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Willamette Valley’s new wine producers benefit from path paved by pioneers

I’ve only been to Oregon’s Willamette Valley a few times, but I’ve been a fan of its wines for at least 25 years.

Located between Oregon’s Cascade Mountains and the Coast Range, the Willamette Valley stretches more than 100 miles and spans 60 miles at its widest point.

The Willamette Valley encompasses nearly 3.5 million acres, yet there are less than 16,000 acres under vine. Although the number of wine producers in the Willamette Valley has increased from 220 to 550 in a little more than 10 years, that number is but a drop in the bucket compared to its California neighbors.

Today I explore the Willamette Valley and its wines through the stories of two producers — one that’s been there almost from the very beginning of wine production in the valley and the other that has fewer than 10 vintages under its belt.

These wineries are Adelsheim and iOTA Cellars. Although their stories and histories are vastly different, both properties are driven by the goal to produce the best Willamette Valley wines possible.

“It was 1971, and my wife and I had heard someone had planted wine grapes in the Willamette Valley, so we got in our car and drove out to find them,” David Adelsheim said. “We were driving through Yamhill County, and we saw someone standing in his driveway, so we stopped to ask if he knew about this person who’d planted a vineyard. Well, the guy did know, and turns out that guy was Dick Erath.”

Erath was one of the early wine pioneers in the Willamette Valley. The Adelsheims met him by chance, and it soon led to a flurry of introductions.

“Dick introduced us to Bill Blosser (of Sokol-Blosser fame), then the Ponzis and finally the Letts,” Adelsheim recalled.

David Lett of Eyrie Vineyard was the first to plant wine grapes in the Willamette Valley, but the others, including Adelsheim, quickly followed. A Willamette Valley wine industry was born.

“We bought our first vineyard site in 1971 and started a nursery so we could propagate our own vines,” Adelsheim said. “We planted our first grapes in 1972 — Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. Our first harvest was in 1976, and our first commercial harvest in 1978.”

Nearly a quarter century after Adelsheim’s initial harvest in the Willamette Valley, Johanna and Don Sandberg moved from Minnesota to Portland, Ore., with the goal of growing grapes and making wine in the Willamette Valley.

A year later they moved out of Portland and into wine country, living on the land that would become their vineyard. A decade later, relatives and partners Lynne and Perry Pelos joined the Sandbergs in Oregon.

Their Pelos Sandburg Vineyard was planted in 2000, and since 2006 the two couples have produced a wine under the iOTA Cellars label.

“Our dream of making wine all started as a simple conversation,” Johanna Sandberg said. “To date we have planted over 11 acres of Pinot Noir vines, built an on-site winery in 2010 and made wine for the last decade.”

What the Sandbergs and their partners have accomplished is wonderful, the fulfillment of a dream many of us wine lovers have but very few of us actually achieve. But there would have been no such dream were it not for the pioneering efforts of Adelsheim and others who produced and promoted the wines of the Willamette Valley through the decades.

“We’ve come a long way from the 1980s when we were comparing ourselves to Burgundy. Now five families from Burgundy are making wine here,” Adelsheim said. “I think it’s an indication of both the excitement in the world over Pinot Noir and the recognition that there are very few true cool-climate areas to make world-class wine. The Willamette Valley is one of those regions.”

Neither Adelsheim nor the Sandbergs would be able to do what they’re doing were that not the truth. For the Sandbergs, they understand and appreciate their place in the history of the Willamette Valley’s wine production, but they think their place is to look to the future while respecting the past.

“While the path has been paved by the pioneers — Adelsheim, Lett, Erath, Ponzi, Campbell, Sokol Blosser — our job is to keep up the good work that they began here in the Willamette Valley,” Lynn Pelos said. “There is a strong sense of place that Oregon producers share. We make wine to share this place with others. It’s about the wine, the people, the stories, but most of all the place.”

All I can say is, I eagerly look forward to both the next generation of Adelsheim wines and the continued development of iOTA Cellars. Their wines — the Adelsheim Willamette Valley Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, and the iOTA Cellars Pelos Sandberg Vineyard Pinot Noir — are some of my favorites coming out of one of my favorite wine regions.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.

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