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Stories of Passion and Pinot: Utopia Vineyard

April 11, 2020 2 comments

Pinot Noir excites passion. All grapes do, of course, and good winemakers are always passionate, often to the point of obsession. But some of the most desired wines in the world are made out of Pinot Noir, and Pinot Noir is notoriously finicky, mutation-prone grape, difficult to work with. Hence passion is winemaker’s best helper to work with Pinot Noir and produce the best possible wines.

Yes, I’m sure you figured me by now – I’m introducing a new post in the Passion and Pinot series – you can find all the past posts here. And I’m sure today’s subject resonates perfectly with the world we live in right now (for those who might read this post a few years later, look up “covid-19 pandemic”, and you will understand my point). I’m sure we would all much rather live in utopia compare to the self-quarantine and fear of sneezing – and it is the utopia we will be talking about here (don’t worry, there will be plenty of wine).

According to the dictionary, utopia is defined as “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect”. I guess Daniel Warnshuis saw this complete perfection in the 17 acres parcel of land he found on the Ribbon Ridge in the heart of Ribbon Ridge Appellation in Yamhill County in Oregon in early 2000, hence the name Utopia Vineyard.

Daniel Warnshuis. Source: Utopia Vineyard

UTOPIA Vineyard had its first commercial vintage in 2006, 413 cases of Pinot Noir. Since then, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and a number of other wines had been produced at the winery, and numerous accolades were won at multiple competitions. Utopia, which uses dry farming methods, was L.I.V.E. certified in 2008.

I had an opportunity to [virtually] sit down with Daniel Warnshuis and ask him some questions – here is what transpired in our conversation:

[TaV]: First and foremost – why Utopia? Utopia means an unreachable dream, so what is the reason for this name?

[DW] The classic definition of UTOPIA is the perfect and no place. I am trying to make the perfect Pinot-noir but realize that as a human being I will not achieve perfection. It is, therefore, the goal that I constantly strive for without compromise to make the wine better each and every vintage.

[TaV]: You bought the vineyard in 2000, your first vintage was in 2006. How were those years in between? Did you have any major challenges, or did you just have to wait for the vines to mature?

[DW]:  You are correct that I consider 2006 my first commercial vintage (413 cases of Estate Pinot-noir) but I did produce 97 cases of Estate Pinot-noir in 2005. Just to be clear, it was more of an experiment than a vintage. There were a number of challenges in getting the vineyard bootstrapped. First, I had to decide which clones I wanted to plant. I looked around the valley at the time and found that most of the vineyards contained only 2-3 clones and they were mostly the same 2-3 clones, e.g.. Pommard and Dijon 115 or Wadenswil. Or one of the other Dijon clones, mostly 667 and 777. I also detected a certain homogeneity in the wines being produced at that time and I wanted to do something very different. This is what convinced me to plant a total of 12 Pinot-noir clones including several heirloom clones from various existing vineyard sources in CA and OR. Once I settled on the makeup of the vineyard it was mostly a waiting game until the vines began to produce.

[TaV]: You were born and raised on California wines, why build the vineyard in Oregon and not in a Napa or Sonoma?

[DW]: I got exposed to Willamette Valley Pinot-noir early in my wine journey working for Tektronix where my first boss was an avid wine collector and amateur chef who exposed me to Oregon wines. The raw beauty of Oregon and especially Willamette Valley wine country was also a major draw for me along with its nascent state as a wine producing region. It presented a relatively affordable opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next NAPA. I was a big proponent of Willamette Valley Pinot-noir while still living and running my NAPA wine business at a time when even most savvy wine drinkers were still unaware of what was happening in Oregon.

[TaV]: You’ve been a farmer for 20 years now. What are your main takeaways from this experience?

[DW]: Owning the land is the ultimate advantage for a winemaker because the best wines almost always come from the best fruit. 100% control from vine to wine is the maximum level of control and as a small producer here in Willamette Valley I am as close to a small producer (vigneron) in Burgundy that I can be without being in Burgundy. At Utopia I always want to make the best wine possible for any given vintage, again just like in Burgundy the wine should always be a reflection of the growing season and therefore unique each and every year.

 

Source: Utopia Vineyard

[TaV]: Do you have a pivotal wine, the one which clearly made you see the wine world differently?

[DW]: Burgundy wines from any small producer in Volnay, Pommard, Mersault (and Mersault, Chassagne and Puligny Montrachet for whites) were pivotal wines for me. The only thing I have found that compares with them are Willamette Valley Pinot-noir’s and now Chardonnay’s from small producers who are owning the land and making the wines in the same tradition.

[TaV]: Is there one Pinot Noir producer or winery you would consider a hallmark, something you would compare your wines to?

[DW]: Dominique Lafon is someone who I have followed for several decades and admire his approach (biodynamic farming and terroir driven) especially for his White Burgundy which I think is sublime. DRC is always mentioned as the ultimate but I would say that I have always and still do admire the smaller producers who are risking everything to make the best wine. This means organic/biodynamic farming even in a challenging vintage, minimalist approach to winemaking and focus on terroir.

[TaV]: What is the difference between the various Pinot Noir wines you are producing? Is it grape selection, individual plots, different oak regimens?

[DW]:  Yes, it is all those things, in addition, location in the vineyard, clonal selection for the blends, oak regimen (ex: riper fruit deserves more new French oak such as in my Reserve “Eden” bottling).

[TaV]: Any plans for Utopia sparkling wines? You already growing all necessary components, so do you plan to take the next step?

[DW]:  Yes, I would like very much to make sparkling wine. It is challenging as it requires a different setup and 3-4 years to produce the first vintage, but, I have not given up on the concept. I produced my first Port Style wine in 2018 and will bottle it this Fall.

[TaV]: You are now offering Grenache, Mourvedre and GSM wines. For how long you had been producing those? I understand that you source Grenache from Rogue Valley, what about Mourvedre and Syrah? Do you also plan to offer single varietal Syrah?

[DW]: I started producing those varietals in 2009 and actually started with a Syrah and Viognier but switched to Grenache in 2013 and added a GSM in 2014 and a Mourvedre in 2016. As long as I can get quality fruit I will continue to make different varietals. I would like to produce a Cab Franc and maybe even a Bordeaux blend in the future as well. I plan to plant some of these different varieties here on my new property to prepare for the inevitable change in our climate over the next 10 – 20 years.

[TaV]: What are your favorite wines or wine producers in Oregon? In the USA? In the world?

[DW]: In Oregon, Brick House, Beaux Freres, In California, Joseph Phelps, Spottswoode, In the World, anything Burgundy especially any small producers farming organic/biodynamic and terroir driven as well as Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux.

[TaV]: Did your utopia materialize in your vineyard? Did you find everything you were looking for?

[DW]: Yes, I live on my vineyard and work with my family to produce a unique product that we share with the world. We preserve the land for future generations (organic farming), we give back to our communities, we promote culture of all types and we make our living doing what we love the most. I cannot be any happier than I am at UTOPIA.

[TaV]: Where do you see Utopia Vineyard in the next 10-15 years?  

[DW]: More plantings of different varieties especially Rhone and Bordeaux. Possibly produce sparkling wine, continue well managed growth and keep experimenting to make it better each and every time. Create a long lasting legacy and keep it in the family for future generations.

If you are still reading this, I’m sure you are ready for a glass of wine, preferably, an Oregon Pinot Noir. I had an opportunity to taste two of the Utopia Pinot Noir wines, here are the notes:

2014 UTOPIA Pinot Noir Clone 777 Estate Reserve Ribbon Ridge AVA (13.8% ABV, $75)
Dark ruby
Smoke, plums, violets, earthy undertones
Bristling acidity, tart cherries, medium body, minerality, refreshing, inviting, good balance.
8, fresh, clean, easy to drink.

2011 UTOPIA Paradise Pinot Noir Estate Reserve Ribbon Ridge AVA (13% ABV, $85)
Dark garnet
Upon opening, the very extensive barnyard smell was apparent. It disappeared on the second day. Tobacco, earth, tar, and smoke are prevalent on the second day.
The palate is beautifully balanced with tart cherries, plums, violets, a touch of vanilla, baking spices and roasted meat.
8+/9-, delicious, hard-to-stop-drinking wine. Superb.

And we are done here, my friends – one more story of passion, and yes, it involves Pinot Noir.

Obey your passion!

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

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

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