Dick Erath, a pioneering winemaker and grower who helped lay the foundation for today's thriving Willamette Valley wine industry, died March 29. He was 87. Erath had been in ill health in recent months and passed away in Vancouver, Wash., where he lived for many years.
Erath was among a small group of like-minded wine lovers who came to Willamette Valley in the 1960s convinced that Pinot Noir had a bright future in Oregon. The group included David Lett, Charles Coury, David Adelsheim and Dick Ponzi. "We relied a lot on each other in those early days," Ponzi recalled. "We all had the same hardships and shared information with each other freely. He was a charitable guy and would share his time and expertise."
Friend and fellow winemaker Rollin Soles of Roco winery described Erath as a formidable presence. "He was a passionate guy, a tall and barrel-chested fella," Soles said. "He had strong opinions and enjoyed a good argument, but he was one of the most open and funny guys I ever met.
Ponzi agreed. "Dick's stature and his laugh were equally as big. I can hear his laugh now."
Richard Charles Erath was born Sept. 16, 1935, in Alameda, California. He was fascinated with technology as a youth and after high school joined the United States Naval Reserve and studied electronics and engineering. He started making beer with a friend but quickly switched to wine. In 1965, he made his first barrel of wine in his garage.
After completing enology studies at University of California, Davis, in 1968, Erath relocated his family from California to Oregon's Chehalem Mountains, where he bought 49 acres and rented an old, unheated logger's cabin to call home. He planted 23 grape varieties—including Pinot Noir—on four acres the following spring. "He always loved being in the vineyards, probably even more than the winery," Ponzi recalled.
His first commercial vintage was 1972 and he produced 215 cases of Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Noir. He joined with friend and grower Cal Knudsen to form Erath Knudsen winery in 1975. That partnership split in 1987. Erath built his winery into a hugely successful brand and was producing more than 70,000 cases a year when he sold the business to Washington wine giant Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in 2006.
With the proceeds of that sale, he established the Erath Family Foundation, which has donated more than $2 million to wine and viticultural education programs at Oregon State University, Linfield College and more.
Erath is survived by his wife of 62 years, C.J. Suzi Erath, and their son, Erik Erath.