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Stories of Passion and Pinot: Looking Back and Looking Forward

February 15, 2017 6 comments

Back during the fall of the last year, I ran a series of posts talking about passion and Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is a finicky grape which, I can only guess, has some enchanting properties – for the winemakers and wine lovers alike. Pinot Noir has an ability to grab you and never let you go – once discovered, it becomes an object of obsessive desire: winemakers go out of their way to make the best Pinot Noir wine, and oenophiles go out of their way to find it.

To give you the best examples of Pinot Noir’s passion and obsession, I decided to [virtually] sat down with a pioneer, a rocket scientist, a soil fanatic, biodynamic believer and some true farmers – all of them from Oregon. Through our conversations, I wanted to convey the unwavering belief in the magic of that little black grape, Pinot Noir.

We talked with Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars, David Nemarnik of Alloro Vineyard, Mike Bayliss of Ghost Hill Cellars, Wayne Bailey of Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Steve Lutz of Lenné Estate and Don Hagge of Vidon Vineyard – the passion was easy to see, through their words and through their wines.

The essential Pinot Noir map includes four major players – Burgundy, California, New Zealand and Oregon. Out of these four, Oregon usually beats Burgundy in consistency, and often California and New Zealand in finesse. That consistency and finesse don’t go unnoticed – and not only by wine consumers but by the big domestic and international wine businesses and investors as well. Big businesses are great, but – they are, first and foremost, big businesses – and passion is often replaced just by pragmatic business needs and shareholders value.

The wine quality and creativity is on the upswing around the world, and while consumers are driving this trend with an ever increasing thirst for the wine, nothing can be taken for granted – the wines have to find the consumers, and convince them that they are worth paying for.

The big business interest and more and better wines – what does it mean for the Oregon wine industry, the passion and the Pinot Noir? To answer this question, I asked once again for the help of Carl Giavanti of Carl Giavanti Consulting, wine marketing and PR firm, who reached out to the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. As you can imagine, I had more than one question, so here I would like to share with you what I have learned.

Passion and Pinot series photo collage

First three questions were answered by Anthony King, 2017 President of WVWA Board of Directors and General Manager of the Carlton Winemaker’s Studio:

[TaV]: Willamette Valley squarely joined the ranks of world-class wine regions. Does it mean that everything is great, or you still have big issues to solve on your agenda?

[AK]: Willamette Valley is certainly on the rise and we are all thankful for the attention. Our biggest issue is to continue to share the spotlight with the other classic regions of the world without losing our roots, our authenticity, and collaborative spirit.

[TaV]: It seems that lately big corporations are paying lots of attention for the WV wineries – or rather money, as for example, Jackson Family which acquired 3 WV wineries over a short period of time. Are you concerned with this development? Do you think it might change the soul and spirit of WV wines?

[AK]: Most of us are flattered by the attention that our wines, vineyards, and wineries have been getting from producers all over the world. JFW, in specific, has invested heavily, but have done so with a soft touch and an eye towards the community and their neighbours. In the end, the region will have diversity that consumers will ultimately benefit by. Our hope, however, is that this interest doesn’t drive vineyard and fruit prices into a range that makes the hands-on artisan winemaking that has made Oregon so special too expensive for entry.

[TaV]: There are many white grapes which can be called “next frontier” for the WV wineries – Pinot Gris (yes, okay, this is an old news), Chardonnay, even Riesling. However, if we look at the red grapes, WV wineries are a “one trick pony”, only working with Pinot Noir. Do you see any problems with that? is there a next big red grape for the WV, or is it not necessary?

[AK]: Great question. I don’t think that any of us, as winemakers, regret that we are working with Pinot noir in such an ideal locale. It presents a lifetime of challenges and, hopefully, rewards. Although much more rare, Gamay can be thrilling and has been successful planted alongside Pinot noir. Syrah, too, has a lot of potential, making compelling, Northern Rhone style reds in warmer years. Cooler-climate Italian reds could have potential as well. We’ve already seen an increase in planting of these “other reds,” but the more dramatic shift is (as you mentioned) towards focusing on whites and sparkling wine, which are very well suited to this climate. Ultimately, I foresee increased experimentation with a range of red varieties in the warmer sites in the Willamette Valley in the short-term; time and the weather will tell what succeeds.

The rest of the questions were answered by Emily Nelson, Associate Director for Willamette Valley Wineries Association.

[TaV]: What percentage of WV wineries are LIVE certified? Do you see this number dropping, increasing, staying the same?

[EN]: In 2016, there are 13,170 Oregon vineyard acres certified sustainable, which is 48% of total planted acres in the state. 8,218 acres are LIVE Certified, which is 30% of total planted acres. We do see the number of certified sustainable vineyard acres increasing year after year. As the home of the nation’s most protective land use policies, the first bottle recycling law, and the highest minimum wages for farm workers, it’s fitting that the Oregon wine industry is committed to sustainable farming and winemaking practices.
For LIVE Certified acres in particular, the number has increased annually from 2,368 acres in 2007 to 8,218 acres today.

[TaV]:  How important is Biodynamic viticulture for the WV wine industry? Do you see more wineries embracing it?

[EN]: Biodynamic viticulture in Oregon has also steadily increased over the years, from 289 certified acres in 2007 to 1,585 certified acres today. It is an important component of our sustainable character in the region, reinforcing our belief that agriculture in general and viticulture in particular can flourish in harmony with our natural environment. In general, Demeter Biodynamic certification is in accord with many practices that characterize the certification of organic farms. However, certain practices are unique to Biodynamic agriculture, including managing the whole farm as a living organism; maintenance of a healthy, diverse ecosystem that includes not only the earth, but as well the cosmic influences and rhythms of which the earth is a part; and use of the Biodynamic preparations to build soil health through enlivened compost.

[TaV]: Are there any new wineries showing up in the WV? If yes, is there a trend there (more than the last 5/10 years, less than the last 5/10 years, the same?

[EN]: Yes! Our number of wineries in the region has climbed over the last five to ten years. We had about 110 wineries in the Willamette Valley in the year 2000. By 2010 that had more than doubled to 300 wineries. And now in 2016 our most recent census shows 531 wineries in the region. People are drawn to grape growing and winemaking here for many of the same reasons that brought our pioneers in the 1960s—unique climate and soils ideally suited to Pinot noir and a wine industry culture that celebrates collaboration, inventiveness, and land stewardship.

[TaV]: Do you see a lot of foreign capital coming into the WV winemaking industry (buying, partnering, starting new wineries)? Again, is there a trend?

[EN]: There is a trend of outside investment in the Willamette Valley wine industry, and it speaks to the quality of the wines being produced here. We see Burgundian investors who’ve found the New World home of Pinot noir, as well as those from Washington and California who are expanding their premium Pinot noir brands with Willamette Valley wines.

[TaV]: Last question – are there any new and coming, or may be old but coming around wineries wine lovers should watch for? Anything which makes you particularly excited?

[EN]: We’re particularly excited about a few things here: first, many of our pioneering wineries are handing the reigns down to second generation winegrowers and owners. The children who grew up in the vineyards and cellars of the wineries who put our region on the map are now at the helm. They continue to innovate and improve, so watching their brands and their wines flourish and evolve is a thrill. Second, we’re excited about the Burgundian presence in the Valley. French winemakers who come here to experience the Oregonian version of their time-honored grape offer unique expressions of the wines and outside confirmation that there’s something really special happening here. Lastly, we’re excited about new winemakers just entering the industry, who contribute a vibrant sense of experimentation and energy to the Valley.

All the good things come to an end, so this was the last of the conversations in the Passion and Pinot series – for now, at least. As I said before, Pinot Noir has some very special properties, making people fall in love with it and not letting them go. And whether you agree or disagree – you know what to do. Until the next time – cheers!

P.S. Once again, here are the links to the web sites for the wineries profiled in this series:

Alloro Vineyard: www.allorovineyard.com
Ghost Hill Cellars: www.ghosthillcellars.com
Ken Wright Cellars: www.kenwrightcellars.com
Lenné Estate: www.lenneestate.com
Youngberg Hill Vineyards: www.youngberghill.com
Vidon Vineyard: www.vidonvineyard.com

 

Stories of Passion and Pinot: David Nemarnik of Alloro Vineyard

October 15, 2016 2 comments
Winegrower and Proprietor David Nemarnik and winemaker Tom Fitzpatrick

David Nemarnik and Tom Fitzpatrick. Source: Alloro Vineyard

Let’s say you are looking for the site to plant the vineyard of your dreams. After many years of research, you finally find what you were looking for – it should be perfect. And so the site you find is located on Laurel Ridge, and it has Laurelwood soils. Now assume you have an Italian heritage: how would you call your vineyard? What do you think of “Alloro Vineyard”? Alloro is an Italian for “laurel”, so it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

For sure it did for David Nemarnik, who was born into a Croatian – Italian family, and he was the one who started looking for the good vineyard site in Oregon in the late 1980s and finally purchased one in 1999 – and yes, named it Alloro Vineyard. First Pinot Noir vines were planted in 1999, and the first vintage was 2002. In addition to the Pinot Noir, the varietal line-up today also includes Chardonnay and Riesling.

Alloro Vineyard is a lot more than just a vineyard. Actually, the vineyard occupies only 33 acres out of the 80 acres estate, and the whole estate is a full-blown farm, with cattle, sheep, chicken and gardens. Altogether, it became a holistic habitat, where growing grapes and making wines is simply part of the lifestyle, perfectly attuned to David’s family traditions. The vineyard is sustainably farmed, L.I.V.E. certified sustainable and certified Salmon-Safe. To top that off, David installed solar panels on the property, and now generates 100% of the electricity he needs for all the operations.

I had an opportunity to [yes, virtually] sit down with David and ask him a few questions, and here is what transpired from our conversation:

Alloro Winery, Chehalem Mountain AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Alloro Winery, Chehalem Mountain AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Source: Alloro Vineyard

TaV: Having Italian roots and memories of winemaking in Italy, have you ever thought of planting some of the Italian varietals? Moreover, Croatia also offers some interesting and unique grapes – how about those?

DN: I grew up with an Italian-American mother and grandmother who were all about family meals, which also  always included wine.  Not the high-end stuff, we are talking Familia Cribari Red Table Wine.  My father was Croatian and born just outside of Triesta Italy.  Family visits to my father’s village  impressed upon me a lifestyle of artisan food and wine production.  There was the home-made prosciutto and sausage, farm raised grain for bread, corn for polenta, and of course wine and grappa.

I love Nebbiolo and the wonderful Barolo and Babaresco wines of Piedmonte.  If I were to plant an Italian varietal it would be Nebbiolo.  I was recently in Piedmonte and observed the grapes were at about the same stage of development as our own Pinot Noir vineyard here in Oregon.  It would be fun to put in an acre or two.  Learning and trying new things is part of what keeps this winegrowing business fun!

TaV: Why Riesling? This is not a very common grape for Oregon – how did you decide to plant Riesling? In a blind tasting with German, Alsatian, Finger Lakes and Australian Riesling, where do you think people would most likely place your Riesling?

DN: Years ago in the mid-nineties I was making wine in my garage for family and friends.  This was mostly Cabernet and Zinfandel.  A friend of mine who was making wine in his apartment bedroom closet finally was given an ultimatum from his wife that led him to join me in my garage.  He turned me on to Riesling.  I really like Riesling’s versatility, dry, off dry, and sweet.  So it was a natural to plant my own Riesling and make an estate wine.

TaV: Any expansion plans for the vineyards? May be some new grapes outside of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay?

DN: Well we recently planted a new 5 acre block that is mostly Chardonnay with the balance Pinot noir.  I planted this on the east side of the road for a different exposure and aspect.  We also have our Riesling and a small block of Muscat.  So we currently have 33 acres planted out of 130 acres total.  I’m sure at some point I’ll plant more grapes, perhaps that small block of Nebbiolo.

TaV: You produced your first vintage in 2002, so starting from that year, what was your most difficult vintage for Pinot Noir and why?

DN:  The most difficult vintage for me was 2011.  2011 was the coolest year with the least amount of heat units since I started farming grapes in 1999.  Bud break and bloom were 3-4 weeks later than our average year.  We had a very cool summer and by early October we still had not fully completed veraison and were worried the fruit would not have time to ripen sufficiently.  We did everything we could, thinned to one cluster, pulled leaves on both sides, and prayed.  Thankfully we had an incredible October with dry and sunny weather.  In the end, we made some really nice wine.

Alloro Tuscan Vineyard

Source: Alloro Vineyard

Terrazzaa at Alloro Vineyard

Terrazza view. Source: Alloro Vineyard

TaV:  Continuing the previous question , what was your most favorite vintage and why

DN: My favorite vintage in the cellar is our 2010.  What started off as a cool growing year transitioned to a mostly dry summer with mild temperatures leading to great conditions during that critical month of ripening  prior to harvest.  The wines are elegant and complex with a wonderful balance of red and dark fruit.

TaV: You operate not just a vineyard, but also a farm , a whole habitat with lots of things happening. I’m sure you had plenty of funny stories over the years – do you care to share some of them?

DN: Yes, Alloro is really a sustainable whole farm that includes raising hay for our cattle and sheep, as well as an extensive garden, hazelnuts, and numerous fruit trees.  We compost manure from our cattle barn that is then spread on our fields as a natural fertilizer.  We have a strong food culture that I would say is aligned with the Slow Food and Locavore folks.

One funny story has us picking strawberries in the garden.  My chocolate lab named Abby disappears for a while and then returns with my neighbor’s Chinese runner duck in her mouth.  The duck with its long neck sticking out of Abby’s mouth seems perfectly calm as she proudly brings me the duck.  I carefully take the duck back to her owner’s pen…it never happened…

TaV:  I’m assuming you produce your top of the line “Justina” Pinot Noir only in the best years – how many times have you produced it so far?

DN:  Our Justina is a very special barrel selection.  Although a blend of multiple barrels, it is a barrel equivalent (or 25 cases).  Before any other barrel selections are made, we comb through every barrel looking for the very best of the vintage.  Within the context of the vintage, our Justina has the most weight; the broadest, densest, finest, and most persistent texture; the most complex aromas; and typically a higher percentage of new oak.  We have produced this wine every year since 2010.

TaV:  You get all your power from the solar energy. Was the winery designed like that from the very beginning, or did you install solar panels at some point later on?

DN:  The winery was completed in time for our 2003 vintage.  The solar panels were installed in 2008 as part of the Oregon Business Energy Tax System program.  Our goal was to invest in a green sustainable energy source.

TaV: Which are more difficult to tend for – the vines or your farm animals?

DN:  Oh, by FAR the vines!!

TaV: You produce White, Rosé, Red and Dessert wines. The only one which is missing is Sparkling wines. Any plans to produce your own sparkling wines?

DN: Possibly, if we were to add one new wine to our lineup, this would be it.  We love bubbles!

TaV:  When you are not drinking your own wines, what are your favorites from Oregon or around the world, both for whites and the reds?

DN: To be honest, I wish I spent more time visiting and tasting the many well made wines produced here in our state.  When I go to industry tastings I am always amazed at the overall quality.  I am really excited about Oregon Chardonnay and what seems to be an explosion of well made sparkling wines.   Outside of Oregon, I am a Barolo and Barbaresco fan.

Alloro Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir

Of course our conversation would be incomplete without tasting David’s wine. I had an opportunity to try his estate Pinot Noir and here are the notes:

2014 Alloro Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate Chehalem Mountains Oregon (14.1% ABV, $35)
C: dark Ruby
N: earthy smoky plums with licorice, open, medium intensity
P: sweet red fruit, licorice, touch of sage, espresso and mocca, excellent acidity, nice “meaty” undertones, medium long finish
V: 8, the wine has a lot of finesse, nice Burgundian style. Will evolve.

Source: Alloro Vineyard

Source: Alloro Vineyard

Believe it or not, but our Passion and Pinot journey is almost over. 6 winemakers, 6 stories of Passion – and Pinot, of course. I’m not saying good bye yet – Oregon is one of the hottest winemaking areas today in the USA, and with lots happening, I want to take another look at what we learned here and what might lay ahead. So I’m finishing the post with the rhetorical “stay tuned”… Is it Pinot time yet?  Cheers!

To be continued…

P.S. This post is a part of the “Stories of Passion and Pinot” series <- click the link for more stories.

Stories of Passion and Pinot

September 1, 2016 25 comments

It is easy to declare this grape a king. It is a lot more difficult to have people agree to and support such a designation. And here I am, proclaiming Pinot Noir worthy of the kingship, despite the fact that this title is typically associated with Barolo (made from Nebbiolo grape) or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Barolo might be a king, why not – but its production is confined strictly to Italy, and can be considered minuscule in terms of volume. Cabernet Sauvignon is commanding attention everywhere – but I would argue that it is more because of the ease of appeal to the consumer and thus an opportunity to attach more dollar signs to the respective sticker. Don’t get me wrong – I love good Cabernet Sauvignon as much or more than anyone else, but having gone through so many lifeless editions, I developed a healthy dose of skepticism in relation to this noble grape.

Pinot Noir Vidon Vineyards

Pinot Noir grapes. Source: Vidon Vineyard

Talking about Pinot Noir, I’m not afraid to again proclaim it a king. If anything, it is a king of passion. Hard to grow – finicky grape, subject to Mother Nature tantrums, prone to cloning, susceptible to grape diseases – and nevertheless passionately embraced by winemakers around the world refusing to grow anything else but this one single grape – year in, year out.

Historically, Pinot Noir was associated with Burgundy – where the love of the capricious grape originated, and where all the old glory started. Slowly but surely, Pinot Noir spread out in the world, reaching the USA, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentina – and even Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada and South Africa are included in this list. Looking at the USA, while the grape started in California, it then made it into Oregon, and now started showing along the East Coast, particularly in Hudson Valley.

I don’t know what makes winemakers so passionate about Pinot Noir. For one, it might be grape’s affinity to terroir. Soil almost always shines through in Pinot Noir – it is no wonder that Burgundians treasure their soil like gold, not letting a single rock escape its place. While soil is a foundation of the Pinot Noir wines, the weather would actually define the vintage – Pinot Noir is not a grape easily amended in the winery. But when everything works, the pleasures of a good glass of Pinot might be simply unmatched.

However important, terroir alone can’t be “it”. Maybe some people are simply born to be Pinot Noir winemakers? Or maybe this finicky grape has some special magical powers? Same as you, I can’t answer this. But – maybe we shouldn’t guess and simply ask the winemakers?

Willamette Valley in Oregon is truly a special place when it comes to the Pinot Noir. Similar to the Burgundy, Pinot Noir is “it” – the main grape Oregon is known for. It is all in the terroir; soil is equally precious, and the weather would make the vintage or break it. And passion runs very strong – many people who make Pinot Noir in Oregon are absolutely certain that Oregon is the only place, and Pinot Noir is the only grape. I’m telling you, it is one wicked grape we are talking about.

Youngberg Hill Vineyards Aerial Photo

Aerial view of Oregon vineyards. Source: Youngberg Hill Vineyards

I see your raised eyebrow and mouse pointer heading towards that little “x”, as you are tired of all the Pinot Noir mysticism I’m trying to entangle you in. But let me ask for a few more minutes of your time – and not even today, but over the next few weeks.

You see, I was lucky enough to have a conversation (albeit virtual) with few people who combined Pinot and Passion in Oregon, and can’t see it any other way. What you will hear might surprise you, or maybe it will excite you enough to crave a glass of Oregon Pinot Noir right this second, so before you hear from a pioneer, a farmer, a NASA scientist and a few other passionate folks, do yourself a favor – make sure you have that Pinot bottle ready. Here are the people you will hear from:

I would like to extend a special note of gratitude to Carl Giavanti of Carl Giavanti Consulting, wine marketing and PR firm, who was very instrumental in making all these interviews possible.

As I publish the posts, I will link them forward (one of the pleasures and advantages of blogging), so at the end of the day, this will be a complete series of stories. And with this – raise a glass of Pinot Noir – and may the Passion be with you. Cheers!

P.S. Here are the links to the web sites for the wineries profiled in this article:

Alloro Vineyard: www.allorovineyard.com
Ghost Hill Cellars: www.ghosthillcellars.com
Ken Wright Cellars: www.kenwrightcellars.com
Lenné Estate: www.lenneestate.com
Youngberg Hill Vineyards: www.youngberghill.com
Vidon Vineyard: www.vidonvineyard.com