When you close your eyes and think of Oregon, it’s tough not to imagine a towering tree or two. Not just any leaf-bearing, sap-producing, bird-sheltering, bark-wearing tree. Instead, a Pseudotsuga menziesii, false hemlock, or, as we tend to dub it locally, the Douglas Fir.
The Doug Fir is the emperor of the Pacific Northwest landscape. The solemn giants frame vineyards, blanket distant hillsides and oversee just about every activity in the bustling Willamette Valley. Regional folklore can’t escape the remarkable evergreen as it sprouts up in everything from state license plates to wine labels.
Wine country possesses an especially close relationship with the tree. After all, as the area’s original inhabitant, the Doug Fir once occupied countless vineyard sites and growing areas. It’s what many raised and sold before viticulture. And it continues to inform the way we think about our cherished, one-of-a-kind landscape.
For pioneering producer The Eyrie Vineyards, the Doug Fir is engrained in its very brand. The tree is stamped on to the base of the label, a symbol of both the Oregon landscape as well the biodiversity it spawns. A red-tailed hawk wafts above the label’s tree and is the subject of the Eyrie name, meaning the nesting spot of a bird of prey.
As David and Diana Lett first planted in 1966, a family of red-tailed hawks nested above the vineyard, watching over their industry-building labors. “They still nest there today, and seem to come out on cue whenever I bring a group there,” says Eyrie assistant winemaker Amy McCandlish Esper.
A Blooming Hill Vineyard in Cornelius rests atop land that is the former headquarters of a large Washington County farm. Doug Firs were grown and harvested as Christmas trees, among other crops, and eager families came to claim their own every year. The estate trees have become a forest over the years and serve as vineyard gatekeepers today.
“One of our Doug Firs was the Hillsboro Orenco Station Christmas tree a couple of years ago,” says A Blooming Hill’s Holly Witte. “They are, to say the least, very photogenic.”
Tom Schaad of August Cellars in the Chehalem Mountains was born and raised in Oregon. His grandfather, Clarence, purchased the land for the family in 1942. Tom recalls the thawing wood furnace of his grandfather’s house, fed often by fresh Douglas Fir wood that Clarence fell himself and then replanted. “[When I was] a Boy Scout, our troop earned money by planting fir seedlings in the Coast Range for timber companies,” Schaad says.
“I’m a lucky one who grew up in the land of Douglas Firs,” says Karen Saul of Andante Vineyard in the mid-Willamette Valley. Her favorite memories involve walks with her mother through the thick Marion County woods. “[When I was ] a sixth grader in Salem, Mrs. T taught me about native plants and the geology of Oregon. Our class had a secret code— Pseudotsuga menziesii—and I knew how to identify these trees from their distinctive cones.”
Saul has since revealed that secret code to the rest of her family. The Andante co-owner says her grandkids know to look for the “little squirrel tail” when examining pine cones, a telltale sign of the presence these magnificent trees.
Some, like Richard Boyles of Iris Vineyards in the southern valley, are so moved by the trees that they can’t help but get poetic. His appreciation of the trees, he suggests, is best expressed in haiku form:
Body tired from harvest labor
I pause to view the landscape,
Douglas Fir and vines.
Douglas Fir forest
Neighbors my sunny vineyard,
shades sweltering vines.
Fir boughs shelter me
From sin, wind and rain
During harvest breaks.
In Carlton, MonksGate Vineyard is bordered by many majestic firs like so many Oregon vineyards. The winery knows that while these trees can house potentially damaging flocks of grape-eating birds come harvest time, the benefits of their company are many.
The trees in the east stretches of the vineyard provide shady relief, especially during warmer vintages. Such shelter promotes acid retention and lengthens hang time, something the winery covets especially for its Pommard clone of Pinot noir and dry rosé. The forest on the southern end shields estate fruit from strong autumn winds, which can weaken grape skins, dehydrate clusters and invite disease and pests.
“We view the iconic Doug Fir as a guardian of, rather than a threat to, our vineyard and therefor our way of life” says Rebecca Moore of MonksGate.
“Long may they reign!”
By Mark A. Stock | markastock.com
Art by John Fisher
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon who spent a healthy stretch in the Dundee Hills making, selling and drinking wine. He’s written for Willamette Week, Oregon Wine Press, Travel Oregon, Sip Northwest, SevenFifty and more. Fly-fishing, Icelandic soccer and The Simpsons are among his favorite distractions.