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One on One with Winemaker: Steve Lutz of Lenné Estate

October 8, 2016 9 comments
Steve Lutz

Steve Lutz. Source: Lenné Estate

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 a 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.

lenné vineyard

Source: Lenné Estate

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.”

Lenne Vineyard

Source: Lenné Estate

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 the 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 maybe 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.

lenne-pinot-noir-willamette-valleyTime to taste some wine, isn’t it? I had an opportunity to taste Steve’s basic Pinot Noir, and I can tell you that left on the kitchen table, the bottle was gone in no time. Here are my notes:

2014 Lenné Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (14.2% ABV, $38)
C: Garnet
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.

Top Wines of 2014 – Second Dozen

December 30, 2014 5 comments

Clos Erasmus 2005Here we go again – another year is winding down in a mere 2 days. Thus the time has come to summarize all the great wine experiences of the 2014. It is always fun, and it is always a challenge – was that wine worthy of the “Top Wines” list? Or may be the other one? You know, this is my personal list, so trying to conduct a voting wouldn’t really help, it still will be up to me to decide. But at this point this is a tradition (no, I’m not looking for an easy play on the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge, where “Tradition” is an actual theme of the challenge #14) – I created the Top Wines lists in all the years this blog existed – here are are links for 2010, 2011, 2012 second dozen, 2012, 2013 second dozen and 2013 top – so 2014 will not be an exception.

Let’s make things clear. This list doesn’t have any technical merit. It doesn’t have any price merit. I’m not trying to be fair to all regions. The wines included into this “Top” list created an emotional connection. They were thought provoking. They made me to say “wow”, may be multiple times. And they created memories, they didn’t leave me indifferent. So in reality, this is the list of most memorable wines of 2014 – here, I said it.

For the past two years instead of being a “top dozen” list, the list rather includes two dozen of wines, and sometimes even a few more. I do get to taste a lot of wines throughout the year, so I don’t feel that I have to constrain the list to the 12 wines only – hence the two separate posts. Well, and I have to say that even for the memorable wines, the list is not all encompassing by any means. Lots and lots of very worthy wines were left outside of this list – but they all live on the pages of this blog. And the last few words about the information you will see below. If I wrote about the wine in the past, you will see a link. Also, in the past, I was requested a few times to provide the retail prices for the wine. I will gladly comply, where possible, however, there might be some unavoidable omissions.

Here we go:

24. 2012 Villa Bellangelo 1866 Reserve Riesling Finger Lakes ($32) – this probably was the best one out of the group of excellent wines from Villa Bellangelo and a number of other wineries from Finger Lakes. To be entirely honest, I chose this wine to rather represent my discovery of the Finger Lakes wine region as world-class wine producing area. I had a number of Finger Lakes wines in 2014, and they were simply one better than the other. This particular wine had a beauty of Riesling with all the restrained white fruit notes, supported by excellent minerality and acidity – just the wine you want to drink all the time.

23. 2010 Bodegas Rafael Cambra Soplo Valencia DO ($11, 100% Alicante Bouschet) – beautiful, powerful and playful. A unique grape, often used only for the blending, as it adds color, produced powerful and delicious wine.

22. 2007 Ferrari Perlé Trento DOC, Italy ($35) – simply delicious sparkling wine. If I would drink sparkling every day, Perlé would be one of the top contenders. Round and perfectly balanced in every drop.

21. 2010 Le Tourmentin Valais AOC, Switzerland ($NA, blend of Pinot Noir, Cornalin, Humagne Rouge, Syrah) – delicious old world wine – bright fruit and the wine cellar aromatics. Outstanding. Wish it would be available in US…

20. 2011 Navaherreros Blanco de Bernabeleva Vinos de Madrid DO ($14.99, 50% Roussanne, Albillo, Macabeo) – big, plump and balanced – ripe white fruit in the firm package, with minerality and baking spices complexity.

19. 2013 La Garagista Coup de Foudre White Pétillant Naturel, Vermont ($NA, 100% Brianna) – this was my first experience with Pétillant Naturel wines – sparkling wines where the first fermentation is finishing in the bottle. The wine was refreshing, with perfect minerality, and thought provoking, with each sip begging to take another. A great discovery of 2014.

18. 2011 Adega Pedralonga Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain ($22) – an incredibly sophisticated Albariño – lots of minerality, a fresh sea breeze, delicious fruit and perfectly balancing acidity – a beautiful and unique wine. You really have to try it for yourself – if you can find it.

17. 2010 Lenné Estate Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton AVA, Oregon ($45) – I had a number of delicious Oregon Pinot Noir wines, all of a great power and finesse, so it was really a learning experience. I chose Lenné to represent this discovery, as the wine was outstanding – different, dark, concentrated, with explicit minerality, herbs and perfect balance.

16. NV Mumm Napa Brut Prestige, California ($20) – a Champagne precision – acidity, elegance, touch of fresh apple, perfectly balanced. California Sparkling wines give a great run to Champagne for the money, and this Mumm sparkler is one of the best examples. Whatever you are celebrating, this wine will perfectly complement it.

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15. 2010 St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($45) – Delicious Cabernet Sauvignon, classic Napa Valley rendition – fruit forward but restrained enough to let the balance shine – tannins, acidity, fruit – everything in a perfect harmony.

14. 2007 Teixar Garnatxa Vella Montsant DO ($75) – a textbook Grenache. Dark chocolate, ripe fruit – all tightly put together on the firm, muscular body. A hedonistic pleasure.

13. 2005 Clos Terrasses Clos Erasmus Priorat DOCa ($1,000) – elegant, beautiful, tremendously complex – what else can I tell you? A delicious wine! I don’t get to drink Priorat wines too often, and much more rarely I drink the wines at this price level. However – and you don’t have to believe me – I was first simply blown away by the taste of this wine, and only then I learned about the cost, which is a result of 100 points Parker rating and practically an absence of this specific vintage on the market. Either way, I’m glad I got to taste it.

Before we part, one more note – the wines are numbered, but only for the purposes of the count itself – outside of the wine #1, which is the most memorable wine of the year, the number in the list doesn’t mean much. In other words, it doesn’t mean that I like wine #15 more than wine #20 – I’m sure you got my point.

Have you had any of these wines? What do you think of them?

To be continued…

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