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After the Deluge? If It's Oregon, Pinot

July 31, 2002|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was Benjamin Franklin who said that rain, "which descends from the Heavens upon our vineyards [is] ... a constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy."

If Franklin was right--and how can you doubt a man who tied a key to a kite string, flew the kite in a thunderstorm and lived to talk about it--Oregon must truly be God's country, and Oregonians must be truly happy folks. Oregon has one of the country's heaviest annual rainfalls and--partially as a result--produces some of the country's finest wines.

Indeed, rain is the protagonist, both the hero and--lurking in the background, ever-present--the potential villain in a new, 30-minute television documentary, "Life in Vine: A Year in the Vineyards." The film, which will be shown on KCET at 10:30 Monday night, takes viewers through a full Oregon winemaking season. It begins with the pruning of the vines in the cold, especially wet winter of 1998-1999 and takes you through the bud breaks and flowering of spring, the veraison of summer when grapes gradually change from green to red and--finally, blissfully, ecstatically--the annual miracle of the fall harvest.

Pinot Noir is the wine for which Oregon is best-known, and "Life in Vine" shifts easily back and forth among the vineyard workers and winemakers of half a dozen of the state's Pinot wineries, including Eyrie Vineyard, whose pioneering proprietor, David Lett, planted the first Pinot vines in the Willamette Valley more than 30 years ago.

The film was written, produced, directed, edited and narrated by Matt Giraud, a columnist for Fortune and Willamette Week and a commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Giraud was also the principal cameraman on the film, and his loving tribute to the Oregon vineyards is lushly photographed amid rolling green hillsides, fog-shrouded slopes, brooding skies and breathtaking sunsets.

His simple, lyrical introduction to the world of winemaking is particularly engaging when the winemakers themselves appear on screen, talking about their passions and frustrations--and their conviction that nature itself is the ultimate winemaker, that "Try as we might, we probably have very little influence" on what ultimately shows up in the bottle, as one of them says, a bit wistfully.

"Life in Vine" opens with falling rain and an ominous lament: In 1999, winter and springtime wine left the vines two weeks behind schedule by the end of April. Things didn't get much better in May, June or July, and given the likelihood of heavy rain in October in Oregon, "Growers' hopes for a good harvest seemed to be slipping away," as Giraud says when the rains return in August.

Rain stopped in September, but then winemakers had a new worry--would the weather stay dry and warm long enough for the sugar in the grapes to rise and the acid to fall so the grapes would properly ripen? And would the winemakers themselves have the patience to wait for that ripening, knowing that they risked both an attack by birds and the destructive October rains?

The winemakers got lucky. Storm after storm dissipated at sea. Temperatures were still hovering in the 80s on Oct. 20. Birds did only minimal damage.

"This is as good as it gets in Oregon weather," one winemaker says with an obvious sense of both relief and triumph.

Against all odds, the 1999 harvest proved to be outstanding. Both Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator gave '99 Oregon Pinots 92 points on their 100-point scales. "Brilliantly flavored, focused wines," the Spectator said.

How did it happen?

Who knows?

"You have to get into the realm of metaphysics ultimately when you deal with grapes," says one winemaker in the film. "There are a lot of things that can't be explained."

So where is Ben Franklin when we really need him?

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