New exhibit tracks the once unlikely rise of Oregon’s wine industry

A worker inspects a Redwood tank full of wine at Salem’s Honeywood Winery. (Courtesy/Willamette Heritage Center Library and Archive Collections)

Standing in the Mission Mill Museum in the Willamette Heritage Center, Kyle Pine noted that Oregon’s wine industry is worth $5.6 billion in the state, according to one study.

But for most of Oregon’s history, winemaking was far less profitable and a humbler enterprise. For decades, wine was made from fruit leftover from canneries. At one point, Salem had the only winery in the state. During Oregon’s long prohibition, there were none.

“Toasting the Mid-Willamette Valley Winemaking Heritage,” a new exhibit at the Willamette Heritage Center, looks at how the region’s wine industry’s roots from small farm-based operations in the late 19th century to the founding of Salem’s Honeywood Winery, the state’s oldest continually operating bonded winery.

Pine, the curator and collections manager, said the exhibit grew out of the center’s goal of telling the stories of local industry. For the exhibit, Pine drew on the Willamette Heritage Center’s collection of photographs and artifacts to tell the story. 

“People were making wine for themselves pretty early on,” said Pine.

Before Oregon’s wine industry became world-renown, it was based in smaller distilleries, such as Salem’s Honeywood Winery, located on the edge of downtown at 350 Hines St S.E. and opened in 1934. Pine said the winery had a 100,000-gallon wine-making capacity and sold its products all over the country. Early on, the winery opened in Salem because of the easy access to fruit that they could distill into wine and brandy. They also brought down a Rabbi from Portland to supervise the production of Kosher wines, she said.

“I think a lot of time, we think Oregon’s wine industry started in the 1970s, but that’s not the case,” Lesley Gallick, a manager at Honeywood Winery whose parents took over in the 1980s. Instead, it started with distilleries like Honeywood, she said.

She said they contributed some newspaper articles as well as documents, like labels and formulas. Because there weren’t really vineyards in Oregon until the 1960s, Honeywood made wines from dates, berries and other fruits. While it offers grape varietal wines, it still makes fruit brandies and wines that capture the sweetness of the fruit but aren’t overly sugary, she said.

“We’ve held on to our history,” she said.

The Willamette Heritage Center exhibit includes an old wooden press found in a barn. Also included is an old wine bottle from the 1800s that was recovered from an archaeological dig at an old house near the waterfront, said Pine.

At that point, people were making and selling wine. European immigrants were using techniques from the old country to start small-scale ventures, such as Swiss-native August Aufranc who brought with him a process to make red wine.

The exhibit includes oral histories that can be accessed on tablets and historical documents and artifacts covering the temporary end (at least legally) of Oregon’s wine industry. In 1915, Oregon enacted a prohibition on alcohol, four years before it was banned nationally (Salem became a dry town in 1913). Pine said the exhibit includes the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which supported the ban, and how supporters of prohibition celebrated the ban.

Kylie said prohibition is widely viewed as a mistake in hindsight, and the exhibit explores the thinking behind those wanting to ban alcohol, which was blamed on domestic violence and other social ills. She said prohibition was also tied up in other political currents of the day, such as women’s suffrage and anti-immigrant movements.

“Why would you even think about prohibition, something so silly,” said Pine of the prevailing hindsight. “This was a really heartfelt thing for (prohibition proponents) them that they wanted to celebrate when it came to pass.”

Pine said that as Americans gathered in speakeasies during prohibition, it changed social norms about public drinking, particularly women visiting drinking establishments, that would carry on after the ban was lifted.

For the exhibit, Pine worked with Linfield University’s Oregon Wine History Archive, which has hundreds of hours of oral histories on the industry. Some of those interviews can be viewed at the exhibit.

“There has been wine in Oregon a lot longer than people realize,” said Rich Schmidt, the archive’s director.

He said the archives have interviews with pioneers of the state’s relatively young wine industry. The archives contributed interviews outside of the Salem area that can be viewed at the exhibit.

He said the industry didn’t immediately boom following prohibition and regulations were complicated. It wasn’t until the 1960s that wine entered American imagination as being part of fine living, he said.

Wine production didn’t pick up until the 1960s when the industry’s pioneers started experimenting with varietals, wine made from a single type of grape. In the 1970s, the world began taking note of Oregon’s wine industry, particularly after a wine produced by Eyrie Vineyard in the Dundee Hills successfully competed in a competition in Paris.

“Toasting the Mid-Willamette Valley Winemaking Heritage” is open through the end of the year Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. with the purchase of Willamette Heritage Center museum admission.

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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