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.
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
For many years, I was trying to start my garden. Every year I would order my tomato plants, some peppers, and some herbs, plant them and then meticulously make sure to water them on the regular basis and hope for the best. Every year my reward would be a nice rosemary and sage (basil would always die) and maybe 10 mediocre tomatoes from 8 or so plants.
This was the story until this year, when I built raised beds, got a perfect top soil, premixed with all the proper organic fertilizers, planted tomatoes and lots more, and still collect (it is October now) a nice daily harvest of tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers. The soil is the king, you know – that rich, soft, almost greasy dark goodness of the good dirt.
Don’t worry, this post is not about me and not about my amateur gardening escapades. Talking about wine, do you think the soil is important? Would you want the best possible soil for your vines, the richest and the most nutritious? Or would you believe that someone would purposefully choose the plot with the poorest possible soil, and plant there the vineyard of their dreams? Enters Steve Lutz, who did exactly that.
In the year 2000, after searching for the perfect vineyard site for 8 months, Steve Lutz climbed a steep hill on the outskirts of the town of Yamhill in Northern Oregon, and after an hour of negotiations became an owner of the plot where Lenné vineyard was planted. The chosen site had peavine soil, which is not all that rich in the nutrients. Couple that with the steep slope and no irrigation, and you got the ideal farming conditions, right?
In 2001, 11 acres of Pinot Noir vines were planted, consisting of 3 blocks (one Pinot Noir clone per block). In the first year, Steve lost 35% of his plantings. In 2003, the additional 2.5 acres were planted, only to lose practically all of it to the record heat in the same year. It was only in 2007 that Steve was able to harvest enough fruit to vinify individual Pinot Noir clones. Also in 2007, Steve opened the tasting room, and the rest of it is a history which you can read for yourself on Lenné Estate web site.
I had an opportunity to [virtually, of course] sit down with Steve and ask him a few questions – here is what came out of our conversation:
TaV: Before you purchased that parcel of land that became Lenné, what made you believe that that soil can produce great Pinot Noir wines?
SL: All great soils for growing grapes have low nutrient value that limits the vines vigor. The soil type I am on is classified as the poorest Ag soil in Yamhill County. I knew the shallow, low nutrient, sedimentary soil would produce smaller clusters and berries with more concentration.
TaV: It took you about 6 years (from 2001 to 2007) to get to any level of commercial success. How many times (if ever) you were ready to declare the project to be a failure?
SL: Well there was too much sweat equity and personal money involved to turn back, but after we planted a 2.5 acre block in 2003 (one of the hottest springs ever) and lost all of it, we came close.
TaV: The soil at Lenné sounds it can produce some other interesting wines – have you thought about planting grapes other than Pinot Noir, let’s say Syrah?
SL: Well, we have grafted some Pinot to Chardonnay and have thought about grafting a little over to Gewurztraminer. The issue is that you can’t do much because it isn’t economically viable. We do have a neighbor that grows syrah which I find interesting but it’s a little like swimming upstream; cool weather Syrah is fascinating with bottle age but a hard sell young.
TaV: Outside of your own wines, what is your most favorite wine what you ever tasted?
SL: Well, years ago I had all the DRC wines about a half a dozen times and those would have to be my favorites.
TaV: Looking at the names of your wines, I’m assuming Jill’s 115 and Eleanor’s 114 are named after your daughters?
SL: No, Jill is my mother in law who lives in England and Eleanor is named after my late mother. We also have a wine called Karen’s Pommard named after my wife.
TaV: Along the same lines, I’m sure there should be a story behind the name of “Kill Hill”?
SL: Yes, that is the most shallow, stressed soil in the vineyard and we had many dead vines when we planted there in spite of burning out a clutch on a tractor trying to keep them watered the first year. I always referred to it as “kill hill” because of all the mortality. When we finally got it established I decided to blend the two clones there (114 and 667) and call it “Kill Hill.”
TaV: You are teaching a class for the wine consumers on Dundee Hills and Yamhill-Carlton District soils, Red and Black, which includes blind tasting. How often do your students identify the wines correctly to the type of soil?
SL: Probably about 70% of the time.
TaV: Do you plan to expand the vineyard in the future?
SL: No, we have planted most of which is plantable.
TaV: If you are to expand the vineyard, would you ever consider planting white grapes, such as Pinot Gris or Chardonnay?
SL: Refer to above.
TaV: I understand that you are using low intervention, dry farming. Do you have any plans to obtain any certifications, such as LIVE, or maybe even going all the way into biodynamics?
SL: We are looking at the LIVE program right and I have thought about experimenting with biodynamics though I think some of the practices are more about marketing than having anything to do with good farming practices.
TaV: I’m really curious about particular significance of “11 months in oak” which seems all of your wines are going through. Why exactly 11 months? Do you ever change the duration of time the wine spends in oak based on the qualities of the particular vintage?
SL: No, not really. The practice is based partially on practicality in that we like to get the wines out of the barrel before harvest. But having said that my philosophy is to get the wines in the bottle as intact as possible. Letting them sit in oak for extended periods of time leads to oxidation. Pinot is very sensitive to oxidation and I would rather put it in the bottle with as much of a reflection of the vineyard as possible and let what happens in the bottle happen. Some vintages could benefit in terms of mouthfeel with extended barrel aging, but they will get that in the bottle and have less oxidation than if you gave them extended barrel age.
TaV: If you would have an opportunity to “do over”, would you choose any other location for your winery, or may be more generally, what would you do differently?
SL: I would do a lot of things differently in terms of the way we started, attention to detail in terms of farming the first year. We were in such a hurry to put the plants in the ground that we didn’t have our farming practices completely dialed in with the right equipment. As far as the site I can honestly say there is not another 21 acre site in Oregon that I would even think about trading my site for. The one thing we got completely right was finding the site.
2014 Lenné Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (14.2% ABV, $38)
N: Smoke, lavender, ripe blackberries, medium intensity
P: tart cherries, fresh, vibrant acidity, firm tannins and firm structure, earthiness, excellent balance
V: 8-, very good wine, food friendly, will evolve with time
Here you are, my friends – another story of Passion and Pinot – now it is all about the soil and believing in yourself. We are not done yet, so until the next time – 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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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
- Don Hagge of Vidon Vineyard
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
“You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to work hard, if you want anything at all” – one of my favorite lines from the song by Depeche Mode, a popular electronic music band from the 80s. Yes, the notion of ‘working hard” is half banal, half extreme, and half misunderstood (I’m sure you are admiring my math skills here with three halves, aren’t you). People often (mostly?) achieve the best results when faced with adversity, when they need to overcome something, work against difficult circumstances, work hard. Give people everything they want – and they stop growing. Vines are like people. When water and sun are plentiful, the vines can produce a lot of grapes – but those individual grapes can be pretty dull. When the vines need to fight for survival, those much fewer grapes the vines will bear, will have the flavor and finesse almost unachievable in the “nice and easy” setting.
When Steve Lutz, the proprietor and winemaker at Lenné Estate in Yamhill-Carlton district in Willamette Valley in Oregon, planted the Pinot Noir vines for the first time back in 2001, 35% of those vines died. Ever heard of Peavine soils? In today’s age of internet, you can easily learn anything you want – so if you want the exact definition of Peavine, you can find it here. But, in the simple terms, Peavine is a mixture of clay and rocks – yeah, not your ideal agricultural setting. So the vines had to work hard to survive, go deep into the soil to find water and nutrients. The payback for all the hard work? A great fruit, the grapes which render themselves to the complex and intriguing wines.
Last Wednesday, April 9th, I participated in my second #winechat – a guided virtual tasting which takes place most of the Wednesdays at 6 PM Pacific/9 PM Eastern, in the Twittersphere next to you. The theme of the wine chat was, as I’m sure you guessed already, the wines of Leniné Estate. Steve Lutz was participating in the #winechat, explaining about Peavine soils, talking about his Pinot Noir wine and answering numerous questions (#winechat conversations get generally quite active, with #winechat being among top trending topics on Twitter).
In addition to been able to talk to the passionate people with vast knowledge of the subject, what I personally like about the #winechat is that I get to spend dedicated time in my grape geek setting, my grape laboratory. I get to play with the wine and take detailed notes. Coming to the Lenné Pinot Noir tasting, I read in the technical notes that the wine is expected to age well for the next 8-12 years. To me, the immediate thought was – let’s decant!
2 hours later, we started the #winechat – 2010 Lenné Estate Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton AVA, Oregon (14% ABV, $45). I started with the wine in the bottle, which was at 21°C/70°F.
Color: Dark Ruby
Nose: Smoke, raspberries, touch of mint, nice, open
Palate: Beautiful sweet fruit in the back, touch of dark chocolate.
Next, I made a big mistake. I decided that I need to chill my Pinot Noir slightly, so I put the wine chiller on. Of course I got carried away with the chat twitter stream, so when I said “oh, crap” and removed the chiller, after about 5 minutes on the bottle, it was already too late. At 12°C/53.6°F, the nose became completely muted, and wine became mostly sweet with some acidity, but the complexity was gone. For the rest of the chat, I kept waiting for the wine to come back to me – chilling is easy, but you can’t play any tricks with warming the wine up, you just have to let air to do its [slow] magic. At 16.2°C/61.1°F , the classic nose came back, together with the palate of cherries and ripe strawberries. Meanwhile, the decanted wine also played in somewhat of a strange way – the wine was showing smooth and elegant – but every sip was leaving me wanting more acidity.
The #winechat was over, so I pumped the air out with VacuVin (my standard routine) , and put the bottle aside, to be continued the next day. And the next day – without decanting or any temperature games – the wine was shining! Beautiful nose of cranberries and cherries, with touch of smoke and barnyard – call it funkiness or earthiness, I call it barnyard – just a touch. Beautiful palate with acidity, strawberries and cranberries in the front, then soft, but very present tannins started to gently grip the front of the mouth, and mocha and sweet cherries showed in the back, with pleasant minerality. The finish was lasting almost a minute. Overall this was the perfect example of balance and finesse which may be only Pinot Noir is capable of.
Verdict: this was beautiful wine, which can be enjoyed now (just don’t do anything stupid with the temperature), but will deliver even more pleasure with time. Drinkability: 8+
That’s all I have for you for today. Now you know – Wine Wednesday is always better with #winechat – join the conversation! Cheers!