Luxury Wine Tourism and the New Willamette Valley

In just over a half-decade, Oregon's Willamette Valley has seen an influx of tourism, its first four-star resort, higher wine prices and claims that it's the "next Napa." Jenny Fiedler on how luxury tourism is impacting the region's wines.

oregon willamette valley wine tourism

Early this year, this curious statistic made its way through the wine news cycle: The state with the highest price-per-bottle ratio in 2014 was not California, home of prestige cabernets and all-cult-everythings, but Oregon.

Statistics, of course, are malleable, and alone, that statement means little. California is also home to a raft of Two Buck Chuck-type wine that weighs down its average bottle price. Oregon produces just one percent of the nation’s wine, so with some emphasis on producing not-bulk wine, it shouldn’t be hard to outrun California’s average.

But when viewed alongside a series of other headlines coming out of Oregon, that data point begins to take on more meaning. For instance, in 2009, the Allison Inn & Spa opened in Oregon’s Willamette Valley—the region’s first four-star luxury resort property. In 2013, a number of powerhouse producers (Louis Jadot, Kendall Jackson, Méo-Camuzet, Liger-Belair) announced purchases of vineyards in Oregon. In 2015, an Oregon producer released a duo of $300 bottles of pinot noir, now the state’s most expensive wines. In short: there is no question that something pricey is happening in Oregon wine-wise.

But what’s driving this? It’s tempting to attribute the rise of an emerging wine region—and accompanying wine prices—to a meritocratic ascent in the quality of the wine. And this makes sense: As wines get better or are discovered, people become more interested in them; money, tourism and development follow. But could a more subtle contribution come from the impact of luxury tourism? In other words, does the presence of newly built high-end hotels and restaurants in the region, which court well-heeled customers, form a feedback loop in which wine begins to be made for those customers? And if so, how big is that amplification?

Wine tourism has always served as something of a mirror for what we want wine to be, whether it’s a backroad discovery or impress-the-in-laws-with-fancy-crystal experience. Napa, with the reservations-booked-months-out The French Laundry and posh golf resorts, pioneered the luxury tourism path for wine regions in the U.S., going from sleepy farmland to Frette sheets in just 40-ish years. And with that lean-in to luxury has come both great acclaim (3 million visitors annually) and great problems (intense traffic).

Lately, consumers are finding a lot to like in Oregon: A report commissioned by the Oregon Wine Board estimated a return of $207.5 million in wine-related tourism in 2013. And between 2011 and 2013, the number of visitors increased by 4.5 percent.

As for whether the arc of wine tourism will always bend to luxury—and what that means for the type of wine being produced—it’s important to recognize that “luxury” has a changing definition as well. Asking if the Willamette will become the new Napa is perhaps a misleading line of inquiry—Napa today is not the Napa of the 1980s.

One thing that luxury development does is drive media attention to the region, while having quality wines alone might not. In the high-end consumer magazine world, travel editors are looking for marquee hotels and singular restaurants on which to hang a story. Why did Orlando, Fla., of all places, land on the New York Times’s list of “52 Places to Go in 2015”? Try a James Beard-recognized restaurant and a new Four Seasons. A quick scroll through the archives of some of the more popular travel outlets shows that in just five years, the Allison Inn & Spa has gotten coverage in Travel & Leisure (circulation, approximately 1 million), Condé Nast Traveler (~813,000), Departures (~1.2 million), New York Times (~1.4 million daily) and many others. In some of these cases, this is the only mention of Willamette Valley wine in the publication’s history.

It’s clear that having a distinctive property can bring press, but does that translate into a different breed of visitor? That’s trickier to determine.

Clare Carver, who co-owns Willamette’s Big Table Farm with her winemaker husband and moved to Oregon from Napa ten years ago, says that she has definitely noticed a change in the type of people who come to her tasting room. “I am seeing visitors in Oregon that I never saw nine years ago,” she says. “We definitely get a lot of tourists coming here who are very wine savvy. They’ve been there, done that, and now they want to branch out.”

Carver sits at a unique vantage point to view the effects of development in the region. One of the vineyards her winery used and had made a reputation on was sold to Louis Jadot, one of Burgundy’s biggest producers, in 2013. The change, she says, was ultimately positive, as Big Table Farm ended up finding a lease on an old vineyard from which they now derive almost one-third of their production. “What I said then is what I’ll say now: that a rising tide raises all ships,” she says, about how her winery is now better situated. “Everyone is working a little harder and the quality goes up another notch.”

Maggie Harrison, winemaker for Willamette’s Antica Terra, has also been in the region for ten years and sees a positive impact on the community from the heightened interest in the region. Pricing had been kept artificially low, she says, because of “a pervasive humbleness [in Oregon’s wine community], which I really love, but part of this had been …to have a real reluctance to really price wines at their true value.”

Not only are winemakers pricing their wines at a more accurate market value, says Harrison, but the higher prices allow wineries to invest in making better wine, whether that’s taking another pass through the vines during harvest or hiring more labor in the cellar. “Part of that shift of recognition has allowed people to really execute at the highest level and know that there is a buyer out there who would appreciate the same thing,” she says. “People feel comfortable and trust that if they work at the highest level and claim the true value, there is a customer out there who is not just willing to buy it, but is eager to.

Looming large behind all discussions with winemakers on the impact of luxury tourism is whether Oregon wine can retain the qualities that make it distinctively Oregon—a community of winemakers that help each other out rather than compete, as well as that pervasive humility—and still grow. And at this juncture, both Carver and Harrison remain optimistic about what the future holds. Zoning laws help to protect diverse farmland from overdevelopment, and the region is still young enough that it’s populated by first and second-generation winemakers who have strong personal ties to the wineries.

As for whether the arc of wine tourism will always bend to luxury—and what that means for the type of wine being produced—it’s important to recognize that “luxury” has a changing definition as well. Asking if the Willamette will become the new Napa is perhaps a misleading line of inquiry—Napa today is not the Napa of the 1980s. White tablecloths and imported produce have been replaced by chef’s tasting menus at the bar and foraged ingredients. Luxury buzzwords include “bespoke,” “service,” and “sustainable,” rather than “chateau,” or “Swarovski.”

Untangling the relationship between a region’s visitors and the wine being made may be a chicken-and-egg type scenario—it’s difficult to identify the instigator. But change is clearly afoot in Oregon, and as the region matures—both in development of tourism and in wine quality—perhaps it will do so in a mirror to the new values of the era.