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
Nothing is simple around wine for us, oenophiles, right? We need to meticulously arrange proper experiences – perfectly match wine with food, with the company, with the mood, with the moment. If we don’t, we question ourselves to eternity – what would’ve happened if I would’ve open that other bottle I had in mind; should’ve I just plan it all differently?
But every once in a while, we let our guards down, and let things just happen. When we think about it right after, we realize – wow, totally random, and totally delightful. Yay!
That “random and delightful” was my experience yesterday. My plan was to open a bottle of wine from 1998, and I have a very small selection of those, so the one I picked happened to be a Burgundy. So that one was a special bottle, waiting for the evening and the decanter.
I can’t cook without the wine, so of course, the bottle had to be opened. The “before Thanksgiving” shipment from Field Recordings contained more than one interesting bottle – the one I told you about already was Pét Nat from California. Another bottle I never saw before had a bold Nouveau word printed across shiny, golden label:
I’m an avid fan of the “Beaujolais Nouveau” phenomenon. But I have to admit that a few years back, I tasted few of the attempts by California wineries to join the Nouveau movement, and those were widely unsuccessful.
So how would Field Recordings’ Nouveau rendition fare? Actually, spectacularly. As the label says, the grapes for this wine were hand-harvested only 74 days prior to the bottling. And nevertheless, the wine had all the finesse you expect from the perfectly balanced California Pinot Noir. This 2016 Field Recordings Nouveau California (12.1% ABV, 100% Pinot Noir) had lean, uplifting nose of fresh fruit, but less fruity than typical Nouveau, nothing grapey. On the palate, unmistakably Californian, touch of smoke with fresh plums and a bit of mint. Good acidity, more round than a typical French Nouveau version, perfectly drinkable. 8+. Outstanding, in a word. Would happily drink it again any day.
Remember I told you this was one of the days when things are just happening? I have a good number of bottles in the cellar, but absolute majority of the bottles are in the single amounts – just one bottle of particular wine from particular vintage, and that’s it. Thus sometimes, I spend good 20 minutes trying to select a bottle (in the fear of missing on what it can evolve into) and end up pouring myself a splash of Scotch instead. But yesterday, I had enough courage to grab a bottle of the wine which might be the only bottle in the US – unless someone also has good friends in Switzerland.
This wine was made by the family producer in Vaud region in Switzerland, Henri Cruchon, who I had pleasure meeting about 6 years ago. What makes it special is that this wine, called Nihilo, is not filtered, made from organic grapes, and doesn’t have any added sulfites. To preserve the wine better, the cork is covered in wax. And to be entirely correct, the wine goes beyond organic, as the back label sports Demeter logo, which means that the winery is certified biodynamic.
It is great to know that the wine is non-filtered and organic – but the ultimate verdict is in the glass. This 2015 Henri Cruchon Nihilo La Côte AOC Switzerland (13.5% ABV, blend of Pinot Noir, Gamay and Gamaret) had a spectacular nose, very complex – iodine, anise, crunchy cherries, mint. The palate was equally spectacular with sweet cherries, pepper, roasted notes, peppermint, crispy, fresh blackberries – once you start, you can’t stop. 8+/9-, outstanding wine.
And then there was 1998 Patrick Lesec Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes (13% ABV) – an 18 years old Burgundy wine, as Pinot Noir as it can be.
18 years shouldn’t be an age for Burgundy, but I still was a bit concerned. Decided to decant the wine, to avoid sediment and let it breathe a bit, for about an hour. I’m clearly abusing the word “spectacular” in this post, but this is what this wine was. Touch of barnyard on the nose, on the palate – gunflint, smokey cherries, roasted meat, lots of herbs – oregano, mint, sage – every sip was a “wow” experience. By the end of the evening, the wine mellowed out and started showing more of the sweet cherries, still perfectly balanced with acidity. A pure treat for sure. Drinkability: 9.
There you have it, my friends. An accidental and hugely enjoyable Pinot Noir deep immersion – from California to Switzerland to France – very different wines holding one common trait – delivering lots and lots of pleasure. Cheers!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What do you think of biodynamic winemaking? As an oenophile, do you embrace it or shrug it off?
Well, it is easy for us, oenophiles, to have an opinion, informed or uninformed – but then there are people who actually live by it, meaning – practice every day.
Biodynamics was born almost 100 years ago, in 1924, when German scientist, Rudolf Steiner, presented a course of 8 lectures on agriculture. At the core of the biodynamics is a holistic approach to the agricultural work, embracing the whole sustainable, natural ecosystem – akin modern day organic agriculture. However, biodynamics goes further and adds what many perceive as voodoo element – bladders, intestines, skulls and many other “strange” items play role in the full biodynamics approach, and that puts a lot of people on offensive.
I’m sure at this point you are probably looking back at the title of this post and trying to figure out what biodynamics has to do with promised winemaker’s interview? In 2003, Wayne Bailey purchased the vineyard in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, called Youngberg Hill. The Youngberg Hill vineyard was planted in 1989 by Willamette Valley pioneer, Ken Wright, and it produced its first vintage in 1996. When Wayne Bailey was looking for the property to buy, Youngberg Hill was recommended to him as the place which has “good vibrations” – and rest is now a history. These “good vibrations” also set Wayne on the path for the holistic farming, starting with all organic in 2003 and upgrading to biodynamic farming in 2011 – and this is why you had to get the refresher course on what the biodynamics is.
Lots of things are happening at Youngberg Hill Vineyards today, but I will let you read about it on your own, as now I would like to share with you my [virtual] conversation with Wayne Bailey:
TaV: First vineyards were planted on Youngberg Hill in 1989. How much did you have to change between then and now?
YHC: Those 11 acres continue to produce and are healthier now than 14 years ago as a result of switching to organic and biodynamic farming practices. We have planted four additional acres of Pinot Noir in 2008 and five acres of Pinot Gris in 2006. In 2014 we grafted over half of the Pinot Gris to Chardonnay.
TaV: 1996 was the first vintage at Youngberg Hill. Have you had an opportunity to taste those wines?
YHC: Yes. The only vintage I have not had was the 1997. I had a few bottles of ’96, ‘98’, ’99 that were part of our purchase.
TaV: What do you think of them?
YHC: They were very good and reflected both the quality of the fruit coming off the hill and the ageability of the wines.
TaV: Are there any of those wines still around?
YHC: I have 1 bottle of ’98 and a few 2000, etc.
TaV: Your first vintage was in 2003. How are those wines aging?
YHC: Only have a few bottles left, but had one only a couple of months ago that was beautiful. Aging very well and was still not showing signs of deterioration.
TaV: You produce Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from Youngberg Hill vineyards, and Chardonnay is on the way. Do you have plans for any other grapes (Tempranillo, Syrah,…)?
YHC: No, I am not convinced that we will see global warming impact us to the extent that we can consistently ripen big red varietals in my lifetime. That will be up to my daughters.
TaV: Do you have any plans to expand plantings beyond the 20 acres you have right now?
TaV: You went from traditional (whatever it was) farming to organic and now to biodynamic. How those transitions manifest themselves in wines? Can you taste them?
YHC: Yes. The fruit is much healthier coming out of the vineyard and into the winery, meaning that the fruit is much more balanced and more balanced ripening of the fruit across all parameters of ripeness. That shows up in the wine as higher quality (depth and complexity and balance) and more vibrancy as the wine ages in the bottle.
TaV: Is the day in the life of biodynamic farmer much different from the “traditional” one?
YHC: Yes, in that you spend more time walking the vineyards and knowing each plant more intimately.
TaV: Is going all the way to biodynamic worth the effort for the grapes and wines, or is it just better for the farmer’s soul and the environment?
YHC: All of the above. You grow healthier grapes which are of higher quality, resulting in better wines. At the same time the soil and plants are healthier and will sustain better in the long run and there is no negative effects to the environment.
TaV: Youngberg Hill might be the only winery (to my knowledge) producing Pinot Noir Port. How traditional is your Port in making and style? Would you compare it to any of the Porto wines? Do Pinot Noir grapes accumulate enough sugar to be made into the Port? Lastly, do you produce Port every year?
YHC: Our Pinot Port is slightly lighter in overall structure and a little drier, not because there was not enough sugar accumulation, but because I let primary fermentation go a little longer. The production process is the same and the style is similar except for the varietal characteristics. We do not produce every year. It depends on many factors related to the vintage.
TaV: What were your most favorite and most difficult vintages at Youngberg Hill and why?
YHC: Of past vintages, 2005 and 2010 are two of my favorites for their balance, elegance, and complexity. However, 2005 was significantly reduced in quantity due to mildew; and 2010 was greatly reduced in yield due to the birds. 2015 may become my best vintage to date (currently in barrel).
TaV: When the Youngberg Hill is called a “good hill”, is this more of a gut feeling, or is it more of a specific terroir parameters – soil, climate, wind, temperature range etc.
YHC: Both. It is good from the standpoint that the terroir is excellent for growing Pinot Noir; higher altitude, marine sedimentary and basalt soils, southeast facing slope, altitude change from 500 to 800 feet, coastal breezes coming off the coast, cooler temperatures both day and night, etc. but also the peace, serenity, isolation, aquafer, underground water, and much more “natural” setting also attribute to the “good hill”.
TaV: As a biodynamic farmer I presume you are well attuned with Mother Nature. From 2003 to now, do you see the material effects of the climate change? Do you take this into account with the grape growing and wine production?
YHC: Having been in agriculture throughout my life, I have experienced the 20 year cycle of hot and colder temperatures, so I believe in another couple of years we will see temperatures going down again. However, over the long term (hundreds and thousands of years) the earth is getting warmer and the highs and lows are tending to be more extreme along with weather incidents. Does it impact my grape growing practices? No.
Hope you are still with me, and it is the time for some wine, right?
We have an open conversation among friends here, so I will dare to confess an interesting experience. I opened the bottle of Youngberg Hill Pinot (screwtop), poured a glass. Swirl, sniff, sip – nothing to write home about. Swirl more intensely, another sip – just a touch of acidity and not much else. I closed the bottle, put the wine aside and decided to give it a day. Before I tasted it the second day, my thought was – please, please, please – if the wine the same as the previous day, this post is going to be published without the tasting notes. Luckily, the wine evolved dramatically, so I’m happy to share my tasting notes with you:
2013 Youngberg Hill Pinot Noir Cuvée Willamette Valley (13% ABV, $35)
C: dark Ruby
N: lavender, cherries, earth, fresh, open, medium intensity
P: first day was very tight; sweet red fruit showed up on the second day, bright acidity, vibrant, firm structure, good concentration, dark powdery medium-long finish. Still delicious on the third day, so definitely this wine can age.
V: 8/8+, well made wine, needs time to open, can age for another 10+ years
Here you are, my friends – another story of Passion and Pinot – with rocks, soils and a bit of biodynamics. 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.
Wine and mystery go hand in hand, don’t they? How about a little ghost story? Take a sip from your glass, and say it with me: “It was dark and stormy night…” – now take another sip – do you taste the difference between the first one and the second? So here is a little ghost story for you. Legend has it that during the Gold Rush in Oregon (1800s), the miner was on his way to Portland with the load of gold. He decided to set an overnight camp on top of the hill. During the night, someone got into the camp, killed the miner and took his gold. Ever since, the miner (his ghost, of course) is wandering around that hill, looking for his gold; quite appropriately, the hill became known as the Ghost Hill.
In 1906, brothers Daniel and Samuel Bayliss purchased about 230 acres of land around that Ghost Hill, and started their farm. That farm is now staying in the family now for 5 generations, with all the cattle, sheep, hay, wheat and clover growing there. Being in the heart of Willamette Valley, it is hardly possible not to catch the Pinot Noir bug. In 1999, the Bayliss-Bower Vineyard was planted with the Pinot Noir. The Oregon wine pioneer, Ken Wright, once asked Mike Bayliss if he would sell the vineyard and how much he would want for it – as you can guess, the answer was “no”.
I had an opportunity to [virtually] sit down with Mike Bayliss and Bernadette Bower, his daughter and 4th generation owner of Ghost Hill Cellars, and ask them a few questions – here is what transpired from our conversation:
TaV: Ghost Hill farm is 234 acres, and the Ghost Hill vineyard today is 16 acres – do you have any plans to expand it?
GHC: At the moment, we have no plans to expand, but we are not ruling out expansion. We will have to see what the future holds. We have 90 acres deemed plantable to Pinot Noir.
TaV: How did you come up with the idea of producing Pinot Noir Blanc? Did you see/hear someone else do this (or maybe you even tasted someone else’s wine), or was it a pure moment of bliss?
GHC: Actually, the idea of Pinot Noir Blanc came from our winemaker at the time Rebecca Shouldis. She was talking to a fellow winemaker from France who suggested a Pinot Noir Blanc for our younger plantings of 115. He told us that in France, half of champagne is usually Pinot Noir Blanc, so that would be a good white option for us. We agree, it has been very successful for us.
TaV: You use Pinot Noir to its full capacity, producing white, Rosé and red, all from the same grape. So the only type of wine which is probably missing is sparkling wine, for which Pinot Noir is perfectly suitable. Do you have any aspirations to start producing your own sparkling wine?
GHC: We have discussed it, but we have no plans to start production of a sparkling in the near future. Again, you never know what the future holds!
TaV: Did you ever meet the ghost of the deceased miner, looking for his gold?
GHC: The presence of the miner has been felt many times. Neighbors have seen and felt the presence of the ghost at dusk while riding horses. They will not ride in that area anymore. When the kids were little, Mike used to tease the kids and tell them he could see the ghost on the hill, but that is as close as we have come.
TaV: Do you have any plans to start growing other grapes, such as Chardonnay or Pinot Gris, for example, or do want to stay Pinot Noir all the way at the moment?
GHC: At the moment, we are staying Pinot Noir all the way. We have been considering Chardonnay for future planting, but nothing has been decided.
TaV: Do you have any plans to convert your vineyards to all organic or biodynamic?
GHC: We will not go to all organic or biodynamic. It takes away too many tools to deal with emergency situations in the vineyard, but we are certified sustainable and salmon-safe, and plan to continue those practices, as sustainability is very important to us.
TaV: On your farm, you grow more than just grapes. Is farming for the grapes much different from all other plants?
GHC: Yes and no. Some of the same rules apply to farming other crops, but grapes are incredibly labor intensive, much more so than other crops we have grown. Grapes need your attention all the time.
TaV:Did you ever regret not selling the land to Ken Wright?
GHC: Depends on which day you ask us… But really, no. We want to keep the land in the family. 110 years is a long time, we aren’t ready to give that up. The land holds so many memories for our family, we would feel lost without the farm.
TaV: Your life had been intertwined with the farm pretty much forever. With the grapes or not, but I’m sure you got some interesting stories to tell. Can you share some of your most fun (or most dreadful) moments
GHC: When we were raising beef cattle, the cattle were always getting out and had to be chased. We appreciate that the grapes never escape or have to be chased. Our daughter will tell you her least favorite day was the morning the cattle got out and she was out chasing them in her pajamas when the school bus went by, full of her friends who were laughing at the whole situation. Our vet from the cattle days is writing a book and has promised to devote an entire chapter to The Bayliss Farm.
TaV: You use only the very best of your wine to produce the Prospector’s Reserve. Was there a year when you decided not to produce the Prospector’s Reserve, or do you see such a situation possible?
GHC: For the 2013 vintage, we do not have a Prospector’s Reserve as we did not have enough grapes to make a reserve blend. We will only be releasing 2013 Bayliss-Bower.
TaV: When you are not drinking your own wines, what other wines from what producers and what regions do you like to drink?
GHC: Of course, we drink Hamacher. We are discovering fabulous new Oregon wines all the time, there are so many new producers in the region.
2014 Ghost Hill Cellars Pinot Noir Blanc Bayliss-Bower Vineyard, Yamhill-Carlton AVA (13.9% ABV, $25)
C: light copper, reminiscent of Rosé
N: initially intense, yeasty, Granny Smith apples, citrus, then evolving to the notes of honey and then showing hint of gunflint
P: creamy and round, touch of strawberries, minerality, lemon, green apples, good structure, good acidity, medium long finish, with acidity prevalent
V: 8, very enjoyable
Here we go, my friends. I can’t tell you if the ghost of deceased miner is affecting the wines – you can try to find out on your own, by either visiting the Ghost Hill Cellars or, at least, drinking their wines. And, of course, stay tuned, as more of the Passion and Pinot stories are coming out soon. Cheers!
To be continued…
What do most people do at the age of 69? Retire, or at least, semi-retire, right? Humans live longer than ever before, and many still have enough energy and desire to continue doing what they are doing. But let me rephrase the question a bit – how many people do you know who would start a totally new business at the age of 69? Might be a difficult question, I understand. Sure it would be for me, but now I can proudly say that I know at least one person like that. Let me introduce to you Don Hagge.
So what does rocket scientist (with degrees from UC Berkeley in physics and business from Stanford), whose resumé includes Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Centre d’Etude Physiques Nucleare in Paris, Apollo Mission at NASA and Silicon Valley high-tech industry, upon retirement? Of course, starts his own winery! Well, it sounds radical, but considering that Don grew up on a farm in North Dakota, and had an opportunity to live in France and experience wines of Burgundy, maybe it is only logical?
Vicky and Don Hagge started Vidon Vineyard in 1999 in Willamette Valley, in the Chehalem Mountains AVA of Oregon (you can probably figure that name of the winery, Vidon, is made up after Vicky and Don). Fast forward to today, Vidon Vineyard produces primarily Pinot Noir, plus small amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Syrah, and Tempranillo. Vidon Vineyard is sustainable, LIVE and Salmon-safe certified, and practices minimal intervention winemaking. Don Hagge not only makes wines, he also plays a role of a handyman when it comes to various winemaking tools and equipment. Plus, he is very opinionated about the use of glass enclosures instead of corks…
I had an opportunity to [virtually] sit down with Don Hagge and ask him a few questions, so here you can find our conversation:
TaV: For many years, you had been living and working in California. Why have you decided to build a brand new winery in Oregon and not in California?
DH: I was recruited to Oregon by a venture capitalist as the CEO of a startup semiconductor company. During this time, I biked in the Willamette Valley regularly and loved the vineyards. Since I lived in France some time ago, Pinot Noir has been a favorite wine. I grew on a farm and decided to make a career change and what could be better than buying land, planting a vineyard and learning how to make wine? Oregon was gaining a reputation for Pinot Noir so here I am.
TaV: Your very first wines were made in 2002. Do you still have any of those bottles left? If you do, how do they drink today?
DH: Unfortunately, the 2002 vintage is gone. I made only 40 cases and didn’t label it, only for friends and personal use. We just had a 2006 vintage this evening which is fantastic.
TaV: During all the years of Vidon Vineyard existence, what was the most difficult vintage for you and why?
DH: Probably the 2007 vintage. This was the first year I used my own winery so many things were new. I saw the forecast for heavy weather, got a crew and pulled in 16 tons on September 25th. Before we finished cleaning the equipment it started raining and didn’t stop for a month. Most people suffered through the rains and the vintage got a bad rap in the press. We were lucky – it’s still a beautiful wine!
TaV: For how long do you typically age your Pinot Noir wines in French oak Barrels?
DH: Most of my wine carries the 3-Clones label and gets 11 months in French oak barrels which are on average 30% new. I’m not a fan of big oak in any wine.
TaV: You are an enthusiastic proponent of glass enclosures instead of traditional cork. When did you start using glass enclosures? Also, did you ever try to bottle the same vintage both with glass enclosures and traditional corks and then compare the results of the aging?
DH: Until the 2008 vintage I used corks and usually quite expensive ones. However, I determined that no matter what they cost, they still taint wine because of TCA and pre-oxidize occasionally. Therefore, in 2008 I began using Stelvin screw caps. In 2009 I started using Vinoseals for the Single Clone labels. No, I’ve never done a comparison of cork vs Vinoseal glass closures. It’s not necessary, I know what corks do and Vinoseals and screw caps don’t do. I don’t understand why anyone uses a closure that ruins a percentage of their wines when there are alternatives that don’t.
TaV: Today, you are producing a number of different white and red wines. Do you have any plans (if not plans, may be at least some thoughts) about starting to produce Rosé and/or Sparkling wines?
DH: I made Rosé for two vintages and one was a great, I was told. I’d like to do a Sparkling but my winery is too small given what I’m now doing. That’s not to say I’m not dreaming of a winery expansion and interested in trying more and different wines.
TaV: Outside of your own wines, which are your favorite Pinot Noir producers in the world?
DH: Good Bourgogne wines are what I like to emulate. The 2004 vintage was the nearest to a great Bourgogne that I’ve made.
TaV: If you would have an opportunity to start your winery again, would you do something different?
DH: Given the resources I had, not much. Perhaps I’d build a better winery instead of an expensive house, but I have a wife. 🙂
TaV: You describe your approach in the vineyard as “minimal intervention”, and your winery is LIVE Certified. Do you have any plans to become certified organic or biodynamic winery?
DH: I’m a scientist and Biodynamic winemaking isn’t scientific. Many of their practices are good, how they treat the land, etc. But I don’t believe in VooDoo. I don’t’ believe that Organic Certification results in better wine or land management than what we do in the LIVE program.
TaV: I understand that you have built your own bottling line wine dispenser for the tasting room. What are the other technological tools which you built at your winery?
DH: I don’t think I’ve built anything for winemaking that any good farm boy couldn’t have. I’m always trying to find ways to simplify tasks and become more efficient in using time and material. I have an idea about saving wine and labor in barrel topping but haven’t implemented it yet. My use of Flextanks to replace some barrels is already saving wine and labor by eliminating barrel topping while producing wine that’s equivalent to that from barrels.
TaV: You already work with quite a few grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Cab Franc, Syrah). Do you plan to add any other grapes in the vineyard?
DH: No more varieties. No more land to plant. However, I do hope to plant a small plot of Coury clone Pinot Noir next year. Planting of the clone date back 50 years to the original plantings.
TaV: What drives your passion? You started Vidon vineyards at the age when most of the people are happily retiring, so there must be some deep reason for you to engage in such a – of course, a labor of love – but hard labor?
DH: I like to live. I’m not ready to “stop” and watch TV. I think having a ToDo list every morning and a little anxiety and stress about getting things done will result in a longer life. To have no challenges is pretty dull and boring. When one is doing things that one enjoys, it’s not labor.
What do you say, my friends? This interview continues our Stories of Passion and Pinot series, and I think it is a perfect sequel to the conversation with Ken Wright – Don Hagge exudes the same righteousness, passion, and confidence in everything he does.
And you know what supports Don’s ways and means? His wines! I had an opportunity to try his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and in a word, I can tell you – what a treat! Two stunning, perfectly balanced and perfectly Burgundian in style – made with passion and care in Oregon.
2015 Vidon Vineyard Chardonnay Estate Chehalem Mountains, Oregon (12.9% ABV, $35)
C: golden color
N: initially, very restrained, mostly minerality. After 2 days in the fridge, honey and vanilla, quite spectacular
P: initially tight, minerally and acidic. Two days later – exuberant, golden delicious apples, perfect acidity, vanilla, medium finish. Every sip leaves you craving for more
V: 9, simply outstanding, delicious.
2013 Vidon Vineyard 3 Clones Pinot Noir Estate Chehalem Mountains, Oregon (14.3% ABV, $40)
C: bright Ruby, cranberry undertones
N: inviting, intense, touch of smoke, lavender, red fruit
P: nicely restrained, minerality, crushed red fruit, mouthwatering acidity, fresh, elegant, lots of finesse
V: 9-, outstanding wine, Burgundian style
Here you are, my friends – another story of Passion and Pinot. And I have more for you, so until the next time – cheers!
To be continued…
Grape grower. Pioneer. Visionary. Winemaker. Mentor. Teacher. Philanthropist.
It makes perfect sense to start our “Stories of Passion and Pinot” series by conversing with Ken Wright. After starting making wines in Willamette Valley in Oregon in 1986, Ken came to the realization of a tremendous diversity of soils and microclimate conditions in the region. Ken was instrumental in establishing 6 AVAs in the region; he also focused his winemaking on showcasing terroir through single-vineyard bottlings. The rest is history which you can read on Ken Wright Cellars web site and various publications, such as Wine Spectator May 2015 issue.
I have limited exposure to Ken’s wines – the production is small, and there are lots of people who loves to drink his wines. But even my limited encounters resulted in long lasting impressions – and not only the wines but also the labels which you need to see only once to remember forever. Thus when I had an opportunity to ask Ken a few questions, albeit virtually, I was very happy to do so – and the outcome of our conversation you can see below. This might be a tad long, so arm yourself with a nice tall glass of Pinot – and enjoy!
- When it comes to the winemaking, is there someone who you would name as your mentor or a teacher?
KW: My first position was in California and included working with Dick Graff of Chalone on their Gavilan brand. Dick started a research group, in 1979 I believe, that met once a month at Mount Eden Vineyards. The group included many of the best wineries in the state including Mt. Eden, Kistler, Calera, Sanford, Acacia, Forman, Chalone and the Paragon group among others. The opportunity, as a novice winemaker, to be part of that group of successful producers allowed me to be part of cutting edge winemaking discussions. Ears were perked, respectfully my mouth was generally closed. I was a sponge.
- As a pioneer and a long standing and successful winemaker, I’m sure many young winemakers look up to you and want to learn from you. Are there any winemakers who you would call your students?
KW: Once I moved to Oregon, in 1986, to pursue the production of Pinot noir I had a learning curve to understand the new area that I was in. During those early years I fell in love with the ability of Pinot noir to connect myself and our buyers with the qualities of individual sites. After blending sites for several years I began in 1990 to produce site specific wines that connected us to place.
In the mid 90’s I was part of a group we created, quite similar to the California research group, that focused on research both in the vineyard and winery. My partners were Bethel Heights, Cristom, Solena and Penner-Ash. Beaux Freres joined at a later date. Our experiments provided a volume of information that I believe changed the way in which we all grew grapes and made wine. That information was openly shared with anyone who cared to ask. Many viticulturists and winemakers are now approaching their craft with the lessons we learned whether or not they are aware of where this information came from. I would not want to take any personal credit for the success of those that have benefited from this work or from my many direct relationships. Information comes from so many sources. If I have benefited someone along the way that would be great but I would only be one of many.
- You personally helped to define 6 AVAs in Oregon. Do you think there are still areas in Oregon which would benefit from their own designated AVAs?
KW: It is a natural evolution for regions to define themselves. All areas must first identify which wine varieties have inherent superiority. It’s a process. What is clear at this time is that the Willamette Valley, particularly the area of the six new AVA’s, is world class. We are producing Pinot noir that is riveting. While there are regions that can say they are older there is no area on the planet that can say they are better, period. I suspect there will be new AVA’s within the six new identified AVA’s that will further define each region in more detail.
- In the description of the Freedom Hill vineyard, there is a mention of Phylloxera. How did it come around? How difficult was it to contain it and deal with it? Is that the only one of your vineyards which was affected?
KW: Phylloxera reared its ugly head in 1990 at Fuqua Vineyard in the Dundee Hills. With the first inexpensive own rooted plantings of Eyrie in 1966 the industry coasted until this time with the hope the blight would never come. But it did. It is impossible to know what the source of the “infection” may have been. This was an older vineyard so unless they were purchasing replacement vines on a regular basis from a nursery that had an issue it would be hard to assign blame on source of vine material. Not impossible though.
Phylloxera became real in the mid 90’s. Freedom Hill began to fail. Guadalupe began to fail. Shea began to fail. There were a number of others. Vineyard owners, hoping to forestall the infection, did whatever they could to protect their sites. At the time the concern was that the insect was being transferred on soil. We had chlorine foot baths. Incredible cleaning of vineyard equipment. It did not help. It is only my opinion but I believe most of the “infection” was directly from the replacement vines from nurseries that had the bug in their soil material that came with new or replacement vines.
- Can you make parallels between any of your vineyards and Burgundy vineyards, in terms of wines which they are capable of producing?
KW: Burgundy could only hope to make wine that consistently produces the quality of wine that we produce. They are in our rear view mirror. It’s sad that people automatically assume age of region is related to quality. Do truly blind tastings and you will not be able to assign label prestige to the result.
- Same question regarding your wines – would you compare any of your wines with any of the wines from Burgundy, and if yes, which with which?
KW: If there is any comparison I would say that Oregon Pinot noir has a perfect fresh fruit profile. Burgundy tends to be more acidic, angular in youth and less forward.
- It seems that you only produce Pinot Noir from all of the vineyards you are working with, and the only white wine you are producing comes from Washington. Is there a reason why? Have you ever thought of planting white grapes in Oregon?
KW: As a business, anything we produce that is not Pinot noir is harder to sell and less profitable. The entire world recognizes the quality of Pinot noir from our region but no other variety resonates. We have a half acre of the Chardonnay Dijon 548 clone at Savoya. It is delicious but only sold to our mailing list. We will not plant more Chardonnay in my lifetime.
- I find your wine labels fascinating. How do you come up with the designs? Are you making those yourself or you are working with an artist? Do you change any of the labels from vintage to a vintage?
KW: The artist that created our labels is David Berkvam, a Portland native. He is a dessert chef at a local Italian restaurant named Geno’s. The original artworks are 100% beeswax carvings. Incredible depth that we attempt to relay on paper. Our relationship with David began with seeing his work at a gallery in 1999 in Portland.
Our original label for Ken Wright Cellars was a clean, straightforward text only label. It was not memorable or noticeable. My wife Karen and I decided to make a significant change to the look of our label. We asked David to produce a label that showed the efforts of the Mexican laborers in our vineyards during the difficult time of winter pruning. There was no other labor that would do this work. Yet the Mexican women and men who did this work did so with graciousness and humor. That was our first label with David. Now each vineyard has its own artwork from him and each is quite personal for us.
- What is your approach to the oak ageing? For how long do you typically age your wines? What type of oak do you use most often?
KW: Unfortunately, we have to use French oak for our wines. Would prefer to buy from the US but our native oak species are very resinous which does not rhyme with Pinot noir. Pinot noir spends 11 months in oak before bottling.
- Based on the information on the web site, your general philosophy around winemaking is “minimal intervention”. Did you ever consider going into organic or even biodynamic wine production?
KW: Winemaking has nothing to do with your farming approach. Yes, the winemaking at the highest level is minimal intervention, assuming a very high level of professional babysitting. All inherent quality comes from the vineyard. Any winemaker at the highest level knows they are subservient to the quality of what they receive.
- You’ve been making wine in Oregon for the very long time. Did you have any scary (okay, most difficult) moments you can share with us?
KW: The beauty of our area is that we do in fact have “vintages”. No robotic wines. The year is reflected in the wine. A great example of a “scary” vintage was 1991. A cool year that produced wine that was at first reticent. With age this vintage proved to be perhaps the best of the decade for most producers.
- Among all the wines you made in Oregon since the beginning, can you share a few of your most favorite vintages and particular wines?
KW: 1990 was the best vintage I have seen in Oregon. An unusual year in that it was amazing for so many regions in the world, Germany, Italy, Champagne, Burgundy and more.
- Do you export your wines outside of US? If yes, what are your top export destinations?
KW: We export to all provinces of Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, South Korea and of course Luxembourg.
- Today, Oregon wines are well known and well recognized by the wine lovers. What is ahead for the Oregon wines? What are the latest trends and new directions for the Oregon wines?
KW: We will always hang our hat on Pinot noir because we truly have a world treasure with this variety. As world markets emerge we will find a place at the table in each of these markets.
- You have very extensive list of charities you support. How do you go about deciding which charities you are going to support?
KW: Karen and I normally choose to support local charities that keep our immediate area healthy. We have hosted Flavors of Carlton for 15 years which is by far the most impactful event that keeps the pre school, after school, summer work experiences, 12 sports programs and more financially sound. We are founding sponsors of Salud, started in 1992, which is a combined effort of Wineries, hospitals, clinics and Medical Teams International that has provided health care for vineyard workers. Karen and I were the initial 50K endowers of the local Community College program for their vineyard curriculum.
We partnered with the local FFA Alumnae, High School FFA teacher, YC Board, the curriculum writers from the local college and members of our AVA board to create a path for our local young people to get real world experience in growing grapes. We created a 1.5 acre vineyard on the high school property so they would have real world experience, not book knowledge.
We are done – and I hope you are still here, as there was a lot to read (and I thank you for that). Hope you found this interesting, and now have an increased desire to drink Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir (good luck with that unless you already have one in your cellar). I also believe that this was an excellent opening into our Stories of Passion and Pinot – you can clearly feel passion and pride in every word of Ken’s answers…
We will continue our series next week, so for now – cheers!
To be continued…
A few days ago I told you about the live blogging session at the Wine Bloggers Conference 2016, dedicated to the White and Rosé wines. On the second day, we had a similar session, only now dedicated to the red wines. The same format – 60 minutes, 19 (or so) tables, 25 (or so) wines, 5 minutes to taste, take pictures, ask questions and share impressions in the social media, of course. Also with the higher chance of damage – clothes damage, it is, as we were dealing with red wine and time-pressed pourers. But this is part of fun, isn’t it?
Same as before, I would like to offer to you my twitter notes. Just to make it even more fun, you can compare my notes with Jim Van Bergen’s, a fellow blogger we had a pleasure of sharing the table with (alongside other great people – I think we had the most fun table in the house).
Here we go:
Wine #1: 2014 The Federalist Zinfandel Lodi ($17.76 MSRP) – very nice start for our Reds extravaganza
Wine #2: 2013 Windrun Pinot Noir Sta Rita Hills (100% Pinot Noir, blend of 5 clones from Lafond Vineyard) – nice and classic California Pinot
Wine #3: 2012 Corner 103 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Sonoma County – clean and varietally correct
Wine #4: 2012 Prie Vineyards Zinfandel Lodi – another excellent Zinfandel
Wine #5: 2012 Trione Vineyards Henry’s Blend Alexander Valley (35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 13 % Petite Verdot, 13% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec) – a welcome deviation from Zinfandel, a classic Bordeaux blend. I also realized that my tweet didn’t have the picture, so picture is now included:
Wine #6: 2013 Peirano Estate ‘The Immortal’ Zin Old Vine Zinfandel (120 years old vines!) – if anything, the age of the vines commands utmost respect. Note that my tweet incorrectly puts the vintage as 2012, where it is 2013 (I blame it on the speed).
Wine #7: 2013 Klinker Brick Farrah Syrah Lodi – an excellent rendition of one of my most favorite grapes
Wine #8: 2013 Abundance Vineyards Carignane Lodi (90% Carignane, 10% Petite Sirah)
Wine #9: 2014 Oak Ridge Winery OZV Old Vine Zinfandel (Zinfandel/Petite Sirah blend) – Number one selling Zinfandel in California and a great value at $10.99
Wine #10: 2013 Harney Lane Old Vine Zinfandel Lizzy James Vineyard Lodi – one of the best Zinfandels in the tasting
Wine #11: 2013 Michael David Winery Inkblot Cabernet Franc Lodi – in the land of Zinfandels, we finished tasting with an absolute standout of 100% Cabernet Franc – you have to taste it for yourself
Here we go, folks. As you can tell, I can’t even count – we had 11 wines and not 10 during these 60 minutes, but yes, it was lots of fun. And I’m far from being done talking about Wine Bloggers Conference 2016 in Lodi.
Until the next time – cheers!
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