By Irene Steh

I often like to have an ongoing soundtrack to my life, and the track that seems to ring off when I head to the land that I love is Loretta Lynn’s ‘Portland, Oregon’, with Jack White singing back up;  A tune with solid edge and earthy twang, much like the place it totes.. (I’ve provided a sound byte below if you feel so inclined).

Unlike the beginnings of many New World viticultural areas, where a large net of varietals is cast out, the trailblazers of the Willamette Valley knew early on that it would be Pinot Noir, along with Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, that would largely define this place. And in 1979, it was the late David Lett, winemaker of Eyrie vineyards, whose ’75 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir garnished a place for third amongst 300 wines in a Paris competition. This upset was only further cemented, when in the following year in Beaune, Eyrie placed second, trailing a mere point behind Drouhin’s ’59 Chambolle-Musigny. The best form of flattery began shortly thereafter, as French vignerons like Drouhin purchased land and decided to become players in the Oregon story.

In 2008, a killer vintage by the way, I was lucky enough to experience a life-changing crush. It happened in the vineyards of the Eola Hills of Oregon, an AVA in South Willamette.. while working with winemaker, Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent, nestled between Cristom Vineyards and Bethel Heights. This is where I truly had that ‘Aha’ moment in understanding the finer nuances of terroir, as it relates to food, wine and culture… ‘ a sense of place’ that goes beyond the obvious, beyond the things that are measurable. When speaking about terroir, it’s textbook to mention volcanic soils, the Coastal Range, the Cascade Mountains running down the east or the Van Duzer Corridor. All these things, without question, support and distinguish the thirst-quenching fruit, the texture and finesse found in Oregon Pinot. But that’s not all..

Arriving in Portland for the first time, it struck me how this city of close to 600,000, with all it’s bridges, is a city system more built ‘into’ nature as opposed to overtaking it. With over 20,000 cyclists crossing those bridges daily, it comes as no surprise that Oregon’s commitment to the environment and sustainable growth have existed for over four decades, with such initiatives as the Bottle Bill and a strong-line campaign against urban sprawl. Sustainability in Oregon was not born out of a ‘trend’ but simply a natural response to healthier eating and local industry support. A mecca for both runners (birthplace of Prefontaine and Nike) and cyclists, this healthy and organic lifestyle permeates the State. The thriving fruit belt, coastal waters and local agriculture provide a bounty of food often praised by ‘Gastro-Ambassador’, James Beard… also a Portland native.  It almost seems like an elitist approach to food is a foreign concept to Oregonians.. as their array and quality level of mid-range Portland restos could throw down most big cities I’ve been to. Check your pretenses at the door, people.  Inventive and tasty fare here is made for everyone, not just the money makers. Haled by the NY Times as a “Full-fledged dining destination”.. Portland chefs seem less preoccupied with appealing to a larger mass, but instead intent on creating an oasis for their own personal enjoyment. But people here aren’t gluttons, so maybe indulge in a yoga class first, followed by some of the best vegetarian you’ll eat at Blossom. Or if downward dog is not your inclination, PDX is also home to the first vegan strip bar… Known for their progressive attitude, Oregon has something here for everyone.

And if your whistle needs to be whetted with something other than great Pinot… then drink up a glass or five of over 38 (!!) craft brews produced in the Greater Portland Area.. more than any other city in the world!

Working vintage here, I made sure I enjoyed all that Oregon had to offer:   Greeted in the chilly mornings of harvest with a bacon-maple glazed donut from Voodoo, at night…  taking in Nick’s Cafe, PokPok or Tabla.. not to mention the music scene, as Portland has become regarded by musos as an ‘Indie rock theme park’…In wine country tho’, there seems to be a strong generational undercurrent of Neil Young fans and a growing Ping-Pong obsession. You heard it here first.

So, is terroir as simple as dirt, slope and wind? Or, like many of the current food movements, have we forgotten the impact that a collective and deep-rooted mindset can have on it’s environment.. and well, regional terroir? Can it also be as simple as the way that people interact with each other within their community? If you were to use the Oregon wine community as an example, you might consider annual events such as Oregon Pinot Camp, International Pinot Noir Celebration, Steamboat Conference or Salud, .. this last one raises money to provide healthcare to seasonal workers and their families. You can be sure, that for a wine community to come together on planning such events, requires commiseration and egos to be left behind for the greater good. And many world winemakers would agree that there are few places on the planet that could pull this off as effectively as Oregon does, promoting themselves proudly but with certain humility.

There is much debate about ‘terroir’ and it’s meaning to wine. And to further dismiss the human input is to also say that a story of a land or romantic history of it’s people, doesn’t enhance the flavour of a bottle of wine.

If a world-class wine area is not just to be based on point scores, or the obvious degree days and soil structure, but really the sum of all it’s parts.. then Oregon reigns, and as the State motto says, “flies with her own wings”.

Irene Steh was born into a Foodie family, with a mother who was a Chef and a father somewhat obsessed with womens’ perfume and farming orchard fruit.

She has worked the last 13 years with Oliver and Bonacini Group, split between Jump and Canoe and wearing several hats as Server,  Somm and Wine Educator. After being involved with a personal blend of riesling through Cave Springs a few years back, she went on to pursue other wine-related stints in Niagara and beyond, forging great relationships in the world of wine in Canada and internationally. Finally in 2008, Irene took the plunge, both feet in, and worked a harvest in Oregon at St. Innocent Winery. At it’s end, she was offered a position. With no regrets, 2009 was a year of harvests, Austrailia, Burgundy, bookended with Oregon…” currently, my favourite place in the world of wine.”