Thursday, June 10, 2021

History of Wine at the Mill Surfaces Hints of Pre-Prohibition Chasselas and Pinot Noir

Back in 2015 we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the modern wine industry in the Willamette Valley. 

Compared to hops, which have a much longer and more celebrated history here, this wine industry is young, still within the span of a lifetime, and many older wineries are still figuring out generational transitions.

From 2015

Mostly when we talk about wine here we mean wine made from European wine grapes, our signature variety of which is Pinot Noir. There is no meaningful survival of any pre-Prohibition vineyards or wineries locally. There is The Pines Vineyard near the Dalles, and that's about it; by contrast, California has many more. There is nothing in the Willamette Valley we know of.

Zooming out a bit, there are other histories. Salem Reporter has a nice note about an exhibit on the local history of wine at the Mill. Since the Mill is just up the street from Honeywood, it might seem unneighborly to focus on just the European wine grapes, and the exhibit embraces wines from other fruit and from native or hybrid grapes. "Learn how the valley’s rich abundant fruit harvests have led to the over a century of fermenting," they say. Honeywood started, in fact, right after Prohibition, something they like to point out when we get caught up in the story of wine as if it meant only those European grapes. Don't forget about us, they rightly say.

Very briefly mentioned in the Salem Reporter story was a hitherto unknown name, August Aufrance (Aufranc, also, and he is buried at City View).

November 12th, 1904

This is great news, maybe even a new discovery! Certainly the name and the existence of this early winery is not widely known.

September 27th, 1904

And apparently Aufrance was growing at least some European wine grapes. In addition to the Concord, Delaware, Niagara, all of which are native cultivars and not European wine grapes, Aufrance claimed to be growing the "red and black Burgundy," which would be our Pinot Noir, and "White Chaslet," which must be the Chasselas, especially grown in Switzerland. August's brother Alfred immigrated from Switzerland and came to Salem in the 1890s, and it is likely August came around the same time. That August would grow Chasselas is not surprising, then.

And it would be very interesting to locate his vineyard site, which seemed to be east of the city limits, but not very far out, somewhere perhaps near Cordon Road or Howell Prairie Road. Today the Pudding River Wine Cellars operates a vineyard a similar site east of Salem.

Even if Aufrance's vineyard did not remain commercially significant, that is interesting historically. In 1904 he also said he lost a crop three times in 14 years to frosts. This is not something modern vineyards have to contend with, and is another sign of our warming climate. The lowlands are more prone to frost, and that is one reason why the modern vineyards are planted higher up on slopes, but our last frost this year was in early April, not in May. That's a significant shift.

April 29th, 1920

Just a few years after these pieces from 1904, in a grape feature for 1920, a horticulturalist at the State Hospital would say "The European varieties so widely grown in California do not do well this far north, so we can only deal with those more hardy varieties native to America." A year later, the County fruit inspector would say:

Only the earlier ripening varieties of the vitis labrusca or native American species, reach the highest degree of perfection on the average soil in this section. In a few very favorable locations and on suitable soils certain varieties of the vitis vinifera succeed fairly well here, but generally speaking, California or European grapes require a longer season and a hotter climate than we have in the Willamette valley.

This was the conventional wisdom, and the reason David Lett so celebrated as a contrarian and forefather of the modern industry, "Papa Pinot." (Eyrie, now operated by son Jason Lett, makes a Chasselas, interestingly! Even with the unfamiliar name, maybe it's a grape that should be planted more widely here.)

It also testifies to our climate change that we are now not just able to grow "cool climate" European wine grapes like Pinot Noir, but are able to grow other grapes that prefer even warmer climates as well. You might remember a note about 2017 from Chehalem Winery:

The warmest vintages we’ve ever seen in the Willamette Valley over our more than 50 years of grapegrowing are the last five. Period.

In our modern half-century of wine, because they preferred hill slopes, farmers and winemakers didn't plant much vineyard land in the flatter east Salem where Aufrance apparently was located, but in the Eola Hills there are several important wineries and vineyards, and so it is interesting to see a Mr. Ruble and his father growing table grapes "near the summit of the Eola Hills." That's another vineyard site it would be interesting to find! This site might be built up with housing now, but there are also existing vineyards just outside West Salem, and of course the cluster above Zena and Spring Valley.

April 28th, 1921

There are also important wineries and vineyards just south of Salem above Ankeny, some visible from I-5. Jim Linn apparently had a small vineyard "in the Liberty district." Since that is all built up now, it seems very unlikely to have left any traces. But it is tantalizing also.

April 28th, 1921

Perhaps there is a specialist history that has identified and recovered these sites, but they are not at all generally known, and you'd think a winery that was near any of them would be telling the story as part of their marketing. So this might be substantially new information and an interesting research program to surface this lost pre-Prohibition history of vineyards here. Even as planted to table grapes, they would be interesting to know about.

The exhibit at the Mill looks very interesting. It's apparently been open since April 27th, but we're all still scrambled and constrained by the Pandemic, and it seems new. Check it out.

1 comment:

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

(Edit: With the Pandemic curtailing non-essential travel around the city, my mental map has deteriorated. The Mill is a few blocks from Honeywood, not across the street. So corrected that error.)