Real wine is hard to find. The charade that populates most store shelves is a group of elixirs, created to poke and tickle the right taste buds. Made in the vein of Pepsi or Fritos, these commodity wines typically showcase excessive fruit, residual sugar, and serious chugability. These are circus wines with circus labels, and the industry has created a sometimes-impenetrable wall of them—one that obscures the wines made by real people, from real grapes, for our honest pleasure. . . .
Willamette Valley Pin . . . No. Stop there. Riesling. Willamette Valley Riesling. For winemakers and the wine obsessed, this combination brings little surprise. For most, Riesling sounds like an afterthought in the land of world-class Pinot Noir. Enter Weinbau Paetra. Buy, pop, swirl, and see.
Bill Hooper worked his way into a few fine wine shops before starting with The Wine Company, a well-regarded, independent distributor of fine wines. After marrying a German gal, he eventually flew the coop and spent time in Pfalz, Germany studying viticulture and winemaking at the Wine and Agricultural school in Neustadt an der Weinstraße. He is one of only two American graduates in the 115 year history of the school. After returning stateside, Oregon became the clear mecca for a rabble-rousing Riesling producer. He founded Weinbau Paetra, a micro-production label crafting uncompromising Riesling (and more). Expect to find Bill’s wines in fine wine shops across the Twin Cities metro and Portland, and you can’t find finer American-made Riesling. The “K” Riesling, his entry wine and an homage to the Kabinett Rieslings of Germany, will give you a taste of what to expect. After tasting, you’ll explore further. I’ve known these wines as cult-worthy, and after tasting more broadly understand that the money can follow the mouth.
I had the fortune of attending the 2017 Willamette Barrel Auction, a lavish, riotous event featuring some of the top producers in the valley. At the after party, magnums galore graced the bar. 1999 St. Innocent Seven Springs Vineyard and Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2012 Alexana Revana Vineyard Pinot Noir, Adelsheim 1993 Elizabeth’s Reserve Pinot Noir. It was a hell of a night. The showstopper? A bottle of 2001 Chehalem Riesling (Ridgecrest, I believe, and possibly 2000). Age had treated the wine oh so kindly. Petrol, steely minerality, and a dash of fruit weaved itself into a mesmerizing work of art.
Riesling has captured the attention of somms and wine explorers. If you have an interest in figuring out why, while adding some affordable, cellar-worthy bottles to your stash, give a go with Paetra’s Riesling lineup.
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)
Varietal: Pinot Noir
Region: Columbia Gorge AVA
Producer: Wy’east Vineyards
Pale lemon with subtle, youthful aromas of green apple, Bartlett pear, and slate. Dry leaning in to off-dry with noteworthy, well-integrated acidity. Length lacked luster, perhaps due to age. (MW, February 2017)
Varietal: Pinot Gris
Region: Columbia Gorge AVA
Producer: Wy’east Vineyards
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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 fruit
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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?
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.
*QPR = Quality-Price Ratio