With the scarcity of Oregon vineyards, the first vintages Oak Knoll produced were an array of grape and fruit wines. Technical winemaking information was hard to come by, and “seat of the pants” winemaking was the norm in the early 1970’s. Growing conditions and vineyards in the northern Willamette Valley are much closer to the cooler regions of Europe than they are to California. The wine courses and advice coming from California schools and the wine trade were geared entirely for warmer conditions. Therefore, growing grapes and making wine in the Willamette Valley presented new challenges to the American wine industry; a new world of discoveries about vines and wines began to emerge from northern Oregon based on the trials, errors, and successes of these determined winemakers.
It has often been said that winemaking is equal parts science, art, and luck. Making wines that express the true character of a region is only possible when the fruit is grown to exacting standards. Taking on this endeavor becomes more challenging when the growing conditions are as variable as they are in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Like many famous French wineries in Burgundy, Oak Knoll has developed long-term relationships with several local, quality-oriented grape growers in order to meet our annual production requirements. Nearly all the grapes are grown within a five-mile radius of the winery in the nearby foothills of the Chehalem Mountains. The close proximity of the vineyards allows the harvested fruit to be transported quickly from the vineyards to the winery crush pad–a real plus when handling delicate, thin-skinned grapes such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.
Growing premium wine grapes in the Willamette Valley is labor intensive. The vines must be hand pruned, then the growing canes are tied by hand to the trellis wires. As the growing season continues, vine shoots must be thinned by hand to regulate the size of the crop. The vertical canopy favored in the region must be hedged to control vigor. Leaves are removed from the “fruit zone” on the east side of the rows to increase exposure to the sunlight and air; this practice promotes ripening and lessens the potential for mildew and mold problems. Cluster thinning (or “green harvesting”) is also a common practice used to reduce yields and encourage color and flavor concentration in the grapes. Finally, all the grapes are picked by hand.