Ron Vuylsteke describes the fledgling days of the new industry in the 1970s
When a few far-sighted Washington County residents started up wineries in the 1970s, they were truly pioneers, and now one of them lives in the Highlands.
Ron Vuylsteke and his wife Pam moved into the Highlands a year ago, and on July 14 he shared his decades of experience in the wine industry with his fellow residents at the Clubhouse, starting with the showing an OPB special on the original vintners of Washington County.
Ron was an engineer at Tektronics when he and his then-wife Marj started Oak Knoll Winery on May 18, 1970, in an old dairy farm.
Known for producing unique wines such as one using loganberries and a Frambrosia made with raspberries, the prolific variety is due to the fact that Oak Knoll doesn't have its own vineyards but instead purchases grapes from area producers.
Ron said in the special of the industrys early days, "We were like a fraternity - we would help each other, and we wanted to see the industry grow. The camaraderie was the best thing for this industry."
The licensed vintners worked together to set high standards for their industry, such as ensuring that the name on the bottle represented what was in the bottle. For example, for a wine to be called a specific name, it had to be made of at least 95 percent of that grape variety.
And the vintners voted to tax themselves to improve their industry, including using the money to purchase grape plants from Europe.
Pinot noir was not popular in the 1970s and early '80s, according to Ron. "There was no market for pinot noir because no one had drunk it," he said, and vintners voted for a second round of taxes to pay for promoting their wines.
When Ron and Marj started their winery, there were only about 100 acres in grape vines in the county, and now there are more than 400 wineries in Oregon with thousands of acres planted. Oregon ranks fourth in the nation for production, and the wine industry brings $3 million into Oregon's economy each year.
While sharing his personal story with the Highlands audience, Ron said that a crude form of wine-making probably started in the caveman days; the ancient Greeks grew grapes for wine, and after the Romans conquered the Greeks, they carried grape plants back to Rome, and their legions later spread them over the areas they conquered.
A fact not known by many is that Louis Pasteur actually did more research on wine than he did on milk, according to Ron.
"In the last 50 years, the industry has grown immensely," he said, adding that vintners learned as they went.
For example, each type of grape has to be right for the location where it is growing. And while rows of grape vines growing on hillsides are a picturesque sight, every aspect of grape growing is quite technical.
From the spacing of the rows to the different type of trellises to fighting off mildew, deer and birds, not to mention the variables in weather, vintners fight a constant battle to grow their crops to perfection with a goal of getting 2 ½ to three tons per acre - and all that before they start processing the grapes into wine.
This involves extracting the color and flavor from the skins, "punching down" the grapes, fermenting them for the correct amount of time, pressing them, pumping them through membranes and choosing the right kind of barrels right down to the forest the wood comes from.
"In the '70s, barrels cost $200 to $300," Ron said. "Now they cost $1,200 to $1,500 each, and you must taste the wine in each barrel - it's a tough job, but someone has to do it."
Then there are corks, which must be bleached and now cost 50 to 75 cents each. Technically, screw tops or plastic corks work just fine because their only purpose is to keep air out of the wine, according to Ron, "but there is a romance associated with corks," he said.
In the end, "you take and then throw out all the scientific stuff and go with your gut," Ron said.
"Oak Knoll is unique in that it grows no grapes at all - we buy from different growers - carefully," he added. "I would get two or three tons from a grower to experiment with before I signed a long-term contract."
In 1995, Ron got a call from the White House with an order for three cases of 1991 pinot gris for a state dinner for the king of Morocco.
"I said, 'Are you going to pay me for it?' hoping it wasn't considered a political contribution," he said. "Later I got a nice thank you note from Hilary."
Members of the Highlands audience asked Ron a few questions, including one about blending grapes from different vineyards.
"We keep each vineyard separate," he said. "You can blend, but you can't un-blend."
How long can bottles of wine be kept before using? Seven to 10 years for reds and three years for whites.
What determines the price of wine? Its availability and the availability of the grapes.
Who makes money off the sale of wine? The winery gets about one-third, the distributor gets about one-third, and the retail outlet gets about one-third. "So if we sell it in our tasting room, we get the full amount," said Ron, who was a winemaker for 37 years.
He recently learned that his grandfather made wine in France 100 years ago, so wine-making runs in the family, and in fact, Oak Knoll is still in the family, now being run by the second generation.
The Highlands audience didn't get to just learn about wine, as a tasting with six wines provided by Oak Knoll was provided following the showing of the television show and Ron's talk.
Oak Knoll was the first winery in Washington County, and it became the first to open a tasting room, which Ron built himself. In 1986, the winery was the second-largest by volume sold in Oregon, and the Washington Post named the winery's pinot noir among the best in the U.S.
Ron's cousin Jeff Herinckx became the assistant winemaker in 1988 and was elevated to winemaker in 2001.
In 2006, Oak Knoll was the largest in Washington County with 30,000 cases produced each year, and when Ron and Marj retired eight years ago, their sons John and Tom Vuylsteke plus Ron's stepson Greg stepped in to run the business. (The name Vuylsteke is originally from Belgium, according to Ron.)
"I spent more than half my life in the wine business, and I loved every minute of it," Ron said.
Today Oak Knoll produces pinot noir, chardonnay, Riesling, Muller Thurgau, Frambrosia, pinot gris, cabernet sauvignon, Niagara, gewürztraminer and blak berree wines.
It is located at 29700 S.W. Burkhalter Road, Hillsboro.
For more information, call 503-648-8198 or visit www.oakknollwinery.com.