The 2018 Good Vitis Tastemakers

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The author and Martin Evans

I’m blessed by this blog in a number of ways, most notably in that it provides me opportunities to meet friendly, fascinating, talented and remarkably knowledgeable people with whom I share a passion. In wine, like nearly all things in life, people matter most. Human beings crave connections to other human beings, and meeting and bonding with winemakers, wine writers and others is often more exciting than any one bottle of wine for me. The winemakers who made this list fall in that category.

For this reason, the annual Good Vitis Tastemakers post has to be one of my favorite posts to compile and write. I get to share this benefit with my readers by bring the words of winemakers directly to them.

The Good Vitis Tastemakers of 2018 include four individuals who helped further my knowledge and appreciation of wine: Matthieu Finot of King Family Vineyards and Domaine Finot and Ben Jordan of Early Mountain Vineyards, both of Virginia; Evan Martin of Martin Woods Winery in Oregon; and Adam Lee of Siduri and Clarice Wine Project in California. I sent each of them the same questionnaire, which bears some, but not all, resemblance to the questions our 2017 Tastemakers answered, and I’ve printed them verbatim below (with minor editing for clarity). For each person I’ve also given a brief introduction and explanation for why they made the list.

Matthieu Finot – King Family Vineyards and Domaine Finot

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Matthieu Finot (second from left)

When I agreed to cover Maryland and Virginia for The Cork Report, I didn’t know Matthieu. He came by way of several peoples’ recommendation as one of the first winemakers in Virginia I should meet. Matthieu makes the wine at one of the state’s very best and most respected wineries and consults for several others, which alone could be enough to make a list like this. However, his institutional knowledge of Virginia’s wine scene, its terroir, its history and all of its particularities, combined, makes him one of the most effective winemakers in Virginia because he can represent so many facets of it. The proof is in the bottle, three of which I mention in the Good Vitis Most Memorable Wines of 2018.

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King Family Vineyards (estate vineyards)

Further, the breadth of his experience outside of Virginia boosts the credibility of his presence in any discussion. Although it’s almost comical, I decided to include the full list of wineries he has worked at prior to King Family below (his resume covers the Rhone Valley, Bordeaux, Jura, Bandol, Burgundy, South Africa and Italy) because Virginia is a tough place to make good wine and that kind of diversity of experience equips him well to handle it. Matthieu has a response to every question – at least every question I’ve asked him – that is informative, if not instructive. While the regions he has previously worked in produce wines among those most respected in the world, I would argue that making exceptional Virginia wine is not something many winemakers from those regions could do.

1. Winery and role: King Family Vineyards, winemaker.

2. Number of years in the wine business: 24.

3. Previous wineries/roles: I should send you my resume!

Proprietor

Domaine Finot                 Bernin/Larnage(France)                                                                           -ISERE / CROZES-HERMITAGE-            

Winemaker

King Family Vineyards Vineyards                                Crozet (USA)                                     -VIRGINIA-            

Consultant

Multiple Clients                                                     Charlottesville (USA)

Instructor

Piedmont Virginia Community College                       Charlottesville (USA)

Winemaker & Vineyard Manager

Potomac Point Winery                                                 Stafford (USA)                                               -VIRGINIA-

Winemaker & Vineyard Manager

Afton Mountain Vineyards                                           Afton (USA)                                                   -VIRGINIA-

Winemaker

Hildenbrand Estate                                                      Wellington (South Africa)

Winemaker

Azienda Agricola Andréa Rizzo                                    Nimis (Italy)                                                -RAMANDOLO-

Assistant Winemaker

Fruitière de Pupillin                                                     Pupillin (France)                                           –JURA-

Winemaker and Salesman

Cave de Tain                                                                Tain l’Hermitage (France)                             COTES DU RHONE-

Cellar Assistant &  Vinegrower

Domaine Tempier                                                        Plan du Castellet (France)                            BANDOL-

Assistant Winemaker

Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron                                Nuits St Georges (France)                           -BOURGOGNE-

Salesman

Cave de Tain                                                                Tain l’Hermitage (France)                             -COTES DU RHONE-

Assistant Winemaker

Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron                                Nuits St Georges (France)                           BOURGOGNE-

Shop manager

Le Relais Des Caves(wine shop)                                     Lyon (France)

AssistantWinemaker

Château Guillemin La Gaffelliére                                 St Emillion (France)                                    BORDEAUX-

Assistant Winemaker and Vinegrower (Internship)

Cave de Tain                                                                Tain l’Hermitage (France)                              -COTES DU RHONE-

4. What got you into the wine business: Bloodline. I come from a French farming family from Northern Rhone. Even if my parents weren’t in the wine business, my father’s love of wine and my farming roots with my uncle and grandfather were enough for me to pursue wine education after high school.

5. Why you choose the route/role you did: My route was pretty easy, I wanted to get back to the farming world. But I didn’t have any estate or winery to get back to, I was young and wanted to travel. Winemaking makes it easy to travel. I moved to Beaune in Burgundy where I studied, and then decided to travel France to diversify my experience, winemaking style and techniques: Rhone, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Provence, Jura. But that wasn’t enough, I decided to start working outside France: Fruili in Italy, Paarl in South Africa, and finally Virginia in the United States.

6. Description of your approach: It was a very organic approach; I didn’t have a master plan when I started traveling, However, with hindsight it did give me lot flexibility in my winemaking and also it helped me to be open minded.

7. The one thing about wine you most want to figure out, and why: There is no end of learning. The more I know the more I realized that I know nothing…. ignorance is a blessing!

8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): As I said, I realized that is still need to learn a lot. There are lots of wine regions I don’t fully understand. I also need to keep tasting “great and iconic wines,” though that’s difficult to do when you are young and don’t have the financial resources to get to these bottles.

9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: When I started to work in Virginia in 2003 it was supposed to be for 1 year…and I am still here after 15 years…so I guess I am not very good in planning the future. I could still be here. I could be back in France to work with my brother at Domaine Finot. I could be resuming my travel through the wine world with my family. I still would like to go to New Zealand…crystal ball help me!

10. Top-3 bucket list wines: There are so many….Domiane Romanee Conti, Domaine Leflaive le Montrachet Grand Cru and Gaja Sori San Lorenzo.

Ben Jordan – Early Mountain Vineyards and Lightwell Survey

 

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Ben Jordan (credit: Lightwell Survey)

Ben and Matthieu were kind enough to help form a small group of winemakers for a roundtable I organized earlier this year to discuss how Virginia winemakers approach developing tannin in their wine. Later, I visited Early Mountain for a tour and tasting. You can read all about it here on The Cork Report. Months earlier, however, I had a phone call with Ben to discuss petit mensang, a white vitis vinifera variety that does particularly well in Virginia when grown and made by someone with a lot of patience and guts.

Petit mensang has been a fascination of mine since 2013. Around that time viognier was becoming the rage in Virginia after a certain then-governor thought it’d be a great idea to basically endorse it as the state grape. Viognier is a thin skinned, tightly clustered grape, which makes it perfect for Virginia’s cool and wet climate. Yes, that’s sarcasm. What a dumb call. Nevertheless, it led to a boom in viognier planting and production. There are smart people – smarter than myself on wine – who, while agreeing that this was a stupid announcement, believe that high quality viognier can still be a fixture in the state. I’d rather it be petit mensang, which I believe can produce more interesting wine in Virginia while coping much better with its climate.

All that said, petit mensang is an even more challenging grape to grow, and wine to make, than viognier if you want to make a dry wine from it. This is a major headwind against it among winemakers. The variety puts on sugar and acid at an incredible rate while on the vine, which makes fermenting it to dryness (no remaining sugar) very hard if you want to produce a wine that won’t melt your tongue with acid. Ben is known as one of, if not the, best petit mensang masters in Virginia. This is what drew me to him originally.

After the conversation and wines presented at the tannin round table, it became evident that he knew far more than just petit mensang. The more I’ve taken to examining tannin, the more I’ve realized that a winemaker’s knowledge of how to use the science of tannin can be a helpful marker in determining how purposeful they are in producing wines, and a harbinger of the quality of their wine. A winemaker that can make a top quality dry petit mensang that captures both the typicity of the grape and its terroir and a range of red wines that span the full tannin spectrum is one to watch. Enter Ben Jordan. And watch him for indications of a Virginia petit verdot revolution (see below).

1. Winery and role: Winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards and Lightwell Survey. Winegrowing partner with my brothers for our vineyard/winery project in Fort Defiance in the Shenandoah Valley.

2. Number of years in the wine business: 15.

3. Previous wineries/roles: Michael Shaps Wineworks – Winemaker; Dutcher Crossing – Assistant winemaker; C. Donatiello – Assistant winemaker.

4. What got you into the wine business: My family wanted to plant a vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley, and at the same time I moved to NYC with an MFA in playwriting. I needed income, so I started working in retail wine sales.

5. Why you choose the route/role you did: I fell hard for the world of wine when I was working retail and for an importer, and since my family wanted to plant a vineyard, I decided I needed to learn winemaking. I signed on to do a harvest in Sonoma County, because I was told that was the way to get a foot in the door. That worked, and I was offered a full-time position. Once I had a winemaking foundation, I contacted Michael [Shaps], because he had a finger on the pulse of Virginia.

6. Description of your approach: Evolving and open, leaning toward precision and purity. We are still in such a foundational place in the mid-Atlantic that I am of the opinion we need to remain exploratory, look for the next generation vineyards, and plant them with varieties that will make for a successful industry. We are building, and it is important that the work we do now is thoughtful and creative.

7. The one thing about wine you most want to figure out, and why: Sustainable wine farming, because I want to feel comfortable with my daughters working in the family vineyards. This may mean non-vinifera, or new wave vinifera hybrids, because even materials that are sprayed in organic programs can be pretty nasty.

8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): Blending. We do a lot of blending at Early Mountain, and every year I realize I want/need to do better. Growing, see above. Petit Verdot. Like Petit Manseng, this grape offers a lot of potential, but I still need to understand what it wants to be.

9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: I want to be in Virginia making the first wines off of next generation vineyards that I have helped plant in the next five years. I also want my family business to be in a healthy place.

10. Top-3 bucket list wines: Pretty sure I need to taste DRC [Domaine Romanee Conti] before I kick, so might as well be La Tache. I would love to go into the Sherry bodegas and taste some of their oldest soleras straight from cask. A wine made by the next generation of my family, whether it be my daughters or my brothers’ children, or both. And hopefully I can taste that wine with 20 years of bottle age on it, because that will mean I am decently healthy in my 80s or 90s.

Evan Martin – Martin Woods Winery

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Evan Martin on his property

Evan Martin’s approach to winemaking is one of the most interesting ideas I’ve come across in my exploration of wine, and likely the most interesting of my 2018. It’s not that it’s particularly genius (no disrespect to Evan) so much as it is, ‘why isn’t anyone else doing this?’ because it’s a logical extension of what is bedrock boutique winemaking, and something that many wineries could do if they wanted. It’s essentially this: true expression of terroir should include barrels (if applicable) made from local trees.

Nearly every winery I end up visiting, and nearly every winemaker I meet, talks about their particular terroir. When they do, they focus on the soil, vineyard particulars (aspect, slope, etc.) and climate, and how those elements effect the grapes they grow. Then they talk about the various ways in which they try to let that terroir come through in the glass. Evan has an additional talking point: he makes his own barrels from the trees on his property (in the Willamette Valley in Oregon). Oak has an emphatic impact on the wine, and so when Oregon wine gets put into French oak, it can’t really be called Oregon wine anymore if we believe in terroir: it has a component from France that is altering the taste and structure of the final product.

To be clear, Evan is not snobbish about this at all. He just has the interest, patience and resources (trees) to try it out, and so he is. I was impressed by the results, which I wrote about here, but I need a bigger sample size to really know whether Oregon oak makes a better wine. Nevertheless, he’s doing something quite different that’s worth thinking about and trying.

1. Winery and role: Martin Woods, owner/winemaker.

2. Number of years in the wine business: 15.

3. Previous wineries/roles: Seven Hills Winery ‘04/’05 harvest intern; Belle Pente Vineyard and Winery ’09-’11 harvest intern, ’12-’17 Assistant Winemaker.

4. What got you into the wine business: An Oz Clark wine book and a fantastic little wine shop in Seattle called European Vine Selections.

5. Why you choose the route/role you did: I became obsessed with the concept of terroir. Casey McClellan at Seven Hills gave me a great introduction to careful, attentive winemaking and the goal of making elegant wines above all. I then explored the buying/service side of the business for a few years, developing a keen interest in wines from the cool-climate regions of France in particular. And I was captured by the principles of the natural wine movement—which are still important to me today, although I don’t refer to myself a natural winemaker for certain reasons. That subject, like great winemaking, is nuanced and unfortunately the discussion about it is all too often shallow and polarized.

6. Description of your approach: The last couple of years, I’m making about 4,500 cases of wine by myself, so my approach is minimal by necessity! But actually, this is a conscious choice. I like to be present for every moment that something is happening or being done to my wine. Each of these moments is an opportunity for my senses to check in with the wines, to catch potential issues before they become problems or to confirm or re-evaluate my strategy for that particular wine. I never make wine exactly the same way twice; I’m always adjusting to try to support what I perceive to be the zeitgeist of the wine and the vintage. This flexibility carries through the entire elevage period to bottling. For me, extreme attentiveness allows me to be “hands-off” with the wines; it allows me to be ‘natural’ in my approach and at the same time produce unfined/unfiltered wines that are clean, classic, deeply compelling and long-lived. Most importantly, what paves the way for a “hands-off” approach is choosing vineyard terroirs that truly give the qualities that you’re looking for in the wines, so you don’t have to try to shape them in to something they don’t want to be. That’s why I mostly work with the coolest, latest-ripening parts of the Willamette which are the neighborhoods that are most influenced by the cooling effect of the Van Duzer winds—the Van Duzer Corridor AVA, the McMinnville AVA and the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. These terroirs give wines that are structure-driven, with aromas and textures that are discernibly ‘cool-climate’ in character.

I guess it’s also noteworthy about our approach that we’re using our local Oregon oak to age a lot of our wines because we’re trying to make the most distinctive, terroir-driven wines that we possibly can. I love the qualities of French oak, but I don’t think it makes our Oregon wines more distinctive; quite the opposite actually, it makes them more like wines from other producing regions, because everyone around the world is using French oak, its use has become quite formulaic.

7. The one thing about wine you most want to figure out, and why: One question I’ve been thinking about lately is, ‘can we produce amazing cabernet franc in the Willamette Valley? Why?’ Great cab franc (and I’m thinking of le Loire here) stirs passions in men’s souls, the same way that great pinot noir can. We have to expect that our climate is warming slightly, so growing CF is looking increasingly attractive.

Otherwise, I’m realizing I can’t really figure out anything about wine, not to a scientific degree. I’m concerning myself less and less with lab numbers and just embracing instinct and sense. The real frontier in my experience is always trying to find out what vineyard terroirs produce the most compelling wine. The Willamette Valley now has fifty years of collective experience under its belt, but we’re still young at understanding our terroirs. I do think that fifty years from now the scene will be quite different than today.

8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): Discipline. I drink too much, it’s part of the business and I love the craft and I love checking in with what my peers are producing, here and across the pond. I recently read an interview with Bobby Stuckey and he talks about discipline and how it relates to the craft of being a great sommelier. I think he was spot on with what he said about discipline and I feel the same about the craft of making great wine. It takes a lot of discipline to remain fresh, creative and responsive to the (extremely) challenging work load of harvest, when in a matter of weeks a winemaker is making dozens of decisions that determine the trajectory of a wine for the rest of its life. I admire the older (than me, I’m 37) winemakers in the community that have had the discipline and stamina to be highly successful in this profession for 20-50 years. The names are too numerous to mention.

9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: Sarah (my wife, who is the vineyard brains in the family) and I would like to plant a small vineyard on our property in the McMinnvillle AVA. We’re taking our time with this, as there are a lot of things to ponder…chiefly among them, what to plant and what are the right clones? If I was planting tomorrow, I would probably mostly plant chardonnay, as our neighborhood seems to be just exceptional for it, being as we are tucked in to the foothills of the Coast Range as well as on the shoulder of the Van Duzer gap. The mountains and the wind make it a little cooler here, so the chardonnay here has great tension from bright acidity, but with good sun exposure you can also get fantastic weight and depth.

10. Top-3 bucket list wines: I haven’t been very careful about cataloging a memory of great wines that I’ve had. There are so many wonderful wines that I can’t remember the producer. I tend to think more about regions…Alsace, Beaujolais, Bourgogne, Loire, northern Rhone. The few times in my life I’ve had first-growth Bordeaux the wines have been splendid—taught, fresh, balanced, structured.

Furthermore, I don’t spend money on cult wines. I don’t mean Screaming Eagle. I mean, I love Clos Rougeard, but I don’t buy it. I don’t hold it against them for charging what they can for highly sought-after wines that by necessity need to be allocated. But there are other producers making incredible wines at reasonable prices, without any hype, and I love finding those wines. That’s maybe the best thing that great Sommeliers and wine shops do, they connect consumers with unsung or underrated wineries that over-deliver.

Adam Lee – Clarice Wine Company and Siduri Wines

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The author, Adam Lee (far right) and some friends enjoying themselves

I met Adam when he and a mutual friend came to our apartment for a party that we held because we had a number of random people in town visiting and didn’t know how else to see all of them while they were here. A lot of fun was had, really fantastic wine was brought and consumed, and bonding occurred.

As I got to know him more after that evening, one of the things that stood out most about Adam is that, good God man, he can’t sleep much given all he’s doing. Good Vitis readers will learn more about Adam in the coming months. We’re sitting on a trio of pinot noirs from his newest project, Clarice Wine Company, letting them recover from their journey from one coast to the other. We’ll try them soon, interview Adam, and then write it up. So stay tuned for that exciting piece.

Siduri, a winery he founded and where he still makes wine, is no small deal: wines from six regions across two states, multiple wines from each region, and all good quality and compelling. The website currently lists 18 different wines – 17 pinot and one zinfandel – for sale. All, by the way, under screwcap, including his highest priced bottles. Add the Clarice Wine Company project, which is an unusual business model built around a rather robust wine club program (more on that in the upcoming piece), and this guy is making a lot of wine. Then, the many visits to France and elsewhere because Adam can’t ever stop learning (his Facebook page makes me wonder how much time he actually spends in America, let alone California where he makes his wine), and I just can’t imagine he gets to spend much time at home. It’s all rather inspiring to me: the level of passion for wine and business that this man exhibits is enviable.

1. Winery and role: Owner, Clarice Wine Company. Winemaker, Siduri Wines. Consultant for a few other wineries.

2. Number of years in the wine business: In one form or another since 1988. Started making wine in 1994.

3. Previous wineries/roles: Direct Sales Manager at Benziger, Tasting Room Manager at a few places before that. But really Siduri Wines as founder, owner, winemaker.

4. What got you into the wine business: I got into wine retail first as Assistant Manager at a wine store in Austin, Texas. I had developed a love of wine during a trip to California between my junior and senior years in college.

5. Why you choose the route/role you did: I think it chose me. I never really had a plan, never planned on making wine. The idea of making wine was actually Dianna’s idea (my wife). She thought that if I was going to write about wine (I was considering the lucrative career of wine writing) [ED’s note: don’t I know it] I should try and make it first. So we did so, with the 1994 vintage and 4 ½ barrels of pinot noir. We then proceeded to get drunk one night and take a sample to Robert Parker while he was staying over at Meadowood Resort. Fortunately, he liked the wine and wrote it up in the Wine Advocate. That was the beginning for us.

6. Description of your approach: Making pinot noir is a unique combination of remembering and forgetting. Remembering lessons from the past and implementing them into a similar vintage. But also realizing that each vintage is unique and thus not falling into a pattern of making wine a certain way but rather reacting to what is given to you each year. Finding that balance between remembering and forgetting is the challenge.

7. The one thing about wine you most want to figure out, and why: I am confused and fascinated by what truly makes winemaking work. Let me give you an example. Some winemakers swear by whole cluster in pinot noir and make remarkable wines doing so (Jeremy Seysses at Dujac). Other winemakers abhor whole clusters and will never use them and make remarkable wines following that route (Henri Jayer). How does that work? What commonalities are there at these places and are those the key to what makes great Burgundy? Or is the key truly intent and following with great devotion what you believe and in doing that you will make great wine? I ponder these things.

8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): I write horrific wine descriptors. Ironic for someone who wanted to be a wine writer. I grew up in a time and place where all the fruit I ate came in a can and was floating in simple syrup. Consequently, describing the flavors of a wine is something I suck at. I am okay with the weight and tannin/acid structure of a wine, but describing flavors – geez, I am bad at that.

9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: I want to be making pinot noir. Not just making pinot noir but immersed in pinot noir. I want to be doing less, but more in-depth. I believe that is my passion and my calling. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. I also hope to be spending time with my kids…then adults…and sharing and learning from them.

10. Top-3 bucket list wines: Good question:

1984 Rochioli Pinot Noir — First red wine that I ever fell in love with. Started my love affair with pinot noir and that has never ended.

Fall Creek Winery (Texas) White Zinfandel – The first wine I ever shared with a winemaker. Ed Auler, the owner/winemaker and I were walking through his vineyard in Tow, Texas on a typically hot Texas day and he reached into his backpack and pulled out a chilled bottle (ice packs). He popped it then and there and we passed it back and forth while walking the vines drinking it out of the bottle.

1986 Chateau Margaux – Maybe the first classic, great wine that I ever tasted. I loved the 1985 and thought it was amazing, but when I tasted the 1986 I was blown away. It was remarkable and made me realize that there’s a whole world of extraordinary wine out there for me to experience.

 

Oregon Wine Month Extravaganza

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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.

Oregon AVAs Oregon Wine Press

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!”

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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+.

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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-.

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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+.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.