Willamette Valley is my favorite American wine region to visit. It has a near-optimal balance of beauty, tranquility, quality wine, quality people and proximity to a decently-sized airport. Though not mountainous in the snow-capped sense, it is an obvious valley with beautiful slopes, rolling hills and a discernible floor. Though remote in feel, its northern tip is barely an hour from Portland. Though dominated by world class pinot noir and chardonnay, it offers fantastic examples of other varieties as well, notably gamay, syrah, pinot gris and riesling in my book. Though world class in quality and price and winery aesthetics, its wine professionals are accessible and friendly and the pretense low. The Willamette Valley is what comes to mind when I think of a trip to wine country.
For those who cannot make it in-person, May was Oregon Wine Month (or so says the industry) and an excuse to delve into the State’s wines. I’m lucky enough to be planning a trip to Willamette in late July, but that didn’t mean I was about to let May slip by without spending serious time with Oregon wine. Jackson Family Wines (I’ll refer to them as “KJ” for Kendall-Jackson, their main label) was kind enough to send me an array of wines from their Oregon portfolio, and I divvied them up into sets of three to explore over five evenings at the end of the month. I posted comments and partial reviews on our Instagram and Facebook accounts, and promised this full write-up in June. Here we are, barely over deadline.
Some words on KJ before I talk about Oregon. I think the content on this blog demonstrates that a large majority of my focus is on the little guy. This isn’t so much a conscious decision I make, something born out of a David and Goliath complex or a distaste for corporations, but rather one driven by the reality that smaller producers tend to push the limits and experiment in interesting ways that catch my attention while producing wines that are, on balance, more engaging and satisfying than the big guys. Yet this is my second piece that heavily features KJ wineries, and in this case it has an exclusive focus on them. So what gives?
I was introduced to KJ corporate through a winemaker dinner I attended in Washington, DC featuring Shane Moore, winemaker at Oregon’s Zena Crown and Gran Moraine wineries, both of which are KJ properties. I wrote a piece on that wine dinner making the case for attending winemaker dinners, and have included Shane in several additional Good Vitis pieces, including a solo profile, because I respect the guy so damn much as a winemaking talent and all-around good dude. This led to a relationship with several people at KJ headquarters, which led to help organizing an incredible Napa trip in December of last year and the upcoming Willamette trip this summer. Through my interactions with KJ corporate people and the wineries they own, I came to appreciate just how much Barbara Banke, the chairman and proprietor of KJ, and her staff respect the soul of the wineries they purchase and don’t impinge, as far as I can tell, much on the wineries. Instead, KJ spends time and money on promoting the wines and authentic stories of the wineries and personalities that originally put them on KJ’s radar while providing the resources to foster growth and quality improvement. I’m sure it’s not all sunshine and puppies, and I certainly don’t want to project a sense that I know more than I do, but I enjoy many of the wineries they own on the merits of the wine and approach taken to make them.
Source: Oregon Wine Press
Oregon has more than one wine region, though I imagine Willamette is the best known. Oregon boasts eighteen American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which are spread among three main areas. One runs the length of the Interstate 5 corridor (generously conceived for this purpose) between the Washington and California borders, another comprises a good chunk of the northern border with Washington along the Columbia River, and the other along the state’s Eastern border. This geography covers a number of different terroirs. My favorite Oregon syrah is made by Cowhorn, which is located about 15 miles north of the California border, while my favorite pinot producer, Cameron, is a six hour drive to the north. Some of the most famed syrah produced by Washington wineries is, in fact, grown just south of the Washington-Oregon border in Northeastern Oregon. The Columbia Gorge, which runs East-West across the top of the State, is a growing wine region with a burgeoning reputation on both sides of the border. The wines covered in this piece, though all come from Willamette Valley, represent the Yamhill-Carlton and Eola-Amity AVAs as well as a few that are blends from across the Valley.
Yamhill-Carlton was established as an AVA in 2004. It’s about 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, and gets some weather buffering from the Coast Range Mountains, which top out at 3,500 feet above sea level, that stand between it and the ocean. To the north, Chehalem Mountain adds some additional protection, as do the Dundee Hills to the east. The soils are mainly marine sedimentary that lies on top of sandstone and siltstone, a combination that tends to moderate acid development.
Eola-Amity came online as an AVA two years after Yamhil-Carlton. It’s home to Oregon’s longest continuously operating winery, Honeywood Winery, and is located to the south and east of Yamhill-Carlton. Though more inland, it still receives good air flow through a break in the Coastal Range called the Van Duzer Corridor. This keeps the summers and winters temperate, and luckily for producers the rain tends to fall mostly outside the growing season. The soils are a mix of volcanic basalt, marine sendimentary and alluvial deposits, a combination leading to shallow and well-drained soils that help build concentration.
For the first night of this Oregon Wine Month project, I chose Yamhill-Carlton designates from Siduri and Gran Moraine and a Willamette Valley blend from Penner-Ash. Regarding the first two, it’s always fun to see how producers in the same area compare to each other, and in these two I got the contrast I wanted.
Siduri is a California winery focused on pinot noir started by Adam Lee, who also makes the wine. Adam recently sold Siduri to KJ, but agreed to stay on as winemaker. I was fortunate enough to enjoy an incredible evening of wine and discussion with Adam when he visited my area earlier this year, and so was excited to try his Oregon pinot. We exchanged some emails subsequently, and I asked him how he made Oregon wine living in California. It’s an interesting explanation, so I’m going to quote him:
“I’ve been making wine from Oregon grapes since 1995 (the second year of Siduri). We made our first wine, in 1994, at Lambert Bridge Winery where we worked in the tasting room. The GM at Lambert Bridge owned some land in Oregon that he had planted with pinot noir and was impressed enough with what we did in 1994 to sell us grapes in 1995. That’s how we got into Oregon. Since that 1995 vintage we always shipped grapes back to California using a refrigerated truck. The shipping itself is pretty easy, and if the truck is set right around freezing the grapes arrive in fantastic shape. Beginning with the 2015 vintage, the sale to Jackson Family Wines, and the larger quantity of wine we were making, we started making more of the wine up in Oregon. So we trucked some of the stuff down but made more of it up in Oregon. I’d fly up every week on Monday, back on Wednesday. Ryan Zepaltas, our assistant winemaker, flew up on Wednesday and back on Friday. So we basically spent the entire week up there.”
I also asked Adam how he might make his Oregon wines differently than he does his Californian bottles. “There are many years where we do have to do things differently with Oregon fruit than California fruit….but in the last few vintages (2014-2016) there were more similarities in the grapes than in other vintages. Thus there wasn’t nearly as much to do differently,” he told me. “One thing we do always is take a look at malic percentages. Oregon can come in with higher malic levels – so although the grapes come in with great acidity, a lot of it falls out through malolactic fermentation. That really wasn’t an issue in 2015. In fact, 2015 was just about as ideal of a harvest as you could imagine. Arguably the best year we’ve ever had in Oregon.”
The Siduri and Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carltons, like most of the wines in this article, come from the 2015 vintage. I asked Shane Moore, Gran Moraine’s winemaker, about the vintage, and he threw a serious of adjectives at me: “Expressive. Super heady. Great acidity. Transparency.” Capped off with “Pinot lovers rejoice!”
Siduri’s Yamhill-Carlton is a blend of Gran Moraine Vineyard and the vineyard at Gran Moraine Winery (yes, these are two distinctly different vineyards). Adam explained that “the vineyard at the winery is entirely dry farmed and, even early in the growing season, I knew it was going to be the first grapes picked. You could tell by looking at the early yellowing leaves. That fruit did, indeed, arrive early. We destemmed it all. We let the fruit at the Gran Moraine hang longer (with careful irrigation), which allowed us to get riper stems and utilize more whole clusters in those ferments.”
I found the nose of the Siduri to be deep and hedonistic, offering sweet cherry, cola, ink, cassis, kirsch and rose. It’s full bodied with smooth and plush tannin and bright acidity, everything appearing in good balance that I think will improve even more with time. Flavors are tarter than the nose, delivering cherry, cranberry, huckleberry, wet pavement, pastel florals and a small dose of wet soil. 91 pts, value B+.
The Gran Moraine, in my experience with this and previous vintages, delivers incredible value for pinot noir. The slightly restrained nose wafts boysenberry, dark earth, olive brine, lightly tanned leather and orange zest. Boarding on full bodied, it has velvety tannins and shiny acid that’s well integrated. The substantial depth of this one demands a good decant, and benefits from keeping it in your mouth for an extended period of time to experience its development. I think this has good medium-term aging potential. Flavors hit on pomegranate, acai, plum, black olive, currant, wet soil and juniper berry. 92 pts, value A-.
The Penner-Ash Willamette Valley pinot noir is distributed nationally and shows up on a lot of restaurant wine lists around the country. It serves as Penner-Ash’s entry point pinot, and is one that tries to strike a widely appealing profile. I’ve had a number of vintages and it tends to show very little variation from year-to-year, making its consistency an appealing asset for consumers who like knowing what they’re getting each time. Nevertheless, it usually offers good depth for the price, and is one that I always wish I could have a few years of bottle age.
The 2015 has a saturated nose of plummy cherry, Dr. Pepper, graphite and lavender. It’s rocking a full body that enters thick. The tannin is restrained but mouth-filling and slightly grainy, and the acid strikes a good level. Flavors are a briar patch of blackberry, raspberry and boysenberry complimented nicely by baking spice and just a touch of saline. While it’s nice now, I’d love to try this one again in 2020 and expect it to do well for a few additional years. 91 points, value: B+.
On night number two, I took a similar but more narrow approach in choosing two wines that come from the same vineyard, but then added a white into the mix. The latter, a pinot gris, was my first introduction to WillaZenzie Estate, a winery that quickly became a revelation. All of WillaKenzie’s wines come from their own vineyards, and many of their wines are vineyard-designates. I’ll get to a number of their pinots later, but the 2017 pinot gris has a voluminously perfumed nose of grapefruit, peach, gravel, slate lime zest and marzipan. Lean on entry, it gains body as it sits in the mouth. The acid is nicely balanced, neither subdued nor overbearing. Key Lime pie, starfruit and grapefruit dominate the fruit profile, though the stony minerality really drives the length of this linear, focused wine. Impressive effort. 90 points, Value A.
The two reds hark from the famed Zena Crown vineyard. I asked Shane what makes the vineyard so special. “It’s all about the terroir! Fantastic soils (both volcanic and sedimentary); Great SW facing aspects; cold evening wind at night during the summer; in the sweet spot for Oregon viticulture in terms of elevation at 200-800ft,” he said.
The first of the two reds was the 2015 Hartford Family Winery Warrior Princess Block Zena Crown Vineyard pinot noir, which has a deep, serious nose boasting aromas of briar berry compote, dark dusty cocoa, graphite, lavender, tar and candied red apple. It’s nimble on the palate, exhibiting youthful finesse. The gorgeous tannins provide a sturdy frame, but don’t overpower while the acid is spot-on. Though I wouldn’t call the structure elegant, it has skillfully found a balance between power and finesse that’s intriguing. In the flavor department you get black and boysenberry, very dark chocolate, rose petals, lavender, Herbs de Provence, and wet soil. Though it’s good now, it will be better in five years. 92 points, value: C.
The 2015 Zena Crown Slope has a youthful nose that is still growing into itself, though it promises to be a thing of beauty. Detecting ripe cherry, raspberry, plum and multiple florals. The texture on this one is stunning; talk about velvety tannins, there’s no end to them or their silkiness. The acid is on-point as well. Simply stunning. The flavors will require a bit more time to match the texture, but they don’t disappoint at this stage with sweet plum sauce, dark cherries, chocolate mousse, graphite, cinnamon, nutmeg and just a hint of green onion spice. Not for the faint of heart, and worthy of ten years in the cellar. 94 points, value B.
Shout out to Zena Crown for the short foil. I’ve long wished wineries eschewed them altogether so customers could see the condition of the cork.
On the third night, I randomly selected three wines: two pinots and a chardonnay. Some Burgundian producers prefer to serve these varieties in what might otherwise be reverse order: red first, then white. Because pinot isn’t a heavy or cloying red, it can be followed by a white that brings sharper acidity and good body. I’ve always preferred this method and followed it again this time to great success.
The 2015 Willakenzie Pierre Leon was the revelation of this entire Oregon Wine Month line up for me. It offers a very ripe and pretty nose wafting raspberry, cut cherry, perfumed rose and tangerine peel. It’d medium in weight with very juicy acidity, I just love how it coats the mouth. The tannins are subtle, but the wine is no wimp. The flavor profile is also ripe and pretty with raspberry, cherry, potpourri, tangerine, light tobacco, white pepper and Chervil. This is an elegant wine in structure, aroma and flavor. It reminds me of Musigny. I’d love to have it with another 5-8 years of age. 94 points, value A.
Next was the 2015 La Crema Willamette Valley pinot noir, which is another nationally distributed bottle that aims to find all sorts of middle ground and appeal to a wide audience. It has a fairly dark nose featuring cherry compote, raspberry chocolate cake and wet tar. The mouth is round and smooth, the acid bright and the tannins restrained. Flavors are fruit-forward with sweet cherry and strawberry, while subtle pepper and Herbs de Provence drive the finish. Not the most complex wine, but enjoyable. 89 points, value B+.
Finally came the white. The 2015 Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton chardonnay is benchmark Oregon chardonnay in my book and the twinkle in the Gran Moraine eye. Priced in the mid $40s, it’s not cheap, but routinely out performs many of the State’s more expensive chardonnays. This vintage is a stellar one. The nose gives off sweet oak, dried mango, honeysuckle, vanilla custard and a smidge of Earl Grey tea. It’s a plush medium weight on the palate with a bit of a glycerin sensation that I just love. The barrel influence is restrained but present in the structure and flavors as well as the nose, it’s managed just right for this profile. There’s oak vanillin, Meyer lemon, sweet cream, Thai basil, persimmon and dried apricot. 93 points, value A.
Night number four introduced a rosé. I’m finding more and more that pinot has a pureness about it that other red varieties don’t deliver in rosé form. The 2017 WillaKenzie Estate Rosé delivers serious pureness on the nose, which I completely dug, though the palate seems a bit disjointed at this stage and may need a few months in bottle to merge. It has a nose of bright crushed strawberry, cantaloupe, crushed limestone and coriander. It’s on the fuller side of the rose spectrum, and quite lush. The acid is kicking. The fruit zeros in on strawberry, cranberry and salmon berry, while there are touches of nutmeg and parsley that seem out of place. 88 points, value C.
The 2015 Siduri Willamette Valley pinot noir seemed a little thin and hasn’t quite delineated itself yet on the palate to the point of flavors becoming individually discernible. It has, though, achieved an impressive balance that suggests it can fill out. I suspect it may just need a few more months in bottle to come together. The round, ripe nose is mostly about the strawberry, raspberry and cherry, though dark, wet soil adds some depth. It’s of medium weight on the palate, largely due to the juicy, bright acidity that brings levity. The tannins are quite refined, and the balance is impressive, though ultimately this feels a bit thin. The flavors are slightly muted at this stage. The fruit is a bit generically red, though there are some pretty florals – rose petals mostly – trying to peep through. I think three to six months in the bottle will bring this together, though longer aging is likely unnecessary. 88 points, and on the assumption that it will come together, it gets an A value.
The 2015 Penner-Ash Estate Vineyard pinot noir offers a boatload of potential for the patient. The nose boarders on hedonistic, and offers some killer aromas of iron, black strap molasses and bruised strawberry and blackberry, though it’s obvious that with some bottle age there will be more to come. The body is as full-throttled, and the tannin structure and acid suggest a minimum of 5-6 years is required for it to really come together, though I’d give it a decade to allow the full range of fruit and Earthy flavors to shine: Acai, pomegranate, raspberry, blackberry, tar, black tea and black pepper all duck and weave through a robust tannin structure and acid that will need to relax for this wine to show its best self. This will be an all-star if one can wait a solid decade. Penner-Ash’s Estate Vineyard has some cool stuff going on. 92 points, value A-.
For the fifth and final night I reserved all WillaKenzie pinots, though as it turns out, night three’s Pierre Leon was my favorite from the producer. Those four are all part of the estate’s single vineyard bottle program that draw from estate vineyards that are very close to each other, though each has its distinct personality and profile. For those unconvinced of terroir, pouring the Pierre Leon and these three blind, and then showing the vineyard map, ought to be enough to suspect the French were on to something.
Of the three tasted together, the 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Aliette is the most delicate. It’s quite perfumed with a bouquet of Spring flowers and rose potpourri, cherry, strawberry, juniper, clove, and allspice on this high-toned nose. The palate is modest in weight, but round and smooth. Tannin is well integrated, while the acid is pleasantly juicy and slightly tart. The range of red fruit is impressive: strawberry, cranberry, huckleberry and raspberry, plus a not-so-minor role for plum. Tar, pepper and mulled spices feature on the back end. Pretty, but uninspiring at the moment, I suspect it will reach a higher elevation with three to five years of aging. 92 points, value A-.
The 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Kiana gives the impression of purple-ness. Its nose is reserved at the moment, though it offers promise with fruit punch aromas, uncured bacon and molasses. The tannin is fine grained and refined, the acid juicy and the overall weight modest. The flavors a bit more alive than the nose at this stage, with raspberry, boysenberry and pomegranate driving a profile supported by tobacco leaf and tar. Coming together nicely, I think it’ll continue to develop positively over the next five to ten years. 93 points, value: A.
While the 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Emery is a bit reticent on the nose at the moment, it delivers licorice, molasses, blackberry and pepper. The body is big and round, though the acid keeps it plucky and the tannins are integrated sufficiently to maintain the smooth profile. Slightly savory on the palate, it offers uncured bacon, red currant, red plum, Acai, black pepper and tarragon. This is a compelling package that I’d love to revisit in five plus years. 94 points, value A.
I love Oregon wine. This line up of 15 bottles reaffirmed that. The quality is there. The terroir is there. The talent is there. It’s just a fantastic place to produce high quality pinot and chardonnay that has distinction from the world’s other pinots and chardonnays, as well as, as mentioned above, a number of other varieties (for fans of savory syrah, old school riesling, and refined pinot gris, Oregon has stones worth turning over). It has a soul, which is not something that every wine region can legitimately claim. I think this is in part because the world seems to have left the State relatively alone long enough for it to find its identity and strengths and settle in on its own terms. It’s probably insulting to say that its wine is ready for the world, since it has been for a while now, but commercially it has a lot of unrealized potential and I’d like to see more wine drinkers across the world take note. Oregon Wine Month 2019 is another eleven months away, but don’t sit on Oregon wine until then.