Dick Erath, Willamette Valley pioneer and founder of Erath Winery in the Dundee Hills, passed away March 29th. He was 87. No cause of death was announced.
“His real gift, first to Oregonians and eventually to the whole country, was delicious Willamette Valley Pinot Noir,” says David Adelsheim, founder of Adelsheim in the Chehalem Mountains. “It was, in many ways, his brand that established Willamette Valley, Oregon and Pinot Noir as conjoined in the minds of many Americans.”
Erath moved from California to Willamette Valley in 1968 with the goal of establishing a vineyard. He began planting his site the following year, becoming the third grape grower in Willamette Valley.
In 1971, Erath was approached by C. Calvert ‘Cal’ Knudsen to help him establish a vineyard. Erath began grape growing full-time. Erath Winery made its first wine in 1972, but Knudsen and Erath quickly decided to join forces and formed Knudsen Erath in 1975.
Farming a substantial amount of acreage, Knudsen Erath was able to do something no other winery in Willamette Valley could: make wine at scale. By 1987, the winery was producing 35,000 cases annually.
In 1988, Erath and Knudsen went their separate ways, with Dick continuing to make wine under the Erath moniker. Production continued to grow. By 2006, the winery produced 70,000 cases, distributing both nationally and internationally.
In 2006, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE), Washington’s largest winery, purchased Erath, which was at the time the state’s largest Pinot Noir producer. It was affirmation for an entire industry.
“He demonstrated that one could make money in the Willamette Valley wine business, and he was the first to sell his business, not because he had to but because he had built it as far as his capital could take it,” says Adelsheim.
Richard ‘Dick’ Charles Erath was born September 16, 1935 in Alameda, California, the child of Charles and Erika Erath. He was raised in Oakland.
Erath married Tina J. Butler in 1961 and two years later moved to Walnut Creek, California. It was at that time Erath became interested in wine.
Erath’s father bought wine from a local winery in Livermore Valley, called Ruby Hill, and gave it to his son. Dick Erath soon became friends with Ernesto Ferraro, who ran the winery. In 1965, Erath convinced Ferraro to sell him some Semillon.
“That’s how I got started,” Erath told Oregon Wine History Archive in 2012.
Interested in learning more about grape growing and winemaking, Erath enrolled in classes at University of California, Davis in 1967. He intended to plant a vineyard, but the question was, where?
“I was looking for cool areas to grow varieties like Riesling and Pinot Noir,” Erath said.
One of the professors at UC Davis told him about two former students, David Lett (founder of The Eyrie Vineyards) and Charles Coury (Charles Coury Vineyards), who were growing grapes in Willamette Valley. Richard Sommer, who had established Hillcrest Vineyard in Roseburg as Oregon’s first post-Prohibition winery in 1961, was also a student in Erath’s class.
Erath came to Oregon in October of 1967 to interview for a job at Tektronix, an electronics company in Beaverton, Oregon. While in the area, he met with Coury and talked about grape growing in Willamette Valley into the early hours of the morning. On his drive home, Erath stopped in Roseburg and harvested grapes from Sommer’s vineyard, putting them in the trunk of his car.
Convinced that quality wine grapes could be grown in Oregon, Erath accepted the job at Tektronix and moved his family to Willamette Valley in 1968. He began looking for land to plant a vineyard, in part by flying around the valley.
That same year, after spending time discreetly inquiring with local landowners, Erath purchased a 49 acre parcel near Newberg that had a walnut orchard. The following year he planted 4 acres to 26 varieties, including Pinot Noir.
“We were using the best knowledge we had what varieties were going to do well,” Erath said. Pinot Noir quickly became the standout at the site.
It was not easy living for the Eraths, however. For the first three years, the family lived in a logger’s cabin by the vineyard that had no heat and no insulation.
“We opened up the oven at night to make the place warm,” Erath said.
When Erath was approached by lawyer and timber industry executive Cal Knudsen in 1971 about establishing a vineyard, he left his job at Tektronix to focus on grape growing, both at Knudsen’s vineyard and expanding his own site. Knudsen Vineyard would become the first large-scale planting of Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley.
“Early on I guess we were all pretty much idealistic, sort of romantic about what we were doing, those early pioneers, those early growers,” Erath said. “We didn’t think we were doing this to make a ton of money. We were doing this to pursue a lifestyle and also to see if we could evolve an industry that would really be great for Oregon, and great for the world of wine.”
Some of the early Knudsen Erath wines received critical acclaim. Wine & Spirits magazine named the winery’s Vintage Select Pinot Noir the best American Pinot Noir in 1984. Over time, Erath added vineyards and production increased.
“He was really the first person in the Willamette Valley to consider making ‘a lot of wine,’” says Adelsheim. “He had a couple of big vineyards that he owned or managed, and he bought quality grapes everywhere he could find them.”
When Erath sold the winery in 2006, at age 70, he told Wine Spectator, “I was particular about who I would have purchase the winery. Of course, it had to be someone committed to making quality wine, but also someone who would be a good steward of the land and a good citizen of this community.”
SMWE has continued to grow the Erath brand in the ensuing years. Erath currently produces approximately 300,000 cases annually, making it one of the largest wineries in Oregon.
Erath used some of the money from the sale to purchase new vineyard land. He also used it to establish the Erath Family Foundation. Since 2007, the foundation has provided over $2M in funding to advance the fields of enology and viticulture.
“His Erath Family Foundation has been generous in supporting the wider community and particularly the wine industry, including grants to Linfield College, Salud!, Chemeketa, Southern Oregon University, Umpqua Community College, the Oregon Wine Board, and for agricultural research at Oregon State University,” Amy Prosenjak, president, Oregon at SMWE said in a statement after Erath’s passing. “We are honored to carry on his legacy through the Erath brand.”
In 2017, Erath sold his Prince Hill Vineyard in the Dundee Hills to the owners of Napa Valley’s Silver Oak. Erath subsequently moved to Vancouver, Washington.
Erath will be remembered as one of the pioneers of a wine region that is now widely recognized as among the best in the world. He also helped establish a spirit of cooperation in Willamette Valley. It is a spirit that remains to this day.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why Oregon is where it is today in the wine world, is because we have come up very quickly because of that collaboration in making world-class wine,” Erath said.
In a 2021 interview, Adelsheim asked Erath his thoughts on Willamette Valley’s transformation from a vinous dream into a full-fledged, world-class wine region since he first planted his first vineyard in 1969.
“Beyond my expectations,” Erath said. “I mean, I don’t think we ever thought that we were going to fail. That never occurred to us. But I don’t think we ever thought the degree of success we would have. It’s much greater than I would have imagined.”
Images courtesy of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.