DALLAS, Ore. — As a newly established growing region, the Mount Pisgah, Polk County, Oregon American Viticultural Area wasn’t even a year-old when one of its vineyards got invited to the wine industry’s storied Oregon Pinot Camp.
It was a proud moment for Brad Ford, co-author of the AVA petition and owner/winemaker of Illahe Vineyards & Winery. He will share the story of the new AVA west of Salem and present his Pinot Noir during the four-day trade event that recruits wine buyers from across the U.S.
“The people making the selection said it’s a new AVA, and if we want to advertise Oregon winegrowing, we need someone from each AVA,” Ford said. “People are having to include us now, which is kind of cool.”
And the Mount Pisgah, Polk County, Oregon AVA will celebrate its first anniversary on July 5 — a week after those campers go home.
Mount Pisgah attracts attention of sommeliers
Brett Wall, who owns Open Claim Vineyards with his wife, Marnie, said, “We got a call immediately from a restaurant that wanted to have all Oregon AVAs on the menu. It’s helpful that sommeliers have to know what the AVAs are, and they have to understand the distinctions and talk about them. This is an important way for us to be part of the Oregon wine industry.”
Mount Pisgah, near Dallas, became the state’s 23rd AVA and the 11th nested within the larger Willamette Valley AVA. At 29 characters, it’s one of the longest-named AVAs in the U.S., but it’s still shorter than The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater at 34.
In terms of size, however, it’s the second-smallest in the state at 5,530 acres. Ribbon Ridge is the smallest at 3,500.
With 584 acres under vine, barely more than 10% within the AVA boundary is planted. Ford points out Oregon’s most famous red grape makes up about 70% of the plantings across the 10 vineyards. Chardonnay and Pinot Gris combine for 20%, followed by varieties such as Viognier, Grüner Veltliner and Tempranillo.
The region sits on the shoulders of its namesake mountain in the Coast Range. Vineyards begin at 260 feet and stretch to the peak at 835 feet. The hillsides provide favorable eastern and southern exposure.
Mount Pisgah, Polk County, Oregon also is the second-farthest south AVA in the Willamette Valley. Only the Lower Long Tom AVA near Eugene, established in 2021, is closer to the region’s southern boundary.
The AVA’s oldest planting is Freedom Hill Vineyard, and owner Dan Dusschee hopes last year’s action by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau will serve as a marketing tool for growers, wineries and retailers.
“I’ve been told by the people who sell wine that it makes it much easier to sell,” Dusschee said. “And maybe this will demonstrate that there are areas worthy of special recognition that aren’t next to Portland.”
Open Claim, Illahe create tourism opportunities
Mount Pisgah is far enough from the heart of Oregon’s wine country that it’s sometimes been difficult to attract tourists. Most of the vineyards aren’t open to the public, so historically, there have been limited opportunities to taste the wine made from those vines.
That has begun to change. Open Claim Vineyards, which opened its tasting room and kitchen in 2022, is now welcoming people for highly personalized experiences with estate wines crafted by Tony Rynders. Rather than driving 30 minutes back into Salem, Open Claim Vineyards recommends that its guests stay overnight alongside the Willamette River at the new Trace Hotel property in nearby Independence. And the Ford family now offers its Illahe Vineyard House via AirBNB.
The Fords also are building a tasting room at Illahe Vineyard set to open April 29. Amalie Robert Estate plays host to tastings by appointment only. There’s also Stomp by Croft Vineyards — a riverside tasting room between Independence and Salem.
There have been 269 AVAs established in the U.S. since the first in 1980 — Augusta in Missouri. (Napa Valley was No. 2 in 1981). The federal government developed its policy of establishing AVAs in order to formally recognize a region where the geography and/or climate produces wine grapes with distinctive characteristics.
It is similar to an Appellation d’Origine Protégée (Product Designation of Origin/AOP) in France or Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin (DOCG) in Italy, but those two European examples are much more restrictive in terms of grape growing and vinification practices.
Freedom Hill reflective of ‘oldest soils’ in valley
In the U.S., wines grown in an AVA listed the bottle of wine should provide a taste of place and be similar enough that drinkers have some expectation of what they will find when they pop a cork.
For Mount Pisgah, Polk County, Oregon AVA, those factors include the soil composition and the region’s weather patterns. The parent rock of Mount Pisgah is covered with marine sedimentary soil, an unusual feature in the Willamette Valley. Ribbon Ridge north of Newberg is the only other Willamette Valley AVA to feature marine sedimentary soil.
Mount Pisgah was created 65 million years ago as part of the Siletz River volcanics, cones that formed on the ocean floor and gradually pushed upward. Freedom Hill provides an example of what Dusschee describes as “uplifted seabeds” — rock material that required more time to break down and make their elements available to the vines’ roots.
“These are the oldest soils in the valley,” Dusschee says.
With its position just south of the Van Duzer Corridor, Mount Pisgah’s climate is warmer and less windy than the Eola-Amity Hills. That creates grapes with thicker skins, leading to Pinot Noirs that tend toward darker fruit flavors and more notable tannins.
One of Ford’s goals is to create a Mount Pisgah, Polk County Oregon AVA collaborative bottling that uses grapes from all 10 vineyards. He also wants more neighbors for Illahe. Mount Pisgah’s pastures and cherry orchards are already giving way to some new vineyards.
In time, this diminutive AVA should be home to a larger group of people growing grapes for rich reds and flavorful whites that bring more awareness and appreciation of agriculture from Oregon’s ancient seabeds.
Howard Rossbach says
Hi Sofia, Nice article. Thanks! One comment…the photo of “Freedom Hill” is actually of both Freedom Hill AND Erratic Oaks Vineyard. Erratic Oaks Vineyard with 148 acres planted currently represents over 25% of the producing acreage of Mt. Pisgah. Feel free to contact me for more information. Thanks again!
Eric Degerman says
Thanks for reaching out and sharing the additional details within that photo. I found it on the Freedom Hill Vineyard website, so I will include that background information in the caption.