“By the splash! By the glass! By the case! Pinot Noir!” I passed no fewer than 70 of these colorful clapboard signs on the way to the Oregon coast before I lost count, shaking my head in the meantime, truly astounded at the availability of my favorite wine. For every winery I recognized, there were ten that I had never even heard of. I am reminded, again, that the esteemed, noble pinot noir of the Willamette Valley should discourage California vinters once and for all from even trying to create a complex pinot noir. California can have their Cabernet and syrupy sweet white wine, but California soils are all wrong for pinot noir. The Willamette Valley's complex soils hold the key.
Despite my allegiance to the Willamette Valley’s thriving viticulture, we only attended one tasting on the way to the coast. What I really wanted to see was a remnant of Oregon’s oak savanna, a landscape I first met in the Niangua Basin of the Ozark Highlands. In Paul W. Nelson’s 1985 edition of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri, certain large-scale landscapes that are now called woodlands were originally described as savanna: rich herbaceous layer, widely spaced trees, dominated by chinquapin and post oaks. Surveyor Henry Rowe Schoolcraft wrote about the Niangua Basin’s savannas, describing them as areas through which 8 horses can travel side by side, the oaks so widely spaced. With the publication of the revised 2005 ed. of the natural communities book, I learned that I fell for woodlands, never really even seeing true savanna. From the 2005 ed. of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri:
Savannas are grasslands interspersed with open-grown, scattered trees, groupings of trees of various age, and shrubs. These take on the appearance of widely spaced, orchardlike groves or standing individual trees. They are distinguished from woodlands in that savannas are strongly associated with large prairies on nearly level to dissected plains and are generally dominated by prairie grasses and forbs. The tree canopy is generally less than 30%…Savanna topography is associated primarily with gently rolling plains…may occur anywhere upland topography is gently rolling to level, regardless of substrate….
Nelson further adds that savannas, like Missouri’s woodlands, are dependent on fire for maintenance. Before European settlement, 27 to 32 million acres of oak savanna existed in the Midwest, but the range for savanna existed as far away as Texas and Oregon. In 1985, less than 6,500 acres of savanna remained in the Midwest, roughly 2%.
Magic number. Knowing that the Willamette Valley, resting between the Coast and Cascade Ranges, certainly saw lots of fire historically, it came as no surprise when I read the Nature Conservancy’s paean to the historical oak savanna that once dominated the valley. Apparently, TNC recently acquired a small fragment of oak savanna-prairie outside of Salem, but the agency estimates that “only 2% of the historic oak savanna/prairie exists in the Willamette Valley.” Their recent acquisition needs some work, and if the Oregon Chapter of TNC is anything like Missouri's, the restoration will be successful. Kincaid's lupine grows in the prairie there, the big oaks are in place, but the area hasn't seen fire in years.
So, savanna has gently rolling hills? Widely scattered trees? Rich soils? Sounds like France…great landscape for growing grapes. And that's precisely what I encountered embarking westerly towards the coast: acres upon acres of beautiful grape vines, wineries with incredibly landscaped gardens out front, wineries named after their resources: Witness Tree (still standing! A big white oak), Elk Cove, Willakenzie, (after the wonderful soil series that gives Oregon pinot noir so much berry character). Patches of thick, dense woods interrupt the undulating hills of grapes here, but no Serengeti, no savanna. No wineries named after grassland obligates.
The savannas of the Niangua Basin have been protected by the thriving arsonist population there; annual burning, always on a red flag day it seems, has preserved the structure of the savanna. But as anyone can guess, arson is not a popular pastime out west, especially around the state’s economic security blanket, her pinot noir. (If you can employ Google Earth, scroll your mouse to Mack’s Creek, Missouri and you’ll see savanna there, privately owned, frequently burned because Ozarkers understand how important fire is for wildlife food sources and for keepin’ the ticks down. Then move over to Oregon's Willamette Valley and see small patches of trees that, with some help, could be patches of savanna.)
To try to find this relictual savanna, we stopped into Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge, an area managed for waterfowl but containing historical prairie and savanna. Without fire (and following years of grazing and haying), the prairie no longer exists, overrun as it was with Queen Anne’s lace and cool season annual weeds. The white oaks are there—beautiful, gnarly, stately old trees—but the herbaceous layer isn’t. Despite the recent thinning exercise, land managers haven't followed up their management regime with fire (we have the same problem in Missouri: lots of thinning and cedar cutting, but no fire, so the desired condition remains suppressed). The former oak savanna here is crowded, too many trees, but if you look hard enough you can see what it once must have been. We stomped all the way around the refuge looking for a pristine landscape but couldn’t quite find it. That’s when the guilt started, darkly, to creep in.
The short hike to the top of the hill at Baskett Slough NWR allows a panoramic view of the Eola-Amity Hills region of the valley, a narrow range of low hills between the Coast and the Cascades. Based on columnar basalt, the volcanic Jory-McNairy soil series of this region are responsible for the berry overtones that many people appreciate (I personally prefer Oregon pinot that’s grown on loess, usually on the backslopes, because it tastes like burning hickory leaves, not grapes). I tried to convince myself that the recent proliferation of wineries in the past 10 years didn’t put the nail in the coffin of oak savanna, but took land out of cattle and wheat production. I have no idea if this is true, and the question will come up at tastings tomorrow, but with every nice bottle of wine I’ve purchased lately, I’ve convinced myself that I’m supporting a kinder version of agriculture. Vintners take care of their soils. They know their soils. They understand the land, planting certain varietals on north-facing slopes, others on west, and so on. They won't plant in highly erodable areas, because the trick to growing wine grapes rests in the soils and they're not in the business of ruining them. The commitment to the protection of the land is evident in their passionate love songs to the Willamette Valley printed on every bottle.
On the far wall of Christom Winery’s tasting room, a large map of the Eola-Amity Hills region illustrates the gentle relief, the rolling hills of the area in GIS layers. From the high oak stool, one could see how fire would rip through the valley, snake between the hills, stopping only when it reached the Willamette River. Fire adapted landscape? It must have been.
(Another day, a second jaunt into the valley from the coast, and we sidle up to the oak bar at Montinore Estates, an organic winery whose grapes grow on 220 acres of loess, basalt, and volcanic soils (Cornelius series). The hip, young Portlander behind the bar pointed out a videographer hanging out in the pinot gris vines: "Oh, they're filming again today." Having already spent about 40 minutes in his company, I asked the bartender if a documentary was in the works (after all, Montinore produces my benchmark, the best pinot I've ever had: 2006 Parson's Ridge, grown at the toeslope of a south-west ridge in sedimentary soils from the Missoula Flood). A documentary indeed, but not about the terroir.
The Willamette Valley is under direct threat from George Bush's latest energy craze. Plans are in the works to install a liquid natural gas pipeline smack in the middle of wine country. The 6 foot wide pipeline (buried a shallow 2 feet deep) would deliver Iran's liquid natural gas to customers in California. The whole state of Oregon is against the destructive, short-sighted plan that would literally destroy the Willamette Valley. The governor's against it, the congressmen and senators are against it, but it seems all the opposition in the world won't stop Bush from pushing a pork barrel project entrenched in imminent domain. California stopped it, thanks to protests and letter campaigns, but some Oregonians are of the opinion that there's nothing that can be done. Some are throwing up their hands. The staff at Montinore Estates have the right idea: protest. If the pipeline is installed, they -and many other wineries- will be out of business. They've teamed up with the Columbia Riverkeeper in their fight. Go here to learn more about the LNG pipeline.
When I return to Missouri, I'll conduct more research about the project, write letters of protest, make phone calls if I have to, and work assiduously to protect the Willamette Valley. Maybe it will help cleanse my palette of its guilt.)