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Stories of Passion and Pinot: Iris Vineyards

June 18, 2019 Leave a comment

Let me ask you something. If you would look at the mountainous parcel of land, completely destroyed by the brutal commercial logging – would you be able to envision there a beautiful Pinot Noir vineyard? (if you answered “no”, same as I did, don’t worry about it – this is why you and I are not in the winemaking business). When Richard Boyles and his wife Pamela saw such a logging-destroyed site at the south end of the Willamette Valley, they were able to see past the nature in distress. They were able to see the future vineyards and even future forest restored where it was before. They purchased about 1,000 acres site in 1992, and it became the home to the Iris Vineyards, with the name inspired by the beautiful wild Douglas iris covering the surrounding hills in spring.

Richard’s fate was sealed at the age of 7, when he assumed assistant winemaker duty to his grandmother, helping her to make the sweet, dessert wine. As they say it in the stories, the rest was history. Richard met Pamela while studying at the University of Oregon. Countless visits to Europe and living there for a while as Richard had a carrier in international business management and hospitality, helped Richard and Pamela to discover their wine passion – Burgundy, and its signature grape – Pinot Noir. That passion for Pinot helped Richard and Pamela to see through the broken trees and realize their dream of making the world-class Pinot Noir.

Well, there is also an additional element to that passion – a principle of Areté. Richard and Pamela learned about Areté in the university, while studying ancient Greek philosophy. This principle simply means that it is one’s moral obligation to achieve the highest potential the person can achieve. Give it a thought – Areté is really a great principal to live by; we will get back to it later on in this post.

Today Iris Vineyards farms about 43 acres of vineyards, located at 800 to 1,100 feet elevation (quite high for the Willamette Valley). The vineyards are surrounded by more than 500 acres of restored forest, mostly Douglas fir and Ponderosa Pine, as well as Oregon white oak. The main vineyard of the estate, Chalice Vineyard, was planted in 1996 and produced its first vintage in 2001. Pinot Noir takes two third of the plantings, following by the Pinot Gris and a small acreage of Chardonnay. Iris Vineyards also produces a number of other, less traditional wines (Viognier, Syrah, and more) from other appellations in Oregon, such as Applegate Valley.

Richard Boyles Iris Vineyards

Richard Boyles

I was definitely intrigued by what I learned about the Iris Vineyards, so I took an opportunity to sit down with Richard Boyles (yes, once again it was a virtual conversation) and ask him a few questions. Here is what transpired:

[TaV]: You grew up tasting sweet wines. How did you end up with Pinot Noir becoming a passion?
[RB]: Although my first experience was sweet wines made and sampled with my grandmother, the wines I “grew-up” with were the wines served at family celebrations organized by my dad. These were usually red Bordeaux and reds and whites of Burgundy as well as German Rieslings. As you can see, with the exception of the Rieslings, these were dry wines that were intended to pair with food. I became more focused on Pinot Noir as it became clear that Oregon could grow world-class Pinot Noir with Oregon attitude. After graduation from the U of O, while living in Seattle, Pamela and I continued to explore the world of wine, visiting vineyards, tasting rooms and sampling primarily in Oregon and Washington and occasionally in Napa and Sonoma. Our interest in Pinot Noir solidified as a passion as Pamela and I explored different viticultural areas of Europe when we lived in Germany and Switzerland. We found ourselves gravitating to Burgundy for Pinot and Alsace for Pinot Gris.

[TaV]: What made you think that the parcel of land destroyed by logging would be an ideal place to grow Pinot Noir?
[RB]: In the Pacific Northwest logging is a part of the rural economy and landscape. In the case of our property, the fact that it had been logged and that we took on the legal obligation to replant the forest meant that we were able to acquire large acreage at a modest price. The property had a long history as a mixed forest operation, with cattle and timber harvests providing income to the owners. When we acquired the property, we replanted hundreds of acres of forest before we turned our attention to planting the vineyard on former pasture. The areas for vineyard plantation were selected for the Jory and Bellpine soils, south-facing slopes, elevation and for modestly steep slopes which allow the property to be farmed with standard farm equipment. While our purchase of the property was prompted by the vineyard potential, it has been equally satisfying to plant tens of thousands of Douglas fir trees that have now matured into a forest, an ecosystem really, supporting many species of flora and fauna.

[TaV]: I know that the concept of Areté and its relevance to everything you do is explained on the website, but can you explain one more time for our readers what Areté means for you and how does it apply to the Iris Vineyards and your wines?
[RB]: In addition to what is on the website and press kit, this is what I would say about Areté: Areté is a philosophy or way of being that says, “Hey buddy, you want to excel and standout? Then be deliberate about it. Figure out what skills and knowledge you need, practice them, perfect them if you can. Figure out what else will up your game. Go get that skill or knowledge. Repeat. Because that is what this life is all about. A constant aspiration to live up to the potential that is you. Why would you settle for less?” With respect to Areté at Iris, Areté is a cultural signpost. It tells team members and prospective team members what we value at Iris, how we want to be and be seen as an organization. It tells team members how they can contribute. We can only be an organization that exemplifies Areté if our team members embrace it, make decisions and plans by it. By making it clear what we are about, we attract like-minded team members. And, of course, Areté is a proclamation to the world about aspirations. So, we take it very seriously when we put the Areté name on the label of the wines that are the best examples of our craft.

[TaV]: I would guess that first was Pinot Noir, then Pinot Gris, then Chardonnay (curious – am I right?), but Iris Vineyards today offers way more than just 3 flagship Oregon grapes – how did you get to include Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier into your repertoire?
[RB]: From the time we committed to establishing a vineyard, Pamela and I planned to grow Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay. The expansion into other varietals is the result of two factors: 1) the desire to create variety for our club members; and, 2) our winemaker, Aaron Lieberman’s curiosity, interest and skill at working with grape varieties beyond Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.

Iris Vineyards

Source: Iris Vineyards

[TaV]: While it is not yet available on your website, I understand that you are about to introduce Iris Sparkling wines. Can you tell me more about this project, starting even with “why sparkling wines”?
[RB]: Much as the reintroduction of the Rosé program was in response to Pamela’s strong interest in Rosé and renewed consumer interest in the category, the sparkling wine program came about as a result of Aaron’s interest in, and interest in the challenge of making sparkling wine. Sparkling wine is the ultimate celebratory beverage. Our club members and tasting room visitors love our Methode Champenois Blanc de Noir and Blanc de Blanc. We reserve a small amount for weddings and other celebrations at the tasting room, though the sparklers routinely sell out prior to the subsequent release. Aaron can expand on what brought him to pursue sparkling.

[TaV]: Will sparkling wines be generally available or they will be offered as winery exclusive/club options?
[RB]: I anticipate that the sparkling wines will be available to club members, available at the tasting room, available to weddings and celebrations held on the property and perhaps to select accounts. I don’t anticipate that it will be available to broad distribution. These are intensely hand made wines requiring lots of time and attention. The sparklers will have an important but limited role in our line-up.

[TaV]: Considering the wide range of grapes you already use, do you have any plans to expand it any further?
[RB]: Our offerings will continue to evolve. Our core business is in Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Rosé. As we expand our vineyard, we will plant small amounts of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Blanc as well as a broader variety of clones of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Pinot Meunier will have a place in our sparkling program. We will evaluate it as a potential stand-alone variety. Pinot Blanc will be a standalone bottling. I expect we will pare some wines from our current offerings as we respond to the tastes of our club members and tasting room visitors. 8. I’m assuming you started producing wines at the end of the 1990s. Do you still have any of your first releases available in the cellar? How do they hold up? What is the oldest of your own wines you ever tasted?
We first bottled wine under our own label in 2001. Prior to that, we sold the small volume of fruit coming from our vineyards to other producers. We recently sampled a bottle of 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir. We have a single bottle left. I wish we had more in our cellar. While this wine wasn’t deliberately built to last ten years, it is drinking very well. The 2012 Reserve Pinot is drinking nicely. Pamela and I have a few overlooked bottles of 2001 and 2002 Pinot Gris in our personal cellar. These were award winners 15 and sixteen years ago, including double platinum for 2002. As compelling as these wines were at two, three, four and even five-year-olds, they weren’t intended to age and are now past their prime. It’s a good reminder to drink while the drinking is good.

[TaV]: You are practicing sustainable farming. Can you explain what it means for you, how does it relate to the land, vineyards, grapes and so on? Have you ever looked at going Biodynamic?
[RB]: The goal of our farming practices is to produce fruit that meets our particular purposes. We use different farm practices and viticultural techniques for Pinot Noir that’s intended for Rose’ differently than the fruit that is intended for our estate bottling for instance. Our farm practices are conventional as we want to have all the tools available to produce the best fruit for the purpose while supporting the long-term productive capacity of the vineyard and operating a financially sustainable business. Farming isn’t static. We annually review best practices and new literature to improve what we do in the vineyard. While we have considered a Biodynamic approach, we believe we can produce better fruit for our purposes with a conventional approach to farming.

[TaV]: When you are not drinking your own wines, what are your favorite wines from Oregon, and from around the world?
[RB]: One of the notable things about the world of wine today is that so much great (and not so great) wine is accessible from all over the world. We see wine as an exploration, so we regularly try what we haven’t tried before. That is as likely to be a Pinot from a new Oregon producer, a Sauvignon Blanc from a new growing region or an obscure varietal we haven’t tasted in a while. Through exploration, we learn more than returning to the same things repeatedly. That said, we have a broad stable of wines of our own production. We do frequently return to those.

[TaV]: Where do you see Iris Vineyards in 15-20 years from now?
[RB]: I expect that Iris will garner increasing consumer attention as we offer compelling wines at a good value. I expect that we will continue to offer wines across a variety of complex profiles and price points. I don’t say across a variety of quality, because all of our wines are of high quality, they just differ in terms of complexity. Personally, in 15 or twenty years I hope to have more tractor time and hands-on time in the vineyard and in the winery, particularly at crush. Overseeing this and other businesses currently require that I focus on the big picture. It was a “need” to farm and a maker mentality that brought us into the business. I still craft beer, pickle and can. I look forward to re-creating my job description to allow more time in the vineyard and winery and less in the business of running a business.

Yes, I agree with you – it is time to drink. I had an opportunity to taste two of the Iris Vineyards Pinot Noir wines – here are my notes:

2017 Iris Vineyards D Block Pinot Noir Chalice Vineyard Willamette Valley (12.7% ABV, $39.99, 300 cases produced)
Bright Ruby
Light, elegant, plums, cherries, a touch of ripe strawberries
Sweet cherries, plums, great acidity, excellent balance
8-/8, nice and approachable

2016 Iris Vineyards Areté Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $59.99, 100 cases produced)
Dark Ruby
Touch of smoke, plums, a hint of cranberries
Iodine, Cherries, a touch of smoke, good balance
8/8+, very good wine, will be interesting to try it again in 10 years…

Cropped Bench Iris Vineyards

Source: Iris Vineyards

Here you are, my friends – another story of Passion and Pinot. Go pour yourself a glass of Pinot – more stories are ahead…

To be continued…

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, Ken Wright Cellars, Knudsen Vineyards, Lenné Estate, Tendril Cellars, Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Vidon Vineyard

Stories of Passion and Pinot, Year 2019

April 15, 2019 1 comment

Back in 2014, during the Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara (my first WBC), I was listening to the panel discussion of the professional wine writers, who basically had only one message for all the bloggers – interviews, interviews, interviews. Of course, they were talking about integrity, writing skills and other important subjects, but the concept of “interview” was brought up multiple times, with all the explanations how to do it properly, what, why, where and so on.

At that point, I had been writing my blog for about 5 years, and the idea of the interview didn’t resonate. “I want to write about the wine, not about some conversations and other people opinions” was my prevailing thought. “Interviews? I don’t want to do no interviews” (use of broken English intended).

You don’t need to fast forward too far to see how everything changed. Next year, I was offered a meeting with a winemaker which I couldn’t attend, so I said “all right – can we have a virtual conversation?” – and the concept of “One of One With Winemaker” posts was born. Since then, I’ve done quite a few interviews, most of them virtual and a few are in person – if you are curious, here is the link for you to see them all. Yes, the “virtual” concept might be limiting, as you can’t explore an interesting angle which would come up in the conversation. However, as most of my questions are unique and specifically tailored for a particular conversation, virtual interviews remove intimidation, allowing people time to provide the best answers.

In 2016, I had a conversation with Carl Giavanti, who asked if I would be interested to create a series of interviews with Oregonian winemakers – and that became the beginning of the Stories of Passion and Pinot series, all connected under the “One on One” umbrella. In 2016, I had an opportunity to “talk” to Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars, David Nemarnik of Alloro Vineyard, Mike Bayliss of Ghost Hill Cellars, Wayne Bailey of Youngberg Hill VineyardsSteve Lutz of Lenné Estate, and Don Hagge of Vidon Vineyard. In the same series, Knudsen Vineyards was profiled in 2017, and last year I had a conversion with Tony Rynders of Tendril Cellars. All of these wineries are from Oregon, and all of them share a common passion for the Pinot Noir, one of the most finicky grapes out there.

You probably guessed that I’m not writing this post just to give you a retrospective into the Talk-a-Vino interviews. Yes, I’m writing it to tell you that the Stories of Passion and Pinot will continue in 2019, again with the help of Carl Giavanti. The wineries we will look at in the near future are:

By the way, do you know what “Bells Up” means? Well, if you do – great, if you don’t  – you will learn all about it soon.

To be continued…

 

One on One With Winemaker: Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars

September 8, 2016 14 comments
Ken and Karen Wright

Source: Ken Wright Cellars

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 the 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 love 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!

savoya-vineyard

Source: Ken Wright Cellars

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 the 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. What is your approach to the oak aging? 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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. 

  1. 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.

  1. Do you export your wines outside of the 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.

  1. 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.

  1. You have a 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.

Source: Ken Wright Cellars

Source: Ken Wright Cellars

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…

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

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