Words and photos by Sarah Northrop
Just off Highway 99W is a narrow, winding road traversing through Dayton, Oregon, a rich growing area nestled within the Dundee Hills. As the road leads upward, hundreds of acres of orchards and vineyards become visible across the hillsides. Around almost every turn is another winery tapping into the potential that the Willamette Valley has to offer. The cool climate, mild summers, and fertile soils combine to make the region the pinnacle of Oregon viticulture.
As the road nears an end, it becomes a dirt pathway to the family-owned Domaine Drouhin Oregon (DDO) winery. The surrounding vineyard makes up most of the winery’s 225-acre estate. The vines have just begun to reach bud break, beginning the growth cycle as they come out of their dormant winter state. The winery itself is four stories built into the hillside, with an outside deck for tasting that overlooks the Willamette Valley. Inside, the walls are adorned with family photos, news articles, and awards that Domaine Drouhin has accrued over the years. Domaine Drouhin Oregon will be celebrating their 30th anniversary this summer, but their story reaches back more than a century ago, when the Drouhin family had established themselves as successful winemakers in the Burgundy region of France.
The first Drouhin winery, named Maison Joseph Drouhin, was established in Beaune, France in 1880. In 1961, winemaker Robert Drouhin visited Oregon and discovered its great potential for winemaking. In 1987, Robert purchased land in the Dundee Hills that would become the site for Domaine Drouhin Oregon. “What the Drouhin family saw is a flower that has bloomed beautifully in the last 30 years,” says the winery’s Managing Director, David Millman. Robert’s daughter Véronique became the winery’s fourth generation winemaker. Domaine Drouhin Oregon, known for its pinot noir, produced its first vintage in 1988.
The Drouhins’ arrival in Oregon was “a huge leap of faith,” according to Millman, but what the land had to offer was worth it. The winemaking family was attracted to the Pacific Northwest for its climate, but also its people that come with a certain Oregon character. “Who drinks wine?” Millman asks. “There were some crazy people in California doing it, and some really crazy people doing it in Oregon.” In 1986, Véronique Drouhin came to Oregon to work harvest for the first time. “I was welcomed by the Lett (The Eyrie Vineyards), Adelsheim (Adelsheim Vineyard), and Casteel families (Bethel Heights Vineyard),” she says, “It was clear how special these people are, and this played a big part in our decision to start DDO.”
What separates Oregon from well-known winemaking regions like California’s Napa Valley is the central philosophy for making high-end wine: terroir — the place. In Burgundy, it was the Cistercian monks who first realized that grapes in close proximity to each other could produce vastly different wines of different qualities. “Different places on the hill had different energy, different longevity, different flavor,” Millman says, “they really started to hone in on the specificity of place: The idea that certain grapes do really well in certain places and other ones don’t.”
Terroir is all about how the lands and soils impact the character of the wine. Millman explains that to achieve each wine’s unique character, winemakers prefer growing conditions that match where the grape has been successful historically. Burgundy and Oregon are both located on the 45th parallel and the two have incredibly similar weather and heat patterns. Pinot noir, a red wine grape originating from Burgundy, is difficult to grow, but has done exceptionally well in the Willamette Valley. “The delicate, ephemeral nature of pinot noir is the kind of style that the Drouhins love, which this cool climate is really great for,” says Millman.
Over the last 50 years, Oregon winemaking has evolved into a flourishing industry. Rich with opportunity, it has an attractive appeal. “You find it very often in the wine business that there are people not studying the sciences like the chemistry in winemaking, but serendipitously end up there,” explains Arron Bell, Domaine Drouhin’s assistant winemaker. Bell is a graduate of the University of Oregon and studied philosophy, but later was inspired to find a place for himself in the wine industry. “A lot of opportunities started to open up,” he says. “Fast-forward, this will have been my 16th vintage at the winery.” Bell notes that had he received his education anywhere else, he likely wouldn’t have followed the same path. “It all really goes back to the U of O honestly. The terroir of the place ― that’s what led me here in a very weird way, but every journey is weird, right?”