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One on One with Winemaker – Maya Hood White of Early Mountain Vineyards, Virginia

September 8, 2022 Leave a comment

Source: Virginia.org.

Virginia Is For Lovers.

This simple slogan, coined in 1969, became the foundation of one of the best marketing campaigns of all time. It is simple, it gets stuck in your head and once you hear “Virginia” the image of a red heart with the words “Virginia is for Lovers” automatically pops up in your mind.

Virginia is for lovers, but what many people might not realize, Virginia is for Wine Lovers. Virginia is probably the oldest wine-producing state in the USA, where Thomas Jefferson planted vineyards in the last quarter of the 17th Century, way before any wineries were established in New York and California. Virginia’s climate is one of the closest to Bordeaux out of all wine-producing states in the USA. But if you don’t live in Virginia or close by, you might not even know that Virginia produces world-class wines. But Virginia actually does, and we need to rectify this gap in your knowledge, one winery at a time.

Early Mountain is a relatively young winery, founded only 10 years ago, in 2012. However, it was founded by Steve and Jean Case – founders of AOL, the legendary early days Internet provider for millions of Americans. Early Mountain was founded with the vision and mission of representing and promoting the Virginia wine industry. In the Early Mountain tasting room, you can order Best of Virginia wine flights and taste the wines from the 10 vineyards around Virginia – of course, in addition to the full range of wines Early Mountain produces.

The original Early Mountain vineyard which gives the name to the winery was planted in 2006; the Quaker Run vineyard, the second major holding of Early Mountain was planted in 1999. Early Mountain farms about 350 acres of land, out of which 55 are planted under vines. The estate-produced fruit is also complemented by the fruit coming from the local Virginia growers, in an approximately 50/50 ratio.

I had an opportunity to speak with Maya Hood White, Early Mountain’s winemaker over a zoom session, and taste Early Mountain wines. As this was a live interview, below you will find pretty much a transcript of our conversation, not a detailed account that I manage to provide using an email interview format. I still hope you will get enough information, and most importantly, will be curious enough to go and find Early Mountain wines.

Why Early Mountain?
– The name relates to John Early, a historical figure who lived in Virginia in the second half of the 17th century. There is also a historic building on the property that relates to John Early.
What are those curved lines on your wine label?
– It is a topographic map. The lines represent the true topography of the land surrounding the winery.
What does the logo mean?
– These are letters E and M 🙂 (my reaction – duh…)
What is the meaning of the pointer arrow?
– Again, it is a map attribute, a locational arrow.

At this point, we poured our first glass, 2021 Early Mountain Rosé Virginia (11.3% ABV, $26, 72% Merlot, 10% Malbec, 9% Cabernet Franc, 6% Cabernet Franc, 3% Syrah) – Early Mountain site fruit is used to produce this wine. Grapes for Rosé are harvested earlier than the grapes for the red wines. Depending on the year some grapes are co-fermented. Mostly stainless steel but some Acacia barrels were used as well. The wine was beautiful, salmon pink color, leading with strawberries, cranberries, and cleansing acidity. Very present, balanced, and refreshing.

Speaking with the winemaker always offers us, mere mortal oenophiles, a chance to geek out and learn. When you hear about clones, the first thought is always Pinot Noir, maybe a Chardonnay. Maya works with clones of Sauvignon Blanc, and those clones produce dramatically different wines. She also works a lot with and was speaking fondly of Petite Manseng, the grape best known in Southwest France. Petite Manseng is producing excellent wines in Virginia, and it makes one of the flagship wines at Early Mountain. Petite Manseng grapes grow in such tight clusters that Maya prefers to harvest them after the rain, it helps to process the grapes better.

I asked Maya about Viognier, which is considered to be a star in Virginia. First, I learned an interesting fact from her: Viognier looks like a white grape version of Syrah – the same format of clusters, the same shape of leaves – I guess it is not surprising that Viognier is often used in winemaking to play together with Syrah. It appears that Viognier was growing before at Early Mountain, and it was pulled out and replaced – Viognier is a problematic grape that ripens irregularly and sometimes doesn’t ripen at all. It is definitely preferred to work with more reliable grapes.

We continued our tasting with 2021 Early Mountain Five Forks Virginia (12.9% ABV, $27, Petit Manseng 59%, Sauvignon Blanc 38%, Malvasia Blanca 2%, Muscat 1%) – rich and inviting white fruit nose, followed by a crisp, clean, playful bouquet on the palate. I loved the plumpness, roundness of the wine, reminding me of my favorite Roussanne bottles. The wine was perfect cold, and it was very tasty at room temperature – this is my standard hallmark test of good white wine – good white wine is delicious cold or not.

And then there was time to ask more questions:

What is your winemaking philosophy?
– Maya oversees grape growing as well as production. Listening to the vineyard – not set on what should be produced from the specific lot. Sites are closely watched for what they can do best – vines can be pulled and replaced.
What does the line of Young Wines represent?
– Approachable, low-intervention, fruit is sourced from the growers in the Shenandoah Valley. Wines are often made using a whole cluster approach. Also, the wines in the Young Wines line appeal more to younger wine drinkers.
Where do you stand on sustainability/organic?
– The low-touch approach, use biodynamic teas, certain blocks are processed only in an “organic” way. The holistic approach to the overall vine growing – over cropping, etc. low touch is a key.
What is your take on biodynamics?
– There is a lot to learn. Compost teas, herbal teas, oak bark – many things work, but the approach is more “what makes sense” than religious.
What winemaking vessels do you use? Oak barrels, amphorae, concrete tanks, stainless steel?
– I gravitate towards bigger casks; we have concrete egg, which is used primarily for whites. We also work with Northern European oak, Acacia wood

Next, we had two Cabernet Franc wines. Cabernet Franc is one of my favorite grapes and a staple of Virginia winemaking, so I was definitely looking forward to trying the wines.

We started with 2020 Early Mountain Cabernet Franc Shenandoah Valley Virginia (13.3% ABV, $30) – pulled from different sites in Shenandoah Valley. Uses larger size barrels, 500 liters or larger, Northern European oak barrels. 2020 was a rainy vintage, and the wine was rather on the mellow side. When I tried the wine during our zoom session, I was not terribly impressed. While the wine had all the traits of Cabernet Franc – cassis, bell pepper – it was a bit underwhelming. The next day, the wine really came around offering a lot more depth and structure.

My second Cabernet Franc was supposed to be a 2019 Cabernet Franc Quaker Run Vineyard, which Maya was absolutely raving about, defining the 2019 vintage as an epiphany. However, the bottle I got was the 2018 Early Mountain Cabernet Franc Quaker Run Vineyard Virginia (12.5% ABV, $45). 2018 was a very challenging vintage – too much rain, even the road was washed away. I never thought of Cabernet Franc in terms of clones, but it appears that this wine was composed of 2 different clones with different aromatics. Despite the vintage challenges (or maybe thanks to? :)) the wine was superb from the getgo – a good amount of dark fruit, good structure, cassis, eucalyptus, herbal underpinning – this Cabernet Franc was more expressive than a typical Chinon or Saumur, but less fruity than a typical west coast Cabernet Franc. Delicious.

Another interesting note from Maya – there is completely anecdotal evidence that in Virginia, even vintages are lean, and odd vintages give you bigger wines. I will need to pay attention next time I will be drinking Virginia wine, to see if this observation would hold true.

And a few more questions to complete our conversation.

How is the harvest in 2022? What to expect?
– Ha! Harvest is still ongoing, 10 days to 2 weeks later than last year, and some of the white grapes are still on the vine. Rain showers got in the way. Reds have another month. Hard to tell yet. There was a got fruit set, some fruit was dropped, so it is too early to tell.
What’s ahead? Single block wines? New varieties?
– New hybrids are coming from Italy – Merlot Kanthus, Sauvignon Rytos, VCR Tocai, The new grapes will account for about 1%. Will be planted in 2023. These new hybrids are important as they are disease resistant, and with grape diseases, the question is not if, but when. There will be also a new wine made from Petite Manseng which was planted instead of Cabernet Sauvignon.

That concluded our conversation with Maya, the time flew by very quickly.

If you are familiar with Virginia wines already, the Early Mountain can offer an excellent refresher course. And if you are not – what are you waiting for? Virginia wine has lots to offer, start your journey already.

One on One With Winemaker: Lucio Salamini of Luretta

June 2, 2022 Leave a comment

If you call yourself a wine lover, you definitely have an affinity for Italian wine. I have yet to meet a wine lover who doesn’t like Italian wine – there is such a range of wines coming from Italy, everyone can find at least something which speaks to their heart and palate.

By the same token, I’m sure that the knowledge of Italian wines is quite widespread among the wine-loving public. So let’s play a simple game. There are 20 administrative regions in Italy. I will give you the name of the region, and you will tell me one, the most famous wine associated with that region. Let’s start with Tuscany – what wine do you associate with Tuscany? Of course, you are correct, it is more than one – Chianti, Brunello, super-Tuscan. How about Piedmont? You are right again – Barolo and Barbaresco come to mind first. Veneto? Yes, correct – Valpolicella, and if you said Amarone, you get an extra point (I’m a sucker for a good Amarone).

Now, how about Emilia-Romagna? Are you drawing a blank? I can help you – a large region in northern-central Italy, right above Tuscany? Still nothing? If someone said “Lambrusco”, congratulations, it is actually the most famous wine coming out of Emilia-Romagna, but it is absolutely not the only one.

The winemaking region of Colli Piacentini is located in the western part of Emilia-Romagna, with winemaking history in Colli Piacentini going back to 2000 B.C. Colli Piacentini DOC covers about 9,000 acres of vineyards with various microclimates defined by mountains, hills, and river valleys. There are 16 DOCs within Colli Piacentini, with grape varieties ranging from the typical Italian varieties such as Barbera, Croatina, Malvasia, and Trebbiano to the international stars – Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and others. It is interesting that Colli Piacentini DOC rules allow putting the name of some of the grape varieties on the front label, quite unusual for the old world.



After spending some time in France and learning local agricultural traditions, Felice Salamini, a cattle breeder, came across the Castle of Momeliano, a fortress almost 1,000 years old, nestling in the hills of Emilian valley. This seemed to be an ideal place to grow grapes, make, and age wines, and in 1988 Luretta was born.

Luretta vineyards occupy 123 acres, surrounding Castle of Momeliano on the hill from 800 to 1,650 feet elevation. From the beginning, Luretta started using organic viticulture, with no herbicides, no synthetic fertilizers, and no irrigation. In 2000, Lureta obtained Italian certification for sustainable practices. Many of the French varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petitte Verdot, Pinot Noir – are growing there among the indigenous varieties – Barbera, Malvasia, Trebbiano, and many others.

Lucio Salamini. Source: Luretta

Lucio Salamini, the second-generation owner of Luretta, is now leading the charge at the winery, working together with winemaker Alberto Faggiani, the longtime enologist at Jermann, overseeing the annual production of about 300,000 bottles. Each white, red, and sparkling wine produced by Luretta has its own unique story, showcasing the diversity of Colli Piacenti terroir. I had an opportunity to virtually sit down with Lucio and ask him a few questions – here what transpired in our conversation:

[TaV]: Let’s start with your website, which I find very interesting. Each wine has its own set of images associated with it on the website – how do you come up with those images?

[LS]: We really enjoy creating personalized and evocative image for the company. Usually we draft drawings that can create mental associations to get closer to the wine, that recalls its history, flavors, and characteristics, and then we embed them in our labels and throughout the website. We have always been believers of ‘mental’ pairings, so to create a match not just between a wine and a dish, but also a song, a climate, a mood, a season, a moment in the day or a moment in life. These drawings are vehicle for those impalpable connections.

[TaV]: One more question related to the same subject. Each wine also has a quote associated with that specific wine.  How do you come up with those? What is the message you are trying to convey?

[LS]: It is a quote I like from a song, a book or a movie. These mental associations help me get deeply into the mood of that specific wine.

[TaV]: You have been farming organically since 2000. Have you ever considered biodynamic farming? What is your take overall on biodynamics? 

[LS]: The company has been organic since almost the beginning of its practice, since the early 1990s. Then in 2011, Europe introduced the regulation of Organic Wine and we aligned to sustainable practices also for what concerns the processes in the cellar. However, we do not follow the Steiner philosophy of biodynamic agriculture. I do not often approve it but admire it as a whole concept and I think that this movement is too often carried followed in a superficial way that does not deserve. Biodynamic farming is a way of cultivating the land and making wine aimed to preserve nature and what people drink. It is an all-embracing philosophy and, as such, it should concern the whole lifestyle of the producer and his vision of the world. In this light, for me is not coherent to ship the wine on a boat or a plane to sell it on the other side of the world. But maybe let’s leave this controversy alone!

[TaV]: You have quite an international selection of the grapes – Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. What made you plant international varieties in the first place? Do you find your terroir particularly conducive to the international varieties?

[LS]: We were pioneers in this area of Piacenza. We had to experiment first in order to understand better. Thus, planting International varieties was a part of a whole pioneristic phase that informed our practice since the beginning. Often, but not always, this has proved us right. Indeed, it is an area that is well suited to international vines as well as, of course, traditional vines.
Besides the drive to try and experiment, we also have a pure deep passion for international varieties.

[TaV]: In a blind tasting, if your Cabernet Sauvignon would be placed together with super-Tuscan, which wine do you think might win? 

[LS]: In the autumn of 2021, there was this tasting by the famous critic Daniele Cernilli ( Dr. Wine ) where my cabernet came out very well, despite costing on average a third of the other bottles. And I was very proud of that, of course! In general, though, I believe that parallel tastings should not be done to see who wins but rather to understand and enjoy the differences between the various territories.

[TaV]: The same question as before, but let’s replace super-Tuscan with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – how do you think your wine would fare against those?

[LS]: I would say that whether the super Tuscans and Napa wines focus on food, power, softness and low acidity, my wine has more tertiary hints of evolution such as spices, aromatic woods, pepper, balsamic, and then, instead of looking for softness, it pushes towards a tannic acid balance in the mouth, underlining the sapid and mineral notes of Colli Piacentini, our soils.

[TaV]: Do you have any plans for additional international varieties – Syrah, for example?

[LS]: I have experimented over the years with plantings of Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. But they have not been successful. And the vineyards were either grubbed up or replanted, proving that not all varieties can adapt to these soils.

[TaV]: You are farming 123 acres of estate vineyards. Have you identified vineyard plots that perform better/different from the others? Do you have any plans for single-plot wines in the future?

[LS]: The map of the single vineyards with names, varieties, altitudes and soil differences will be ready in September. It is a project we have been working on since January. Broadly speaking, we have the autochthonous vines planted up to an altitude of 820 ft above sea level, characterized by the “Terre rosse antiche” (old red soils in English) soil, loaded with red clay.
The international vines, on the other hand, are planted in vineyards ranging from an altitude of 800 ft to 1400 ft above sea level, in the lands of lower Apennines, characterized by a greater concentration of limestone. Most of the vineyards are located within the small Val Luretta – which gives the name to the company- characterized by a temperate microclimate, protected from either spring frosts, summer heat waves and large concentrations of humidity thanks to a lucky flux of air that constantly blows in our lands.

Wine time!

I had an opportunity to taste 2 of Luretta’s wines.

2019 Luretta Boccadirossa Colli Piacentini DOC (13.5% ABV, $30, 100% Malvasia di Candia Aromatica) had beautiful golden color. A beautifully perfumed nose of wild flowers and tropical fruit was supported by the body which was plump and crisp at the same time, with white plums and lemon and a perfectly acidic finish. Overall, solid and delicious.

2018 Luretta Superiore Gutturnio DOC (14.5% ABV, $25, 50% Barbera, 40% Croatina, 9 months in wood) was as quintessential Italian as only the Italian wine can be. The nose of leather and cherries followed by the exquisite palate of sweet cherries, leather, and a hint of tobacco, layered, generous, earthy, and complex.

Here you are, my friends – unexpected, unconventional, and well worth seeking Italian wines, waiting to be discovered by wine lovers around the world. Cheers!

Stories and Passion and Pinot: Shane Moore of Gran Moraine

May 25, 2022 Leave a comment

Gran Moraine prides itself on producing experiential art in the form of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sparkling wines made to express the exquisite terroir of our Yamhill-Carlton Estate Vineyards.”

Experiential Art.

Not a bad way to introduce the winery, what do you think? Wine is art, all wine lovers can sign under such a statement, so “experiential art” sounds very near and dear to any wine lover’s heart.

Gran Moraine vineyard was planted in 2004 by Premier Pacific Vineyards in the Yamhill-Carlton district of Willamette Valley in Oregon, with 200 acres of hillside vines of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The vineyard took its name from moraines, glacial sediment left after the glacier movements in the last ice age. In 2013, the Gran Moraine Vineyard was acquired by Jackson Family and it is one of the 4 major properties owned by the Jackson Family in Oregon Willamette Valley.

I visited Gran Moraine last August and had an opportunity to taste a number of the wines and have a quick chat with the winemaker, Shane Moore. Then I followed up with the usual, virtual “conversation” and here is what transpired:

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

{SM]: I’ve had plenty of wines that have possibly changed my life’s trajectory.  However, I feel like the most pivotal wines in my existence have been those that seem to stop time. These wines provide my most fond wine moments and provide me with the most inspiration.

[TaV]: Is there a winemaker you would call your mentor? Someone you learned the most from as a winemaker?

[SM]: I think if I gave any specific shoutouts I’d be doing a disservice to so many of the amazingly talented and thoughtful winemakers I have had the pleasure to have worked with.  Over my time I worked with and under at least 40 winemakers – I for sure learned a great deal from all of them.  Another great group I both learned a lot and derived much inspiration from are the seasonal cellar workers we hire each year. With that I’m proud to say many have went on to become winemakers themselves.

[TaV]: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines are all about blocks and clones. How many clones of Pinot Noir and how many clones of Chardonnay do you grow? How many individual blocks do you identify for the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay?

[SM]: At the Gran Moraine Vineyard, there are 6 different clones of Pinot Noir and only 2 of Chardonnay.  Every block is harvested and vinified separately. At any given time, there are around 100-120 different lots of wines. There are approximately 80 blocks – I don’t bring them all in – it’s too big of a vineyard for that – I bring in what I think of as around the top 30% of the acres.

[TaV]: Following up on the previous question – what is your approach to the blending of the final wines, both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay? Do you ever produce single block or single clone wines, and if you don’t do it now, do you have a plan to start producing such wines in the future?

[SM]: Blending final wines starts with having an abstract notion of the experience which you would like to have said “wine endue.” Then you purposely work within the parameters of the vineyard, the growing season and your production capabilities to craft something with that end goal in mind.

We will sometimes produce single clone or block wines when the wine is so profound that it would be a disservice to humanity to blend it away.

[TaV]: You already produce a few of the sparkling wines. What is your approach to harvesting the grapes for those wines – do you have specific plots which you designate for sparkling wines, or do you take an early pass through the vineyard prior to general harvest to get the grapes for the sparkling wine production?

[SM]: You know when you eat something so acidic that it makes your ears ring? I like to pick the fruit for sparkling wine when it’s just a little riper than that. We use specific blocks for the sparkling wine that are purposely farmed. Generally, these blocks are some of the most marginal sites on the vineyard; for example, north facing and heavier soils.

[TaV]: How much focus the sparkling wines program gets at Gran Moraine? Do you expect to produce more sparkling wines in the future, or you expect to stay at the level where you are at?

[SM]: Sparkling wine is currently about 15% of our production.  I can see it growing some, it seems to be very popular.

[TaV]: Gran Moraine is a ~200 acres vineyard. If I understand it correctly, it is all planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Do you plan to plant any other grapes – Pinot Gris, for example, or will it stay strictly as it is right now?

[SM]: The suitable acres on the piece of land are pretty much planted out.  I don’t think we’ll be grafting any of the Chardonnay or Pinot Noir over to anything else anytime soon.

[TaV]: When you make Gran Moraine Chardonnay, is there a specific style you are trying to achieve?

[SM]: I want the Chardonnay to have umami, electricity and tension.  Of course, I also want it to be delicious.

[TaV]: Same question for the Gran Moraine Pinot Noir?

[SM]: With the Pinot I try to focus on it being beautiful and sleek creating power and complexity daftly by DJing with great music and surrounding it with happy people.

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

[SM]: Oregon: Adelsheim, Antica Terra, Antiquim Farm, Alexana, Belle Ponte, Brickhouse, Beaux Freres, Bethel Heights…..that’s just getting to the B’s!  Too many really to mention – I’m always trading wine with people. I’m totally in love with Oregon wine.

USA:  I’d have to go to CA and say some of my favorites there are Ridge, Drew, Papapietro Perry, Navarro, Hartford.

[TaV]: Is there a winemaker you would love to work with? A dream winemaker so to speak?

[SM]: Jean-Herve and Laurent Chiquet of Jacquesson.  I hope they are listening.  I’ve got ideas.

[TaV]: What’s ahead for Gran Moraine? Where do you see it in 10 years?

[SM]: We’ll probably be doing the same thing but hopefully with even more intention and weirder.

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

[SM]: A great New World Nebbiolo.

Here are the tasting notes for a few of the Gran Moraine wines I had an opportunity to taste during the visit:

Gran Moraine Brut Rosé Sparkling Wine Yamhill-Carlton (58% Pinot Noir, 41% Chardonnay, 6% Pinot Meunier)
Toasted notes on the nose
toasted bread, a touch of yeast, good acidity, crisp, clean
8, delicious

2018 Gran Moraine Chardonnay Yamhill-Carlton
A touch of honey notes, vanilla
Good acidity, good acidity, needs time
7+

2018 Gran Moraine Pinot Noir Estate
Brilliant fresh cherry notes, sage
Crisp, restrained, tart cherries and earthy notes, fresh tannins
7+

2017 Gran Moraine Upland Pinot Noir
Restrained nose, a touch of funk, cherries
Light palate, fresh, bright, cherries and cranberries
8-

Here you go, my friends. Another winery, another story of Passion and Pinot. Until the next time – cheers!

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

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

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