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Stories of Passion and Pinot, And Not Only Pinot: Battle Creek Cellars

December 12, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

I love urban wineries (or city wineries as they are often called). Solvang, Woodinville, Walla Walla – each place was different but similar at the same time – unique wines, unique stories, unique experiences. I would venture to say that winemakers at the urban wineries have more freedom to create and experiment, as they can choose the vineyards they want to work with and the style of the wines they want to produce. My latest experience in Portland is a direct confirmation of this.

My last winery visit in Oregon was at the city winery called Battle Creek Cellars, located in Portland’s Pearl District. I was told that I’m going to meet a winemaker who not only makes wines but also plays American football professionally, and has a unique personality. And I had about one hour before I had to start heading to the airport to make my flight – somewhat of a challenge for me as it is in my nature to worry about not missing a flight.

Sarah Cabot, the winemaker, was already waiting for us as we arrived at the tasting room. We grabbed glasses, a few bottles and headed out to the patio in the back to taste wines and to talk.

At the city winery, you can expect to find great wines, but you are not necessarily expecting to be blown away by what you taste and what you learn. The wines were absolutely spectacular, starting with the very first one 2018 Battle Creek Cellars Reserve White Blend – the wine had a distinct spicy nose, honey notes, and on the palate was clean, crisp with great acidity, creamy, and very different from the nose. This is where the unique sides of Sarah were already showing – she was getting the fruit from the vineyard where the vinegrower refused to tell her the exact composition of the blend – she only knew that Riesling and Gewürztraminer are a part of the blend, but the exact composition was not known.

Not only Sarah works with unknown grape blends, but she also uses a range of tools to produce the wines. For example, her 2019 Chardonnay Reserve was spectacular – round inviting nose with a hint of honey, and clean, crisp, and creamy green apple driven on the palate, a delicious rendition of Chardonnay – fermented in the sandstone jar.

Talking to Sarah I learned that while Battle Creek Cellars production is about 10,000 cases overall (6000 cases for unconditional Pinot Noir, 4000 cases of the other wines), Sarah is responsible for the production of more than 100,000 cases annually for her parent company, Precept Wine, Northwest’s largest private wine company. I also learned that Sarah greatly values the freedom to experiment which she has while working with her Battle Creek Cellars portfolio and that esoteric elitism, so common in the wine industry, is making her uncomfortable. And the amount of energy Sarah was exuding during our conversation, explaining all the different ways she utilizes when looking for the right vineyards and the right grapes and deciding how she would ferment and age any particular wines, was simply contagious.

We tasted more wines:

2018 Battle Creek Cellars Reserve Rosé was simply outstanding, offering a whole array of sensory experiences – onion peel color, and the nose which prompted you to imagine yourself walking in the garden and smell strawberries, flowers, and just open meadows. The palate offered great acidity and was fresh and crisp.

2015 Battle Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir from the vineyard planted in 1998 was excellent, with cherries, mushrooms, chocolate on the nose, and more cherries, lean and crisp on the palate. Definitely an aging-worthy wine.

And then there was the 2019 Amphora Series Carbonic Red Blend Oregon which literally blew my mind… Grenache/Malbec blend, fermented whole cluster in amphorae for 30 days with skins. The nose was amazing with crunchy raspberries and cranberries, and then fresh fruit on the palate with beautiful supporting tannins was simply incredible, the wine you have to experience to believe it.

Next, we were out of time – but we agreed to continue the conversation, which we did using both emails with questions and a phone call, so I really had here the full experience as the writer.

Here is what transpired during our follow up conversation:

[TaV]: How did you get into the wine? When did you realize that making wine is your calling?

[SC]: I was working in casual fine dining restaurants as an undergraduate student in Boston and developed an initial fascination with wine there.  Eventually, my life brought me back to the West coast and a sommelier I used to work with suggested that I go back to school for enology/viticulture when I mentioned to him that I was feeling unfulfilled in the service industry.  I followed his advice and I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I had found my calling after my first day of classes.

[TaV]: What was the first memorable wine you made, the wine you were completely happy about?

[SC]: I guess that, to me, they have all been memorable in some way.  As far as a wine that I’ve been “completely happy” about…I think that would be the 2018 Amphora Riesling.  That wine made its own decisions and I couldn’t have made better ones if I had tried.  Now, 3 years later, I feel even more ecstatic about it as I notice the developing notes of petrol that I’ve always coveted about fine Rieslings.

[TaV]: You seem to be working with lots of vessels to ferment and age wines – in addition to the standard vessels such as stainless steel and oak, you also use amphora, sandstone jars of different shapes, and probably a bunch of others. How do you decide when to use what, what grapes to put into what vessel and for what wine?

[SC]: This will probably sound a little silly, but the right fruit just seems to end up in the right vessel.  It’s a combination of varietal, timing, and my whim in the moment.  There’s no real formula to it.

[TaV]: When you were talking about your 2020 carbonic red blend, you mentioned that you instantly fell in love with Merlot you saw, and you wanted to make the wine exactly with the Merlot. How does it work for you? What was so special about that Merlot?

[SC]: More than the grapes themselves, it was the site where they were growing that made me feel inspired to work with Merlot for the first time since I was in school.  It’s a special, beautiful, steep and windy vineyard in the Columbia Gorge AVA called Wind Horse Vineyard.  The grower is passionate and engaged and I haven’t ever stood in a vineyard quite like it.  I thought…if Merlot from anywhere is going to be extra interesting, it’s going to be from here.  Sure enough, the aromatics and texture of the finished wine did not disappoint.

[TaV]: Do you use natural or commercial yeast? Winemakers often get religious about their yeast approach – what is yours?

[SC]: Since I make all my wine in a large winery among other producers, I can’t claim that my ferments are all completed by “native” yeast.  I do often allow my ferments to begin spontaneously and finish on their own/without the addition of commercial yeast.  I do have a few commercial yeasts that I particularly like to use which are all blends of Saccharomyces and non-sacch yeasts.  I’ll use these in certain cases when it is a challenging fermentation environment and I don’t want an unwelcome microbial load to mask the fundamental sensory characteristics of the vineyard.

[TaV]: When you select fruit for your next wine, do you take into account factors such as sustainably/organically/biodynamically grown? Do you have any viticultural preferences?

[SC]: More than anything, I prefer to work with growers whose priority is to cultivate a healthy and long-term-sustainable ecosystem in the vineyard.  Don’t necessarily have a strong feeling about the certification, but care about the ethos of the grower, how the vineyard is treated, and the surrounding area, not just the production environment. I try to work with the growers who take this symbiotically – sustainability is a key. The intention behind farming matters more than a certificate on a piece of paper.

[TaV]:  Is there a winemaker you would call your mentor?

[SC]: Brian O’Donnell at the Belle Pente winery. Brian is the owner and winemaker, and this was my first job in Oregon right after enology school – he definitely created the framework that holds up my knowledge now as a winemaker. He taught me what his philosophy is and left me to my own devices to sink or swim. I made a few mistakes of my own, nothing too costly, but this was the best way to learn. I know general ethos and philosophy, and now it is my time to grow, improvise and get on my feet. There are other incredible winemakers I had mentorship moments with, but Brian is the closest to the real mentor.

[TaV]: Is there a dream wine you always wanted to make? What would that be?

[SC]: The perfect Pinot? Nah. High elevation Ribolla Gialla, oxidized. Similar to what Gravner produces in Friuli, it should have acid but should be ripe enough. I have yet to find the fruit in Oregon.

[TaV]: Your single-vineyard wine labels have beautiful simplicity and different images – what do these images represent?

[SC]: The avatar on each label represents the character of the wine, and it is unique to the vineyard. There are explanations of all the avatars on the back labels. The avatars are used for single-vineyard wines. Even when there is a vintage variation, the barrels selected to be bottled under a single-vineyard label have a consistent profile. The barrels selected to be the most identifiable features of the vineyard – power, finesse – and this is what characters represent.

[TaV]: As I promised, we need to talk about football. Does playing football helps you make wine? How about your work as a winemaker influencing the way you play?

[SC]: Football definitely helps me to do everything. That level of extreme physical exhaustion and violence is very cathartic, and this helps me to be a better winemaker dealing with pressure.

My work as a winemaker has had both positive and negative impacts on my game.  As the negative impact, winemaking experience makes me second guess my decisions. However, as a winemaker I learn to react quickly and make decisions quickly, which helps, When I will retire from playing football I will need to start coaching because I will need this in my life.

[TaV]: During our conversation, you mentioned that working with Chardonnay is easy, but working with Pinot Noir is a pain in the butt. Do you care to expand on this? Can you be very specific?

[SC]: Chardonnay is not easy, but easier than Pinot.  Working with Pinot is difficult because of the thinner skin and lower levels of phenolics, and it is not as protected by phenolics from the mistakes as Merlot or Syrah and is susceptible to all sorts of issues. Growing Pinot, if temperatures reach 88F, that affects the fruit, the vine can shoot down, and you don’t want to irrigate too much, so there is a constant worry. Because of thinner skin, it raisins a lot easier than others; when it is too wet, it breaks a lot easier than the others. With Pinot Noir, you can’t look away for one second.

[TaV]: Was there a pivotal wine for you, or a pivotal wine experience?

[SC]: There are 3. There is one that made me decide I love Pinot when I was 19 and working at the restaurant – 1996 Hartley-Ostini  Hitching Post Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara. It tasted like candy, I was 19, and I loved it.

The red wine which made me realize how versatile the grape variety can be and how much where it grows to make a difference was Guigal Côte-Rôtie. I had learned about Syrah as a blending grape in Southern Rhone or Washington Syrah, and then I tired Côte-Rôtie, and my head was blown.

The white was really an assortment of whites from Trimbacbh – big, round, acidic, ultimate food wines.

[TaV]: Do you have an all-time favorite wine or wines?

[SC]: It will be Morgon. Duboeuff or Jean Foillard grand cru. Moulin-a-Vent would be a close second.

[TaV]: Given the opportunity, is there a winemaker you would want to make the wine with, or the winery you always dreamt of working at?

[SC]: I would love to have the opportunity to work side by side with Gravner or Radican, or anywhere in Jura, producing the traditional wines. Gravner is the ultimate.  Gravner is the reason I got amphorae. I love their wines very much and I would love to learn there.

I can tell you that after the conversation with Sarah, I definitely want to try Gravner wines, and I can’t wait to experience the 2020 Amphora series which should be made with that magnificent Merlot…

Here you are, my friends. Another story of passion, Pinot, and not only Pinot, and pushing the envelope as far as it can go. If you are planning to visit Portland, make Battle Creek Cellars your “must stop”. Cheers!

This post is a part of the Stories of Passion and Pinot series – click the link for more stories…

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  1. December 31, 2021 at 4:00 pm
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