Life in Vine - A Year in the VineyardsYou Have to Work a Vineyard for Years to Understand It
Where the vines are A year in a vineyard Vine glossary Lives in Vine Behind Life in Vine Writing on vine Press & Promo
Furhter Reading on the Somber Subject that is Wine
Writing on Vine
Comments about the site? Write us!
© 2015 Gyroscope Pictures, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
When Martinis Roamed the Earth
[November, 1999, on Willamette Week's 25th anniversary]

"We were still in carryover from the WWII generation," Wayne Strohecker remembers of 1974, the year Willamette Week first hit the stands. "People only drank wine at Thanksgiving and Christmas -- whether they wanted to or not. Most people's dinner meant 5 pitchers of martinis," he adds wryly. "It's hard to imagine now, but that's the way it was."

Strohecher should know: he's been selling wine for most of his life, first through his family's grocery and now with Wyser's in Lake Grove. Since Willamette Week will turn 25 this month, I asked him and other people in the industry at the time what it was like to be a wine lover in that dark, backward age. Over the last quarter century, fine wine in this country has accelerated from the esoteric beverage of a few Europhiles to an important part of the Oregon economy and personality. Nevertheless, Strohecker and his contemporaries agree wine still has a bumpy road ahead.

As baby boomers are fond of reminding the rest of us, the 60s and 70s marked a time of dramatic transition for just about everything, and the insular world of wine was no exception. Until then, real wine was understood to come from Europe, and it wasn't until the famous tasting organized by British wine merchant Steven Spurrier in 1976 -- in which two California wines stunningly upset a host of high class French Bordeaux and Burgundies -- that anyone thought any different.

But international jet travel became more affordable just as baby boomers became old enough to exploit it, so when they traveled to Europe, they discovered cultures where wine was an integral part of everyday life. Some brought that mindset and a passion for wine home with them.

This turned out to be fortuitous for the nascent Oregon wine industry, which was struggling in obscurity at the time. David Adelsheim, who planted his first vines in 1973, says that "restaurants didn't take Oregon wines seriously. There was virtually no out of state distribution, and no fine wine sections in grocery stores."

"Oregon was a blue nose state," Strohecker remembers. "Wine meant people down on Burnside. This was the time when wine in restaurants meant ‘what color do you want, red or white'? It just wasn't a priority."

What kept the Oregon wine industry alive until it was energized by boomer interest -- and an unprecedented victory over French Burgundies at the end of the decade by an Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir -- was the almost maniacal dedication of its founders and their extremely tight-knit community. "The industry was so small," Amity Vineyard's Myron Redford recalls. "Everybody knew everybody. We'd always talk to one another, people were so hungry for information on how to make a better wine. For me, there was a sense of camaraderie -- that we stood or fell together."

"We all recognized that it was the beginning of something that had potential," Adelsheim adds, "and it really didn't occur to any of us that it could fail."

As the industry mushroomed over the next two decades, the loss of that early inter-connectedness was probably inevitable -- "It's gone from where we knew everyone in the state to not knowing some people in the same county," Redford points out -- but at least the perseverance has paid off. "In the last 25 years," Adelsheim says, "wine has come to have a major role in what Oregonians drink. On a close to daily basis people drink Oregon wines, not just collectors. In fact, Oregon wines are used to get people interested in other wines."

So what's the prognosis for wine over the next 25 years? As Tualatin Vineyards founder Bill Fuller told me, "The wine industry goes up and down based on economic conditions. It's a luxury product: people don't need a bottle of wine to survive." In other words, some people now have the scratch to pay $30-40 for a bottle of wine, but that won't always be the case. Besides, that kind of economic barrier -- and the snobby associations that go along with it -- will keep new, younger drinkers from getting into wine, threatening the long term prospects of the industry.

"What's happening with wines in America is that they appeal to an ever-smaller group of boomers who pay ever higher prices for wine," Adelsheim believes. "Who's trying to create new wine drinkers?"

"There are lots of wines around the world, and some [Oregon wines] are priced too high," Strohecker agrees. "People aren't going to stop drinking wine: they're going to stop paying outrageous prices."

So while a pitcher of martinis is no longer standard dinner fare, wine hasn't quite taken their place 25 years later, and may never. "Will wine ever be a part of everyday life and meals as it is in Italy?" Adelshiem asks. "Never. There will always be people who think drinking it will take you straight to hell."


©1999 Matt Giraud. This column originally appeared in November, 1999 as The Crush, a bi-weekly wine column published in Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon.

return to the top