Monday, July 25, 2011

Visit: Oak Knoll Winery in Hillsboro, Oregon

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with Winemaker Jeff Herinckx (above) and Greg Lint, President of Oak Knoll Winery (below).

I participated in the First Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium, which was organized by and took place at Oak Knoll Winery in Hillsboro near Portland. Frankly, living in Washington DC, I am not an expert when it comes to Oregon Pinot Gris and Oak Knoll Winery was a winery that I was familiar with.

Pictures: At the 1. Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium. Greg Lint, President of Oak Knoll Winery and Paul Gregutt, Settle Times (above).

But the Symposium gave me the opportunity to get to know a bit the wines of Oak Knoll Winery and to meet Greg Lint, President of Oak Knoll Winery, and Winemaker Jeff Herinckx. Winemaker Jeff Herinckx is a superstar in his own right, having been trained by Oak Knoll’s founder Ron Vuylsteke. Working under Ron for nearly 20 years, Jeff became winemaker once Ron retired. He’s now seen 26 harvests at Oak Knoll.

The Wines of Oregon

About two-thirds of Oregon’s wineries and vineyards, including Oak Knoll Winery, are in the Willamette Valley. Buffered from Pacific storms on the west by the Coast Range, the valley follows the Willamette River north to south for more than a hundred miles from the Columbia River near Portland to just south of Eugene. But Oregon is not only about Willamette Valley. Oregon’s vineyards span the whole State, rising up and falling over the rolling hills and gentle valleys of more than 12,000 acres (4,858 hectares) of wine grapes.

Wine has been produced in Oregon since the Oregon Territory was settled in the 1840s, when Italian and Swiss immigrants planted wine grapes and started bottling wine. Oregon's wine industry was suppressed during Prohibition. It was not until 1961, when Richard Sommer set up shop in southern Oregon, that the modern Oregon wine industry was borne. Other pioneers include David Lett, David Adelsheim, Dick Ponzi and Bill Sokol-Blosser. Then the French also came with Domaine Drouhin bringing European sophistication to Oregon. In the past 40 years, Oregon has become one of the country’s top three wine States, with 450 wineries producing an average of 3,500 cases.

Picture: The Wine Regions of Oregon

Most of it is Pinot Noir (8000 acres), Oregon’s signature grape variety, followed by Pinot Gris (1300), Chardonnay (800), Merlot (500) and Riesling (500). Oregon produces wine on a much smaller scale than its southern neighbor California. The majority of wineries in Oregon operate their own vineyards, although some purchase grapes on the market, including Oak Knoll Winery.


Oak Knoll Winery is one of the oldest wineries of Oregon and the largest winery in Washington County. The Oak Knoll Winery story begins in 1970, when Ronald and Marjorie Vuylsteke became pioneers of Oregon winemaking by founding the first winery in Washington County. At that time, there were only a few vineyards and a handful of wineries in all of Oregon. In 1970, the winery was established by Marjorie and Ron Vuylsteke on what was then a dairy farm. Oak Knoll became the first winery in Washington County. The first batch consisted of 4,000 gallons of fruit wine (blackberry), with the first Pinot Noir coming in 1973.

Ronald Vuylsteke's grandfather Leonard, a native of Belgium, was a winemaker in the St.- Emilion region of Bordeaux in the early 1900's before immigrating to the United States with his family and settling in the farmland of the northern Willamette Valley.

Both Ronald and Marj Vuylsteke are native Oregonians. Ron was an electronics engineer in the early 1960's when a bumper crop of blackberries at the family home led to a gallon of blackberry wine. The result was tasty and the Vuylsteke's family winemaking heritage was reborn. Ronald and Marj decided to take the dramatic step of pursuing commercial winemaking and founded Oak Knoll Winery.

Pictures: Oak Knoll Winery

With the help of Marj (and their six children), Ron made approximately 4,000 gallons of wine in the fall of 1970 from grapes--and fruit--he rounded up from area farmers. A wide range of fruit wines was produced during Oak Knoll's first vintages. The wines caught on in the Oregon market and by 1978, one out of every three bottles of Oregon wine sold were from Oak Knoll. Ron tinkered with small lots of varietal grapes produced from some of the first vineyards in the northern Willamette Valley. As more vineyards became established in Oregon, Oak Knoll was able to concentrate increasingly on Pinot Noir (the first vintage was 1973); Chardonnay (first vintage 1975); Riesling (first vintage 1975); and Pinot Gris (first vintage 1990).

Oak Knoll also became the first winery in Washington County to open a tasting room. By 1986 the winery was the second largest by volume sold in Oregon. Also in 1986, the Washington Post named the winery’s Pinot Noir some of the best Pinot Noir from the United States.[5] Overtime the winery has produced other unique wines such as won using loganberries.

The Oak Knoll Winery has always been a family operated business, with Marj and the children being involved since the first crush.

Second Generation

Today, the second generation has stepped in to carry on the tradition in Ron and Marj's footsteps. Head Winemaker, Jeff (a cousin) took the reins in 2001 after working at the winery for 17 years. During his tenure he spent several years learning the craft from Ron, and then served as the Assistant Winemaker. Step-son, Greg now oversees the company as President.

Wine Portfolio

Pinot Noir is the major focus of red wine production at Oak Knoll. Having experienced some success with Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll is now continuing with that, and exploring the diverse varietals of the Northwest region with a Barbera and Syrah, all from the Columbia Valley.

Picture: Oak Knoll Winery Wines

Pinot Gris is now Oak Knoll's most popular dry white wine; its charming combination of attractive fruit character and crisp, refreshingly dry aftertaste is irresistible. Oak Knoll also produces an unoaked Chardonnay; a slightly sweet, Spatlese-styled Riesling; and a native-American varietal, Niagara.

Staying true to its origins, Oak Knoll makes two very special dessert wines. Frambrosia, Oregon Raspberry Wine was first made in Oak Knoll Winery's early vintages. Today it continues to set the standard for super premium, non-grape wines in this country. The second generation also experiments with berry wines from the past, due to the request of many customers and the dedication of a second generation to honor the beginnings of Oak Knoll Winery. Current production is running at 30,000 cases.

Work in the Vineyard

Oak Knoll has developed long-term relationships with several local grape growers. Nearly all the grapes are grown within a five-mile radius of the winery in the nearby foothills of the Chehalem Mountains. Growing premium wine grapes in the Willamette Valley is labor intensive. The vines must be hand pruned, then the growing canes are tied by hand to the trellis wires. As the growing season continues, vine shoots must be thinned by hand to regulate the size of the crop. The vertical canopy favored in the region must be hedged to control vigor. Leaves are removed from the "fruit zone" on the east side of the rows to increase exposure to the sunlight and air; this practice promotes ripening and lessens the potential for mildew and mold problems. Cluster thinning (or "green harvesting") is also a common practice used to reduce yields and encourage color and flavor concentration in the grapes. Finally, all the grapes are picked by hand.

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Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium at Oak Knoll Winery in Hillsboro

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Christian. What a great article and I love how you've incorporated the winery history and Oregon wines.


    Greg Lint