by Matt Wastradowski
To many, western Oregon is synonymous with rain. It’s where gray skies are discussed with the nuance of an interior decorator seeking the perfect coat of paint—where the clouds may look gunmetal gray today, but will turn an emphatic shade of granite when thunderstorms roll in tomorrow. It’s where longtime locals snicker at umbrella-toting tourists before sheepishly unfurling our own. And it’s where relentless rain showers give the region an air of black-and-white noir films—even at 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday.
But such paintings in the popular imagination, always applied with the broadest of brushes, ignore the rolling hillsides, ridgetops, and mountain ranges that make it hard to characterize any specific region within the Willamette Valley as just rainy.
Case in point: the new Lower Long Tom American Viticultural Area (AVA), a wine-growing region between Eugene and Corvallis at the western edge of the Willamette Valley. The region received federal designation as an AVA in December 2021 for characteristics that make it a unique area in which to grow grapes—like the drier-than-usual conditions that give vintners more control over their harvest, produce outstanding aged varietals and lead to well-balanced wines.
The Lower Long Tom AVA, Explained
First and foremost: What’s an AVA? In short, American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are wine-growing regions designated by the federal government—chosen for common traits (think soil types, climate and so forth) that make them ideal for growing wine grapes.
When it became the first AVA in the southern Willamette Valley (and the 10th in the wider region), the Lower Long Tom AVA was highlighted for its shallow soils, stream-cut ridges and relatively dry climate—all factors that help create a distinct lineup of regional wines.
As for the name, Lower Long Tom was chosen for the river that flows through the AVA—and to honor the Kalapuya people, who have lived in the Willamette Valley for more than 10,000 years.
Soil, Climate Play Key Role in Lower Long Tom Wines
The uniqueness of the Lower Long Tom AVA begins above ground, where ridgelines and the nearby Oregon Coast Range push incoming rain clouds north or south, leaving the area drier than neighboring regions.
That gives growers a few additional dry days in September and October—a slight change that can make a dramatic difference, says Matt Shown, winemaker and vineyard manager at Brigadoon Wine Co. “It’s still Oregon, it’s still the Willamette Valley, and we still get rain,” he says. But Shown notes that a slightly drier climate gives vintners more flexibility to harvest grapes at what he calls “optimal ripeness” each fall.
Another unique feature occurs below ground—where shallow, clay-heavy soils make the grapevines work harder to take root than they might in neighboring regions. But even those difficult soils have a positive impact later in the growth cycle: “That vine struggling will get a little more tannin and structure,” Shown says.
He cites Brigadoon’s own pinot noir as a wine where you can taste that difference; the young wine may have more tannin up front—but still ages gracefully. “With a little cellaring and time in bottle, they tend to open up beautifully two or three years down the road,” Shown says.
If you want to see for yourself, you can do so at a dozen wineries throughout the Lower Long Tom AVA—Brigadoon included.
Other highlights around the region include Antiquum Farm (which uses grazing-based viticulture to grow wines representative of the area), Benton-Lane Winery (which uses organic, sustainable and biodynamic practices on its estate vineyard) and High Pass Winery (which sources some of its pinot noir grapes from an estate vineyard that dates back to 1984).
Learn more about the Lower Long Tom AVA—its wineries, unique characteristics, and more—at willamettewines.com/about-the-valley/ava-overviews/lower-long-tom.