The Sweet Spot
I think it’s important to drive home how Eola-Amity Hills enjoys a perfect location for growing Pinot Noir. It’s located just below the 45th parallel north. The circle of latitude halfway between the equator and the North Pole travels through many of the world’s best wine-growing regions including Italy’s Piedmont and Bordeaux in France as well as the Willamette Valley. Eola-Amity Hills has something else working in its favor: the Van Duzer cooling effect. Eastern maritime winds from the Oregon Coast flow through the Van Duzer corridor resulting in cooler evening temperatures in the summer and fall. It’s ideal for growing delicate Pinot Noir grapes as well as Pinot Gris and Chardonnay because a temperature drop in the evening helps preserve the grape’s natural acid structure resulting in food-friendly wines and greater longevity in the bottle.
The French Connection
The excellent conditions in Eola-Amity Hills mean the vineyards grow some of the best and most sought after grapes in the Willamette Valley. Many wineries with tasting rooms and production facilities in more well-known spots in the Willamette Valley, such as Dundee, source grapes from Eola-Amity Hills. The grapes grown there are softer and more delicate like a Pinot is supposed to be. The AVA says some experts have started likening specific vineyards in Eola-Amity Hills to Burgundy’s Grand Cru vineyards. The highest level of vineyard classification in Burgundy, Grand Crus, or great growth vineyards produce some of the world’s most expensive wines such as Échezeaux, Richebourg and Montrachet. Names of the vineyards in Eola-Amity Hills that might be considered on par with the Burgundy’s Grand Crus might include Lingua Franca, Bunker Hill, Lone Star, Jerusalem Hill and Seven Springs. Many great French winemakers have noticed the similarities between Eola-Amity Hills and Burgundy. The Drouhin family, one of the most well-known French wine-growing families, own Roserock Vineyard. Dominique Lafon, the owner of Burgundy’s Comtes Lafon—considered one of the world’s best white wine producers— was the consulting winemaker at Evening Lands Vineyard in Eola-Amity Hills and he co-founded Lingua Franca in 2015. The exceptional winery produces elegant wines on par with the best French Burgundies. The young French winemaker worked at Domaine Romanée Conti in Burgundy. And, like in Burgundy, most grapes in Eola-Amity Hills are grown by small family producers without the use of harmful chemicals.
Off the Beaten Track Wine Escape
While most people who visit the Willamette Valley explore Dundee and McMinnville, and the wineries in those areas, few make it down to quieter Eola-Amity Hills AVA near Salem. That’s a shame. The landscape, a patchwork of golden-hued vineyards, as well as the growing conditions, are similar to France’s Burgundy wine region (renowned French winemakers have set up shop here as a result), and it’s a beautiful place to visit. The former head of human resources for Starwood Hotels & Resorts and her husband, a pastry chef, run a high-end Airbnb and winery called Vivid Vineyards. Accommodations—including a cottage and loft—are surrounded by vines, and each feature vaulted ceilings and plenty of light. A charcuterie board, farm eggs and fresh bread are delivered to your room each day. Seated wine tastings can be arranged at Lingua Franca while Evening Land Vineyards offers vineyard tours and tastings. Cristom Vineyards offers a variety of tasting options in its recently renovated tasting room as well as vineyard tours. The Estate EcoTour ($95 per person) includes a thorough exploration of the 240-acre estate by car while enjoying views of Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood and the Van Duzer corridor.
*Still in the works, but Elton Wines may start offering a VIP tasting of its acclaimed wines in its extensive botanical gardens when they return to welcoming guests to their tasting room. The 1.5-acre garden has two gazebos, sculptures and a koi pond.
Paving the way for sustainability in Willamette Valley
The Eola-Amity Hills AVA, primarily comprised of small family-run vineyards, is paving the way for eco-friendly vineyard practices in the Willamette Valley. It has two Biodynamic-certified vineyards: Brooks and Keeler Estate Vineyards. Most vineyards in the AVA farm without the use of the herbicide glyphosate, essentially Roundup. Cristom’s winery and estate vineyards have been certified LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) since 2007. The winery works to eliminate synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides and protect natural resources such as energy, water, soil and wildlife habitats.
Lady of the Vines
Betty O’Brien grew up on a farm in Eola-Amity Hills, but she never planned on becoming a farmer herself. A trip to Germany with her late husband changed that when they saw hillsides covered with vineyards next to the Rhine River. They convinced her father to plant five acres of grapes on her family’s farmland in 1983 just as more and more vines were being planted in the Willamette Valley. The farm ended up having highly desirable Jory and Nekia soil. When O’Brien and her brother inherited the farm in 2002, they planted an additional 60 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The O’Briens retired from actively farming in 2007 and leased their vineyards to Jim Berthau, a college classmate of Betty’s who founded Willamette Valley Vineyards so that they could spend more time on their expansive gardens. Elton Wines, named after Betty’s father, was established in 2015. Elton Pinot Noir and Chardonnay has received accolades from Wine Spectator and Vinous.
Betty is on the Willamette Valley Vineyard Board of Directors. She’s been the head of the Oregon Wine Board and was once president of the Oregon Winegrowers Association and the Eola-Amity Hills Winegrowers Association. She has chaired Chemeketa’s Wine Studies advisory committee.
A trust established by Betty and her husband Dick bequeaths the proceeds of the property upon her passing to Oregon State University and Chemeketa Community College to help improve their viticulture programs.
She would be an excellent person to speak to how much Eola-Amity Hills, and the Willamette Valley, in general, has changed since the 80s. What it has been like to be a woman in the wine industry for decades, and why Eola-Amity Hills is an ideal spot for growing Pinot Noir.