Friday, December 28, 2012

Report: The Napa-ization of the Willamette?

An edited version of my earlier piece in Gourmet and an indication of demands made on vineyard land that are re-surfacing in Oregon with a vengeance:

From this high, fallow hill you can see much of Oregon’s famous Willamette Valley where pampered pinot noir vines march off in neat formation toward scattered settlements and woods and fields thst comprise a kind of visual agrarian homily. Oddly enough, this bucolic setting, where swallows dip in the soft evening light, became the site of land use struggles so familiar in Napa valley and other viti-cultural venues. Controversy was limited to “how big the corn dogs would be at the annual Turkey-rama,” according to Jason Lett, winemaker at Eyrie Vineyards, and a leading opponent of a planned five-star hotel here.

In worn jeans, rimless glasses and beard shadow, Jason didn’t much resemble his late father, David, who left the Napa Valley back in the ‘sixties to prove that good pinot could be grown in the Dundee Hills. He entered his 1975 South Block Reserve pinot noir in the blind tasting held in Paris in ’79 that included the world’s best pinots, including wines of Robert Drouhin. Eyrie won, inspiring disbelief and consternation overseas and etching Oregon pinot onto the vinous world map.

Lett and two other pioneers, David Adelsheim and Richard Ponzi, began to travel together around America, proselytizing to the trade about their wines. Comity and mutual assistance were taken for granted in those days, when all the Willamette vintners could fit into Nick’s restaurant in McMinnville. Today Nick’s requires reservations, in large part because of tourists attracted by agriculture. To sacrifice vineyards is to harm both that business, and quality wine-making. As David Lett said of the plan to build the hotel, “People turned out to be greedy, and dumb.”

Many narrative lines converge on this particular hill, most of them happily. Half-way down is the Douglas fir where nesting redtail hawks gave rise to the name, Eyrie. Jason Lett grew up almost in that tree’s shadow, eating Pacific staples his father got by trading away Eyrie’s Pinot Blanc — “it went great with salmon and Dungeness crab” — when money was tight. Jason took over as winemaker and today successfully emulates his father’s style of wine and has another of his own.

Look to the left and you will see the roof and extensive, closely-spaced vines of Domaine Drouhin, proof that Robert Drouhin himself decided, after the fateful 1979 tasting, that if this New World terroir was serious stuff, why not buy some? Today Domaine Drouhin produces— ironically — the more up-front, luscious style pinot noir, while Eyrie, devoid of new oak, is leaner and more classically structured.

    Farther down the hill sits the Sokol Blosser Winery, founded by Bill and Susan Sokol Blosser in 1977. They, along with David Lett, helped convince Yamhill County to terminate what was then five-acre residential zoning, so vines could be planted instead of houses. “The American ethic of ‘I can do whatever I want with my property’ has got to change,” said son Alex, referring to the prospect of a hotel rising from green waves of vitis Vinifera. And he echoed the sentiment heard often here: “We don’t want the Napa-fication of the Willamette.”

The Willamette isn’t Napa. It’s too large, for one thing, and too diverse. Two hundred and fifty commercial crops are grown, whereas Napa’s trellised monoculture occupies every square foot of tillable land. By contrast, the views from wineries spread around the northern Willamette — from Elk Cove to Bethel Heights, from Amity to Cristom — are of fields of grain, cattle, wood lots, and rolling country with some vineyards and mercifully few McMansions.

The Dundee hills come closest to the Napa Valley analogy: many wineries, concentrated wealth, a couple of aspiring châteaux, and traffic jams on Highway 99 down on the valley floor. This resembles Napa’s Highway 29, but here more of the cars are bound for the Spirit Mountain casino than for tasting rooms. The highway passes through the towns of Newberg, Dundee, Lafayette, and McMinnville, which has a well preserved historic downtown that attracts tourists and an occasional limo. B&Bs have sprung up in the Dundee Hills, too.

Enter now David Kahn, in pristine white sneakers, stepping from the red Lexus he used as an extension of his Portland real estate office. He and his investors had development rights on the hilltop. Kahn wanted nothing more, he told me, than to bring world-class R&R into the coveted heart of Oregon pinot-dom, and to help everybody in the process. “It can be done here,” he said, meaning that a five-star hotel and spa would prosper in the midst of so much rural eye candy. He lovingly referred to his proposed hotel as “the Auberge de Soleil of the Willamette,” referring to that $600 minimum-a-night “inn” that clings to a mountainside above Napa Valley, where tourism has come to rival — and challenge — agriculture.

Kahn lauded the number of private jets that he had seen in the air over Napa, and other high-end manifestations in that crowded Eden, including the specialty cuisine-cum-condiment boutique, the Oakville Grocery, which he called “the greatest place on earth.” Such enterprises greatly stimulate the local economy, he pointed out, and would here, too. But both it and Auberge de Soleil were grandfathered in; they could not be built there today.

This hill in Dundee, however, could support vines, despite its altitude, as proven by those growing all around it. Oregon has long prided itself on the preservation of its agriculture. Long-standing land use laws prohibit commercial projects in the midst of farmland because they interfere with farming and permanently remove the land from the possibility of ever being farmed. Additional issues with Kahn’s proposed hotel included a falling water table, increased traffic, sewage, various sorts of waste—including, possibly, brine brought up from deep marine sediments where well-diggers would likely have to go—and permanently altered views from below.

Two dozen vintners joined hands and signed a letter opposing Kahn’s project, but Yamhill County’s three-person governing board of commissioners granted him an exception anyway. The sole Democrat on the board, Mary Stern, a lawyer, said she had no choice but to vote for the exception because Kahn and his lawyers proved to her satisfaction that a five-star hotel could succeed nowhere else in the county. “If I could have voted against it,” she said, “I would have.”

But the vintners’ lawyer said that the county had no idea where such high-impact facilities should go, or how they should function. “It shouldn’t be done on an ad hoc basis. We need a comprehensive plan.”

“Kahn’s bill passed,” said Lett, “simply because a lot of people with a lot of money want to stay in wine country.” Among the hotel’s other opponents was Domaine Drouhin’s manager, David Millman. “The hotel’s a great idea,” Millman admitted over a glass of chardonnay on Domaine Drouhin’s deck, “but in the wrong place. Kahn couldn’t do this in Burgundy, or in Napa.”

The county commissioners’ ruling went to the Land Use Board of Appeals and ended up in Oregon’s court of appeals. After deliberating for many white-knuckled weeks, the court asked for an extension, an indication of the importance of the case and the novel questions it raised. The court sent the application for the hotel back to the Land Use Board of Appeals for further consideration. Both protection of farmland and growing urbanization had to be better addressed in granting such exceptions, the court said.

Vintners in the Willamette fretted then over the generally roiled state of land-use law in Oregon, where the notorious Measure 37 referendum, which passed in 2004, allowed some residential development in ag zones after a hiatus of 40 years. A new referendum, Measure 49, designed to counter Measure 37, narrowly passed but only patched up the damage done by the earlier one.
Although the prospects of any luxury spa capping the Dundee hills dimmed and finally were extinguished, it was clear that pro-development sentiment in rural Oregon wasn’t going away.

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