Stephanie Haugen ’12 grew up on a farm in Washington County. As a journalism major at Pacific University, she used her senior project to explore the changes in agriculture in her home county and to tell the stories of the farmers who are neighbors to the University. With her permission, Pacific magazine is publishing excerpts of her seven-story investigative series.
Driving through Washington County, it won’t take long to find a winery. Tourists and locals alike have the opportunity to stop by for a taste of wine while checking out where the grapes are grown and meeting the makers.
The Oregon wine industry has grown to be one of the state’s most lucrative agricultural moneymakers. Although the industry is fairly new to the area, Oregon wine producers have come to be known for personal operations, for quality wines, for an ideal environment for popular grape varieties and for attracting tourists from far and wide. The industry is growing statewide, and Washington County is contributing to much of that growth.
Holly and Jim Witte, who own and operate A Blooming Hill Winery and Vineyard in Cornelius, exemplify the small-scale Washington County winemaker. Jim Witte moved to Washington County and bought the property in 2000, after living in several big cities, as well as near California wine country, while working in the television industry.
“I planned it all my life,” said Witte, whose childhood dream involved owning a vineyard.
When Witte was a child, his grandfather always had two to three barrels of wine in the making.
“My grandfather was my hero,” Witte said. “He inspired me.”
Witte got into the business at the beginning of Oregon’s wine boom. From 2000 to 2010, Oregon acreage planted in wine grapes increased 93 percent. Now, 1,915 acres in Washington County alone are dedicated to grapes—a sharp increase from 1970, when there were just 35 acres for five wineries on record in the entire state.
Since the boom of the new industry, Oregon growers have consistently earned the highest average price per ton on grapes compared to other states and, perhaps more significantly, the Oregon Wine Board reports that Oregon still has room for growth compared to long-standing wine-growing regions, such as those in California.
RJ and Juanita Lint operate Plum Hill Winery in the rural hills between Gaston and Forest Grove.
“There’s land available for vineyards and for more growth, and most are family owned and really personal,” said RJ Lint. “This county has the potential to be the Napa of the north.”
The Lints found the land they now own while looking at another property in the area in 2007.
“We sort of fell into it,” said the Lints, who had no previous agricultural experience. “We said, ‘Let’s see if we can try it.’”
They converted the 33-acre former dairy farm and started out planning one acre of grapes. They converted the old farmhouse into their office, tasting room and gift shop, and turned the old barns into their storage and barrel rooms. Meanwhile, they started working and volunteering at other local vineyards, building connections and learning.
Today, their wine business brings in 80 percent of their revenue, but the gift shop is also a draw for visitors, selling local handmade crafts, books, art and produce.
“Once you get started, there’s no going back. It’s hard work, but when you love what you do, it’s not work,” RJ Lint said.
“We wish we would have started this sooner, but we wouldn’t have had the money to do it,” added Juanita Lint.
The start-up capital for a winery tends to be a challenge for newcomers to the industry. There’s the expense of buying and planting a property, and vines won’t yield a crop for four years. Once growers do harvest a crop, it takes another year for the wine to be ready.
Dana Blizzard is trying her hand at winemaking on her parents’ place in Hillsboro. She has planted one and a half acres of pinot noir to put into her wines. She purchases additional grapes from the Willamette Valley and eastern Washington. Because her business is small, she has to choose between focusing on the grapes or the wine—she’s chosen wine.
She hopes to build a facility, create competitive wines and expand, but she also doesn’t want to get too big and get away from the art of winemaking or from the one-on-one relationship with the people who drink her wines.
For many local vitners, that personal connection is key.
The Lints say they make about 95 percent of their sales from their tasting room, and the Wittes report most of their wine also sells from their own property. Both vineyards are open to weddings and events. Tourism, too, is a significant part of the business.
The Washington County Visitors Association says 34 percent of people who visit the county go wine tasting.
Some 41 percent of Oregon wine is consumed within the state, but exports are on the rise, too.
All told, wine-related tourism contributed $158.5 million to the Oregon economy in 2010, and the industry accounted for an estimated 13,518 jobs in the state in 2010.
But it’s the individual customer who means the most to many winery operators.
The best part, said RJ Lint, is still “customers who come in and appreciate what we’ve done here.”