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Stories of Passion and Pinot: Tony Rynders of Tendril Cellars

May 11, 2018 6 comments

Wine and passion are indelible. Yes, wine is a business for the most parts, but making a bottle of wine which someone else is desiring to drink is a labor of love, and every such bottle has a bit of the winemaker’s soul invested in it (feel free to call me melodramatic). Thus I’m always happy to talk to the winemakers, trying to understand what moves them, what drives them to do what they do. A lot of my conversations are virtual, and you can find most of them on this blog.

Many of interviews are truly random in terms of profiling the wineries and winemakers. However, about 2 years ago, with a prompt and help of Carl Giavanti, I started a series of posts called Stories of Passion and Pinot, which are dedicated (so far, at least) to the winemakers in Oregon, producing Pinot Noir wines. Winemakers are always passionate about what they do and the grapes they use – but it seems to me that Pinot Noir, being a difficult grape it is, really asking for a special dedication to allow itself to be tamed – hence the name for the series.

My latest addition to the series is a conversation with Tony Rynders, the proprietor and winemaker at the Tendril Wine Cellars, a young winery in Willamette Valley in  Oregon (the winery officially started 10 years ago, in 2008). While the winery is young, Tony is an accomplished winemaker, who started making wine back in 1989, honed his craft at the wineries around the world, including 10 years as a head winemaker at Domaine Serene, one of the best-known wineries in Oregon.

When Tendril Cellars started, it owned no vineyards, which essentially gave Tony a flexibility to bring the best fruit from the Oregon vineyards he was already familiar with. To my surprise, Tendril Cellars only offers one single-vineyard bottling in their line of  5 different Pinot Noir wines – but you will find an explanation below. In 2013, Tendril Cellars planted a 19 acres Maverick vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton district with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – the vineyard already producing the fruit which is going into the Tendril Cellar’s second line of wines, Child’s Play (a creative name for the wine, don’t you think?).

Tony 5 Courses instruction 2

Tony Rynders leading five course tasting

Tony calls his approach to winemaking “low and slow” – letting the nature to do its work. He is also aging all of his Pinot Noir wines for 16-17 months, which I find particularly appealing. And then, how many winemakers do you know who run organized tastings for their customers? That is what Tony does, presenting his wines as a “5-course meal” and explaining the concept of terroir to the wine consumers (after tasting Tendril wines, Tony’s approach to the tasting makes perfect sense to me – but we will discuss it in the next post).

After learning a bit about Tony and Tendril Cellars, I decided that the time came to sit down (yes, virtually) with Tony and ask him a few questions. Here is what transpired.

[TaV]: You started making wine for others in 1989. Was there something which prompted you to start making your own wines in 2010, a pivotal moment, or you simply decided that it is time to make wines “my way”?

[TR]: I have had several opportunities making wine since I began in 1989.  Each one has contributed in some way to influence my approach to making wine.  I can tell you that I am a much different winemaker today than I was when I started.  I think it is critical that we continue to evolve and adapt as the climate, consumers, and wine preferences change.

In fact, I started my own brand, Tendril, in 2008.  I was just coming off a 10-year stint as head winemaker at Domaine Serene.  It was a highly formative period in my career as there was a massive shift toward new, estate vineyards during my tenure. The creative “heavy lifting” took place largely during my watch.  I accomplished everything I set out to and more.  It was time for my next big challenge…creating a portfolio of wines for my own brands from scratch.  And tell a story about Pinot Noir in a way that it had not yet been told.

[TaV]: You worked at the wineries around the world. Are there any winemakers you would consider your mentors, either directly or indirectly?

[TR]: There is one fact in winemaking that I completely embrace: There is no way to learn it all…I will never stop learning, growing and evolving.   Every winemaker I have worked with has mentored me, including but not limited to, Rollin Soles, Ken Wright, Co Dinn, Jean-Francois Pellet and David Forsyth.

[TaV]: Can you explain your “low and slow” approach to the winemaking?

[TR]: Just like the “slow food” movement, I use top quality ingredients (grapes) from attentive, engaged farmers (vineyards) with whom I have a very close relationship.  I have hand chosen each of our vineyards myself and each brings a distinctive flavor profile (like spices) in order to make our signature “five-course meal” of Pinot Noir.

For all the Tendril wines, I over-vintage the wines in barrel (at least 16 months) and then bottle age 12 months or more prior to release.  The wines are then at the front end of their drinkability curve, with the potential for a decade enjoyment ahead of them.

[TaV]: I find it interesting that in your range of Pinot Noir you have only one vineyard-designated bottling – I always think that designated vineyards and even specific plots are better identify with quality of the grapes and the resulting wines – obviously you don’t see it like that?

[TR]: While I love to make single vineyard wines, I find that not every site is able to produce balanced, compelling and complete wines every year.  And that, simply put, is my goal as a winemaker.  So this is how the unique story and line-up of wines for Tendril was born.  When I started Tendril, I knew that I wanted to do something different with my portfolio of wines.  And it took 6 years to complete the lineup (Extrovert 2008, TightRope 2009, Single Vineyard (Guadalupe) 2011, C-Note 2011, Pretender 2013).

The common model that exists for Pinot Noir is the single vineyard model.  Wineries make 5-15 (or more) single vineyard wines in a given vintage.  The problem is that not all of the sites deliver on their promise of distinctiveness every year.  The true test is a horizontal tasting in which all of the wines are evaluated blind.  In a given year, some wines are great, some under deliver and some taste quite similar in a given line-up.  This is not consistent with my goal.

So, I created my own, unique model for Pinot Noir.  Each of my wines is distinctive and complete.  Collectively, they show a progression of flavors that mirrors the progression of dishes in a five-course meal.  My wines gain in intensity, darker fruit character and structure as the “courses” progress.  And each of the wines must re-qualify for their place in the lineup each and every year.

I believe single vineyard wines should be special.  Since all wineries charge more money for them, I think they should be worth it.  So we typically do just one offering per year that is, simply put, the “wine of the cellar” from just one site.  As I had anticipated, it has proven to be rotational (4 vineyards in 7 vintages).  It is like a Christmas present in that you don’t know what it is until you open it.

Tendril Cellars Pinot Noir

[TaV]: Your C-Note Pinot Noir is designated as “whole cluster fermented” – is that a substantial differentiator to make it the “top of the line” wine, or is there something else behind it?

[TR]: Of the Pinot Noir line-up, the C-Note is the most stylized wine yet at the same time requires the greatest amount of restraint.  Whole cluster fermentation of Pinot Noir is a technique that I have only attempted since 2011.  The was the first year I made a wine using 100% whole cluster…and it was so successful that it became our first C-Note bottling.

For C-Note, we use 100% Pinot Noir, 100% Whole Cluster fermentation, and age in 100% new French Oak barrels (air dried 3 + years).  The restraint comes into play in order to reign in the “whole clustery-ness” and tame the oak impact to mimic a wine with half the new oak exposure.  We are extremely gentle with our cap management to control the whole cluster notes and we select the most subtle, elegant barrels coupled with long aging to integrate the oak flavors.  C-Note is all about complexity, texture and mind-blowing length.  I love making wines that surprise and beguile.

[TaV]: You are one of the very few winemakers who conduct organized tastings. Can you explain what you are trying to showcase with your 5-course Pinot Noir approach?

[TR]: Yes, I believe the best way to showcase these wines and share this unique experience is to do seated tastings.  Like a five-course meal, our tasting take time (typically an hour and a half or more).  But people leave here feeling that that have experienced something truly special…and that is pretty rare.  They are shocked that they enjoyed each and every wine they tasted.

I began working in restaurants at a young age.  I cooked for several years and really enjoyed it.  A few years after I started making wines, I realized that I was using the exact same skill set to make wine that I used to cook.  I am truly a “wine cook” and make wine with that sensibility.

I wanted to showcase a diverse range of flavor profiles that can be accomplished on an annual basis with Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley.  Each offering is distinctive, unique and impeccably balanced.  Collectively, they showcase perhaps the greatest range of flavors and textures of Pinot Noir under one brand.

[TaV]: To follow on the previous question, how receptive are your customers (typically) to what you are presenting in the tasting? Do they get your point? Do you offer people to taste the wines blind and to try to identify what they are tasting?

[TR]: The beautiful thing about the “five-course meal” context of our tasting is that EVERYBODY can relate to that experience.  People completely get it and they really get into it.  The wines show a progression of flavors just like a multi-course meal.  They also increase in intensity much like turning up the volume on a radio.

At this stage, the tastings are not blind and are tasted one at a time.  And I don’t have the ability to pair food at this time.  But we have done the “five-course meal” here at the winery a few times. It was a huge success.

[TaV]: Maybe an odd-ball question here – wine is an adult beverage, and nevertheless, you called your line of wines “Child’s Play” (I personally like it very much, especially the labels). Do you think wine consumers might find this controversial? Did anyone ever comment on this wine name?

[TR]: I am a huge fan of the “double entendre”.  Here it is actually triple.  1) My kids playing…my two daughters paintings are the original artwork for all the labels 2) We winemakers are big kids and we get to “play” with offering unique wines (the Pinot Chardonnay is the only still version of Chardonnay and white Pinot Noir in the country…to my knowledge), Zinfandel from WA (a unicorn wine), and a stylistically different Rose of Pinot Noir.  The Pinot Noir is just damn good. 3) Child’s Play implies it’s easy…so easy a kid could do it.  We are taking the pretension out of wine with the packaging and the wines inside.  Great value for money…as it should be.

My customers love it.  The only objection came from the Feds…and a simple paragraph explaining point 3) above got us our label approval.

[TaV]: This one is more of the pet peeve question for me. Your Tendril wines are enclosed with the corks (makes me very happy to see it). The Child’s Play line uses screwtops, so obviously the screwtop idea is not foreign to you. I know that some winemakers in Oregon swear by alternative closures (like Don Hagge at Vidon with the glass stopper), but I personally think that the wine needs a cork to age properly. What is your take on this subject?

[TR]: While I like the idea of cork, the execution of the closure has haunted me for my entire career.  Corks are highly variable in both their flavor impact on the wines as well as the oxygen permeability.  Each one is unique and has an unintended impact on my wine.  I believe natural corks are a huge problem and as such, I no longer use them.  But I do gladly use a cork product in my Tendril wines (looks like a duck and quacks like a duck) that provides consistency of density and very low aromatic impact.  I would be happy to talk to you about this topic some time.  I have researched it for years.

Screw caps are new to me, but I love them in the Child’s Play line to further differentiate the brand from Tendril.  I think the MSRP $30 price point avoids any potential push back on the choice of closure.

[TaV]: Sparkling wines are so popular nowadays, almost everyone is making them, and often with very good results. Considering your experience at Argyle, should we expect to see Tendril sparkling wine at some point in the future?

[TR]: Maybe…but I will wait until we have a great sparkling wine vintage (cool and slow ripening) to make that decision.  If you asked my wife (who is a sparkling junkie), the answer would be yes.

I would only do it if it could have the potential to be a truly special offering.

Maverick Vineyard

Maverick Vineyard

[TaV]: What is in the store for your new Maverick vineyard? How are you planning to farm it – sustainable, organic, biodynamic? Out of 19 acres, you have 10.5 allocated for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – what about the rest? Any plans to expand beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – let’s say, Pinot Gris, Riesling, etc?

[TR]: At this time, Maverick is LIVE.  We plan to move towards organic over the next few years.  It is an incredibly well behaved site that is already producing strong personality wines.  I view this as a highly desirable trait for a young vineyard.  The Chardonnay for the Pinot Chardonnay (70% of the blend) is all Maverick.  This is the first bottled wine coming from Maverick.

No plans for other varietals at this time.  But the clonal mix for the Pinot Noir (943, Swan, Calera and Mt. Eden) is pretty unusual.

[TaV]: Oregon is clearly a leader in Pinot Noir, considered by many as simply the best in the world, and it is also getting to the same level of recognition with the Chardonnays. What is ahead for the Oregon wine industry? Is the future bright and sunny, or do you see any clouds on the horizon?

[TR]: To me, the only constant is change.  By that I mean that to continue to succeed as an industry, we need to be engaged (both locally and on a world stage), we need to be adaptive (as our climate continues to change, we are in for more and different challenges), and we need to be more concerned about the sustainability of our environment (both locally and throughout the world).

I believe we will have sun and clouds…and perhaps some rain.   Just the weather we always have in Oregon 😉

[TaV]: When you are not drinking Tendril wines, what are your favorites from the other producers and/or regions?

[TR]: Lately I have been enjoying Graham-Beck sparkling wine from South Africa.

Or give me a good single malt Scotch…

Here we are, my friends. I’m sure you are thirsty at this point, but we will talk about Tendril Cellars wines in the next post.

To be continued…

 

One on One With Winemakers: Tasting The Stars

January 14, 2018 2 comments

“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” – whether Dom Perignon said these words or not is not really important – but if you thought that we will be talking about the Champagne, you got it right! Also, plural mention of “winemakers” in the title is not a mistake – today’s “one on one” post is actually a double-feature.

The story of Duval-Leroy Champagne goes almost 160 years back, to 1859, when Edouard Leroy, wine négociant, met Jules Duval, grape grower – the rest is a history which you can read for yourself here. Today Duval-Leroy farms 200 hectares (about 500 acres) of vines, mostly in Premier and Grand Cru appellations, also using sustainable viticulture – Duval-Leroy is known as a pioneer of the sustainable grapegrowing in Champagne.

In 1785, “Heidsieck & Cie” company was founded with one dream – to create a Champagne worthy of a queen. After tasting the stars, Queen Marie Antoinette became the first “brand ambassador” for the Heidsieck Champagne. I don’t want to try to regurgitate here the rich history of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, you would be far better of reading it for yourself, but for all these years, Piper-Heidsieck story always included royal families, fashion designers, and movies. The bottle of Piper-Heidsieck was the first Champagne to ever appear in the movie in 1933. Since 1993, Piper-Heidsieck is an official supplier of Cannes Film Festival, and many actors and producers were recognized with the special Piper-Heidsieck Award at film festivals around the world.

Now, let’s get to that double-feature interview I promised. I’m running this “one-on-one” series of the interviews for about 3 years now. Until now, there was always a unique set of questions, prepared specifically for the particular winery and the winemaker. This time, I decided to play it a bit differently – ask the same set of questions of two winemakers – however, in this case, there is a great “common space” between the subjects of the interview – they both make Champagne!

I had an opportunity to [yes, virtually] sit down with Sandrine Logette, Cellar Master of Champagne Duval-Leroy, and Séverine Frerson, Chef de Caves at Piper-Heidsieck, and here is what transpired:

[TaV]: What is your approach to the blending of Vins Clairs? How many Vins Clairs are typically comprising your most standard NV house blend?

[DL]: It is necessary to first think about the flavor profile you would like to achieve: the aromatic notes with its intensity and its descriptors, its mouthfeel, its volume, its angles, its power and persistence as well as the volume: number of bottles to produce, volume of reserve wines to use and volume of wine to save for future ‘liqueur d’expédition’. The vins clairs are tasted several times (at least twice) after the malolactic fermentation to familiarize ourselves with their characteristics. The first approach to blending is always a minimal concept; which is what I call it my ‘accounting idea’. It is tasted, assessed and compared to our first and last blends of this wine made in previous years. The vins clairs are then improved by modifying only one character at a time. The same improvement is repeated as many times as necessary to achieve the best result. We use about 45 to 55 vins clairs to produce our Champagne Duval-Leroy Brut Réserve.

[PH]: We blend over 100 crus to make Piper-Heidsieck’s NV cuvée: the Cuvée Brut. I think of the vins clairs (base wines) as spices stored in little boxes in her mind and I know exactly which boxes/spices (and proportions) I need to add to create the same taste every year.

[TaV]: Can you describe your “house style”?

[DL]: Our goal is to maintain the quality of our Brut  Réserve NV vintage after vintage:

  • A complex aromatic profile showing fruity notes of yellow peach, damson and subtle red berries along with notes of cocoa powder and toasted bread
  • An integrated, round and generous mouthfeel but yet elegant and fresh.

[PH]: Piper-Heidsieck’s wine style is fruity, structured and complex, with lots of deepness. It’s a champagne to treat yourself and to share with your loved ones. Champagne serves as a bridge between people. It triggers and enhances moments of sharing, complicity and joy. And we are the ones who strive to create memorable experiences. It is all truly wonderful!

[TaV]: Somewhat of a continuation of the previous question: I don’t know if you ever experimented with this, but I wonder if a panel of wine consumers (non-experts) would be able to identify your standard NV offering in a blind tasting?

[DL]: We have worked with a panel of French consumers who tasted our Brut Réserve NV. This panel was able to detect the fruity nose without going into details and recognize the roundness of the mouthfeel and the integrated acidity.

[PH]: The goal of our Cellar Masters is to maintain Piper-Heidsieck’s style, and make it recognizable. Our wines are fruity, structured and profound but also well balanced, straight and bright. In the case of the Cuvée Brut, it’s a seductive champagne that you can recognize on your palate right away. What gives it away is its notes of almond and fresh hazelnut that are very lively, subtle and light. It’s a very smooth an pure champagne with notes of fresh pear and apple with a delicate hint of citrus fruits (pomelo). You can also taste the blonde grapes and juicy white fruits that create the lightness of the champagne.

[TaV]: Similar question to the second one, only now for the vintage Champagne – can you describe your house style?

[DL]: Our vintage “house style” is given by the characteristics of that specific year which varies according to the weather, therefore, the quality of the grapes (acid-sugar balance – fruit richness). We do not look for our vintage cuvées to be identical year after year. We make the best vintage with what nature has to offer.

[PH]: The Cellar Masters’ goal when creating a vintage champagne is to put a special year in a bottle. They want to take a snapshot of this particularly great year to keep it as a memory and reward the hard work of our vineyard team without forgetting about the Piper-Heidsieck style. Every vintage is different but they all answer to the Piper-Heidsieck style: wines that are fruity, structured with great depth. Our Cellar Masters took the best grapes from 2008 to put it in our current vintage: Vintage 2008 is a precise, elegant and free-spirit wine that showcases the greatest wines 2008 had to offer.

[TaV]: I would assume all (many?) of the Champagne houses have their “secret stash” of Champagnes which had not been disgorged yet – and the wines are disgorged on one by one basis, maybe for the special clients. Do you have such a “secret stash”? What are the oldest, not yet disgorged wines you have in your cellars?

[DL]: Of course, Duval-Leroy has its secret reserve Champagnes that are not disgorged and waiting in the cellar for that special request. Vintages such as 1979, 1982, 1986, 1988, 1990 … are kept in bottles and magnums (not systematically in each cuvée).

[PH]: We do have old cuvées in our Cellars, our “secret library” contains old NV from 1980 to now and different vintages from 1982 and on.

[TaV]: Are the Champagne styles changing to address the consumer demand? For instance, I would expect that people would like to drink more of Brut Nature/zero dosage and Rosé Champagne. What do you think?

[DL]: The Champagnes’ style may slightly vary depending on consumers demand, but not fundamentally change. Champagne is an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée which defines production rules and style objectives of quality.
We have seen a greater demand for Champagne Rosé and 5 to 10% sales increase over the past 10 years.
Rosé Champagne is an accessible Champagne, more obvious in terms of taste, festive by its color and more enticing.
The growing demand is also linked to the fact that Rosé Champagne has more personality and a specific identity. It is definitely easier to produce due to warmer weather in recent years.
We find an equally interesting demand for low dosage Champagnes. These low dosages are made possible because of a better integrated acidity naturally due to the wines richness and roundness.

[PH]: We do see some trends in the industry, people tend to be more knowledgeable about what they consume and younger generations like to be more informed. They become more and more wine experts so they ask to question about dosage, disgorgement dates … We have our cuvée Essentiel that works really well with wine experts since they have all the information they need on the label (disgorgement date, bottling date, lot number…) and it’s an extra brut. At Piper-Heidsieck we have a wide range of champagnes to please everyone, we have Rosé Sauvage, Essentiel (extra brut) for wine experts and connoisseurs, our Cuvée Brut, a vintage and Cuvée Sublime (a demi-sec). Our range satisfies all consumers, from non-experts to wine lovers and our entire range has complimentary food pairings.

[TaV]: Champagne seems to enjoy higher popularity overall over the last few years. Do you expect that trend to continue? Are the challenges for Champagne which need to be overcome?

[DL]: Of course we want this trend to continue and Champagne to remain the leader sparkling wine out there. In order to overcome any challenges, the Champagne region needs to continue improving.

[PH]: This trend will continue for sure. As mentioned before, the younger generation tends to be more and more knowledgeable about what they consume, especially for wines. They gain interest and want to develop their palate and their knowledge about wine. With more educated consumers that know the quality of champagne and tend to pair champagne with food more and more often we will keep seeing an increasing popularity in champagne consumption in the upcoming years.

The biggest challenge we will be facing is climate change. The Earth is getting warmer and the climate is changing making it even more difficult for us to ensure the quality of grapes as the years go on. With the unpredictable weather, our vineyard team will have to work even harder to protect our vines and ensure a high quality. At Piper-Heidsieck we already took measures to protect the environment as much as we can with recycling measures, reducing our water consumption and gas emissions. It’s a global concern and a challenge that will affect all industries in one way or another.

Another challenge would be the increasing sales of other sparkling wine, but it’s not too concerning as sparkling wines and champagne are very different products consumed for different reasons. As the consumers are getting more knowledgeable they can tell the difference between sparkling wines and champagne and they consume one of the other at different occasions.

[TaV]: What is your most favorite Champagne you personally or your house overall ever produced and why?

[DL]: My favorite is our Femme de Champagne tête de cuvée and specifically the 1995 and 1996 vintages. Very great vintages with beautiful and precise balance and a great aging potential.

[PH]: I actually don’t have a favorite champagne! It all depends on the moment, when I will open it and with whom! I will choose the Cuvée Brut for a festive aperitif with friends. I love the Vintage 2008 for an intimate dinner and the Rosé Sauvage in the summer with a barbecue.

[TaV]: Champagne rules allow using 7 different grape varieties, yet absolute majority only uses 3 from that list. Have you ever experimented with using any of those 4 leftover grapes? If yes, did you get any interesting results?

[DL]: Since 1998, we regularly vinify one of the old grape varietal of Champagne called ‘petit meslier and produce a specific cuvée: Précieuses Parcelles. Petit Meslier is a white grape varietal that grows well in soils rich in clay (a natural cross between Gouais and Savagnin) in the right bank of Vallée de la Marne.
It is a varietal that struggles to ripen, therefore has a mouthfeel marked by sharp acidity and aromatic notes of rhubarb.
I chose to vinify it in barrels to add some fine oak and spicy notes. Currently, we are working on the 2007 vintage with a low dosage of 4 g / l.
It is a cuvée of curiosity, interesting for its rusticity and for an unusual “Taste” of Champagne.

[PH]: Piper-Heidsieck’s Cellar Masters never experienced with the other grapes, because they only focused on those 3 grapes and developed an expertise in those grapes.

[TaV]: Sparkling wines are produced absolutely everywhere in the world today. Have you tried any of the Methode Classique sparkling wines produced outside of France (Italy, Spain, South Africa, USA,…), and if yes, did you find anything you liked? You don’t have to love them, but maybe you liked just a little, tiny bit? 🙂

[DL]: Fifteen years ago, the Duval-Leroy family contemplated purchasing vineyards in England but decided otherwise. They’d rather stay focused on the terroirs of Champagne.

[PH]: Today sparkling wines are developing, but  Champagne stays the luxurious sparkling wine of reference.
It’s always interesting to discover other regions – for example, I tasted high quality sparkling wines from Italy, Spain and Hungary and even if we are in the sparkling wine category they all had they own style and authenticity!

Time top drink some Champagne, isn’t it?

First, I wanted to try NV Duval-Leroy Rosé Prestige Premier Cru (Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend) and NV Piper-Heidsieck Rosé Sauvage (50-55% Pinot Noir, 30-35% Meunier, 15-20% Chardonnay) side by side, as both are Rosé Champagne. There was a dramatic difference in appearance and taste profile. Duval-Leroy, in a word, was sublime. Delicate pinkish color, just a light salmon pink, whiff of the toasted bread, vibrant acidity on the palate, touch of lemon – seductive, and yes, sublime. Sauvage, on another hand, means “wild” in French – and that exactly how the Piper-Heidsieck was. Strawberry pink in the glass, fresh tart strawberries and a touch of yeast on the nose, and then generous toasted bread, granny smith apples and strawberries on the palate. Truly different and delicious in its own right.

NV Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Brut (50-55% Pinot Noir, 30-35% Meunier, 15-20% Chardonnay, 10-20% reserve wines) was, in a word, classic – generous, voluptuous, touch of toasted bread and yeast, full mouthfeel, golden delicious apple sweetness, good minerality, very present and excellent overall.

Three Champagnes, three different wines, each delicious in its own right, each worthy to be a star of a special celebratory dinner or a quiet evening for two. And two conversations about the wines, the passion, the style, the stars. We spoke enough today; if you are still reading this, thank you and cheers!

One on One with Winemaker: Steve Lutz of Lenné Estate

October 8, 2016 8 comments
Steve Lutz

Steve Lutz. Source: Lenné Estate

For many years, I was trying to start my garden. Every year I would order my tomato plants, some peppers, and some herbs, plant them and then meticulously make sure to water them on a regular basis and hope for the best. Every year my reward would be a nice rosemary and sage (basil would always die) and maybe 10 mediocre tomatoes from 8 or so plants.

This was the story until this year, when I built raised beds, got a perfect top soil, premixed with all the proper organic fertilizers, planted tomatoes and lots more, and still collect (it is October now) a nice daily harvest of tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers. The soil is the king, you know – that rich, soft, almost greasy dark goodness of the good dirt.

Don’t worry, this post is not about me and not about my amateur gardening escapades. Talking about wine, do you think the soil is important? Would you want the best possible soil for your vines, the richest and the most nutritious? Or would you believe that someone would purposefully choose the plot with the poorest possible soil, and plant there the vineyard of their dreams? Enters Steve Lutz, who did exactly that.

In the year 2000, after searching for the perfect vineyard site for 8 months, Steve Lutz climbed a steep hill on the outskirts of the town of Yamhill in Northern Oregon, and after an hour of negotiations became an owner of the plot where Lenné vineyard was planted. The chosen site had peavine soil, which is not all that rich in the nutrients. Couple that with the steep slope and no irrigation, and you got the ideal farming conditions, right?

In 2001, 11 acres of Pinot Noir vines were planted, consisting of 3 blocks (one Pinot Noir clone per block). In the first year, Steve lost 35% of his plantings. In 2003, the additional 2.5 acres were planted, only to lose practically all of it to the record heat in the same year. It was only in 2007 that Steve was able to harvest enough fruit to vinify individual Pinot Noir clones. Also in 2007, Steve opened the tasting room, and the rest of it is a history which you can read for yourself on Lenné Estate web site.

lenné vineyard

Source: Lenné Estate

I had an opportunity to [virtually, of course] sit down with Steve and ask him a few questions – here is what came out of our conversation:

TaV: Before you purchased that parcel of land that became Lenné, what made you believe that that soil can produce great Pinot Noir wines?

SL: All great soils for growing grapes have low nutrient value that limits the vines vigor. The soil type I am on is classified as the poorest Ag soil in Yamhill County. I knew the shallow, low nutrient, sedimentary soil would produce smaller clusters and berries with more concentration.

TaV: It took you about 6 years (from 2001 to 2007) to get to any level of commercial success. How many times (if ever) you were ready to declare the project to be a failure?

SL: Well there was too much sweat equity and personal money involved to turn back, but after we planted a 2.5 acre block in 2003 (one of the hottest springs ever) and lost all of it, we came close.

TaV: The soil at Lenné sounds it can produce some other interesting wines – have you thought about planting grapes other than Pinot Noir, let’s say Syrah?

SL: Well, we have grafted some Pinot to Chardonnay and have thought about grafting a little over to Gewurztraminer. The issue is that you can’t do much because it isn’t economically viable. We do have a neighbor that grows syrah which I find interesting but it’s a little like swimming upstream; cool weather Syrah is fascinating with bottle age but a hard sell young.

TaV: Outside of your own wines, what is your most favorite wine what you ever tasted?

SL: Well, years ago I had all the DRC wines about a half a dozen times and those would have to be my favorites.

TaV: Looking at the names of your wines, I’m assuming Jill’s 115 and Eleanor’s 114 are named after your daughters?

SL: No, Jill is my mother in law who lives in England and Eleanor is named after my late mother. We also have a wine called Karen’s Pommard named after my wife.

TaV: Along the same lines, I’m sure there should be a story behind the name of “Kill Hill”?

SL: Yes, that is the most shallow, stressed soil in the vineyard and we had many dead vines when we planted there in spite of burning out a clutch on a tractor trying to keep them watered the first year. I always referred to it as “kill hill” because of all the mortality. When we finally got it established I decided to blend the two clones there (114 and 667) and call it “Kill Hill.”

Lenne Vineyard

Source: Lenné Estate

TaV: You are teaching a class for the wine consumers on Dundee Hills and Yamhill-Carlton District soils, Red and Black, which includes blind tasting. How often do your students identify the wines correctly to the type of soil?

SL: Probably about 70% of the time.

TaV: Do you plan to expand the vineyard in the future?

SL: No, we have planted most of which is plantable.

TaV: If you are to expand the vineyard, would you ever consider planting white grapes, such as Pinot Gris or Chardonnay?

SL: Refer to above.

TaV: I understand that you are using low intervention, dry farming. Do you have any plans to obtain any certifications, such as LIVE, or maybe even going all the way into biodynamics?

SL: We are looking at the LIVE program right and I have thought about experimenting with biodynamics though I think some of the practices are more about marketing than having anything to do with good farming practices.

TaV: I’m really curious about the particular significance of “11 months in oak” which seems all of your wines are going through. Why exactly 11 months? Do you ever change the duration of time the wine spends in oak based on the qualities of the particular vintage?

SL: No, not really. The practice is based partially on practicality in that we like to get the wines out of the barrel before harvest. But having said that my philosophy is to get the wines in the bottle as intact as possible. Letting them sit in oak for extended periods of time leads to oxidation. Pinot is very sensitive to oxidation and I would rather put it in the bottle with as much of a reflection of the vineyard as possible and let what happens in the bottle happen. Some vintages could benefit in terms of mouthfeel with extended barrel aging, but they will get that in the bottle and have less oxidation than if you gave them extended barrel age.

TaV: If you would have an opportunity to “do over”, would you choose any other location for your winery, or maybe more generally, what would you do differently?

SL: I would do a lot of things differently in terms of the way we started, attention to detail in terms of farming the first year. We were in such a hurry to put the plants in the ground that we didn’t have our farming practices completely dialed in with the right equipment. As far as the site I can honestly say there is not another 21 acre site in Oregon that I would even think about trading my site for. The one thing we got completely right was finding the site.

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

2014 Lenné Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (14.2% ABV, $38)
C: Garnet
N: Smoke, lavender, ripe blackberries, medium intensity
P: tart cherries, fresh, vibrant acidity, firm tannins and firm structure, earthiness, excellent balance
V: 8-, very good wine, food friendly, will evolve with time

Here you are, my friends – another story of Passion and Pinot – now it is all about the soil and believing in yourself. We are not done yet, so until the next time – cheers!

To be continued…

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

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