming co-chairs Jess Endsworth and Rob Alstrin in whatever way I can to make 2021 an even greater success!”
Oregon won critics’ and consumers’ hearts with its unparalleled quality, but it kept them with its generosity of spirit. Hopefully, 2021 will indeed be a better year for everyone, but the 2018 vintage from the Willamette Valley—out now—is drinking beautifully, thanks to a warm, dry year without unexpected heat spikes or dramatic freezes.
In the wake of hardship during the pandemic, it’s a relief to find a wine region that is more committed to “doing the right thing”—even when it costs them—just like the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
Fast Facts on Oregon Wine:
While vinifera grapes were planted in Fort Vancouver, on the Washington side of Columbia River in Oregon as early as the 1820s, the modern wine industry wasn’t born until Richard Sommer started Hillcrest Winery in the 1960s. Soon, Charles Coury established Coury Winery in 1965, and then David “Poppa Pinot” Lett planted his first vineyard at the Eyrie Winery that same year.
Now, Oregon is recognized as one of the world’s top winemaking centers, with 19 official wine-growing areas in five regions; the state has almost 800 wineries making wine grown from 82 varieties.
Of all of the regions, the Willamette Valley is most renowned. The cool climate is marine-influenced, making it perfect for Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Chardonnay. The soils are incredibly diverse, with multiple microclimates and sub-AVAs that distinguish the wines grown in various soils: marine sediment like Bellpine, volcanic like Jory, and deposits from the Missoula floods from Montana that surged across the Valley during the end of the Ice Age.
Wine tourism boosts the winemakers’ bottom line, but a lot of the tourist cash ends up in the coffers of restaurant owners, hoteliers, and other small-scale businesses. 2016 was the last year with available data, where wine tourism contributed $787 million to the state, up 162 percent from $295 million in 2013.
Source: Oregon Wine Board