Pinot Gris Survives Its Identity Crisis

Firesteed Pinot Gris
Pinot Gris, 2018
13.5 percent alcohol content
Willamette Valley, Oregon, $15.99/$10.99

Firesteed Pinot Gris is full of melon and citrus flavors that make it an excellent choice for sipping on cooler summer and fall evenings or to accompany grilled vegetables, lobster or other seafood.

This dry, crisp white wine is made from a grape that The New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov described as having an identity crisis because of its many aliases. Although it has many names in different parts of the world — Tokay in Alsace, Malvoisie in parts of Switzerland, for example — it’s the same grape as the Italian Pinot Grigio. The only difference in the Oregon grape is that winemakers in the Willamette Valley have agreed to call it by its French name, which makes sense, since the dominant style of the region’s Pinot Gris is Burgundian. And if you were wondering about the variety’s heritage, it’s a mutation of Pinot Noir, the grape that made Oregon famous.

Although the grape is the same, the wines made from Pinot Gris vary dramatically across the globe, primarily because of the growing conditions and the styles used by the winemakers.

The Oregon Pinot Gris wines that I’ve tried are light and refreshing and most often priced between $10 and $15, sometimes less. They are remarkable wines for the price.

Firesteed is no exception, and often I find it on sale for around $10.

The Firesteed brand was started in 1992 by Howard Rossbach, a Seattle resident with a degree in bio-sciences who has a love of wine, according to a 2004 article in The Seattle Times.

Rossbach started on the retail side, working in a premium wine shop in the early 1970s, then for a distributor and finally in 1985 starting his own distributing business, Vintage Northwest, with an impressive portfolio of clients that included Hogue Cellars, Erath and Panther Creek, among others.

At the time, Oregon Pinot Noir was broadly considered some of the best in the world, but it also was expensive. As he traveled around the country selling wine, Rossbach heard from customers who wondered why there wasn’t a good Oregon Pinot Noir that sold for less than $10.

He took the idea of making an affordable, soft, fruity Pinot Noir back to his winery clients. They weren’t interested, so in 1992 he started Firesteed and produced an award-winning Pinot Noir that sold for less than $10. The wine was made under Rossbach’s direction by Flynn Vineyards with Willamette Valley grapes. Since its inception, Firesteed has grown at a rapid rate — it’s now in all 50 states, in some international markets and is one of the largest wineries in Oregon.

Rossbach added the Pinot Gris in 1999 and a high-end Pinot Noir in 2000 — $70-a-bottle Citation, a brand named after the 1948 Triple Crown winner. In 2002, Rossbach bought the Flynn winery and vineyards in Rickreall, Ore.

Three years ago, Rossbach sold Firesteed’s winery and surrounding vineyards to Pacific Rim Winemakers, a division of Banfi Wines, and the brand and its inventory to Vintage Wine Estates, a privately held company. Rossbach held on to the Citation brand and 200 acres of vineyard. The Citation Pinot Noir is unusual because it is aged for 10 years before it’s released.

By arrangement, Firesteed is still produced at the Rickreall winery from grapes grown in the Willamette Valley. Sales are above 50,000 cases.

When asked about the sale, Rossbach said that he was looking forward to being a small producer of excellent wines.

“The future … is that there will be a few folks that are big, but then you will have a great many more that are smaller. But those that are smaller have it incumbent upon themselves to be excellent. Good is not good enough because Oregon, as an industry, has been recognized as a world-class producer.”

It wasn’t too many years ago that inexpensive Oregon Pinot Noir was awful and the state’s Pinot Gris was hard to find. Now, thanks to Rossbach, that’s not the case.

To show my appreciation, I’ll keep drinking Firesteed and other inexpensive Oregon wines. And I’m saving my pennies to buy a bottle of Citation. The 2009 vintage should be coming out about now.

Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at

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