If things had happened slightly differently, Oregon would today be widely known as a terrific region for its white wines.
And slowly in the last year or so, some savvy wine lovers see Oregon as a latent white wine mecca, which sort of flies in the face of the state's far more visible vinous image: home to some terrific pinot noirs.
The high esteem in which Oregon pinot is held worldwide is due mostly to the early press it received. Not that it wasn't warranted: Pinot Noir from Oregon has received plaudits from many writers.
When I first visited here in late June 1976, I interviewed the two major pioneers, David Lett (Eyrie Vineyards) and Dick Erath (Erath Vineyards). It was a time so early in Oregon wine industry terms that neither had yet opened a tasting room.
The story I wrote of that visit, for The Associated Press, appeared July 2, 1976, in the Oregonian, Portland's daily. It was the first wine column I ever wrote and it spawned a career.
In the years that followed, Oregon Pinot Noir captured all the headlines. People said it rivaled red Burgundy. Prices for it rose. The best were in high demand.
So I was a bit out of step last week when I revisited the Willamette Valley and tasted through a number of white wines. And what a revelation: They are at least as good as are the reds, and deserve equal accolades.
But they won't get it, and the reasons are complicated and arcane. However, tasting a lot of Oregon white wines from the cool vintages of 2010 and 2011 is rewarding, and convincing.
The Willamette is generally pretty cool, and the last two vintages were colder than usual. The result is an array of white wines with a vibrancy rarely seen across so many grape varieties.
It starts with riesling, a grape that emanates from Germany and today makes fine wine in many cooler areas of the world. Oregon's can be dry, sweet, or in-between and usually all are excellent.
The other surprise white wine is pinot gris, first made as a varietal wine in the United States by Eyrie. The Willamette's PG offerings in '10 and '11 are so intriguing that offers superb food companions at prices rarely more than $20 a bottle.
Other excellent white wines here include chardonnay, a few sauvignon blancs, some Gruner Veltliners (from an Austrian grape), a handful of Muller-Thurgaus, and various muscats. Wines from the last two vintages are exciting — fresh and vibrant.
The Willamette isn't alone making such strides. Wines from the southern Oregon regions of Applegate Valley, Rogue Valley, and Umpqua Valley all make some terrific wines as well. Some of the best are reds coming from the warmer, more southerly districts.
When I visited in 1976, Lett told me he was convinced that the Willamette could make great chardonnay and pinot gris, and we sampled one of his wines from the latter grape, from the 1975 vintage.
"It's the perfect salmon wine," he said. At the time, he said he was the only one in the United States making a Pinot Gris.
Last week here, I tasted more than two dozen Oregon pinot gris and found most to be exemplary. The 2011s were brighter and fresher in aroma, and the 2010s were slightly richer and more food-oriented.