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Passion and Pinot Updates: Bells Up Winery

January 6, 2022 1 comment

And then we arrived at “micro-boutique, un-domaine” Bells Up Winery, our final stop of the Oregon wine country touring.

Out of 13 wineries profiled in the Stories of Passion and Pinot series, Bells Up is the youngest one, having been founded in 2013, with the first vineyard plantings of Pinot Noir going into the ground in 2014. Despite being a young winery, Dave (the winemaker) and Sara (the Boss) Specter have a clear vision as to where they are going with their distinctly un-domaine wine – if you are curious why I keep saying “un-domaine”, I would like to direct you to the (virtual) interview I did with Dave in 2019 – he explains the concept of un-domaine very well.

Everything is distinctly un-domaine (see, you need to read that interview) at Bells Up. The vineyard with a gentle slope, the winery right in the middle of the vineyard, a simple but elegantly appointed tasting room with lots of fresh flowers and beautiful views of the vineyards. Here you go – pictures, pictures, pictures:

 

 

After admiring all the views we proceeded with lunch and tasting. Our lunch was prepared by Sara and while it was somewhat of a simplistic summer chicken salad, the amazing part was that this salad perfectly paired with the majority of wines we tasted – if you ever tried pairing the salad with wine, you would have to agree that achieving great pairing is very far from easy.

As I mentioned, Dave and Sara have a clear vision of the future direction for Bells Up. While Bells Up estate vineyard will be mostly planted with Pinot Noir, and by 2022 Bells Up plans to be at 100% estate fruit for all Pinot Noir bottlings, they have a clear plan for making Bells Up unique and different – growing and producing Pinot Blanc instead of the more commonly available Pinot Gris; being first in Willamette Valley with Seyval Blanc plantings; planting (out of all grapes!) a little known Italian grape Scioppettino; already offering Syrah and adding Cabernet Sauvignon in the 2020 vintage. “Unique and different” is a good description, in my opinion.

 

Before we talk about wines I would like to mention that none of the wine names you will see below are random. All the names have connections to the classical music pieces under the same name, and every choice of the name has an explanation as to why the particular piece was selected to connect with a given wine. If you are interested, there is even a Spotify playlist that includes all of the relevant music pieces – you can find that list directly on the Bells Up Our Wines page.

We started our tasting with Pinot Blanc:

2020 Bells Up Rhapsody Pinot Blanc Willamette Valley ($32)
Great complexity, lemon, gunflint
Great acidity, lemon, clean, crisp, refreshing
Perfect pairing with summer chicken salad
8, Excellent

We almost had to beg Dave to let us Seyval Blanc which was practically sold out. As a curiously interesting fact, Seyval Blanc plantings had to be protected by the net, as it happened that birds loved the grapes too.

2020 Bells Up Helios Seyval Blanc Estate Chehalem Mountains AVA ($40)
Gunflint, minerality,
Clean fruit, Meyer lemon, good acidity, good creaminess
Great with summer chicken salad.
8

Next up was Pinot Noir Rosé, the first Pinot Noir wine entirely produced from the estate fruit:

2020 Bells Up Prelude Pinot Noir Rosé Estate Chehalem Mountains AVA ($28)
Strawberries, nice minerality
Strawberries, bigger body than Provence, good acidity, perfect balance.
8-

We followed up with the selection of Bells Up Pinot Noir wines:

2018 Bells Up Titan Pinot Noir Willamette Valley ($44)
Plums, violets, sandalwood
Crisp, clean, crunchy cranberry profile, a hint of cranberries, good acidity on the finish.
8-

2019 Bells Up Candide Pinot Noir Reserve Chehalem Mountains AVA ($54, 12 months in French oak)
Floral, nutmeg, warm spices
Cherries, cut through acidity, black pepper, perfect balance, delicious
8

2019 Bells Up Villanelle Pinot Noire Reserve Tonnelier Vineyard Yamhill-Carlton AVA ($58, 12 months in French oak, final vintage)
Blackberry/raspberry, Marionberry
Cassis leaves, light crunchy cherries, well-integrated tannins, good acidity on the finish, delicious.
8

2019 Bells Up Jupiter Estate Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains AVA ($48, 12 months in French Oak)
Underbrush, summer forest, cherries, a touch of tobacco
Crunchy cherries, clean, fresh, delicious
8

While this is not a video, here is Dave talking about Bells Up wines:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bells Up Syrah was served with an amazing seedless grape pie. As Sara explained, everyone gives wines as presents in Willamette Valley, but tasty grape pie is almost equivalent to the hard currency when exchanging gifts with neighbors. As I said, the pie was superb, and to think that sweet pie would pair with Walla Walla Syrah? I really wouldn’t – and I would be mistaken.

2019 Bells Up Firebird Syrah Summit View Vineyard Walla Walla Valley AVA ($52, 12 months in French oak)
Blueberries and blackberries on the nose
Berries all the way, nicely balanced
8, Amazing pairing with seedless grape pie with cardamom

Again, we almost had to twist Dave’s arm to let us taste the future release of Cabernet Sauvignon:

2020 Bells Up New World Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Summit View Vineyard Walla Walla Valley AVA ($68, 12 months in French oak, barrel sample)
A hint of green bell pepper
Cassis, a hint of black pepper on the finish, good, round, smoky undertones.
8-

Here you have the summary of our “un-domaine” experience – an excellent set of wines and super-friendly hosts. If you will find yourself touring Willamette Valley, add Bells Up winery to your “must visit” list.

This is the last update in the Passion and Pinot series. For now, that is.

Until next time…

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

 

Passion and Pinot Updates: Utopia Vineyard

January 3, 2022 1 comment

And then we arrived in Utopia.

When your destination is called Utopia Vineyard, poking some fun is irresistible, isn’t it?

Upon our arrival to Utopia Vineyard in Ribbon Ridge AVA, we were warmly greeted by Dan Warnshuis, proprietor and winemaker, who poured us a glass of Utopia Pinot Noir Blanc (yep, a white wine made out of Pinot Noir) and took us on the tour of the vineyard, glass in hand. After speaking with Dan virtually about a year ago, it was definitely a pleasure to shake hands and move from the virtual to the real world where things can be touched and smelled.

Utopia Vineyard looks different from Le Cadeau and Lenné – no fighting with the rocks here. Gentle slope elevation of only 20 feet from top to bottom makes it easier to tend for grapes. Utopia Vineyard is farmed using Sustainable Organic practices and was L.I.V.E. certified in 2008. Dan practices dry farming and uses cover crops every second row – in normal conditions though. Summer 2021 was so dry and hot that by the second week in August when we visited, all of the cover crops were removed so it will not compete with vines for access to water. The grapes looked perfectly healthy and beautiful despite the hot weather – you can see it for yourself in the pictures below.

I don’t know how the actual utopia should look like, but I find these vineyard views pretty compelling:



There are 12 clones of Pinot Noir growing at Utopia Vineyard – one of the wines we tasted was made out of all 12 clones. There are also 3 clones of Chardonnay growing there, planted in 2010. Talking about “fashionable wines”, Utopia Vineyard doesn’t produce sparkling wines, but Dan makes Pinot Noir Blanc, a white wine from the red grapes, which we tasted upon arrival, and also had the pleasure of tasting it directly from the barrel (all notes below).

In 2018, Dan acquired additional 35 acres of land not far from Utopia Vineyard’s original location. That parcel of land also had a 5,500 sq. ft building which by the time of our arrival 3 years after the acquisition was fully converted into a state-of-the-art winery. We stopped by the winery a few times during our visit, and what was the most mind-boggling to me was that Dan was pretty much operating everything at the winery just by himself – moving barrels, emptying tanks, and so on. His son-in-law comes to help during the harvest, but otherwise, Dan is a one-man operation.

This additional property also hosts a freshly constructed log cabin which is called exactly that – Utopia Vineyard Log Cabin, which offers beautiful accommodations and spectacular views:






We visited Utopia Vineyard over two evenings and had some delicious food and tasted through a substantial range of Utopia Vineyard wines. I also learned about an interesting berry I never heard of before – Marionberry, which is a type of blackberry, which we tasted in the form of delicious pie – I wish this is something I can find here on the East coast. Marionberry takes its name from Marion County in Oregon, where it was selected in 1956 as a cross between Chehalem and Olallie blackberries.

Time to talk about wines – here are my notes:

2018 Utopia Bliss Pinot Noir Blanc Ribbon Ridge AVA ($45)
The nose of the buckwheat, yellow plums
Plums on the palate, good balance, good acidity, asks for food
8-

2015 Utopia Vineyard Chardonnay Estate Ribbon Ridge AVA ($45)
Nice, delicate, a hint of vanilla
A touch of vanilla, Golden delicious apples, good acidity
7+/8-

I mentioned before that we had an opportunity to taste some wines directly from the barrel.

2020 Chardonnay was outstanding, fresh apples and lemon, clean acidity, perfectly clean, vibrant, and balanced. If I would have an opportunity, I would drink this wine just like that.

2020 Pinot Noir Blanc from the barrel was even more exciting – a touch of toasted bread, a touch of fresh fruit, perfect minerality, vibrant, clean, full of energy. Again, I would love to drink this wine just like that.

2015 Utopia Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge AVA ($55) – all 12 clones are used
Plums, cherries, a touch of iodine
Clean, crisp, plums, cherries and cranberries, good acidity
8, excellent

2014 Utopia Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge AVA ($55)
A touch of sapidity, mushrooms,
Plums, round, soft, clean
8-

2013 Utopia Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge AVA ($55)
Mushrooms, forest floor, underbrush
Earthy, restrained, plums, clean, round
8-

2017 Utopia Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge AVA ($48)
Sweet plums, violets
Raspberries, red berries, round.
7+

2015 Utopia Vineyard Pinot Noir Clone 777 Estate Reserve Ribbon Ridge AVA ($65)
Violets, sweet plums, iodine
7+

2016 Utopia Paradise Pinot Noir Estate Reserve Ribbon Ridge AVA ($75)
Original 2002 plantings.
Mushrooms, underbrush, violets
Clean, ripe cherries, pepper, medium body,
8, excellent

I was also excited to try a late harvest Riesling which was absolutely delicious:

2016 Utopia Late Harvest Riesling Chateau Bianca Vineyard Willamette Valley AVA ($40)
Beautiful apricots, a touch of honey, clean acidity, good balance. Delicious.
8

Talking to Dan we learned that 99 percent of the sales at the winery are direct to consumers, via the wine club and visitors. Dan also has a few customers who like to take his wines as a private label. Dan is very much involved with philanthropy, supporting the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, The Hampton Opera center in Portland, OR, making wine donations, offering cabin stays, and more.

Utopia Vineyard offers something for everyone – if you will find yourself visiting Portland, you might want to take a 30 minutes trip southwest of Portland and find your utopia there. Or better yet, just stay in the cabin – everything else might be optional.

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

Passion and Pinot Updates: Le Cadeau Vineyard

December 28, 2021 4 comments

Five years ago, I started a new project in this blog called Stories of Passion and Pinot. The goal of the project was to interview winemakers in Oregon, who passionately went on to grow Pinot Noir and make wines often in conditions that many others would find impossible and untenable. All the way until August of 2021 my interviews were all virtual – I would read about the winery, come with the questions, get the answers, and then publish those conversations in this blog (you can find them using the top menu).

This year I attended Wine Media Conference 2021 which conveniently took place in Eugene, Oregon. After the conference was over, we drove with Carl Giavanti to meet some of the winemakers face to face – and now I can offer you updates, mostly in pictures, lots of pictures, and tasting notes for the wines I had an opportunity to taste.

Le Cadeau Vineyard was our first stop after we left Eugene.

Where do I start? First of all, the views. Le Cadeau Vineyard is a stunning oasis, surrounded by tall pine trees (I already told you how much I love those), and offering amazing views. You be the judge:

Tom Mortimer slowly walked us through the vineyard, talking about clones and all the work he invested into creating this vineyard simply on top of the rock (you can find the details in the original interview). It turns out that there are 18 Pinot Noir clones used in wine production at Le Cadeau – while I was somewhat shocked to hear that number (sounds high), it was simply due to my ignorance – for example, Sanford winery in Sta. Rita Hills uses more than 50 clones. Considering that Sanford winery is about 25 years older than the Le Cadeau, it is all makes sense. Tom was particularly proud of some of the clones, such as the Calera clone which is based on the DRC, and some additional Vosne clones (not trying to impress with the words here – Vosne here stands for Vosne-Romanée, one of the most coveted Pinot Noir production areas in Burgundy; DRC stands for Domaine Romanée-Conti, probably the most famous Pinot Noir producer in the world; Calera is one of the legendary California Pinot Noir producers and pioneers from Central Coast).

The beginning of August of this year (2021) happened to be the veraison time – the onset of ripening of the grapes when the grapes start changing their color. This was my first time actually being in the vineyard during veraison, so I couldn’t stop taking pictures as I saw bunches with more and more color – here are more pictures:

We also saw Chardonnay grapes growing:

Remember, we are talking about passion here. The amount of labor of love and passion which this vineyard required to be established was simply incredible. Tom had to use a special machine to break through the basalt to help the vine roots to get established. There were a few rows where he decided not to use the machine, and those rows look particularly different from the rest of the vineyard. The rocks which you can see in these pictures give you a good idea of what he had to deal with while establishing the vineyard.

After we finished walking around we sat down to taste the wines with Tom and to continue the conversation about the winemaking. Tom is highly analytical, he uses a lot of different charts, such as Degree Day reports to estimate when he might need to start picking up the grapes based on the historical data and what is the potential weight of the grapes might be at the harvest. Harvest is usually done in multiple passes, depending on the year – in 2015 and 2018, for example, he had to pick grapes 5 times; in 2016 and 2020 there were three picks made.

We started our tasting with 2018 Chardonnay, which was outstanding:

2018 Le Cadeau Vineyard Chardonnay Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $45)
Beautiful nose of vanilla with a hint of butter
Vanilla, butter, Granny Smith apples on the palate, beautifully clean and balanced
8+

It is really amazing to see the level of finesse Oregon Chardonnay has developed over the years.

It appears that Tom also makes sparkling wines, and he loves it, as making sparkling wines nicely complements making still wines – you remove perfect grapes for the sparkling (high acid), and the other grapes can ripen better. The sparkling wine we tried, was again, in a word, outstanding:

2013 Le Cadeau Rosé Brut Oregon (13.1% ABV, $50, 4.5 years on the lees)
A touch of funk and toasted bread
Sapidity, yeast, toasted notes, clean acidity, delicious.
8+

Now we moved on to the Pinot Noir. Tom is working with the winemaking team to produce his wines, including the consultant from Burgundy. Le Cadeau makes some of the reserve wines, but those are only produced in the best years. We tasted through the 4 Pinot Noir wines which were all excellent in their own right.

2018 Le Cadeau Côte Est Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.9% ABV, $60)
Beautiful cherries on the nose
Cherries on the palate, clean, round, soft, a touch of earthiness, delicious.
8

2018 Le Cadeau Diversité Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains AVA (14.1% ABV, $60)
Beautiful minerality, sweet cherries, a hint of cranberry
Tart cherries on the palate, pepper, clean, fresh, light
8+

2018 Le Cadeau Rocheux Chehalem Mountains AVA (13.5% ABV, $60)
Stunning nose, cranberries, cherries, violets, a hint of sage
Superb balance of power, fruit, acidity, structure – everything is in perfect harmony.
9-/8+

2017 Le Cadeau Merci Reserve Chehalem Mountains AVA (13.3% ABV, $80)
Incredible aromatics, floral, violets
Beautiful, round, clean, open
8+

It is interesting that when I tasted the 2017 Le Cadeau vintage for the interview post, Diversité was my favorite, and Rocheux was a close second. This time, Rosheux was my favorite Pinot Noir from the tasting.

That’s all I have for my update. I don’t drink much of Burgundy, so I can’t really offer any comparisons – but I don’t think comparisons are needed. Oregon Pinot Noir are unquestionably world-class wines in their own right. I remember reading in Wine Spectator Matt Kramer’s article where he mentioned that the main characteristic of a world-class Pinot Noir is finesse. Going by this measure, Le Cadeau definitely got it – finesse is the virtue of all their wines. If you are looking for the Pinot Noir for a special occasion – don’t look any further than Le Cadeau.

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

 

 

 

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

December 12, 2021 2 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…

One on One with Winemaker: Dennis Murphy, Caprio Cellars

December 2, 2021 Leave a comment

Source: Caprio Cellars

It is a known fact that wine is produced in all 50 states in the US. And I will clearly risk it to alienate many people, but with all due respect to New York, Texas, and Virginia, there are only three belonging to the “big three” – California, Oregon, and Washington. It is Washington I want to talk about today.

I don’t know how this works, but when I think about Washington wines, I feel warm and fuzzy. I don’t know if it relates to wonderful experiences, such as the visit to Chateau Ste. Michelle, getting lost in Woodinville or exploring Walla Walla, or maybe it is because of some of the most amazing American wines being produced in Washington, such as the whole range of Cayuse wines, L’Ecole No41, Guardian Cellars, Mark Ryan, and countless others.

And today, I want to bring to your attention one of my very latest Washington wine discoveries – Caprio Cellars in Walla Walla.

On one side, Caprio Cellars’ story is absolutely “normal” (yes, an interesting choice of word here – what does “normal” even mean, right?). Dennis Murphy purchased a plot of land in Walla Walla Valley (previously a wheat field) in 2003. The first vines were planted in 2005, and the vineyard was called Eleanor in honor of Dennis’ grandmother, Eleanor Caprio; after the first harvest in 2008, the winery got the name of Caprio Cellars, and the rest is history. The second vineyard, Octave, was planted on the hillside in 2007. The latest high-altitude vineyard, Sanitella, was planted on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla AVA. Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Malbec are planted across all three sustainably farmed vineyards, with the addition of Sauvignon Blanc planted on Sanitella.

This is where “normal” ends. What is unique about Caprio cellars is that your tasting is always complimentary (okay, yes, this still can happen in the other places). You also have complimentary chef-prepared dishes accompanying your tasting flight, with the seasonal menu  – yes, complimentary, as in “free of charge” (I hope you are getting as impressed as I am because I’m not sure where else you can find that). And Dennis is very passionate about charities he supports. That definitely puts Caprio Cellars in the category of its own.

After tasting a few of the Caprio Cellars wines, I was ready to talk to Dennis. While we were unable to meet in person (something I really hope to rectify in the near future), we sat down with Dennis virtually, and he patiently answered all of my questions – and now I would like to share our conversation with you. Before we begin, one small note – this is a long conversation, and you definitely shouldn’t miss the answers to the questions at the end of this conversation. So I suggest you will settle in your favorite chair, pour yourself a glass of wine, and come along!

Dennis Murphy. Source: Caprio Cellars

[TaV]: Growing up, what was your exposure to the wine culture?

[DM]: Growing up, I remember my dad and grand parents making wine in the garage or the basement.  Some was good, some was not so good.  Wine was always a part of the dinner celebration, holidays and family gatherings.

[TaV]: Was there a pivotal wine in your life?

[DM]: The wine that brought me to Walla Walla was L’ Ecole No. 41 Merlot.  I tasted this wine at a restaurant in Seattle and was blown away.  I then started stopping at the winery and collecting the wine and eventually moved to Walla Walla.

[TaV]: When and how have you decided that you will own a winery? 

[DM]: After tasting some Walla Walla wines and visiting Walla Walla, I fell in love with the town and moved.  I could feel the energy in the wine scene emerging and moved to Walla Walla in 1999.  There were just a hand full of wineries, so I started to make myself available during harvest and made some friends in the wine industry.  In 2003 I purchased the winery estate property and in 2005 I planted my first vineyard, the Eleanor Vineyard.

[TaV]: Any plans for stepping outside of Bordeaux play – how about Syrah or Grenache which are so popular in Washington? Or maybe some Sangiovese or Tempranillo?   

[DM]: I only make wines that I love to consume.  I would look at Grenache, I love Grenache and think that the valley can produce some good fruit.  We are making sparkling wine, I am intrigued to make a sparkling Rosé.  I believe that focus is required to make world-class wine.  I am focused on making world-class red Bordeaux-style wines from Walla Walla.

[TaV]: Considering your Italian heritage, do you have any favorite Italian wine regions, wines, or producers? 

[DM]: It will not surprise you, I am a Super Tuscan guy.  I think that the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot show very well.  One of my favorite all time wines is the 1997 Ornellaia.

[TaV]: Are there any wineries and/or winemakers in Walla Walla who you would consider as your source of inspiration?   

[DM]: Seven Hills/ Casey McClellan makes my favorite wine in the valley, the Pentad.  Casey is a great winemaker, makes solid wines and the valley is fortunate to have him.

Source: Caprio Cellars

Source: Caprio Cellars

[TaV]: You are practicing sustainable farming – what does it entail in your daily routine?   

[DM]: Sustainable farming is really about being as hands off the vineyard as possible, letting the land and crop do their thing naturally.  Sustainable farming is very important for the industry and the environment.  Mother Nature can provide anything that a chemical or synthetic can provide, you just have to work at it.

[TaV]: Any plans to advance your farming towards biodynamics?  

[DM]:  I do not have any current plans to farm biodynamic, but I have not ruled it out either.

[TaV]: First harvest at Caprio Cellars was in 2008. Do you still have any of those wines in your cellar? How are they evolving?  

[DM]: Yes, I have the 2008 Caprio Cabernet Sauvignon, it was the only wine we made that year.  I keep about 50 cases per vintage in the library, this would be considered a lot, but I like to keep more wine around for winemaker dinners, etc.  The 2008 Caprio is holding up well and we get to visit it occasionally.

[TaV]: Any plans for more white wines in the future?   

[DM]: Caprio grows Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, these two varietals do well in our higher elevation Sanitella Vineyard.  We release our Sauvignon Blanc in the spring, it is a crowd-pleaser and sells out quickly.  We also make a rose’ of Cabernet Franc, this is a beautiful spring released wine as well.

[TaV]: Where do you see Caprio Cellars in 10-15 years? 

[DM]: Caprio will be at our production goal of 5,000 cases per year.  I believe this production is a sweet spot for a winery and you can still maintain quality.  We will continue to provide a unique approach to hospitality, I am not sure what is next on that front, but we will continue to be the thought leader in our industry in the Walla Walla valley and push the envelope, it is in our DNA.

Let’s take a little break and taste some wines. I had an opportunity to taste two of the estate wines, Bordeaux blend, Eleanor, from 2017 and 2018 vintages. Here are my notes – and some related conversation right after:

2017 Caprio Cellars Eleanor Estate Red Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $48, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 12% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Franc, 65% Octave Vineyard / 35% Eleanor Vineyard, 18 months in 100% French oak – 35% new oak / 65% neutral barrel)
Dark Garnet
Minerality, underbrush, herbal profile – fruit undetectable
Expressive minerality, cherry pit, espresso, massive presence – typical Washington red which needs time (and hope) – and these are second day notes. Too big for my palate on the first day.
7+/8-

2018 Caprio Cellars Eleanor Estate Red Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $48, 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 15% Malbec, 7% Cabernet Franc, 53% Octave Vineyard / 47% Eleanor Vineyard, 18 months in 100% French oak-  35% new oak / 65% neutral barrel)
Dark garnet
Blackberries, a touch of eucalyptus and cassis
Beautiful. Perfect mid-palate weight, silky smooth and velvety, cassis, cherries, supple, voluptuous.
8+, superb from the get-go.

[TaV]: This question is two-part about the wines I tasted:

First, the bottle of 2017 Eleanor is capped with foil, and 2018 is not. Why the change? Is this going to be the style moving forward?

[DM]: I am a traditional guy, I do love a foil cap on a bottle of wine.  In line with our sustainability efforts, we held a customer focus group and it turns out that most customers prefer not to have the foil.  We decided to leave it off in 2018 and it has been well received.  I believe all future wines will not have a foil cap.

Now, the question which I never ask, but this time I have to. I tasted first 2017 Eleanor Red, and the wine was massive and tight – very typical for Washington reds, I call this type of wines “liquid rock” – lots of minerality and limited fruit. The wine opened up a bit on a second day but still was very tight. 2018 Eleanor Red, on the other hand, was approachable from the get go – Bordeaux style fruit, layered and smooth. Can you explain such a dramatic difference between these two wines? The grape composition is very similar, was that the terroir? Winemaking?

[DM]: Acid – the 2018 was the first vintage I nailed the acid level.  It is a tight rope when it comes to acid, but 2018 and the 2019 are near perfect.  I was pretty excited when I opened the 2018 Eleanor after bottling.  Additionally, the vintages differed, 2017 was a tough year to get ripe, there were some photosynthesis issues that vintage.  The 2018 vintage was a playbook vintage.  What is funny is that in the tasing room we would taste the 2017 and 2018 side by side and the verdict was a 50/50 split.  The 2017 was the fastest selling Eleanor we have produced, but the 2018 Eleanor is a critic’s favorite.

[TaV]: I understand that Caprio Cellars also supports a number of charities. What was the motivation behind this program? How do you decide what charities to support? 

[DM]: Giving is a part of my every day living, it is in my fabric as a human.  I created the phrase “give as you go”, this phrase is at the core of the purpose statement for my construction company.   It was only natural for me to carry this belief to Caprio when we started.  Caprio gives resources to many charities, mostly in the form of auction donations of wine and winemaker dinners.  The winemaker dinners are very popular and bring a large amount of funds to the charity.  Caprio focuses most monetary giving to First Story and Big Brother Big Sister.  My construction company founded First Story and it helps families that otherwise would not have a home to get a home of their own.  I have been a Big Brother for 18 years now and was on the board of directors, so it is a cause near and dear to me.

[TaV]: Last question is from the “how do they do it???” line. I understand that the wine tastings at Caprio Cellars are complementary. Not only that, but you also feed people! I read a number of discussions on professional wine forums with explanations that winery is a business and that literally how dare the wine lovers to expect their tasting to be complementary. And here is Caprio Cellars which does exactly that. So how do you do it and why? How is it working for you?

[DM]: I had no interest in opening a tasting room and charging a tasting fee.  It seems like our industry has evolved into that business model.  That model doesn’t make any sense to me.  I wanted to disrupt the industry and focus on hospitality and the customer.  Specifically focusing on the customer journey.  We held focus groups at the beginning with Joseph Michelli (NYT bestselling author and consultant) from the Michelli group.  Joseph believes that most businesses do not pay attention to their customers’ needs until it is too late in the customer journey.  The Caprio tasting experience is based on the equity theory, I do something nice for you and in return, you will do something nice for me.  The majority of the industry takes a tasting fee from the customer and gives it back “if you decide to buy”.  We are all adults here; I do not need to take your money and give it back.  I spent hours in other tasting rooms watching the customers sit in their group and have an agonizing group discussion on “how are we going to get out of here alive with our tasting fee”, discussions about you not liking the Syrah or him not liking the Chardonnay.  Why put your customer through this process?  At Caprio, we skip this pain point and we add the pleasure of a hand-crafted food pairing from our Executive Chef Ian Williams.  My grandmother Eleanor Caprio is to blame or credit for the food pairing, if she knew I invited you over for a glass of wine and I didn’t offer you food, she would be very disappointed in me.  The food program at Caprio was nonnegotiable when we opened, it is part of our program and a distinguishing advantage to our experience.  Here is the punch line, if you like the food and wine pairing, we ask you to purchase a couple of additional bottles of Caprio to pay it forward to the next guest in our care.  So far it is working out well and the ecosystem is taking care of itself, it is a beautiful thing, but somebody had to have the guts to try it.

Here we are, my friends. A wonderful story of passion, good wine, and a unique business approach. If your travel will bring you to Walla Walla, Caprio Cellars should be on your visit list. And if your travel will not bring you to Walla Walla … change your travel plans! Cheers!

 

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Utopia Vineyard

April 11, 2020 6 comments

Pinot Noir excites passion. All grapes do, of course, and good winemakers are always passionate, often to the point of obsession. But some of the most desired wines in the world are made out of Pinot Noir, and Pinot Noir is notoriously finicky, mutation-prone grape, difficult to work with. Hence passion is winemaker’s best helper to work with Pinot Noir and produce the best possible wines.

Yes, I’m sure you figured me by now – I’m introducing a new post in the Passion and Pinot series – you can find all the past posts here. And I’m sure today’s subject resonates perfectly with the world we live in right now (for those who might read this post a few years later, look up “covid-19 pandemic”, and you will understand my point). I’m sure we would all much rather live in utopia compare to the self-quarantine and fear of sneezing – and it is the utopia we will be talking about here (don’t worry, there will be plenty of wine).

According to the dictionary, utopia is defined as “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect”. I guess Daniel Warnshuis saw this complete perfection in the 17 acres parcel of land he found on the Ribbon Ridge in the heart of Ribbon Ridge Appellation in Yamhill County in Oregon in early 2000, hence the name Utopia Vineyard.

Daniel Warnshuis. Source: Utopia Vineyard

UTOPIA Vineyard had its first commercial vintage in 2006, 413 cases of Pinot Noir. Since then, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and a number of other wines had been produced at the winery, and numerous accolades were won at multiple competitions. Utopia, which uses dry farming methods, was L.I.V.E. certified in 2008.

I had an opportunity to [virtually] sit down with Daniel Warnshuis and ask him some questions – here is what transpired in our conversation:

[TaV]: First and foremost – why Utopia? Utopia means an unreachable dream, so what is the reason for this name?

[DW] The classic definition of UTOPIA is the perfect and no place. I am trying to make the perfect Pinot-noir but realize that as a human being I will not achieve perfection. It is, therefore, the goal that I constantly strive for without compromise to make the wine better each and every vintage.

[TaV]: You bought the vineyard in 2000, your first vintage was in 2006. How were those years in between? Did you have any major challenges, or did you just have to wait for the vines to mature?

[DW]:  You are correct that I consider 2006 my first commercial vintage (413 cases of Estate Pinot-noir) but I did produce 97 cases of Estate Pinot-noir in 2005. Just to be clear, it was more of an experiment than a vintage. There were a number of challenges in getting the vineyard bootstrapped. First, I had to decide which clones I wanted to plant. I looked around the valley at the time and found that most of the vineyards contained only 2-3 clones and they were mostly the same 2-3 clones, e.g.. Pommard and Dijon 115 or Wadenswil. Or one of the other Dijon clones, mostly 667 and 777. I also detected a certain homogeneity in the wines being produced at that time and I wanted to do something very different. This is what convinced me to plant a total of 12 Pinot-noir clones including several heirloom clones from various existing vineyard sources in CA and OR. Once I settled on the makeup of the vineyard it was mostly a waiting game until the vines began to produce.

[TaV]: You were born and raised on California wines, why build the vineyard in Oregon and not in a Napa or Sonoma?

[DW]: I got exposed to Willamette Valley Pinot-noir early in my wine journey working for Tektronix where my first boss was an avid wine collector and amateur chef who exposed me to Oregon wines. The raw beauty of Oregon and especially Willamette Valley wine country was also a major draw for me along with its nascent state as a wine producing region. It presented a relatively affordable opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next NAPA. I was a big proponent of Willamette Valley Pinot-noir while still living and running my NAPA wine business at a time when even most savvy wine drinkers were still unaware of what was happening in Oregon.

[TaV]: You’ve been a farmer for 20 years now. What are your main takeaways from this experience?

[DW]: Owning the land is the ultimate advantage for a winemaker because the best wines almost always come from the best fruit. 100% control from vine to wine is the maximum level of control and as a small producer here in Willamette Valley I am as close to a small producer (vigneron) in Burgundy that I can be without being in Burgundy. At Utopia I always want to make the best wine possible for any given vintage, again just like in Burgundy the wine should always be a reflection of the growing season and therefore unique each and every year.

 

Source: Utopia Vineyard

[TaV]: Do you have a pivotal wine, the one which clearly made you see the wine world differently?

[DW]: Burgundy wines from any small producer in Volnay, Pommard, Mersault (and Mersault, Chassagne and Puligny Montrachet for whites) were pivotal wines for me. The only thing I have found that compares with them are Willamette Valley Pinot-noir’s and now Chardonnay’s from small producers who are owning the land and making the wines in the same tradition.

[TaV]: Is there one Pinot Noir producer or winery you would consider a hallmark, something you would compare your wines to?

[DW]: Dominique Lafon is someone who I have followed for several decades and admire his approach (biodynamic farming and terroir driven) especially for his White Burgundy which I think is sublime. DRC is always mentioned as the ultimate but I would say that I have always and still do admire the smaller producers who are risking everything to make the best wine. This means organic/biodynamic farming even in a challenging vintage, minimalist approach to winemaking and focus on terroir.

[TaV]: What is the difference between the various Pinot Noir wines you are producing? Is it grape selection, individual plots, different oak regimens?

[DW]:  Yes, it is all those things, in addition, location in the vineyard, clonal selection for the blends, oak regimen (ex: riper fruit deserves more new French oak such as in my Reserve “Eden” bottling).

[TaV]: Any plans for Utopia sparkling wines? You already growing all necessary components, so do you plan to take the next step?

[DW]:  Yes, I would like very much to make sparkling wine. It is challenging as it requires a different setup and 3-4 years to produce the first vintage, but, I have not given up on the concept. I produced my first Port Style wine in 2018 and will bottle it this Fall.

[TaV]: You are now offering Grenache, Mourvedre and GSM wines. For how long you had been producing those? I understand that you source Grenache from Rogue Valley, what about Mourvedre and Syrah? Do you also plan to offer single varietal Syrah?

[DW]: I started producing those varietals in 2009 and actually started with a Syrah and Viognier but switched to Grenache in 2013 and added a GSM in 2014 and a Mourvedre in 2016. As long as I can get quality fruit I will continue to make different varietals. I would like to produce a Cab Franc and maybe even a Bordeaux blend in the future as well. I plan to plant some of these different varieties here on my new property to prepare for the inevitable change in our climate over the next 10 – 20 years.

[TaV]: What are your favorite wines or wine producers in Oregon? In the USA? In the world?

[DW]: In Oregon, Brick House, Beaux Freres, In California, Joseph Phelps, Spottswoode, In the World, anything Burgundy especially any small producers farming organic/biodynamic and terroir driven as well as Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux.

[TaV]: Did your utopia materialize in your vineyard? Did you find everything you were looking for?

[DW]: Yes, I live on my vineyard and work with my family to produce a unique product that we share with the world. We preserve the land for future generations (organic farming), we give back to our communities, we promote culture of all types and we make our living doing what we love the most. I cannot be any happier than I am at UTOPIA.

[TaV]: Where do you see Utopia Vineyard in the next 10-15 years?  

[DW]: More plantings of different varieties especially Rhone and Bordeaux. Possibly produce sparkling wine, continue well managed growth and keep experimenting to make it better each and every time. Create a long lasting legacy and keep it in the family for future generations.

If you are still reading this, I’m sure you are ready for a glass of wine, preferably, an Oregon Pinot Noir. I had an opportunity to taste two of the Utopia Pinot Noir wines, here are the notes:

2014 UTOPIA Pinot Noir Clone 777 Estate Reserve Ribbon Ridge AVA (13.8% ABV, $75)
Dark ruby
Smoke, plums, violets, earthy undertones
Bristling acidity, tart cherries, medium body, minerality, refreshing, inviting, good balance.
8, fresh, clean, easy to drink.

2011 UTOPIA Paradise Pinot Noir Estate Reserve Ribbon Ridge AVA (13% ABV, $85)
Dark garnet
Upon opening, the very extensive barnyard smell was apparent. It disappeared on the second day. Tobacco, earth, tar, and smoke are prevalent on the second day.
The palate is beautifully balanced with tart cherries, plums, violets, a touch of vanilla, baking spices and roasted meat.
8+/9-, delicious, hard-to-stop-drinking wine. Superb.

And we are done here, my friends – one more story of passion, and yes, it involves Pinot Noir.

Obey your passion!

P.S. Here are the links to the posts profiling wineries in this Passion and Pinot series, in alphabetical order:

Alloro Vineyard, Bells Up Winery, Ghost Hill Cellars, Iris Vineyards, Ken Wright Cellars, Knudsen Vineyards, Le Cadeau Vineyard, Lenné Estate, Tendril Cellars, Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Vidon Vineyard

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Le Cadeau Vineyard

September 26, 2019 10 comments
Tom and Deb Mortimer. Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

Tom and Deb Mortimer. Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

Hello, wine lovers.

I’m going to ask you for something very valuable – your time. About 20 minutes of it, as this is how long it should take you to read this post, one of the longest posts I ever published. But I’m not asking for your time for free – in return, I’m offering you one of the very best interviews ever published in the Stories of Passion and Pinot series,  as well as the overarching One on One With Winemaker conversations.

Winemaking usually starts with passion, courage, and conviction – a belief that “you can”. Really. It is not always a degree in oenology (don’t get me wrong – of course that helps!), but the resolve to get going, as you have a burning desire to make world-class wine no matter what – this might be your main ingredient of success.

Tom and Deb Mortimer had such a resolve to make great Oregon Pinot Noir. After searching for a year, they found an uncultivated parcel of land on the south slope of Parrett Mountain in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, and the hard work began. Planting grapes, understanding your land, learning the soils and microclimates. All with the resolve to produce the best possible Pinot Noir. This is how the story of Le Cadeau Vineyard started (wonder if “Le Cadeau” means something? Keep on reading).

After tasting the wines of Le Cadeau, I was convinced that I want to learn more – which turned into a very enjoyable [virtual] conversation with Tom Mortimer, who generously offered his time to answer all of my questions. And this is what I want to share with you with a full conviction that it is well worth your time.

Here we go:

[TaV]: The story of Le Cadeau Vineyard started in 1996, when you purchased the 28 acres parcel in Chehalem Mountains AVA. When did you come up with the name Le Cadeau? What is the meaning behind this name?

[TM]: Le Cadeau (is French for “the gift”):  We like to say that “the wine is not ‘the gift’; rather, “the wine is the excuse”—the true gift is the land and friendships.”  When we first saw the Le Cadeau / BHV site, there was no view; it was obscured by scrub-oaks, blackberry bushes, and a lot of brush.  Clearing the land was a bit like unwrapping a present, and ultimately a gorgeous view emerged.  More significantly, rocky soils are coveted for top-tier vineyard sites.  As we cleared the site, the broken volcanic basalt cobbles were revealed; rock in Oregon is rare, so we were very fortunate to find a rocky site.  Lastly, wine is inherently relational.  Enthusiasts get-into wine for the product, but ultimately, they stay in wine for the people; when the glass is empty, the relationships remain.  So “the gift” has multiple manifestations.

[TaV]: When you found the parcel which became the future home for Le Cadeau, you said “For some reason, the property “felt right”. I don’t really know why”. So this was the love at first sight, right? Now, 23 years later, can you maybe better explain that feeling?

[TM]: Part of it was the location—the vineyard is only 35-minutes from downtown Portland, yet it was very serene countryside.  We came from suburban Minneapolis to start this project; 22-years ago the Willamette Valley was much less developed, so this location was perfect for us.  My wife (and I) didn’t want an isolated, rustic, farm experience.  But other than the location, it was a beautiful site—south slope, about the right grade, I was fairly certain the view existed.  It just had a different / better feeling than many of the other places we looked at.

At another level, I think I Iiked the fact that it was never-before-cultivated land.  There was something about “starting a vineyard from scratch” that was appealing… of course, at the time, I had no idea what I was getting us into… which is actually a good thing.  There are plenty of reasons to not take on a project like this.  Sometimes it is better to not know what lies ahead.

Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

[TaV]: I really like the name “Black Hole Vineyard”, even though it has not necessarily a positive connotation about it. Have you ever bottled any wine which says “Black Hole Vineyard” on the label? What happened to that name? Is the Black Hole Vineyard simply became Le Cadeau Vineyard, or is it still exists under its own name?

[TM]: There was one “Black Hole” wine made by a fruit client.  It was small production, and was only released to his wine club.

Our business is corporately divided into two companies:  A farming company (the vineyard), and the wine biz.  Most of the fruit from the vineyard is sold to the wine biz, but some is sold to notable clients.  The farming company is named Black Hole Vineyard, LLC (or BHV, LLC), while the wine company is Le Cadeau.  So in that regard, the name lives on.  We also continue to personally refer to it as Black Hole among ourselves, and generally the winemakers like to call it Black Hole, vs. Le Cadeau.  But at some point you need to make a brand decision, and focus your time and energy on that brand.  We chose Le Cadeau vs. Black Hole.  Obviously, it is a much more positive message, though perhaps not as amusing.

[TaV]: What made you believe that you can conquer the rocky soil? What was the drive behind your passion, developing your vineyard against the difficult terrain and the cash flow?

[TM]: As noted above, a good part of my confidence was rooted in ignorance.  But as a wine collector I knew that many of the great wines of the world were grown in rocky soils.  I figured, “if they can do it, so can I”.

Over the years I have come to discover that there is one tool that is central and more important than any other in developing and farming a rocky site.  You might think that the tool is a chisel plow, or a big tractor, or whatever.  But the reality is that the single-most-important tool is a checkbook.  Unfortunately, unlike many of the folks that get into this business, my checkbook was about the size of a hand-held garden tool.  With a vineyard that is raw ground and solid rock, it is better to start with a checkbook that is the size of a bulldozer… and a D8 at that.  Fortunately, I kept my day-job.

[TaV]: How many Pinot Noir clones have you planted so far? Why so many?

[TM]: We’re up to about 16-Pinot Noir clones and 6-Chardonnay clones (the first Chardonnay, 2017, to be released in a couple months).  Why so many?—there are a handful of reasons:

  1. a) I cannot recall ever having a single clone wine that I felt was as complete and interesting as a multi-clone wine. We don’t put them all in a single wine; our cuvees result from different combinations of clones, soils, and aspect (climate). Most of the cuvees have 3 to 5 clones, Diversité has the most with 7 that make up the majority of the wine, and another 2 or 3 that are there in small quantities.
  2. b) Curiosity and experimentation. Quite simply, clones are exciting. You wait for 3-years wondering what the fruit will look like and taste like.  Often it takes several more years before you learn about the flavors, texture, physical characteristics of the fruit and how it affects the wine.  So there is always a sense of anticipation.  I liken clones to colors on an artist’s palette; they add “color” to wine—not in a literal sense, but in terms of variance, nuance, and complexity.
  3. c) Differentiation. I don’t want to make wine that is like everyone else’s.
  4. d) Optimization. Folks (i.e., typically winemakers) have varying views of how important clones are in the overall mix of variables. Most agree that the dirt / site are the most important elements, and I’d agree with that.  But for many, “clones” would be further down the list.  For me, the plant material is very central to extraordinary wine.  Great wines only happen when there is great dirt, perfect climate, excellent farming / viticulture, the very best and site-matched plant material, and of course great winemaking.  Like many things in life, something can only be as good as its weakest link.

[TaV]: Is there an Oregon (or maybe Burgundian) winery(ies) which were instrumental in the development of your own winemaking style?

[TM]: We have always wanted to make wines that are true to the estate site.  In this regard, Le Cadeau is more of a European model, in that the “rock star” is the vineyard, not the winemaker.  The wide range of cuvees exist to showcase the range of “faces” of the vineyard.  But more recently we’ve been searching for more freshness and aromatic excitement.  This is why I engaged our French consultant, Pierre Millemann several years ago.  Not surprisingly, this has led us to produce higher acid / lower alcohol wines.

It would be difficult to pick a particular winery to reference against; again, our dirt / site is very unique.  There are many wineries, both in Oregon, Europe, (and California) that we respect, but I think it would wrong to say that we try to emulate any of them.

[TaV]: Do you still have any bottles from the 2002 vintage? If you do, how do they hold?

[TM]: I have a few bottles of 2002.  The last one I had was about 2-years ago.  It was doing well, but I think it was past its prime.  Keep in mind that the vines from that vintage were only 4-years old.  I recently had an ’05 Diversité from magnum; it is going strong and will continue to last for a long time.

[TaV]: According to what I see on your website, you produce [at least] 7 Pinot Noir wines. Is there an idea behind such a range of Pinot wines? What are you trying to showcase?

[TM]: As noted above, the majority of the cuvees showcase various attributes of the vineyard:  Rocky soils (Rocheux); the cooler East-side (Cote Est); clonal diversity (Diversité); heritage clones (Merci Reserve).  More recently, we’ve added two cuvees that are more inclusive of winemaking technique—Trajet Reserve is 100% whole cluster; and “Pierre” has considerable input from our consultant, Pierre.  It is about “freshness” and higher acidity.

[TaV]: Going back to the Pinot Noir clones – considering the sheer number of them, you must be blending your wines. What is your approach to blending? Do you have any Estate Pinot Noir wines where you trying to maintain consistency throughout the different vintages?

[TM]: Generally we favor co-fermentation of multiple clones in a single tank.  Most of the cuvees are made of two separate tank fermentations that go to barrel separately, and are then combined to make the final cuvee.  But for the most part, all of the wine from each ferment ultimately goes into the cuvee.

I like to say that the Le Cadeau wines are “made in the vineyard”… I don’t mean that literally, but rather that the specific “Cote Est” fruit is picked separately, and it is made into the Cote Est cuvee.  Same for Rocheux, Diversité, and Merci.  In this regard, there is clonal consistency from year to year, because the wine for each cuvee is consistently made from the same section of the vineyard.  For example, Rocheux is always roughly 45% Dijon 777; 45% Pommard; and 10 % Wadenswil… that is what is planted in the sections where the Rocheux fruit is grown.  … and fortunately, the vines don’t move around at night when we’re not looking… that would be a mess.

Aerial view over Le Cadeau Vineyard, Chehalem Mountain AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

[TaV]: How did you come to the idea of the Sparkling wines? You offer 2011 vintage sparkling wine, so clearly you started making sparkling wines before they became “the thing” in Oregon, so how did you get there?

[TM]: 2011 was a very cool, late, year, and the clusters were uneven.  Some of them were quite large (a fairly rare event, given our rocky soils).  On October 15th, the bigger clusters had only gotten to about 19-Brix—not good for still PN.  I know we wouldn’t/couldn’t pull them all out on the sorting table, so we did a sort in the vineyard.  I told the crew to harvest the three biggest clusters off of each plant in certain sections of the vineyard.  Since these were at a perfect stage for sparkling, and we had them hanging on the vine for a full season at that point, it seems silly to drop that fruit on the ground.  So we took a shot at sparkling—it worked out very well, so now we make it generally every other year.

[TaV]: I’m sure you knew this question is coming J – it seems that you only work with Pinot Noir grapes. Do you grow any other varieties? Do you have any plans for the white wines? If yes, what grapes would you plant?

[TM]: As noted above, we have 6-clones of Chardonnay that are now in production.  The first Chardonnay will be 2017, released in a few months.  We’ll only do Chardonnay at Le Cadeau (other than Pinot Noir).  But under our other brand, Aubichon, we’ve made some wonderful “Alsatian Style” Pinot Gris, as well as a Pinot Gris-based Rosé, and a wine we call “Sur Peaux”, which is an “orange wine” from Pinot Gris.  All the Pinot Gris is sourced from old vine vineyards, about 25-years old.  So it’s nice fruit, and the wines are quite special.

Le Cadeau, Chehalem Mountains AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

[TaV]: And one more common question I like to ask – when you are not drinking your own wines, what are your favorite wines and/or wineries, in Oregon or anywhere in the world?

[TM]: I have a diverse range of preferences:

I’m a huge fan of Weinbach in Alsace; Chave Hermitage is often special, Guigal Condrieu (the good version, not so much the standard one), Huet and Chidane Chenin Blanc; Fevre Chablis; Robert Weil German Reisling (and many others—Keller dry from their rocky vineyard is nice); any good Bonne Mares; love white Bordeaux—Chevalier, Smith H-L, and of course the “big guys”, but they’re too expensive.  Barberescos from Italy—Gaja (also like Gaja Chardonnay), and I think Produtorri does an amazing job for the price, along with Albino Rocca.  I’ve had a Foradori wine that I thought was special, certain Brunellos, but many have become Parker-ized, that’s unfortunate.  I like Ciacci wines though.  … the list goes on…

In Oregon, there are many that I respect, and a small group that I like, but I’d prefer to leave those thoughts anonymous.

[TaV]: What is ahead? Where do you see Le Cadeau in 10-15 years?

[TM]: I think we’re just beginning to make our best wines, and really beginning to understand the vineyard’s nuances.  Some of our more exciting clones are still quite young, so it will be interesting to see what sort of wines we make from the more exciting clones when the vines are older.  The 2018 wines that we have in the barrel are possibly our finest to date.  Very excited about getting them into the bottle and out on the market.

I’m hopeful that our Chardonnay program will be noteworthy.  Pierre’s guidance on Chardonnay has been very helpful.  2018 in barrel looks to be very promising, and I’m excited about the first 2019 fruit from a rocky grafted section of the vineyard.  We have a couple interesting Larry Hyde clones of Chardonnay planted in that area as well.  The fruit looks to be quite different.  I’ll have a better sense of the Chardonnay potential in another year, but I’m hopeful that we can produce “the real deal”.

Le Cadeau Vineyard Pinot Noir wines

Thirsty? Here are my tasting notes for the wines:

2017 Le Cadeau Côte Est Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.9% ABV, $50, 145 cases made)
Dark Ruby
Smoke, plum, iodine, medium-plus intensity
Wow. Touch of smoke, Sage, medicinal notes (cough syrup), good acidity, excellent balance
8

2017 Le Cadeau Rocheux Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.2% ABV, $50, 174 cases made)
Dark Ruby
Plums, cherries, violets, intense, inviting
Bright, clean, succulent ripe cherries, licorice, great minerality, excellent balance, superb
8+

2017 Le Cadeau Diversité Estate Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.9% ABV, $50, 245 cases made)
Ruby
Delicate, lavender, a touch of smoke, perfect
Beautiful, plums, ripe strawberries, great acidity, baking spices, delicious overall
8+/9-

2016 Le Cadeau Merci Pinot Noir Reserve Chehalem Mountains Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $80, 143 cases made)
Garnet
Intense, ripe cherries and plums, candied fruit
Wow, great intensity, cherries, cherry compote, ripe plums, minerally notes, good acidity, good balance
8+

As you can tell, I really liked the wines – they were literally one better than another.

Here you go, my friends – yet another story of Passion and Pinot. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, and I thank you for your time and attention.

Will there be more Passion and Pinot stories? Well, do you think the passion ran out of the Pinot winemakers and aficionados? I will bet my virtual DRC bottle that it did not. So we will continue our conversations as soon as the next opportunity will present itself.

Obey your passion!

P.S. Here are the links to the posts profiling wineries in this Passion and Pinot series, in alphabetical order:

Alloro Vineyard, Bells Up Winery, Ghost Hill Cellars, Iris Vineyards, Ken Wright Cellars, Knudsen Vineyards, Lenné Estate, Tendril Cellars, Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Vidon Vineyard

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Iris Vineyards

June 18, 2019 3 comments

Let me ask you something. If you would look at the mountainous parcel of land, completely destroyed by the brutal commercial logging – would you be able to envision there a beautiful Pinot Noir vineyard? (if you answered “no”, same as I did, don’t worry about it – this is why you and I are not in the winemaking business). When Richard Boyles and his wife Pamela saw such a logging-destroyed site at the south end of the Willamette Valley, they were able to see past the nature in distress. They were able to see the future vineyards and even future forest restored where it was before. They purchased about 1,000 acres site in 1992, and it became the home to the Iris Vineyards, with the name inspired by the beautiful wild Douglas iris covering the surrounding hills in spring.

Richard’s fate was sealed at the age of 7, when he assumed assistant winemaker duty to his grandmother, helping her to make the sweet, dessert wine. As they say it in the stories, the rest was history. Richard met Pamela while studying at the University of Oregon. Countless visits to Europe and living there for a while as Richard had a carrier in international business management and hospitality, helped Richard and Pamela to discover their wine passion – Burgundy, and its signature grape – Pinot Noir. That passion for Pinot helped Richard and Pamela to see through the broken trees and realize their dream of making the world-class Pinot Noir.

Well, there is also an additional element to that passion – a principle of Areté. Richard and Pamela learned about Areté in the university, while studying ancient Greek philosophy. This principle simply means that it is one’s moral obligation to achieve the highest potential the person can achieve. Give it a thought – Areté is really a great principal to live by; we will get back to it later on in this post.

Today Iris Vineyards farms about 43 acres of vineyards, located at 800 to 1,100 feet elevation (quite high for the Willamette Valley). The vineyards are surrounded by more than 500 acres of restored forest, mostly Douglas fir and Ponderosa Pine, as well as Oregon white oak. The main vineyard of the estate, Chalice Vineyard, was planted in 1996 and produced its first vintage in 2001. Pinot Noir takes two third of the plantings, following by the Pinot Gris and a small acreage of Chardonnay. Iris Vineyards also produces a number of other, less traditional wines (Viognier, Syrah, and more) from other appellations in Oregon, such as Applegate Valley.

Richard Boyles Iris Vineyards

Richard Boyles

I was definitely intrigued by what I learned about the Iris Vineyards, so I took an opportunity to sit down with Richard Boyles (yes, once again it was a virtual conversation) and ask him a few questions. Here is what transpired:

[TaV]: You grew up tasting sweet wines. How did you end up with Pinot Noir becoming a passion?
[RB]: Although my first experience was sweet wines made and sampled with my grandmother, the wines I “grew-up” with were the wines served at family celebrations organized by my dad. These were usually red Bordeaux and reds and whites of Burgundy as well as German Rieslings. As you can see, with the exception of the Rieslings, these were dry wines that were intended to pair with food. I became more focused on Pinot Noir as it became clear that Oregon could grow world-class Pinot Noir with Oregon attitude. After graduation from the U of O, while living in Seattle, Pamela and I continued to explore the world of wine, visiting vineyards, tasting rooms and sampling primarily in Oregon and Washington and occasionally in Napa and Sonoma. Our interest in Pinot Noir solidified as a passion as Pamela and I explored different viticultural areas of Europe when we lived in Germany and Switzerland. We found ourselves gravitating to Burgundy for Pinot and Alsace for Pinot Gris.

[TaV]: What made you think that the parcel of land destroyed by logging would be an ideal place to grow Pinot Noir?
[RB]: In the Pacific Northwest logging is a part of the rural economy and landscape. In the case of our property, the fact that it had been logged and that we took on the legal obligation to replant the forest meant that we were able to acquire large acreage at a modest price. The property had a long history as a mixed forest operation, with cattle and timber harvests providing income to the owners. When we acquired the property, we replanted hundreds of acres of forest before we turned our attention to planting the vineyard on former pasture. The areas for vineyard plantation were selected for the Jory and Bellpine soils, south-facing slopes, elevation and for modestly steep slopes which allow the property to be farmed with standard farm equipment. While our purchase of the property was prompted by the vineyard potential, it has been equally satisfying to plant tens of thousands of Douglas fir trees that have now matured into a forest, an ecosystem really, supporting many species of flora and fauna.

[TaV]: I know that the concept of Areté and its relevance to everything you do is explained on the website, but can you explain one more time for our readers what Areté means for you and how does it apply to the Iris Vineyards and your wines?
[RB]: In addition to what is on the website and press kit, this is what I would say about Areté: Areté is a philosophy or way of being that says, “Hey buddy, you want to excel and standout? Then be deliberate about it. Figure out what skills and knowledge you need, practice them, perfect them if you can. Figure out what else will up your game. Go get that skill or knowledge. Repeat. Because that is what this life is all about. A constant aspiration to live up to the potential that is you. Why would you settle for less?” With respect to Areté at Iris, Areté is a cultural signpost. It tells team members and prospective team members what we value at Iris, how we want to be and be seen as an organization. It tells team members how they can contribute. We can only be an organization that exemplifies Areté if our team members embrace it, make decisions and plans by it. By making it clear what we are about, we attract like-minded team members. And, of course, Areté is a proclamation to the world about aspirations. So, we take it very seriously when we put the Areté name on the label of the wines that are the best examples of our craft.

[TaV]: I would guess that first was Pinot Noir, then Pinot Gris, then Chardonnay (curious – am I right?), but Iris Vineyards today offers way more than just 3 flagship Oregon grapes – how did you get to include Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier into your repertoire?
[RB]: From the time we committed to establishing a vineyard, Pamela and I planned to grow Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay. The expansion into other varietals is the result of two factors: 1) the desire to create variety for our club members; and, 2) our winemaker, Aaron Lieberman’s curiosity, interest and skill at working with grape varieties beyond Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.

Iris Vineyards

Source: Iris Vineyards

[TaV]: While it is not yet available on your website, I understand that you are about to introduce Iris Sparkling wines. Can you tell me more about this project, starting even with “why sparkling wines”?
[RB]: Much as the reintroduction of the Rosé program was in response to Pamela’s strong interest in Rosé and renewed consumer interest in the category, the sparkling wine program came about as a result of Aaron’s interest in, and interest in the challenge of making sparkling wine. Sparkling wine is the ultimate celebratory beverage. Our club members and tasting room visitors love our Methode Champenois Blanc de Noir and Blanc de Blanc. We reserve a small amount for weddings and other celebrations at the tasting room, though the sparklers routinely sell out prior to the subsequent release. Aaron can expand on what brought him to pursue sparkling.

[TaV]: Will sparkling wines be generally available or they will be offered as winery exclusive/club options?
[RB]: I anticipate that the sparkling wines will be available to club members, available at the tasting room, available to weddings and celebrations held on the property and perhaps to select accounts. I don’t anticipate that it will be available to broad distribution. These are intensely hand made wines requiring lots of time and attention. The sparklers will have an important but limited role in our line-up.

[TaV]: Considering the wide range of grapes you already use, do you have any plans to expand it any further?
[RB]: Our offerings will continue to evolve. Our core business is in Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Rosé. As we expand our vineyard, we will plant small amounts of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Blanc as well as a broader variety of clones of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Pinot Meunier will have a place in our sparkling program. We will evaluate it as a potential stand-alone variety. Pinot Blanc will be a standalone bottling. I expect we will pare some wines from our current offerings as we respond to the tastes of our club members and tasting room visitors. 8. I’m assuming you started producing wines at the end of the 1990s. Do you still have any of your first releases available in the cellar? How do they hold up? What is the oldest of your own wines you ever tasted?
We first bottled wine under our own label in 2001. Prior to that, we sold the small volume of fruit coming from our vineyards to other producers. We recently sampled a bottle of 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir. We have a single bottle left. I wish we had more in our cellar. While this wine wasn’t deliberately built to last ten years, it is drinking very well. The 2012 Reserve Pinot is drinking nicely. Pamela and I have a few overlooked bottles of 2001 and 2002 Pinot Gris in our personal cellar. These were award winners 15 and sixteen years ago, including double platinum for 2002. As compelling as these wines were at two, three, four and even five-year-olds, they weren’t intended to age and are now past their prime. It’s a good reminder to drink while the drinking is good.

[TaV]: You are practicing sustainable farming. Can you explain what it means for you, how does it relate to the land, vineyards, grapes and so on? Have you ever looked at going Biodynamic?
[RB]: The goal of our farming practices is to produce fruit that meets our particular purposes. We use different farm practices and viticultural techniques for Pinot Noir that’s intended for Rose’ differently than the fruit that is intended for our estate bottling for instance. Our farm practices are conventional as we want to have all the tools available to produce the best fruit for the purpose while supporting the long-term productive capacity of the vineyard and operating a financially sustainable business. Farming isn’t static. We annually review best practices and new literature to improve what we do in the vineyard. While we have considered a Biodynamic approach, we believe we can produce better fruit for our purposes with a conventional approach to farming.

[TaV]: When you are not drinking your own wines, what are your favorite wines from Oregon, and from around the world?
[RB]: One of the notable things about the world of wine today is that so much great (and not so great) wine is accessible from all over the world. We see wine as an exploration, so we regularly try what we haven’t tried before. That is as likely to be a Pinot from a new Oregon producer, a Sauvignon Blanc from a new growing region or an obscure varietal we haven’t tasted in a while. Through exploration, we learn more than returning to the same things repeatedly. That said, we have a broad stable of wines of our own production. We do frequently return to those.

[TaV]: Where do you see Iris Vineyards in 15-20 years from now?
[RB]: I expect that Iris will garner increasing consumer attention as we offer compelling wines at a good value. I expect that we will continue to offer wines across a variety of complex profiles and price points. I don’t say across a variety of quality, because all of our wines are of high quality, they just differ in terms of complexity. Personally, in 15 or twenty years I hope to have more tractor time and hands-on time in the vineyard and in the winery, particularly at crush. Overseeing this and other businesses currently require that I focus on the big picture. It was a “need” to farm and a maker mentality that brought us into the business. I still craft beer, pickle and can. I look forward to re-creating my job description to allow more time in the vineyard and winery and less in the business of running a business.

Yes, I agree with you – it is time to drink. I had an opportunity to taste two of the Iris Vineyards Pinot Noir wines – here are my notes:

2017 Iris Vineyards D Block Pinot Noir Chalice Vineyard Willamette Valley (12.7% ABV, $39.99, 300 cases produced)
Bright Ruby
Light, elegant, plums, cherries, a touch of ripe strawberries
Sweet cherries, plums, great acidity, excellent balance
8-/8, nice and approachable

2016 Iris Vineyards Areté Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $59.99, 100 cases produced)
Dark Ruby
Touch of smoke, plums, a hint of cranberries
Iodine, Cherries, a touch of smoke, good balance
8/8+, very good wine, will be interesting to try it again in 10 years…

Cropped Bench Iris Vineyards

Source: Iris Vineyards

Here you are, my friends – another story of Passion and Pinot. Go pour yourself a glass of Pinot – more stories are ahead…

To be continued…

P.S. Here are the links to the posts profiling wineries in this Passion and Pinot series, in alphabetical order:

Alloro Vineyard, Bells Up Winery, Ghost Hill Cellars, Ken Wright Cellars, Knudsen Vineyards, Lenné Estate, Tendril Cellars, Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Vidon Vineyard

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Bells Up Winery

May 31, 2019 9 comments

Do you know by any chance what “bells up” means? If you do, you can already pat yourself on the back and pour yourself a glass of wine. If you don’t – you can pour yourself a glass of wine and ponder at the question for a bit – the answer will follow.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about the passion, an indelible component of winemaking, possibly even a key ingredient in a delicious wine.

Dave Specter started making wine in the basement of his home back in 2006. By 2009, he realized that passion for winemaking trumpets his (successful!) career of a corporate tax attorney, and Dave decided to let his passion lead the way. In 2012, Dave and his wife Sara found themselves in Newberg, Oregon, purchasing a dead Christmas tree farm in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, where they started planting their estate vineyard. The rest is history – of passion and Pinot, there is.

BellsUp-Pinot Harvest

Bells Up vineyards. Source: Bells Up Winery

Before there was wine, there was music. For more than 20 years Dave had been playing the French horn. In classical music, there is always a moment which needs to be stressed – “Bells up” is the conductor’s instruction to the French horn players to lift the bells of their instruments and produce the sound of maximum intensity. “Bells up” became Dave’s motto in life, and it also gave the name to his winery – now you have your answer in case you are still wondering.

While Pinot Noir was the first grape planted at the newly minted Bells Up winery, the passion also led Dave to plant half an acre of Seyval Blanc, the grape he successfully used back in Ohio. That Seyval Blanc planting became the first in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, and second in Oregon. If you look at Bells Up winery website, you will see that the winery bills itself as micro-boutique and un-domaine – planting Seyval Blanc and not Pinot Gris in Oregon is clearly an un-domaine move. By the way, the “un-domaine” was one of the words which caught my eye while researching the Bells Up winery information. So I took the opportunity to sit down (virtually, albeit) with Dave and listen to him share his passion for wine. Here is what transpired in our conversation:

[TaV]: What kind of wine(s) did you make in your basement in Cincinnati?
[DS]: In the beginning, when my wife Sara and I started making wine in 2006 as a couple’s activity for our fifth wedding anniversary, we started with kit wines—juice in a bag, essentially. When I moved on to grapes, I sourced from both local and regional vineyards for Seyval Blanc, as well as through a Cincinnati vintners club that would truck in fruit from vineyards in California. From that I made Syrah, Petit Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot—even a Pinot Noir, although that fruit was sourced from Lodi, and was completely unlike the Pinot I work within Oregon today. Essentially, it was a hobby that grew out of control.

[TaV]: Why Oregon? As a young winemaker, you had many options – what made you decide to go to Oregon?
[DS]: First, thank you for calling me young. We were a whole lot younger when we started this journey. After that first kit wine, I was hooked on the process and wanted to learn more. Sara graciously let me take over the basement, then the garage, then the dining room. And we started taking wine vacations to “hidden gem” wine regions—Texas Hill Country, Finger Lakes, and finally Oregon in 2008.

We had already visited Oregon briefly in 2004 and loved it. In 2008 we spent two weeks roaming the state, with the last few days in Newberg at a bed and breakfast just 400 feet up the mountain from the property that is now ours. We fell in love with Oregon, the scenery, the climate, the wines, and the intimate experiences tasting wines at the tiniest wineries with the winemaker. We decided then that this was the place for us.

[TaV]: Seyval Blanc is one of the most popular grapes in the Eastern US. But why Seyval Blanc in Oregon?
[DS]: When we moved to Oregon in 2012, we knew we wanted to plant a vine that connected to our story. I’d been working with Seyval Blanc for years in Ohio and when I won two amateur national winemaking competitions in 2011, one was with a 2010 Seyval Blanc. So, it was a great tie-in.

But also, we see an opportunity to differentiate ourselves with a white wine that nobody else has in the Willamette Valley—and only one other winery has in Oregon. Plus, we believed it would grow well here, and after two small harvests that resulted in some beautiful wine, we’re happy to be proven right. Note, however, we didn’t plant a lot of it: only about 250 vines (and not all of them made it—so Sara’s been propagating like crazy ever since for replants). We figured if it was a failure, we could always graft over it.

[TaV]: Any future plans for more mainstream Oregon white grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling?
[DS]: From a business perspective, we’ve taken a really close look at what other wineries in the area are making, and for a 500-ish case production winery like ours it’s best to have just one white wine available for sale at a given time. That’s because we don’t move enough volume and the whites generally don’t age as long as reds.

We currently make Pinot Blanc and we like it quite a bit. It’s a bit rarer in these parts than Pinot Gris or Chardonnay, which again helps to differentiate us. But as for expanding our white wine program, the ultimate plan is to phase out Pinot Blanc for Seyval Blanc and that will be the only white in our line-up. There are a lot of similarities between my Pinot Blanc and my Seyval
Blanc, so the transition from one to the other won’t be as jarring as a shift from another white varietal, such as Chardonnay.

Bells Up Wines in the cellar

Bells Up wines. Source: Bells Up winery

[TaV]: Today you already make white, rosé, and red. Any plans to join seemingly the hottest Oregon trend and start producing sparkling wine?
[DS]: No. I know I keep coming back to the numbers, but I’m a finance guy with an MBA and a corporate tax law career. While we think there’s a place in the market for adding bubbles to still wines, if I made a sparkling wine I’d want to do it the right way (traditional method). That takes time, space and money. And at our volumes, what we’d have to charge per bottle to justify that type of investment is more than what the market would reasonably bear.

[TaV]: Continuing the same question – as you already produce Seyval Blanc, which makes very good dessert wines, any plans for some Late Harvest Seyval Blanc goodness?
[DS]: Don’t give Sara any ideas! Actually, we’ve been so focused on just getting these Seyval Blanc vines established and proving that our concept had legs that we really haven’t thought much farther than straight up Seyval Blanc. Our 2017 harvest yielded 100 pounds and made 23 bottles (yes, bottles)! Our 700-pound 2018 harvest produced 15 cases and we’ve made that available exclusively to our wine club members on a 2-bottle allocation. Give me a few years when I’ve got Seyval Blanc growing out of my ears and I’ll get back to you on a Late Harvest version.

[TaV]: Who are your winemaking mentors (if any)?
[DS]: First and foremost, Joe Henke of Henke Winery in Cincinnati. Joe took me under his wing as a basement winemaking hobbyist. He offered me a position as an unpaid cellar rat but promised he’d teach me everything he knew—open book—and he did. He even showed me his books because he wanted me to understand what he called “the good, the bad and the ugly of being a professional winemaker.” He’s an award-winning winemaker who makes 2,000 cases across roughly 15 different types of wines (including a phenomenal sparkling Chardonnay and an incredible Norton) in the basement of a 100-year-old house in an urban neighborhood with the bare essentials: barrels, a pump, a press, a pallet jack. I learned so much from him about the process of winemaking and the business of winemaking; that you don’t need a bunch of expensive equipment to make incredible wines. You just need to do a ton of cleaning. Amazing mentor.

Additionally, I did a harvest internship in the Fall of 2012 at Alexana in Dundee, Oregon under Bryan Weil. It was Bryan’s first harvest there as winemaker and Lynn Penner-Ash of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars was still working alongside Bryan, as she had been consulting winemaker for the label prior to Bryan coming on board. I soaked up as much as I could about working with Pinot Noir from both of them. Because, at age 39, I was not your typical harvest intern—plus I had three years of time at Henke Winery under my belt—Bryan was gracious enough to build my internship around what I needed to learn. He put me in the vineyard for sampling fruit, for example, something I’d never had the opportunity to do before. He had me set up the lab for him and run lots of testing because I knew how to do it. We’re still very close today and I appreciate everything he was gracious enough to share with me.

As far as winery business mentors, there have been so many people in the Willamette Valley who have generously offered advice and shared their successes and failures that it would be impossible to name them all. But they know who they are.

[TaV]: What is your view on sustainable viticulture, dry farming, organic methods?
[DS]: That’s what we do here in our own vineyard and at the vineyards we source from. We think it’s very important to be good stewards of the Earth—we’re farmers now! It also produces stronger vines that develop more flavorful grapes and ultimately better wines.

[TaV]: How did you choose the music pieces as the names of your wines? What was your thought process, what criteria? What message are you trying to convey with those names?
[DS]: Let me start by explaining the name of the winery. I played French Horn for more than 20 years (I’m horribly out of practice now—Sara says I only make noise) including after business and law schools, so it was a key part of my life. When it came time to name the winery, we wanted to name it something personal that wasn’t our last name (people are terrible at remembering names!) and I really wanted to tie it into the French Horn. Coincidentally, the property Sara found was on Bell Road in Newberg. So that tied in perfectly to the term “Bells Up,” which is a notation by the composer in the score of a piece of music. At a dramatic moment, it directs the French Horns to lift the bells of their instruments to project their sound with more intensity. It’s our time to shine—which is why I say the winery is my #bellsupmoment.

The pieces of music I chose to name each wine are all ones that prominently feature the French Horn, as well as epitomize the wine itself. George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” inspired our Pinot Blanc to be named “Rhapsody” because it’s a jazzy, energetic white wine. Gustav Mahler—the French Horn player’s best friend because his pieces tend to be horn-heavy—wrote his Symphony No. 1 in D Major, called “Titan,” and it’s become regarded as his flagship work. Therefore, our Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which we consider to be our flagship Pinot, is “Titan.” And so on. There’s a link at the top of our wines page to a playlist of all the pieces for those interested in hearing them.

[TaV]: Why “un-domaine”?
[DS]: It was a term that came up as we were discussing how to describe our casual tasting room vibe, our keep-it-simple winemaking approach, and our distinctive brand with a good friend who happens to be a wine writer. A couple of years ago after we opened our doors in 2015 there was a trend of new wineries opening in the Willamette Valley with the word “Domaine” in their name. We just aren’t. Our property is humble, our tasting room is a converted pole barn, you won’t find a marble fireplace. While Sara and I enjoy wine, nobody would ever confuse us with wine snobs.

Does “un-domaine” mean we’re not for everyone? Absolutely. There’s no cachet associated with owning or drinking a bottle of Bells Up wine. And that’s perfectly fine with us. We’d much rather be the bottle on your table every day of the week than the one gathering dust in the wine rack because you spent a ton of money on it and are waiting for a special occasion—and friends who will appreciate it—before it’s opened.

[TaV]: Did you have a pivotal wine in your life, the one which changed your wine worldview?
[DS]: Not so much a specific wine but a wine experience I had very early on. I had the pleasure of visiting some friends in Europe after graduating from law school and they took me to Beaune (in the heart of Burgundy) for a weekend. We did a lot of tasting in the touristy cellars, but also in garages and co-operatives where the atmosphere was much more down-to-earth. I knew absolutely nothing about wine prior to that but I was in awe of what I saw, smelled, and tasted. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but I was in the heart of a culture that valued wine as an everyday experience—that part really resonated with my soul. Looking back, I’m sure that I would appreciate that experience more fully if I took the same trip now, but that time in Beaune has fueled my passion for wine ever since.

[TaV]: With the exception of your own wines, what are your favorite Oregon wines and /or producers?
[DS]: We truly have an embarrassment of riches here in the Willamette Valley—so many quality producers call this place home that a list of my favorite producers would fill about 3 dozen barrels. With every producer having their own unique style—plus the trailblazing nature of the Oregon wine industry—innovation is happening all the time: new grapes, new techniques, and so on. I think many people assume that a winemaker drinks only his or her own wine at home, but the truth is I almost never drink my own wines outside of the professional setting. I’d much rather be exploring the styles and fresh ideas that other winemakers here are creating and perhaps get inspired to try some of those ideas myself!

[TaV]: What are your favorite wines and/producers outside of Oregon?
[DS]: Again, way too many to answer! The wines I enjoy most are ones where I have a personal connection in some way and I’m fortunate to have so many talented friends in other parts of the winemaking world. Back in Ohio, my mentor Joe Henke at Henke Winery, of course, but also my friends Greg Pollman of Valley Vineyards and Bill Skvarla of Harmony Hill Vineyards make fantastic wines from grapes grown locally and regionally. Up in Woodinville, Washington my friend, Lisa Callan of Callan Cellars is making a name for herself with her Washington-focused program. And up over the border in Naramata, British Columbia my friend Jay Drysdale has founded Bella Sparkling Wines, BC’s only winery dedicated to sparkling wines. I know that some other friends have projects in the works and can’t wait to brag about them in a few years too.

[TaV]: Where do you see Bells Up Winery in 20 years?
[DS]: Not in the grocery store. Our customer base is national, but we have no aspirations for retail distribution. We’re perfectly content to sell direct-to-consumer and to a couple of local restaurants and a wine bar in Downtown Portland. When we hit 1,000-case production, that’s it. We won’t make any more than that annually because we both enjoy and believe wholeheartedly in the micro-boutique winery experience we’ve created. We want to have personal relationships with our customers. We specifically don’t have an online ordering portal because we want to have a conversation with our buyers either by phone or email. Making and maintaining those connections is really important to us, and we hope to grow those relationships over the next 20 years and beyond.

I’m sure you are ready to taste some wine by now. Before I will share with you my notes after tasting 3 of Dave’s wines, I want to bring something to your attention. By now you know that Bells Up wines are named after different musical compositions. In case you want to experience those musical compositions, either by themselves or together with the wine, Dave has a link to Spotify playlist of all the relevant music pieces available on the winery website. And now, here are my notes:

2018 Bells Up Helios Seyval Blanc Chehalem Mountains AVA (13.1% ABV, $38, 15 cases produced)
Light golden
Restrained, minerality-driven, touch of gunflint, a touch of fresh green apples
Excellent acidity, Granny Smith apples all the way, crisp, fresh, good texture. Has traits of Seyval Blanc (tropical fruit intent, I would say, like a hint of guava without any fruit notes), but put on a different core
8-, very interesting, thought-provoking and food friendly wine (acidity lingers on the finish for a good couple of minutes)

2018 Bells Up Prelude Rosé of Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains (13% ABV, $22, 126 cases produced)
Light red
Medium plus intensity, distant hint of the barnyard, underripe cranberries, herbal notes
Bone dry, crunchy cranberries, excellent acidity, food-friendly wine, fruit showing up a bit later, excellent balance
8/8+, delicious and dangerous. I can keep drinking it until the bottle will be empty

2016 Bells Up Titan Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.1% ABV, $40, 12 months in French oak (39% new), 131 cases produced)
Dark ruby
Plums, a hint of smoke, violets
Slightly underripe plums, crisp cherries, sage undertones, good acidity, light to medium body,
8-, light, easy to drink, food friendly. Should improve with time.

Dave Specter conducts Bells Up-Private Tasting

Dave Specter conducts the private tasting. Source: Bells Up Winery

Here you are, my friends. Another story of Passion and Pinot.

To be continued…

P.S. Here are the links to the posts profiling wineries in this Passion and Pinot series, in alphabetical order:

Alloro Vineyard, Ghost Hill Cellars, Ken Wright Cellars, Knudsen Vineyards, Lenné Estate, Tendril Cellars, Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Vidon Vineyard

Stories of Passion and Pinot, Year 2019

April 15, 2019 2 comments

Back in 2014, during the Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara (my first WBC), I was listening to the panel discussion of the professional wine writers, who basically had only one message for all the bloggers – interviews, interviews, interviews. Of course, they were talking about integrity, writing skills and other important subjects, but the concept of “interview” was brought up multiple times, with all the explanations how to do it properly, what, why, where and so on.

At that point, I had been writing my blog for about 5 years, and the idea of the interview didn’t resonate. “I want to write about the wine, not about some conversations and other people opinions” was my prevailing thought. “Interviews? I don’t want to do no interviews” (use of broken English intended).

You don’t need to fast forward too far to see how everything changed. Next year, I was offered a meeting with a winemaker which I couldn’t attend, so I said “all right – can we have a virtual conversation?” – and the concept of “One of One With Winemaker” posts was born. Since then, I’ve done quite a few interviews, most of them virtual and a few are in person – if you are curious, here is the link for you to see them all. Yes, the “virtual” concept might be limiting, as you can’t explore an interesting angle which would come up in the conversation. However, as most of my questions are unique and specifically tailored for a particular conversation, virtual interviews remove intimidation, allowing people time to provide the best answers.

In 2016, I had a conversation with Carl Giavanti, who asked if I would be interested to create a series of interviews with Oregonian winemakers – and that became the beginning of the Stories of Passion and Pinot series, all connected under the “One on One” umbrella. In 2016, I had an opportunity to “talk” to Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars, David Nemarnik of Alloro Vineyard, Mike Bayliss of Ghost Hill Cellars, Wayne Bailey of Youngberg Hill VineyardsSteve Lutz of Lenné Estate, and Don Hagge of Vidon Vineyard. In the same series, Knudsen Vineyards was profiled in 2017, and last year I had a conversion with Tony Rynders of Tendril Cellars. All of these wineries are from Oregon, and all of them share a common passion for the Pinot Noir, one of the most finicky grapes out there.

You probably guessed that I’m not writing this post just to give you a retrospective into the Talk-a-Vino interviews. Yes, I’m writing it to tell you that the Stories of Passion and Pinot will continue in 2019, again with the help of Carl Giavanti. The wineries we will look at in the near future are:

By the way, do you know what “Bells Up” means? Well, if you do – great, if you don’t  – you will learn all about it soon.

To be continued…

 

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