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WMC21: Day 1 Highlights

August 11, 2021 1 comment

Wine Media Conference 2021 was distinctly different from all of the previous years. The conference started in 2008 in Sonoma, so this was the 13th annual conference bringing together a bunch of people who love talking about wine – for passion and for business. 2021 was a special year, having everyone battle through the 2020 pandemic, so quite expectedly, the attendance and conference program took a toll – but I sincerely believe that those of us who attended for their love of wine definitely got at least their money worth, and lots more, as you can’t put a price tag on the camaraderie of the wine people.

View from Valley River Inn

This is the second time the conference took place in Oregon. In 2012, it was hosted in Portland with most of the attention focused on the Northern Willamette Valley. 2021 conference took place in Eugene, a town about 120 miles down south from Portland and home to the University of Oregon, hosted at the Valley River Inn. While the previous Oregon conference focused on the wines of Northern Oregon, going down south allowed everyone to explore the lesser-known wineries of the South Willamette Valley and even much further beyond.

Before we get to talk about Day 1, we have to talk about Day 0. First, there was an opening reception and walk-around tasting. There were a few interesting wines – particularly, I want to mention two of the California wines. 2018 Cuda Ridge Petit Verdot Livermore Valley was a perfect example of 100% Petit Verdot, with the concentrated power of the dark fruit, supported by well-integrated tannins. Then there were Knotty Vines – a new line of wines from Rodney Strong, made to be playful and accessible. I tasted 2018 Knotty Vines Chardonnay California which was simple and elegant, having all the Chardonnay traits (vanilla, green apple, a touch of butter), neatly packaged together. At $15, it is your perfect everyday wine. 2018 Knotty Vines Cabernet Sauvignon California was a great example of a well-made California Cabernet Sauvignon suitable for any budget – perfectly noticeable cassis on the nose and the palate, easy to drink, and delightful wine.

Now, for the most important part of the Day 0 – parties. There were at least two of such parties taking place. The first one was at the house of Neal Benson and Alyse Stone who live in Eugene and run the service called Winery Wanderings. Alyse and Neal graciously invited what seems to be a whole conference to their backyard and everyone was able to find a spot. There were lots of wines, lots of hugs, and conversations. While there were lots and lots of bottles opened and consumed, my unlikely favorite was 1971 Fontanafredda Barolo, brought by Jeff Burrows – the wine still had enough fruit left, and the palate gently evolved toward dried fruit – lightweight, but very pleasant.

The second afterparty was kindly hosted by Rodney Strong. Not only we had an opportunity to taste many of the Rodney Strong single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon wines (Rockaway, Alexander Crown, Brothers – all delicious), as well as Davis Bynum Pinot Noir, pure and classic, we also had a large selection of Voodoo Doughnuts, a local (Portland) crave and a cult. While Cabs and Pinot were excellent, my favorite wine of that evening was the 2018 Rodney Strong Chardonnay Reserve Russian River Valley, which was perfectly bright with vanilla and apple tones on the nose, and a hint of vanilla and butter on the palate. While doughnuts looked great, I really didn’t get the excitement and the cult status of these Voodoo doughnuts – they didn’t offer any special taste or flavor – but of course, they are fun to look at.

Day 1 started with the keynote from Cyrill Penn, the editor of Wine Business Monthly magazine, who primarily talked about the history of his publication and how it morphed over the years.

My favorite session of the Day 1 was delivered by Austin Beeman who works for the wine distribution company and runs a few of the wine blogs. Particularly, Austin was talking about the great difficulties wine shipping and logistics are facing right now and will continue having the issues for a while. I plan to interview Austin to discuss all of these in greater depth.

The next highlight was the tasting of the wines of the Troon Vineyard. Troon Vineyard is located in Southern Oregon, in Applegate Valley, and if there is one wine Troon doesn’t make it would be a Pinot Noir. But is not a major differentiator. Troon Vineyard is not only a certified biodynamic winery, but it is the second winery in the world to hold Regenerative Organic certification, which is a serious achievement in itself. I always loved Troon wines, and tasting them was always a major highlight of the WMC events, as Craig Camp, GM of Troon Vineyard, was always a big supporter of the conference, and he always brought a large assortment of Troon wines. And despite the fact that Troon wines were always pure and delicious, this year they manage to deliver even more.

Troon brought 3 sparkling wines, all made as Pet Nat (single fermentation in the bottle). While all 3 were delicious, my personal favorite was 2020 Troon Vineyard Kubli Bench Pet tanNat Applegate Valley, made out of 100% Tannat. Beautiful and clean cut-through acidity made this wine an ultimate refresher – and made me crave oysters right on the spot. My other two favorites were 2019 Troon Vineyard Estate Syrah Applegate Valley and 2019 Troon Vineyard Siskiyou Estate Syrah Applegate Valley, two beautiful expressions of the cold climate Syrah, clean, elegant, smell-forever Syrah wines with a perfect black pepper finish – best Syrah I’ve tasted in a long time.

In the afternoon, we had a good session on the wines of newly minted delle Venezie DOC from Italy, followed by the Wine Social Live tasting of white and Rosé, which was an adjusted version of the traditional speed tasting. Both sessions were very good and I plan to cover them in the later posts.

It is traditional to have winery excursions on the evening of Day 1. Out of the two options, I went with the tour of urban wineries in downtown Eugene. Before we went around the town, we gathered at the newly opened Gordon Hotel – it opened in late 2020, so I have to definitely tip my hat to the courage of the people behind this modern, ultra-contemporary hotel and the whole affiliated Market street complex.

A few of the highlights of the walk-around tasting were 2016 King Estate Brut Cuvée Willamette Valley, delicious sparkling wine with a toasty nose, and refreshing and crisp palate, and 2019 Iris Vineyards House Call Red Blend Rogue Valley, a round and delightful concoction made out of Cab Franc (50%), Merlot and Malbec.

Walking out of the Gordon Hotel we quickly stumbled upon the winery called Terra Pacem, which in translation from Latin means “Peaceful Earth”. Terra Pacem is not just an average urban winery – it is a winery with a great social mission. The winery employs adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and provides community, training, and employment for them. And I’m happy to say that Terra Pacem can boast not only about the great mission but also about delicious, very well made wines. We had “3 out of 3” success with our selection.

NV Terra Pacem Brut had a beautiful toasted nose, with similar toasted notes on the palate, crisp and refreshing, how you would want your sparkling wine to be. 2018 Terra Pacem Cabernet Franc Columbia Valley was concocted to be a perfect Old World example of Cabernet Franc wine – just enough of the bell pepper on the nose to know that it is there, with bell pepper and cassis on the palate, lean and delightful.

I was tasting the wines with Jeff Burrows, and we were both concerned if we would like the 2018 Terra Pacem Tempranillo Rogue Valley, as for both of us, Tempranillo means Rioja, and I’m very particular about the Rioja’s I like. The wine didn’t disappoint – fresh berries on the nose, same round berries with a hint of the cedar box notes – in a blind tasting, I would happily take it for a Vina Real Crianza, so this was one delightful wine.

And that concludes my report. If you are still with me – thank you, as I feel quite exhausted just by writing it. Until the next time – cheers!

Oregon Wine Reflections – On The Way To The Wine Media Conference 2021

August 6, 2021 2 comments

I like flying. And it is not only the excitement of travel, arriving at the new place, meeting new people, having new experiences. The plane itself, the cabin, offers one of the rare sanctuaries, an opportunity to do some undisturbed work and reflect. Yes, the economy plane seat is not the most relaxing accommodation in the world, but if I chose to do something useful (oh so many times I ended up binge-watching movies instead of doing anything productive), comfort is not the most important thing.
Right now I’m on the small plane, connecting from Denver, Colorado to Eugene, Oregon – the location of the Wine Media Conference (previously know as Wine Bloggers Conference) 2021, WMC21 for short. It could’ve been equally called WMC20, as you can imagine that WMC 2020 never took place, but hey, at least we are getting together in 2021.

This will be my 5th WMC (I started in 2014, skipped 2015, and attended 2016, 2017, and 2018), and I’m really excited to visit Oregon for that.

As I was thinking about the location, I also tried to recall how did I discover Oregonian wines – you know, wine solicit the emotion, makes you dig into your memory.

I have no way of tracing it back to the exact year, but I believe the very first Oregonian wine which made me say “wow” was Archery Summit Pinot Noir, and I would think it happened 15–16 years ago. I probably had some wines from Oregon before and after which were just “meh”, but Archery Summit was definitely a pivotal wine. I think the next super-impressive Oregon wine was the Evening Land Pinot Noir, followed by Ken Wright (I was blown away by the massive power that wine was packing), followed by some of the high-end Adelsheim Pinot Noir wines when I wished for an expense account. And let me not forget Antica Terra, with absolutely spectacular Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir Rosé wines (among many others).

This was ancient history. The modern history (ha!) of my Oregonian wine embrace is closely associated with Carl Giavanti, the winery publicist out of Portland, Oregon. We met with Carl at WBC14 and maintained contact from thereon. At some point, I started doing winemaker interviews in the blog, and Carl asked if I would be interested to create a series of interviews of the Oregonian winemakers – this is how the Stories of Passion and Pinot series was born 5 years ago. Working on those interviews afforded me to discover amazing wines – and amazing passion behind them. Vidon, Lenné, Youngberg Hill, Ghost Hill Cellars, Le Cadeau, Alloro, Iris, Utopia, Bell’s Up – each one had a unique story and unique wines. As part of the series I also interviewed Ken Wright, and I always remember that when I asked him how Oregon Pinot Noir compares to Burgundy, he said that for the long time, Oregon sees Burgundy in the rearview mirror, having found its own unique style.

While Pinot Noir is a king of Oregon, it is not the only wine produced here. Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Tempranillo, Tannat, Vermentino, and many others also call Oregon home, and if you ever had wines from, for example, Troon Vineyards, you would know how good those wines can be.

Yes, color me excited – I finally get to meet the people and visit the wineries I’m already so [virtually] familiar with – and now it will be real.

Wine Media Conference 2021 – here we go!

United In Ink

July 26, 2021 Leave a comment

How about some ink, friends?

Does it sound strange?

In my wine vocabulary, wine is wine. I’ve heard people sometimes referring to wine as “juice” – if this term is used by the winemaker, they definitely have a pass – for the average wine consumers, it sounds a bit disrespectful. But that’s not the point here.

So it appears that the wine can be also referred to as “ink”. I only know of “Ink of Toro”, a different name for the Tempranillo growing in the Toro region in Spain, but otherwise, I never heard this term in conjunction with wine – until now.

When I’m offered the wine for the review, there is always the decision process involved – where the wine is from, do I expect to like it, would I be able to write about it, do I like the label. Labels, yes, let’s talk about labels.

When I got an offer to review new series of wines from Mack and Schuhle called United Ink, the first thing which caught my eye was the labels, cool-looking labels. After reading that wines are from the Pacific Northwest, the region I well respect, and having a previous positive experience with Mack and Schuhle wines, I quickly agreed to taste the wines.

If you look at the labels carefully, it is not only the majestic creatures you can observe – each label also features a variety of stamps:

I tried to find explanations for the label design on the Mack and Schuhle website, but there was nothing offered, so I reached out to the PR agency and got the following answers to my questions:

  • Why United Ink? What is the story/significance/idea behind this name?

The brand concept has to do with championing American viticulture and incorporating symbols including stars, traditional American tattoo art, and the idea of ink as a metaphor for wine

  • Freedom to Choose is written on all labels – what is the idea of this statement?

Freedom to choose great wines instead of the everyday, homogenized, manufactured wines at the everyday price points, not having to pay big $$ for wines of similar quality

  • “Hand made” stamp – any story behind it?

Hand crafted and blended by our winemakers Joe Dobbes and David Forsyth who are well respected in their regions

  • “Guaranteed” mark/stamp attached to all the labels – any reasons for that? The idea behind it?

Guaranteed quality and authenticity is our cornerstone. We used a union stamp to express this contract with our customers/consumers.

The wines themselves were rather an enigma, akin to their mythical counterparts on the labels. With the exception of Riesling which was tasty from the get-go, the three reds didn’t show well initially – to the point of me having doubts if I would be able to write a post about the wines (remember – I don’t write negative reviews). I shared my concerns with the PR agency and got an answer that the wholesaler mentioned that it seems that screw caps somehow play a negative role, causing the wines to dumb down for a few days. This is exactly what happened as you can see from my tasting notes:

2020 United Ink Riesling Columbia Valley (12% ABV, $12)
Straw pale
Intense nose of white peach, white plums, and honey
Tropical fruit, guava, ripe white plums, honey undertone, fresh, good acidity, well balanced.
7+/8-, it appears sweeter than one might want from Riesling, but good balance definitely helps. Should be great with tangy cheese. Excellent with Comte (complements). Excellent with Manchego.
8 over the next 3 days – good balance and lots of pleasure.

2019 United Ink Red Blend Columbia Valley (14.1% ABV, $18, 60% Merlot, 20% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon)
Dark garnet, practically black
Cherries, a touch of sapidity, black plums
Tart, tart cherries, nutmeg, salinity, good acidity on the finish, forest underbrush – an unusual expression. Spicy long finish with mouthwatering acidity.
7+, needs time. Was better on the second day.
8-/8 on the 3rd day – astringency disappeared from the finish, the wine became a lot more balanced.

2019 United Ink Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley (14.1% ABV, $18, 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc)
Dark garnet, almost black
Cinnamon, vanilla, sweet tobacco
Sweet tobacco, espresso, and dark chocolate on the palate, blackberries with undertones of the roasted meat. Unusual.
7+ initially
8- on the third day, a hint of cassis, improved balance.

2019 United Ink Pinot Noir Oregon (13% ABV, $22)
Dark Ruby
Plums, anise, a hint of smoke
Plums, smoke, light, appears under-extracted on the first day. A clear cigar profile on the finish.
7+ on the first day – need to see how the wine will evolve.
8 on the day 3 – violets joined plums with a touch of smoke and vanilla, round, well balanced, delicious

Here you are, my friends – the Ink of Pacific Northwest, for your imbibing pleasure. I’m happy the wines came around. If you will come across these wines, remember to decant them for at least 3-4 hours before drinking. Cheers!

Alit Wines – Follow The Flow. Lava Flow

December 9, 2020 2 comments

Here is a question which can never be answered: where the wine is made, in the vineyard or in the cellar?

There are many arguments towards the vineyard being The Place where the wine is made. Mother Nature offerings are everchanging – they change every year, never repeating themselves. But it is not only the climate that never repeats itself – the land which seems to present itself as chunks of sameness is very far from it. Only identifying different pieces is the work of art – the mastery of the winemaker.

Alit Wines is a very young winery, by all means – it was founded only about 5 years ago, in 2016. You would not think that once you taste their wines, which come through elegant and mature – but we need to keep in mind that Alit is only one piece to a bigger story.

Oregon is often compared with Burgundy – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are stars in both regions, and both regions produce well ageable wines of finesse. Burgundy is built on the concepts of terroir and soils – I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of Burgundian vignerons going any distance to protect their soils from erosion and any sort of loss. The whole concept of Crus is based on terroir differentiation, and it took Burgundy centuries to find their best of the best parcels which earned the right to be called Grand Crus.

If you ever listened to the Oregon winemakers, they often talk about soils, first in monolithic terms, in terms of big blocks. But with every subsequent harvest, they start seeing differences between different plots in the vineyards, and those become specific plot-designated wines. This is Oregon’s path towards finding their Grand Crus.

We probably shouldn’t speak for the whole of Oregon, as Alit’s approach to this Grand Cru quest is different. Let’s get back to our “bigger story” around Alit. We usually think that wines are all about grapes, but they are actually all about people – people who stand behind those wines. In the case of Alit, the first person we need to mention is Mark Tarlov. After leaving his first successful wine project, Evening Land (a unique enterprise, if you ask me, making wines under the Evening Land label both in Burgundy and Oregon), Mark continued his wine endeavors with Chapter 24 Vineyards, which he started in 2012. Chapter 24 wines are extremely terroir focused – if you will look at the Chapter 24 Vineyards website, you will see that it produces only two wines –  one called The Fire which comes from the volcanic soils, and The Flood, with the grapes coming from vineyards planted in riverbed soils.

In 2015, Chapter 24 Vineyards opened the “last chapter” as it is called – Rose and Arrow winery, as well as the subsequent (2016) “sister” operation  – Alit. In case you are curious, the “About” page explains the Rose and Arrow name: “The “rose” and “arrow”, innately connected yet conflicting, each defined by the existence (or absence) of the other. Our favorite wines make us appreciate the harmony of opposites: acid/sweet, simple/complex, solid rock/sprouting vine. The latter is where our narrative begins, as every great wine is ignited by unique tensions in the rock of its origin.“. Also in 2015, Mark Tarlov was joined by Chilean winemaker Felipe Ramirez, who became the winemaker for Chapter 24, Rose and Arrow, and Alit wines, working together with consulting winemaker Louis Michel Liger-Belair.

Remember, we need to follow lava flow, as these wines are all about soils, basalt soils, rich in unique nutrients. Enters Dr. Pedro Parra, who wine writer LM Archer called Terroir Whisperer. Dr. Parra is one of the leading soil specialists in the world. Explaining Dr. Parra’s methodology would require a long, very long, and dedicated post, so instead, you should read Lyn’s article where she does a great job explaining what Dr. Parra does – but in essence, he is capable of identifying microsites, some can be 0.5 acres or less, capable of producing wine with very specific characteristics – all of it based on soil and climate analysis before (!) the vineyards are planted. To make it all practical, one of the first projects at Rose and Arrow was the vinification of about 100 wines harvested from such microsites – this is what makes Rose and Arrow wines unique.

When you think of “vineyard plots”, what image comes to mind? My imagination stops at squares or rectangles – but in our case, a correct answer is a polygon. Chapter 24/Rose and Arrow/Alit all operate with polygons, where the shape of microsites can be very complex. Here is the snapshot from our zoom call with folks from Alit where Felipe Ramirez shows the map of one of the sites (sorry that you can’t see Felipe):

How these microsites are identified? Using a method called electrical conductivity. Measuring the electrical conductivity of soil allows to create maps – this is exactly what the folks from Alit and Rose and Arrow are doing. Once you have a map, the rest is easy 🙂 now it is all about mastery of the winemaker – harvest each microsite (polygon) separately, vinify separately – and create the magic.

Now that we understand how the road to the Oregon Grand Crus looks like, let’s discuss the role Alit is playing in this quest.

Talking about Alit wines, we need first mention the Collective. Alit Collective is similar to the wine club, but it is very different from the typical winery club. To become a member of the Collective, you need to pay a $100 annual membership. After that, you can buy Alit wines at a cost – however, it is you who decide what to buy and when. To give an idea of the cost, Alit Pinot Noir (2015) costs $15.10 for Collective members and $27.45 for non-members – this means that once you buy 8 bottles, you will recoup your $100 investment, and every bottle afterward gives you great savings. How does selling at cost makes sense, you probably wonder? It wouldn’t if Alit would be on its own, but in conjunction with Rose and Arrow, it does make sense, as it helps to finance the overall operation.

What else can I tell you? Ahh, the wines, let’s not forget about the wines!

We tasted two of the Alit wines, Rosé (of Pinot Noir, of course), and Pinot Noir.

2019 Alit Rosé Willamette Valley (13% ABV) had a salmon pink color. Gunflint (volcanic soils!), strawberries, and onion peel on the nose. Nice touch of fresh strawberries and lemon, crisp, refreshing, nicely restrained, and well balanced with lemon notes on the finish (Drinkability: 8) – unquestionably delicious any time you want a glass of light, refreshing wine.

2017 Alit Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.6% ABV, native yeast fermentation, 10-12 months in oak) – beautiful bright ruby color – it is seldom for me to see a red wine of such a beautiful color. Beautiful nose, herbal, open, inviting, with mint, cherries, and a touch of the barnyard. Now, I have to say that the palate made me work for it. During the tasting, with the freshly opened bottle, the wine showed light, with red and blue fruit, good acidity, fresh, food-friendly, and restrained – we can even say “under-extracted” (Drinkability: 7+/8-). Over the next two days, the wine opened up, it obtained body, became round and supple, and became an object of pleasure (Drinkability: 8+). Definitely needs time, either in the cellar or in the decanter if you are in a hurry.

Alit Wines and Rose and Arrow enterprises are definitely something to watch. Mark Tarlov believes that sometime around 2030, it will be possible to understand if his quest for the Oregonian Grand Cru was successful. As for me, I practically always enjoy the journey more than the destination, so I will be happy to tag along, and yes, actually enjoy the journey with Alit wines – hop on, we can follow the lava flow together.

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Utopia Vineyard

April 11, 2020 4 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: Iris Vineyards

June 18, 2019 3 comments

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

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

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

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

Richard Boyles Iris Vineyards

Richard Boyles

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

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

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

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

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

Iris Vineyards

Source: Iris Vineyards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cropped Bench Iris Vineyards

Source: Iris Vineyards

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

To be continued…

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

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

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Bells Up Winery

May 31, 2019 7 comments

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

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

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

BellsUp-Pinot Harvest

Bells Up vineyards. Source: Bells Up Winery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bells Up Wines in the cellar

Bells Up wines. Source: Bells Up winery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave Specter conducts Bells Up-Private Tasting

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

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

To be continued…

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

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

Stories of Passion and Pinot, Year 2019

April 15, 2019 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

 

WBC18: Speed (Live) Tasting – White and Rosé

October 23, 2018 2 comments

In the previous post, I told you about our speed tasting session of red wines at the Wine Bloggers Conference 2018. During the second full conference day, we had a session for white and Rosé – only we didn’t get any Rosé at our table, so it was all for us (it is still 20+ different wines been presented around, but you only can taste just 10 during the allotted time.

If you read any of the previous posts or maybe attended the event, you know the drill. Snap, swirl, smell, sip, spit, share. Hmmm, next time I will call it a 6S exercise. You (1) snap a photo of a bottle. You (2) swirl the wine in your glass. You (3) smell it. Then you (4) sip it. Then you (5) spit it (well, there might be an exception to this rule, but you have to tread carefully here – if you can’t spit the wine, the wine bloggers conference is not for you). Lastly, you (6) share your notes with the world. All in 5 minutes. All repeated 10 times. There you have it.

Before I share the WBC18 wines with you now in this summary post, I will give you links to the WBC14, WBC16, and WBC17 I attended in the past, just in case you want to see what was happening there.

WBC18 speed tasting whites, here we go:

Wine 1: 2017 Desert Wind Chardonnay Heritage Series Wahluke Scope Washington (12.7% ABV, $28)

Wine 2: 2017 Bodega Bouza Albariño Montevideo Uruguay (13.5% ABV, $20)

Wine 3: 2016 Baroness Cellars Riesling Red Mountains (12.4% ABV, $25)

Wine 4: 2016 Rodney Strong Chardonnay Chalk Hill AVA (14.5% ABV, $22) – classic California Chardonnay, good wine at a good QPR.

Wine 5: 2016 Cadaretta SBS Columbia Valley (13.5% ABV, $23, 67% Sauvignon Blanc, 33% Semillon) – SBS stands exactly for Sauvignon Blanc Semillon. An excellent wine for a summer day? Well, I think I can drink it on a winter day too…

Wine 6: 2016 Frank Family Vineyards Chardonnay Carneros (14.4% ABV, $30)

Wine 7: 2016 J. Bookwalter Double Plot Chardonnay Conner-Lee Vineyard Columbia Valley (13.8% ABV, $40)

The next wine was presented with the statement to all of the Riesling haters – as shown here by Clifford Robben:

If you don't like riesling you are a

Wine 8: 2016 Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling GG Alte Reben Mosel (12.5% ABV, $56) – you can’t argue with greatness – this was one delicious Riesling

Wine 9: 2015 Brokenwood Semillon Hunter Valley (10.5% ABV, $22) – Hunter Valley Semillon might be one of the biggest secrets lucky attendees of WBC19 will discover. The wine might show as overly acidic when young, but with some age on it, it becomes an impeccable thing of beauty…

Wine 10: 2016 Brooks Ara Riesling Willamette Valley (12.8% ABV, $38) – another beautiful wine from the Brooks winery. From the tasting of the reds, Borrks Rastaban was my favorite wine. Now this Ara Riesling was equally impressive – and I didn’t know that Riesling was even made in Oregon. A delicious surprise.

There you go, my friends – the summary of one of my favorite exercises at the wine bloggers conference. Sorry, Chardonnay – the Riesling totally stole the crown this time. Cheers!

A Pinot Noir Lesson for Self with Tendril Cellars

October 3, 2018 7 comments

Tendril Cellars winesBack in May, we virtually met with Tony Rynders of Tendril Cellars and talked about … many things wine, of course – you can find this conversation here.

Tony is one of the few winemakers I know who teaches people about his wines by conducting organized tastings. As I didn’t have an opportunity to attend any of those events, I decided to run a lesson for myself on the same subject. How you ask? Easy – by tasting the wines blind.

I can literally see the surprised looks and raised eyebrows. How is it a blind tasting if I know already everything about those wines? You see, the lineup I had included 6 wines. Out of those six, four were different Pinot Noirs – different vineyards, different winemaking process, different price points. Obviously I was not planning to try to identify the exact wine, but still – will I be able to taste the difference, and maybe identify the most expensive wine? Comparing Chardonnay and white Pinot Noir should also be a fun exercise, as those are two siblings ruling the world of Champagne. Yep – lots of opportunities for having fun.

Okay, blind tasting it is. The bottles are wrapped, the numbers are randomly assigned. May the taste buds serve me right!

Tendril Cellars Blind tasting

Here are my notes for the wines while tasting them blind:

1 Light golden color
Vanilla, golden delicious,
Bright acidity, vanilla, apples, a touch of honey

2 toasted notes, yeast
Perfect acidity, Granny Smith apples, a touch of honey, toasted notes on the palate, outstanding
white pinot?

3 Dark ruby
Earthy, Rutherford dust on the nose, a touch of roasted meat,
Beautiful palate, soft plums, round, espresso, excellent acidity, wow. ThightRope?

4 Ruby
Concentrated nose, mint, eucalyptus
Concentrated palate, acidity, eucalyptus, sage, violets on the palate. Very unusual. Single Vineyard?

5 Dark ruby
Wow. Blueberries, raspberries, restrained
Very smooth, silky, bright fresh fruit, acidity, firm structure, excellent balance, never-ending finish. Wow. C-Note?

6 Dark ruby
Nose old world style, forest floor, mushrooms, great restraint
Round palate, blackberries, baking spices, soft, delicious. Outstanding. Extrovert?

Tendril cellars after blind tasting

Everyone knows that the best part of the blind tasting is … unwrap! The moment of truth, pure and simple. Here are my notes for the tasting of the wines non-blind, 3 hours after the blind tasting (in the same order):

1 – 2015 Tendril Cellars Pretender Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $60, white Pinot Noir)
A bit darker color (golden)
Vanilla, butter
Plump, round, crisp acidity, acidity on the finish (very extensive), plump body.
8, excellent. Reminiscent of a nice Marsanne.

2 – 2015 Tendril Cellars Chardonnay Willamette Valley (13.5% ABV, $40)
Honey, gunflint, vanilla
Brioche, Granny Smith Apple, a touch of butter, clean acidity, excellent
8, outstanding.

 

3 – 2014 Tendril Cellars Extrovert Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $48)
Beautiful, classic, open Pinot, with cherries, sage, and plums.
Soft cherries and plums on the palate, clean acidity, sage, violets, delicious, wow
8, delicious.
8+/9-, a pure standout. Polished, velvety, seductive, like a light touch on the hand which makes your whole body to vibrate. More reminiscent of CA Pinot than dark and loaded

4 – 2014 Tendril Cellars TightRope Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (14.2% ABV, $64)
Very tight, espresso, licorice, blackberries
Beautiful, sweet fruit, noticeable tannins, very round, medium body, cherries and cherry pit.
8, excellent.
Complex nose of herbs and spices, exotic and unusual.
Wow, great power and complexity, not a typical Pinot, might be more of a Zinfandel or even Syrah profile. Needs time, lots more time.

5 – 2014 Tendril Cellars Pinot Noir Mount Richmond Single Vineyard Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $60)
Very unusual. Beets and caramel on the nose, with a touch of dark chocolate.
Blueberries and caramel on the palate, nice salinity, raspberries. Medium+ body. Excellent
8
Very ripe after 2 days been open (air pumped out). Beautiful palate, minerality-driven, cigar box, eucalyptus, tense, powerful. Can be mistaken for a Rioja of a nice caliber.

6 – 2014 Tendril Cellars C-Note Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $100, 100% Whole Cluster, 100% new oak)
Sublime. Can be described only via allegories, such a finesse. Dark chocolate and cherries. Excellent
Equally delicate on the palate, crisp acidity, bright, sweet plums, and tobacco. Outstanding.
8, excellent
Nose is incredible. First, you want to smell.this.wine.for.a.long.time.
Superb, elevated wine, complex, great finesse, and needs time. 8+

As you can tell, I failed miserably. I didn’t identify any of the wines – however, this was perfectly in line with my expectations. What was definitely interesting is that despite the four Pinot Noir wines been all from Oregon and at about the same age, they were absolutely, unquestionably, distinctly different – and strikingly delicious.

Of course, I extended the pleasure of tasting some of those wines over the few days, which is reflected in the tasting notes above.

 

Here you are, my friends. Blind tasting or not, the Tendril Cellars wines are worth seeking – the virtual tasting will simply not do it – these are the wines to experience. And if you need to choose only one, I can let you in on a secret (don’t tell anyone!) – the Extrovert was my favorite. Cheers!

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