One on One With Winemaker: Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars
Grape grower. Pioneer. Visionary. Winemaker. Mentor. Teacher. Philanthropist.
It makes perfect sense to start our “Stories of Passion and Pinot” series by conversing with Ken Wright. After starting making wines in Willamette Valley in Oregon in 1986, Ken came to the realization of a tremendous diversity of soils and microclimate conditions in the region. Ken was instrumental in establishing 6 AVAs in the region; he also focused his winemaking on showcasing terroir through single-vineyard bottlings. The rest is history which you can read on Ken Wright Cellars web site and various publications, such as Wine Spectator May 2015 issue.
I have limited exposure to Ken’s wines – the production is small, and there are lots of people who loves to drink his wines. But even my limited encounters resulted in long lasting impressions – and not only the wines but also the labels which you need to see only once to remember forever. Thus when I had an opportunity to ask Ken a few questions, albeit virtually, I was very happy to do so – and the outcome of our conversation you can see below. This might be a tad long, so arm yourself with a nice tall glass of Pinot – and enjoy!
- When it comes to the winemaking, is there someone who you would name as your mentor or a teacher?
KW: My first position was in California and included working with Dick Graff of Chalone on their Gavilan brand. Dick started a research group, in 1979 I believe, that met once a month at Mount Eden Vineyards. The group included many of the best wineries in the state including Mt. Eden, Kistler, Calera, Sanford, Acacia, Forman, Chalone and the Paragon group among others. The opportunity, as a novice winemaker, to be part of that group of successful producers allowed me to be part of cutting edge winemaking discussions. Ears were perked, respectfully my mouth was generally closed. I was a sponge.
- As a pioneer and a long standing and successful winemaker, I’m sure many young winemakers look up to you and want to learn from you. Are there any winemakers who you would call your students?
KW: Once I moved to Oregon, in 1986, to pursue the production of Pinot noir I had a learning curve to understand the new area that I was in. During those early years I fell in love with the ability of Pinot noir to connect myself and our buyers with the qualities of individual sites. After blending sites for several years I began in 1990 to produce site specific wines that connected us to place.
In the mid 90’s I was part of a group we created, quite similar to the California research group, that focused on research both in the vineyard and winery. My partners were Bethel Heights, Cristom, Solena and Penner-Ash. Beaux Freres joined at a later date. Our experiments provided a volume of information that I believe changed the way in which we all grew grapes and made wine. That information was openly shared with anyone who cared to ask. Many viticulturists and winemakers are now approaching their craft with the lessons we learned whether or not they are aware of where this information came from. I would not want to take any personal credit for the success of those that have benefited from this work or from my many direct relationships. Information comes from so many sources. If I have benefited someone along the way that would be great but I would only be one of many.
- You personally helped to define 6 AVAs in Oregon. Do you think there are still areas in Oregon which would benefit from their own designated AVAs?
KW: It is a natural evolution for regions to define themselves. All areas must first identify which wine varieties have inherent superiority. It’s a process. What is clear at this time is that the Willamette Valley, particularly the area of the six new AVA’s, is world class. We are producing Pinot noir that is riveting. While there are regions that can say they are older there is no area on the planet that can say they are better, period. I suspect there will be new AVA’s within the six new identified AVA’s that will further define each region in more detail.
- In the description of the Freedom Hill vineyard, there is a mention of Phylloxera. How did it come around? How difficult was it to contain it and deal with it? Is that the only one of your vineyards which was affected?
KW: Phylloxera reared its ugly head in 1990 at Fuqua Vineyard in the Dundee Hills. With the first inexpensive own rooted plantings of Eyrie in 1966 the industry coasted until this time with the hope the blight would never come. But it did. It is impossible to know what the source of the “infection” may have been. This was an older vineyard so unless they were purchasing replacement vines on a regular basis from a nursery that had an issue it would be hard to assign blame on source of vine material. Not impossible though.
Phylloxera became real in the mid 90’s. Freedom Hill began to fail. Guadalupe began to fail. Shea began to fail. There were a number of others. Vineyard owners, hoping to forestall the infection, did whatever they could to protect their sites. At the time the concern was that the insect was being transferred on soil. We had chlorine foot baths. Incredible cleaning of vineyard equipment. It did not help. It is only my opinion but I believe most of the “infection” was directly from the replacement vines from nurseries that had the bug in their soil material that came with new or replacement vines.
- Can you make parallels between any of your vineyards and Burgundy vineyards, in terms of wines which they are capable of producing?
KW: Burgundy could only hope to make wine that consistently produces the quality of wine that we produce. They are in our rear view mirror. It’s sad that people automatically assume age of region is related to quality. Do truly blind tastings and you will not be able to assign label prestige to the result.
- Same question regarding your wines – would you compare any of your wines with any of the wines from Burgundy, and if yes, which with which?
KW: If there is any comparison I would say that Oregon Pinot noir has a perfect fresh fruit profile. Burgundy tends to be more acidic, angular in youth and less forward.
- It seems that you only produce Pinot Noir from all of the vineyards you are working with, and the only white wine you are producing comes from Washington. Is there a reason why? Have you ever thought of planting white grapes in Oregon?
KW: As a business, anything we produce that is not Pinot noir is harder to sell and less profitable. The entire world recognizes the quality of Pinot noir from our region but no other variety resonates. We have a half acre of the Chardonnay Dijon 548 clone at Savoya. It is delicious but only sold to our mailing list. We will not plant more Chardonnay in my lifetime.
- I find your wine labels fascinating. How do you come up with the designs? Are you making those yourself or you are working with an artist? Do you change any of the labels from vintage to a vintage?
KW: The artist that created our labels is David Berkvam, a Portland native. He is a dessert chef at a local Italian restaurant named Geno’s. The original artworks are 100% beeswax carvings. Incredible depth that we attempt to relay on paper. Our relationship with David began with seeing his work at a gallery in 1999 in Portland.
Our original label for Ken Wright Cellars was a clean, straightforward text only label. It was not memorable or noticeable. My wife Karen and I decided to make a significant change to the look of our label. We asked David to produce a label that showed the efforts of the Mexican laborers in our vineyards during the difficult time of winter pruning. There was no other labor that would do this work. Yet the Mexican women and men who did this work did so with graciousness and humor. That was our first label with David. Now each vineyard has its own artwork from him and each is quite personal for us.
- What is your approach to the oak ageing? For how long do you typically age your wines? What type of oak do you use most often?
KW: Unfortunately, we have to use French oak for our wines. Would prefer to buy from the US but our native oak species are very resinous which does not rhyme with Pinot noir. Pinot noir spends 11 months in oak before bottling.
- Based on the information on the web site, your general philosophy around winemaking is “minimal intervention”. Did you ever consider going into organic or even biodynamic wine production?
KW: Winemaking has nothing to do with your farming approach. Yes, the winemaking at the highest level is minimal intervention, assuming a very high level of professional babysitting. All inherent quality comes from the vineyard. Any winemaker at the highest level knows they are subservient to the quality of what they receive.
- You’ve been making wine in Oregon for the very long time. Did you have any scary (okay, most difficult) moments you can share with us?
KW: The beauty of our area is that we do in fact have “vintages”. No robotic wines. The year is reflected in the wine. A great example of a “scary” vintage was 1991. A cool year that produced wine that was at first reticent. With age this vintage proved to be perhaps the best of the decade for most producers.
- Among all the wines you made in Oregon since the beginning, can you share a few of your most favorite vintages and particular wines?
KW: 1990 was the best vintage I have seen in Oregon. An unusual year in that it was amazing for so many regions in the world, Germany, Italy, Champagne, Burgundy and more.
- Do you export your wines outside of US? If yes, what are your top export destinations?
KW: We export to all provinces of Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, South Korea and of course Luxembourg.
- Today, Oregon wines are well known and well recognized by the wine lovers. What is ahead for the Oregon wines? What are the latest trends and new directions for the Oregon wines?
KW: We will always hang our hat on Pinot noir because we truly have a world treasure with this variety. As world markets emerge we will find a place at the table in each of these markets.
- You have very extensive list of charities you support. How do you go about deciding which charities you are going to support?
KW: Karen and I normally choose to support local charities that keep our immediate area healthy. We have hosted Flavors of Carlton for 15 years which is by far the most impactful event that keeps the pre school, after school, summer work experiences, 12 sports programs and more financially sound. We are founding sponsors of Salud, started in 1992, which is a combined effort of Wineries, hospitals, clinics and Medical Teams International that has provided health care for vineyard workers. Karen and I were the initial 50K endowers of the local Community College program for their vineyard curriculum.
We partnered with the local FFA Alumnae, High School FFA teacher, YC Board, the curriculum writers from the local college and members of our AVA board to create a path for our local young people to get real world experience in growing grapes. We created a 1.5 acre vineyard on the high school property so they would have real world experience, not book knowledge.
We are done – and I hope you are still here, as there was a lot to read (and I thank you for that). Hope you found this interesting, and now have an increased desire to drink Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir (good luck with that unless you already have one in your cellar). I also believe that this was an excellent opening into our Stories of Passion and Pinot – you can clearly feel passion and pride in every word of Ken’s answers…
We will continue our series next week, so for now – cheers!
To be continued…
P.S. This post is a part of the “Stories of Passion and Pinot” series <- click the link for more stories.