Medium ruby with nice aromatic intensity. Violet pastille, candied cherry, energetic raspberry, and a pinch of oak spice make a compelling statement. The body shows Oregon meeting German Spätburgunder, lithe with vivacious acidity and a low-level of grippy tannins. Tart cherry takes the command here. True to its source, even in warm vintages. (MW, May 2017)
Three wines. Each providing a thumbprint and insight into a winemaker’s style. All under one roof. A tour of the Willamette Valley typically provides the curious connoisseur an experience with Pinot Noir, soils and AVA variations, winemaking style, and brand image. The preeminent role of site, however, leaves the taster wondering what effect the winemaker had in comparison to the plot of land and farming that raised the grapes.
Enter Bella Vida Vineyard. Located in the rust-hued hills of Dundee, the motherland of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Bella Vida contracts three noteworthy Willamette winemakers to each craft a Pinot Noir that highlights this site and the essence of their winemaking style. As a 26 acre vineyard, each winemaker works with very similar fruit tended by the same vineyard manager. This culminates in a memorable and deeply informative tasting experience.
In the middle of the tasting, owner Steve Whiteside poured a trio of 2012 vintage wines from his three winemakers—Jacques Tardy of Torii Mor, Jay Sommers of J. Christopher, and Brian O’Donnel of Belle Pente. Each wine demonstrates that winemaking impacts our experience with a wine profoundly.
2012 Bella Vida Tardy Pinot Noir
Pure ruby in color, lifted aromas of red cherry and spice leave no doubt that this is Dundee Hills wine. In the background, a hint of mushroom adds intrigue. With lithe body, medium-plus acidity, and a finish that carries memories, this wine will clearly benefit from aging. I have a bottle in my cellar to investigate. Excellent.
2012 Bella Vida J. Christopher Pinot Noir
A darker-hued wine with a blue rim, this wine leans into the darker fruits with spiced blueberry melding with tilled earth. A balanced wine all around. While my least favorite of the three wines, it undoubtedly sings of Pinot Noir while holding its head high. Delightful.
2012 Bella Vida O’Donnell Pinot Noir
Minimalist winemaking creates a suave-textured wine with black cherry, bramble, and floral kisses. My tasting crew unanimously declared this their favorite, in large part due to the mouthfeel. Excellent.
With production at about 150 cases for each of these wines, visitors to the valley will likely never touch these gems unless they visit the vineyard personally. The opportunity to taste the decision-making and ethos of each winemaker will captivate any wine enthusiast. The fact that the fruit hails from such a stunning site—both visually and viticulturally—makes this a must visit tasting room on your next trip.
I, like any good wine shopper, seek out producers over-delivering for their price point. In the nearby Willamette Valley, this means $20-$35 Pinot Noir that tastes like the giants at $50-$80. Last weekend I stopped by Bergström Wines, a hallmark producer in the valley. What I found buckled my knees. The first swirl and smell of three of the four Pinots I tasted left me staggering. Life paused, oh my word, there is a fourth dimension kind of wines.
It started with the 2013 Le Pré du Col Vineyard Pinot Noir. The aromatics took me to another realm. Nothing I have tasted has touched this wine. Strawberry, earth, and pine forest mingle seductively and profoundly on the nose. The mid-weight palate adds cherry cola and soft tannins. This is a knee-buckling, tear-inducing wine—memorable and awe-inspiring. Stellar.
Having tasted the Le Pré du Col, I honestly didn’t care what the rest of the wines tasted like. I could have simply basked in the afterglow of that singular experience. However, the line-up continued to caress my interest, never letting me down from my cloud. The 2013 Silice Pinot Noir followed with its own unique path to Pinot Noir enlightenment. Chocolate covered strawberry and cherry aromas lead with silky, pure, red-fruit on the palate. The fine-grained tannins and strawberry preserve acidity weave smooth layers into the medium-bodied core. An eye-brow raising wine that floats effortlessly between density and buoyancy. Stellar.
This is the first time I have rated two wines as stellar at one tasting. I still encourage all to seek the hand-crafted gems over-delivering at affordable price points. Bergström Wines reminds me, however, that some (only some) have earned the hefty tariffs they charge. If you have the opportunity to taste their wines or purchase a bottle, do not hesitate.
Last Saturday I ventured to the motherland of Oregon Pinot Noir, the northern Willamette Valley. The Saturday before Thanksgiving has become an insider’s haven. Wine club members and guests come to barrel sample, pick-up shipments, and celebrate the upcoming releases without the throngs of Thanksgiving embibers seeking liquid relief from extended family. A brief photo tour highlights the day.
As a new “insider” to the wine trade, I walk the hallowed halls with antennas tuned for insight. For one, I hope to uncover the vineyard gems that supply the best value Pinot Noirs in the valley. I, like many of you, spend most of my nights sipping wines in the $10-$20 price range. The Willamette Valley, however, only seems to deliver $20-$60 Pinot. How can we reconcile this dilemma?
Nearly half of Oregon producers purchase all of their fruitº from independent vineyards or significant estate vineyards owned by others. These wineries do not own vines, and as a consequence pay the market prices for their fruit. Pay $1600 per ton for your Pinot Noir, and you will get your $15 bottle from the Willamette Valley. Unfortunately, it will taste like it too, as these vineyards often rest on the flat lands outside of the blessed zones for primo Pinot Noir. Pay $3000 per ton for your Pinot, and you will start producing wines that sing. . . and you will charge $30 per bottle to cover the cost. Many have touted, “Great wine is made in the vineyard.” This is a truth, and as a consequence winemakers pay for quality wine. There are no short cuts.
Unless. Unless the producer owns an estate. Those who own a vineyard and make wine from it have unique opportunities, especially when they have owned portions of their vineyards long enough to bury the loan notes. Through ownership, they have fixed their costs for fruit*. If this estate is on ideal vineyard land, and if the owner and winemaker value producing value, and if they have volume enough to sustain a business**, and if they do not build a lavish, over-the-top winery and tasting room, then they could possibly produce memorable $18 Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley. This estate likely needs to be outside the sexiest AVAs, or the allure of that name will tempt the hands in control to charge the prices they can command. Importantly, the $18 bottle will only be one of many wines offered by this winery, and the rest will fall into the $25-$60 price range to support a balanced ledger.
The odds of the stars aligning for you, the hopeful consumer? Minimal. Reality leaves me craving $15 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir that inspires, and thankful I receive industry discounts. Quality cannot come from wine cellar magic. “You can make a bad wine out of great fruit, but you cannot make a great wine out of bad fruit.” For the $10-$20 seekers of quality Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, a handful of producers do compassionately craft affordable, insightful Pinot. Ultimately, though, the economic winds of this challenging varietal blow, like a February gale, against us.
*Fixed cost is not 100% literal here. Tax payments will rise as land values increase, and labor costs for tending the vines will increase over time. However, you purchased the land at a set price, and you have locked in that value.
**5 acres of Pinot Noir will not allow you to produce $15-$20 Pinot Noir of quality if you want to sustain a livelihood, rather than take a vow of poverty (very few fit this bill).
July has produced a preponderance of news and excitement here at Wagon Wine. First, the wine industry has called my name. The family at Fullerton Wines has hired me to manage public relations and the wine club, maintain and acquire accounts in the Portland area, and help in the cellar. I begin in August.
Integrity matters. Consequently, after this post, I will not review or mention Fullerton Wines, or their second label Three Otters (formerly Bull’s Eye), on this blog. However, I will say this today: I would never work for a winery I did not respect both for the quality of the wine and the integrity of its mission. Find more information at Fullerton Wines. To my readers’ benefit, I will use the knowledge and insight I acquire with Fullerton Wines to inform my posts on Wagon Wine. I have thus far written as an industry outsider with a focus and passion for northwest wines. Although I will now work within the industry, I will continue writing at Wagon Wine for the consumer—you.
I also received news in late June that the Wine Bloggers Conference awarded me a scholarship to attend this year’s conferencein the celebrated wine region of Finger Lakes, New York. Held in Corning, the conference uniquely allows me to network with fellow citizen and industry bloggers, explore a wine region I have yet to visit, and learn from industry professionals, including Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible (I have previously recommended this essential book). Thank you to the generous sponsors who made this possible. I am thrilled and humbled.
I cannot depart without briefly sharing two wines I have recently tasted and devoured due to the stunning QPR*:
2013 Lone Birch Red Blend, Yakima Valley ($10): I love a good second label wine, and Airfield Estates’ Lone Birch fits the bill beautifully. Fresh, fruit forward aromas of plum and blackberry greet you along with a kiss (big smooch) of toast and dark chocolate. Smoothly textured with mild tannins, and gentle, balancing acidity. The wine struck me as surprisingly complete. While not huge on “blind tastings,” I would put money down on this wine against many other Washington red blends at higher price points. Delightful.
Un Autre Monde Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley ($13): Thank you Bruce of Vino, Portland for turning me on to this wine (Bruce’s notes). Best value Pinot Noir I have tasted to date. A blend of 2011 and 2012 fruit from esteemed (unknown) vineyards–one within Dundee and the other Yamhill-Carlton. The cool and ideal weather conditions of these two vintages meld into a stunning Willamette Valley NV blend. Cranberry, cocoa, and spice align on this linear, piercing frame. Nuanced, surprising, the wine evolved provocatively over the course of the evening. Unfortunately, we can’t expect to see this wine again. Excellent.
Finally, I spent over two weeks of July back in Minnesota, the motherland for the Wieland family. While home, my mother married her partner, Kevin, in a lovely lakeside wedding. Cheers to the couple–may the wind be always at your back.
The Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association (CGWA) recently hosted a Grand Tasting at Castaway in NW Portland. After a few days of pondering and reflecting on my notes, I feel more confident than ever that the Columbia Gorge AVA has a bigger and brighter future ahead (though perhaps we shouldn’t hope for “bigger”). This AVA garners relatively little press from regional and national press. As a consequence, it is a spring lilac, under-appreciated, that forces your attention when you get within proximity. Your senses awaken.
Why the Columbia Gorge? The breadth of styles and varieties, in conjunction with quality, provide consumers with a dreamy array of wines from a small geographic area–40 miles west to east. The Columbia Gorge quickly transitions from forested foothills with significant annual rainfall to elevated, sloping desert overlooking the Columbia River. You can taste sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, sangiovese, barbera, nebbiolo, chardonnay, zinfandel, cabernet franc, syrah, grenache, and blends both traditional and path forging, all while only scratching the surface of this AVAs offerings. This blessing of diversity may also provide one of the confounding factors–what grapes thrive where? Experience, often through trial and error, has helped uncover the “spirit” grape(s) of many parcels of land. What works at a vineyard 2 or 3 miles west will likely pan out quite differently, or even fail, at your vineyard. All factors impacting terroir change drastically in short distances here. Wines and Wineries of Note:
2012 Phelps Creek Cuvee Alexandrine Pinot Noir: The Columbia Gorge need not play second fiddle to big sister Willamette Valley next door. Let the Gorge play a solo show! This age-worthy pinot opens with aromatic intrigue–strawberry, cherry, and aromas of a cool walk in a damp woodland. This wine is alive! Medium tannins and a wonderful balance of acidity keep us dancing instead of lounging. Pinot lovers, take note of this wine, and Phelps Creek. Stellar.
Viento 2013 Savvy Sauvignon Blanc Allegre Vineyard: My mind immediately travelled to New Zealand. The zest, the brightness of this sauvignon blanc aligns wonderfully with my ideal for this varietal. A zip of lemon welcomes your senses, accompanied by melon and pineapple notes. This is summer in a bottle. Delightful. In the words of head winemaker Rich Cushman, expect “honest wines.” No enzymes, stabilizers, etc.
The Pines 1852 2013 Estate Old Vine Zinfandel: Wow. A ripe, lush sensory experience with blackberry and resin. Avoids jaminess while plushly coating your mouth. Medium-plus tannins. Length abounds. Sourced from some of the oldest vines in the northwest, planted in the late 1800s. Stellar.
Memaloose 2011 Mistral Ranch Estate: Southern Rhone blend of syrah (60%) and grenache (40%). Red fruit, caramel, earth, and fresh forest growth create a provocative wine. All wines produced now come from estate fruit. Excellent. Expect only neutral oak, and an Old World winemaking style when you drink Memaloose.
If you live in the Portland area, consider attending the Columbia Gorge Grand Tasting in the future. Head to tasting rooms on a typical weekend, and you often have 30 seconds to hear the shtick from tasting room staffers before they must move on to the throngs of other guests. Understandable, but also disappointing if you appreciate discussing the details of the wine in your glass. However, attend this tasting, hosted by the CGWA, and you will have a unique opportunity to talk directly with many winemakers, owners, and/or heads of sales and tasting rooms (especially if you arrive early). These pillars of the industry can provide the details and stories behind the wine you enjoy. Cheers!
Time to celebrate a Washington winery that over-delivers at every price point. Owen Roe started releasing wines in 1999 with production based out of St. Paul, Oregon. Despite the Oregon location, Owen Roe has successfully embraced both Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Washington varietals simultaneously. Many wineries in the northwest truck some grapes from their neighboring state to diversify and spruce up the offerings, but very few have the expertise or access to quality fruit to pull off the crafting of excellent wines from these two distinct growing regions. David O’Reilly is among the few.
Take note. Owen Roe recently opened a new winery and tasting room near Union Gap, WA, and this is in addition to the St. Paul, Oregon winery and Newberg, Oregon tasting room. The Washington expansion allows for increased production and presence in Washington, while providing O’Reilly with more options with his Washington fruit come harvest season. Along with the new winery, Owen Roe has purchased multiple vineyards around Yakima Valley, planted a new estate vineyard on site near Union Gap, and has expanded its vineyard sources beyond these direct acquisitions. This expansion comes with years of earned success and acclaim, all with minimal to no advertising. The wines speak for themselves. All this new juice, under the care of O’Reilly and his small-batch, meticulously minded winemaking style, should have us all salivating. To the wines. With 24,000 cases produced, Owen Roe provides attention inducing value at every price point. Beyond the Owen Roe top-tier label, David O’Reilly also produces wines under the Sharecroppers and Corvidae labels. These two second-tier labels provide wines of surprising quality and interest between $10-$21. O’Reilly is known for taking great care in every step of his winemaking process, and that begins with the vineyards he selects. Excellent vineyard sites, careful management, attention to detail in the winery, and a value product. I recommend you investigate this magical equation yourself. Wines of note*:
2012 Sojourner Eola-Amity Pinot Noir ($42): Classic Eola-Amity, and well crafted. Volcanic soils show through in the minerality of the wine, but I love the darker blue-fruit characteristics (in comparison to Dundee). 2012 gave producers options–bombastic or balanced, chewy or graceful. This wine gives you the ripeness of 2012 while maintaining balanced alcohol and delicate pinot nuances. A memorable wine. Excellent.
2012 DuBrul Cabernet Sauvignon ($72): This wine wowed my tasting partner and me. The nose is striking and forces the glass to your mouth. Medium-plus bodied, plush purple and red fruit characteristics, while maintaining glorious depth and balance. Oak, acid, and alcohol all play their part without overplaying their hand. The finish lingers. Stellar.
2013 Sharecroppers Cabernet Sauvignon ($15): The nose immediately hits you with classic Cabernet blueberry and blackberry co-mingled with leather. Medium-bodied, the palate delivers a nice balance of fruit, tannins, and acidity. A great Washington Cabernet exemplar at a fair price. Delightful.
2013 Abbot’s Table ($24): Owen Roe’s flagship wine, a red blend of 41% zinfandel, 34% sangiovese, 11% malbec, 9% blaufränkisch, and 5% merlot. Flagship wines better earn their title, and this bottle does just so. Medium-plus bodied with supple blueberry, the rich aromas of tea and earth, and notable (medium) tannins. A sure crowd pleaser. Excellent.
Under the direction of David O’Reilly, expect greatness from Owen Roe. *Here is a link to my wine rating system, newly released on Wagon Wine.
A recent weekend in the Chehalem and Ribbon Ridge AVAs of Oregon has eloquently reminded me of the importance of context. My bride and tasting partner, Stephanie, and I spent two days sipping our way through 2011 and 2012 pinot noir cuvées, reserves, single vineyard selections, and 2013 futures. While critically discerning aromas and tastes at the second winery, context finally descended upon me–nearly all of these pinots rise to the realm of exceptionality. Truly. Many wine regions, great and small, have crawled into bed with pinot noir, but nearly all have found her a coy mistress. Most fail to bring out the best in her, making instead either a simple, light table wine, or a juicier, one-dimensional slurper. Respected producers in the Willamette, however, have teased this mistress into delighting wondrously. How fortunate we are. A handful of Willamette wineries fail to inspire, but a little research will lead you to one of the plethora of noteworthy pinot producers in the valley. Take advantage, even if only for an afternoon of tasting.
Wines of note:
2012 Beaux Frères Willamette Valley Pinot Noir: Always a joy when a winery’s entry-level pinot delights as much or more than single vineyard or reserve tiers. Beaux Frères has earned its acclaim. Structure, beauty, and nuanced complexity coexist.
2012 Chehalem Corral Creek Vineyards Pinot Noir: Blue fruits and blackberries balance well with gentle tannins. 2012 provided an abundance of heat, allowing this typically gentler vineyard to produce a larger, but still well-balanced wine.
2011 Trisaetum Coast Range Estate Pinot Noir: A reminder that I love elegance. In 2011, cool conditions dominated, but many outstanding wines exist despite the challenges. Add this bottle to that list. Red berries, acid, and agile weight meld delightfully.