Category Archives: Willamette Valley

Tasting the Bella Vida

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.

Bella Vida Vineyard in the Dundee Hills

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.

The line-up from Bella Vida Vineyards

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.

Chapter Deux

Starting today, I put all my chips into this world of bottled history and culture. Wagon Wine began in 2014 while I continued my full-time career teaching literature and writing. The site served as a creative outlet, a challenge to deepen my understanding of wine while writing engagingly. After a year of working both in the classroom and for a Willamette Valley producer, Fullerton Wines, I have accepted a full-time position with the Fullerton family. My wife says she can see the child-like wonder in my eyes—the thrill of fireworks on the fourth of July. I’m sure she can.

Expect more frequent posts as I jump head first, glass in hand, into my vinous ventures. I will also begin the WSET Level 3 Advanced Course in August as a way to broaden my perspective and palate. I anticipate the benefits of this study to flow into my writing and workplace.

A business trip to Elk Cove Vineyard this past week. Always beautiful in wine country, however, this site stands above the rest.

A business trip to Elk Cove Vineyard this past week. Always beautiful in wine country, however, this site stands above most.

Here are a few articles I’ve had published elsewhere in the past month:

Chapter one stirred the pot.

Chapter Deux

After embarking up the first mile of trail, a metamorphosis . . .

Thank you all for your support.

Visions through the Mist at the Oregon Wine Symposium

Last week’s Oregon Wine Symposium provided plenty of fodder for this curious mind. A few tidbits for you, my beloved readers, to ponder and peruse:

  1. 2015, the warmest vintage on record in the Willamette Valley, will become the norm between 2035—2045. The wine industry and many others (NASA, ski resorts, Inuit villages, farmers more broadly) take the projections seriously. We should all abide. While we often focus on air temperature increases, ocean and soil temperature rise both pose unique risks, many of which we do not understand well (or at all). Microbial life in the soils, for example, will change with the soil temperature increases we see today.
  2. The Willamette Valley and western Columbia Gorge, two of the only true cold-climate growing regions in the United States, are better suited for the warming future, though varietals will have to shift over time to accommodate the changing environment. Large diurnal temperature swings* have set the Willamette Valley apart from most growing regions in the United States. Unfortunately, average low temperatures have risen faster than average high temperatures, which will result in the Willamette Valley losing its diurnal edge.Some cool climate, Columbia Gorge fruitSome cool climate, Columbia Gorge fruit
  3. Consolidation within the wine industry, nationally and globally, inserts agitating slivers into the healthy flesh of Oregon wine. Large distributors have merged (Glazer’s and Southern should concern us all, for example), and the pace of vineyard and winery buy-outs has accelerated. This challenges the heart of Oregon wine, known rightly as the land of small, family wineries and vineyards with a keen interest in sustainable, life-giving operations. 5,000+ case wineries represent but a quarter of the Oregon industry, and vineyards over 50 acres hardly exist. You juxtapose this to California or even Washington, and Oregon looks like the land of peasant farmers on petite parcels. However, Oregon wine has justly earned a reputation for serious quality. The small-scale often allows winemakers to craft wines that sing siren songs to our passing ears.
  4. The fellowship and collaborative spirit within the Oregon wine industry sets the state apart from the rest of the wine world. Global wine industry folks have interned, settled, or partaken in the Oregon wine scene, and the outsiders and insiders unanimously rave about the familial nature of the Oregon wine industry. When combined with the small-scale production noted above, Oregon wines truly offer something unique to the world.
  5. What do we mean when we say we smell “minerality” in a wine? This word appears to serve as a catch-all to describe any aroma or flavor that doesn’t fall into the fruit or oak categories. Wine reviews and tasting notes have seen a significant rise in its use, and yet tasters disagree over what minerality actually means. Are the aromas actually reductive sulfides in the wine, or do vines transport mineral compounds from the soil into the wine? Science tells us that vines cannot carry soil minerals to the grapes, and yet savvy tasters frequently speak of smelling granite, flint, or wet stone in their wine. While the origin of the aromas remains elusive, know that higher acid wines more frequently carry these mineral notes, and Old World wines more commonly contain this needed acidity. I suggest tasting Chablis or Mosel Riesling to experience minerality yourself.

*Diurnal temperature swings refers to the gap in temperature between the daily high and daily low. The larger the diurnal shift, the more acidity the grapes will maintain in the evenings while still allowing for ripening thanks to the warm daytime highs.

Money Can Buy

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.

The heavens opened. Photo taken at a nearby vineyard before driving to Bergstrom.

The heavens open. Photo taken at a nearby vineyard before driving to Bergström.

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.

The Head, The Heart, The Slurp

I recently attended an Oregon Syrah tasting with a trio of Willamette Valley winemakers and a few other industry compatriots. We tasted through seven different Oregon Syrahs, including a vertical from Dion Vineyard in the Willamette Valley produced by Anne Hubatch of Helioterra. Violet-blue in color, the 2013 Dion grabbed me by the shoulders and force-focused my energy directly into the glass. Confident white pepper aromatics lead, followed by spice, blueberry, and boysenberry. Floral undertones add a lovely, gentle layer. This wine will excite those who respect and value Rhone Syrah—a mentally stimulating experience.

Other Syrahs from southern Oregon, especially the 2012 Cowhorn Syrah from the Applegate Valley, luxuriously warmed the heart with New World fruit. The Cowhorn Syrah danced a laser-line between density and buoyancy, fruit leather and black pepper. Wines this thick often fail to inspire, but Cowhorn manages to add layers of nuance into the folds of fruit.

Admittedly, Oregon winemakers and viticulturists have only now entered the dawn of this Syr-era. Few have plumbed current or potential vineyard sites with an eye for Syrah gold. The varietal has, however, found a home in Oregon, and the cool-climate Willamette Valley within. I expect to taste starlight from the misty cave depths once it settles into the embrace of well-selected Oregon vineyards.

A few days later, I dined with family at a casual mid-week gathering. My mother-in-law, a bargain wine shopper, opened a bottle of 2014 Blackstone Merlot from California. This sweet, grape slurpee of a wine lacked everything that makes wine sing. It declared itself robotically, centuries away from passing the Turing Test—Mass Market at its worst. It served as a reminder that $10 Washington flattens $10 California every time. Biased as I am, I challenge you: Apothic Red v. Two Vines, Menage a Trois v. Columbia Crest Grand Estates,  Bogle Essential Red v. Lone Birch Red. Let me know your results.

Cheers to wines that stir the head and the heart.

Weekend in the Willamette: A Photo Excursion

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.

The day started at Beaux Frères, an iconic Willamette Valley producer. The Belles Soeurs label has been discontinued since 2005, when they transitioned this non-estate blend to Beaux Frères "Willamette Valley."

Beaux Frères, an iconic Willamette Valley producer, started our day with soaring aromas. The Belles Soeurs label, above, has been discontinued since 2005, when they transitioned this non-estate blend to Beaux Frères “Willamette Valley.”

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The two Etzel brothers, sons of Beaux Frères co-founder Michael G. Etzel, collaborate on a few labels, including this Napa Valley Cabernet. It holds great promise, though you may be prosecuted for opening this young.

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La guitarra providing ambience at Beaux Frères.

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2014 futures of Beaux Frères Willamette Valley, Beaux Frères Vineyard, and Upper Terrace wines. Already memorable, they will certainly improve with another 1 to 4 years in bottle.

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The pinnacle of the Willamette Valley, Shea Vineyard (previously referenced on the bottle in the first photo). Currently holding the highest price tag in the valley at $5,000 per ton, Shea produces some of the best wines in Oregon–hallmarks of Oregon Pinot Noir.

Clusters left on vine

Imperfect clusters left on the vine at Shea Vineyard. When you pay $5,000 per ton, producers expect near-perfection from the fruit. The harvest crew left these grapes due to sunburn, uneven ripening, or some other flaw.

She Wine Cellars 2014 West Hill

In 1996, after selling all of their fruit for 10 years, Shea Vineyard decided they should hold back some of their acclaimed grapes to make their own wine. I tasted through the 2014 pinot noirs from various blocks and clones, and all clocked in around 14.8% abv. The warm southwest-facing site resulted in dense wines that pushed the edge for the varietal during this hot vintage. Most wine enthusiasts could mistake the 2014 Shea Cellars pinots for another varietal if tasted blind.

Shea Wine Cellars Open House

Shea Wine Cellars, rarely open to the public, welcomes members and guests on the Saturday preceding Thanksgiving.

Shea Vineyard on a perfect fall day

Shea Vineyard in the late afternoon sun on a bluebird day.

Sineann oak barrels

Oak barrels stacked outside of Sineann Winery. Sineann’s winemaker Peter Rosback travels back and forth between the Willamette Valley and New Zealand making wine in both hemispheres, fall in Oregon and spring in New Zealand. He sells wines from both regions under his Sineann label. His wines provide stunning value when compared to his neighbors in the valley.

 

Focus on Fruit

There are no short cuts.

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?

Pinot Noir hanging in Lichtenwalter Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA

Pinot Noir hanging in Lichtenwalter Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA

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).

ºhttp://industry.oregonwine.org/wp-content/uploads/Final-2014-Oregon-Vineyard-and-Winery-Report.pdf

Film Review: American Wine Story

Wine fanatics and Northwest-rooted wine drinkers take note; American Wine Story will leave you swooning for the open air of the West, and an ethereal glass of Riesling (or Pinot Noir or Doubleback). Created by Three Crows Productions, the film will undoubtedly snare those who appreciate wine documentaries like Somm. The opening series expresses well the allure, the caress that captures wine lovers and never, ever lets go. Well respected and novice wine advocates alike divulge their personal coming-of-wine story (Scott Wright, Dick Erath, Harry Peterson-Nedry, Drew Bledsoe, Pascal Brooks, to name a few). Have a great glass in hand as you watch—it may bring tears to your eyes. Katherine Cole divulges her experience of wine doing just this, bringing tears through its sheer energy and beauty.

American Wine Story: Dream to Risk and Rise

American Wine Story: Dream to Risk and Rise

Drones and time-lapse photography help create a grandiose scale for the film. Ultimately, however, American Wine Story is a tale of grit, risk, and persevering pioneers. The central narrative shares the heartbreaking history of Brooks Winery, a Willamette Valley winery founded by Jimi Brooks. Jimi came home from his youthful, post-college venture in France with a drive to make old-vine Riesling in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. After building his winery to the edge of breakout success, he passed away suddenly from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 38. His friends and colleagues collaborated with his distant sister, Janie Brooks Heuck, to keep the winery alive and thriving. Pascal, Jimi’s son, now owns the winery, and may one day soon take a lead role in the winery. First he needs to finish college and reach a legal age to consume wine.

Pascal Brooks, son of Jimi Brooks

Pascal Brooks, son of Jimi Brooks

Despite the swooning and heartfelt retelling of Brooks’ story, the film effectively and impressively stares directly at the gritty realities of winemaking and relationships. It becomes evident that Janie Brooks Heuck lives in an alternate orbit from her counter-cultural, nomadic brother, Jimi. Janie followed the upper-middle class American dream in all its glory and sterile plainness. Those who value the ideals embodied by Jimi’s life may find Janie a bit sour. Impressively, the film does not over-glorify any one individual, but rather shows humans struggling to find meaning in their relationships and work while wading through the muck of death, debt, and grape must.

Pop a cork, settle in, and let the beauty of clean cinematography and human drive wash over you. You can find American Wine Story on Amazon Prime Instant Video, iTunes, and Google Play. You can also buy the DVD online.

Bombs Away: Syrah in the Willamette

As mentioned in my last post, I have two significant memories from my summer of tasting through the Willamette Valley. Stoller Family Estate provides the second provocative impression. After tasting through six wines at Stoller, all truly respectable, I find myself wanting more. . . syrah from the Willamette Valley.

Stoller’s Single Acre Estate Syrah brought one eye brow up, and forced a second glance at the label. Syrah from the Willamette? Syrah brings most minds to the hot climes of the world–the Hunter Valley of Australia or the much closer Wahluke Slope of Washington. Unfortunately, these warm locations can too often create fruit bombs lacking complexity, balance, or length. Stoller’s syrah, however, balanced beautifully with acid and medium weight, while looming large enough to show classic syrah spice and fruit. If this single experiment from Stoller does not convince, perhaps the Northern Rhone should, as the climates of both valleys share plenty of similarities if you choose the vineyard site appropriately. Remember, the Northern Rhone borders Burgundy, the epicenter of Pinot Noir. Wineries with lower elevation, south-facing acreage within the Willamette Valley, like Stoller Family Estate, take note. Bombs away–balance and perspective rise up. Perhaps this message should carry beyond the caves and cellars to the halls of capitals.

While you’re beating down the doors of those in power, pick up a bottle of 2013 Pinot Noir Rose from Stoller Family Estate as well. I have tasted a good plenty of roses from a plethora of grape varieties from Wa-gon country, and this takes the cake. Delicious.

*Newcomers, Wa-gon = Washington and Oregon

Chapter 24 Vineyards–a Luscious Welcome

Courtesy of Chapter 24 Vineyards

Steph, my spouse, and I relocated to Portland, Oregon in June. Steph is a Portland native, and we are both thrilled to be back in the northwest where we met. I have many passions that Oregon can reward–wine rises high on the list. Summer weekends spent in the tasting rooms and wineries of the Willamette Valley left me with two very notable memories. Today will focus on the first.

Chapter 24 Vineyards is a relative newcomer to Oregon. “Though she be but little (and new), she is fierce!” Fierce for the sheer force of their four wine line up from their 2012 vintage–Two Messengers ($30), The Fire ($60), The Flood ($60), and The Last Chapter ($90). Pinot Noir rarely inspires the use of the words fierce and force, but these words are directed at the accomplishments of Chapter 24 Vineyards. The Last Chapter has all the elements of a deeply beautiful, memorable pinot noir–elegance, balance, and length swirl their way into your psyche. I melted after smelling the wine alone. I continue to swoon.


One of the collaborators for this producer, Mike Etzel, is the son of Beaux Freres head wine maker. Consequently, Chapter 24 has access to some premium fruit from multiple vineyard sites. Great fruit speaks for itself, particularly with Pinot Noir, and speak it does with The Fire, The Flood, and The Last Chapter. 


While their core three wines speak profoundly for themselves, Two Messengers stands tall against other entry-level bottles by producers in the Willamette Valley. Wine makers show their talent with their lowest tier wines, as they are almost always working with less than ideal fruit. Chapter 24 pulls off a clean sweep with their line up by starting your tasting with this classic, pleasurable Willamette pinot. 


Finally, kudos to the Chapter 24 team for their ingenious marketing plan, which names wines after the geologic soil types of particular vineyard sites–The Fire from the volcanic, higher elevation sites, and The Flood from the lower elevation sites formed by the Missoula Floods. Notably, these wines do not and cannot claim specific AVA designations, as they span multiple AVAs within the larger Willamette Valley AVA; however, they are largely sourced from highly respected sub-appellations within the Willamette Valley. 


Add Chapter 24 to the top of your list. It will not disappoint.