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Time for a cease-fire in Oregons pinot war

Forest Grove has been painted as the vinophilic villain in this hissy fit, and in our opinion, unfairly so.

What started out as windstorm in a wine bottle has developed into a full-blown horticultural hurricane, with name calling, muckraking, threats of lawsuits and other conduct normally associated with lowly beer-drinking hooligans.

Forest Grove has been painted as the vinophilic villain in this hissy fit, and in our opinion, unfairly so.

For those who missed the opening salvos in the Great Pinot War of 2010-11, here's a recap.

In 2008, the city signed a $52,500 contract with a marketing consultant to lead a seven-month branding study aimed at coming up with a campaign to promote the city.

Early on, a consensus formed that it should celebrate the area's deep agricultural roots. The wine industry, with its proven tourism draw, seemed a logical choice.

It's long been known, though not very widely, that David Hill Winery was the site of the first pinot noir grape plantings in the Willamette Valley. Research conducted during the branding process further showed that Charles Coury not only planted grapes there, but was the first to aggressively argue they'd thrive so far north of California, where he and other winemakers studied at the University of California, Davis.

Last year, with Coury's college thesis in hand, the city unveiled its new slogan: 'Forest Grove: where Oregon pinot was born.'

That boast did not go down well in Dundee, home to Eyrie Vineyards, where David Lett, known as 'Papa Pinot,' popularized the idea of Oregon's Willamette Valley as the home to world-class pinot.

The Newberg Graphic came to the defense of its local winery (as a good local newspaper should) and in a Dec. 22 editorial chastised Forest Grove for having the 'audacity' to make such a claim, while conceding that 'Charles Coury may have planted his pinot noir vines a few months before Lett in the mid-1960s.'

The tiff might have ended there if not for H. Bruce Smith, a wine enthusiast in Roseburg who sent a flurry of vitriolic emails in late December, demanding Forest Grove stop using the slogan and threatening to sue if it didn't.

Smith, as he does in a more measured letter on this page, argued that Roseburg holds the pinot bragging rights, thanks to Richard Sommer, who planted his vines at Hillcrest Vineyard in Roseburg before Coury planted his at what is now David Hill Winery north of Forest Grove.

Smith has been joined in his crusade by Hillcrest's current owner, who has taken to misstating the cost of the Forest Grove branding contract and personally attacking city staff members.

No one ever disputed that Sommer was the first to plant pinot noir grapes. But is that the only measure of a birth? The Roseburg News-Review thinks so, as made clear in a Feb. 27 editorial titled 'bogus slogan.' Or, as Forest Grove officials argue, should Coury, through his research and subsequent advocacy, get credit for bringing to life the variety that made Oregon famous?

It's clear that local newspapers are not exactly neutral arbiters in this discussion, but it seems to us that any of these three cities could have claimed Oregon pinot's birthright. The fact that Forest Grove did so first, in our biased view, shows a refreshing bit of moxie and a savvy sense of marketing.

After all, for some reason, Washington County has never promoted its wineries in the way that Yamhill County has. As a result, many Oregonians don't know that some of the best wine in the state is produced north of Carlton.

If the controversy uncorked by Forest Grove's new slogan prompts some vinophiles to head up Highway 47 and sample some of our local varietals, that's great. If they want to visit all three disputed birthplaces, that's even better.

In fact, once the name-calling stops, the three cities could coordinate a pinot tour, with overnight stays in Newberg, Roseburg and Forest Grove.

Others, however, have suggested Forest Grove amend its slogan. We don't think it necessary, but should the idea get traction, here's our suggestion: 'Forest Grove: where Oregon pinot was pioneered.'

You can quibble over whether maternity is singular, but as any Oregonian will tell you, there are multiple pioneers, and Coury certainly was one of them.