A Love Letter to the 2007 Vintage

Soléna Estate and Domaine Danielle Laurent

Peep the Hustle

Jasper Sisco

Rockstars Don't Make Wine

Don't Sleep on Real Talent

40 is the New Awesome

The 40th Vintage at Tualatin Estate

Durant Vineyards

A New Approach to Old Vines

Who We Are

The staff of the Northwest Wine Anthem, we're good

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Domaine Danielle Laurent: A Love Letter to 2007

When I was roaming the Willamette Valley back in 2010 I had already fallen in love with Oregon's Pinot Noir.  I'd become pretty smitten back in 2005, a few years after moving across the country to the Pacific Northwest and discovering wine.

It was in 2010 that I fell in love with a vintage, the much maligned 2007 Oregon Pinot Noir. It was not an easy year for grape growers and vineyard managers. A cooler vintage with a a mild summer was further complicated by a deluge of rain. What happened then was the determining factor; did the wines become a huge mistake, or were they other-worldly delicious. Those who waited out the rain, as opposed to picking too soon were well rewarded.

While the vintage was a bit panned in the media, a result of so many of those wines picked too son, those who know get it, and you'll find several of us who note this as our favorite vintage from Oregon, ever.

For me, the well made wines of 2007 have become a sort of archetype of cool vintage, cool climate Pinot Noir. For me that vintage is quintessentially Oregon and the Willamette Valley. It's my favorite, in spite of 2010, and 2011, the latter maybe aspiring to 2007 but not really coming close in terms of beauty and elegance.

As I was tooling through the Willamette Valley I paid a visit to a new facility at Soléna Estate. In my recollection, I knew very little about the label at the time. I was given a short tour of the really impressive facility and then we got down to tasting. One of the seminal moments in that love affair with that 07 vintage came in a few minutes at that tasting bar. The 2007 Domaine Danielle Laurent remains one of my favorites of the vintage.

Here are a few notes from the article I wrote for The Oregon Wine Blog on my visit:

All of their Pinots are quite nice but for the sake of time I have to focus in on the Domaine Danielle Laurent Pinot Noir ($45). I strongly suggest you spend some time with this wine. First off, we had the 2007. The mystery continues for me about how people who supposedly know anything about wine could have poo-pooed this vintage for Oregon Pinot Noir. This wine is beautiful. I picked up some burnt gun powder on the nose. 

The wines from this estate vineyard, which was a wedding gift from the owners,Danielle & Laurent, to each other, is planted with several different Pinot clones. The wine is handled with kid gloves, and in small lots. Punchdowns are done in rotary barrels and all fermentation is done in small batches. "

Domaine Danielle Laurent is the estate vineyard at Soléna Estate, which is a part of a larger operation owned by Laurent and Danielle Montaleiu. It's small at just over 20 acres in the Yamhill Carlton AVA but it produces premium fruit from a few different clones. The elevation is good at Domaine Danielle Laurent, topping out at shy of 700 feet on Willakenzie soils. 

The wines coming out of DDL (my abbreviation) exude an elegance, and that was certainly emphatic in the 2007, there's a accented quality in the Soléna bottlings, despite the Montelieus having their hands in a lot of different pots. In addition to Soléna Estate, they produce another label Hyland Estates and the custom crush NW Wine Co as well as at least one value label making Willamette Valley wines under $20. The quality on this label and the wines from the DDL vineyard in particular remains quite high. 

2013 Soléna Estate, Pinot Noir, Domaine Danielle Laurent
Evocative of the six years older version of itself this wine from this particular vineyard exudes elegance and purity of fruit. The aromatics of fresh mint, black currant and turned earth, while not quite as feminine as the 2007 vintage, announce a very feminine 2013 Pinot Noir. The palate is bright and bracing with ample minerality, vibrant blackberries and dried figs. The finish is zippy with streaks of fresh mint and elegant acidity. A structure outlined by pretty tannin really accents this vintage for me. $50

2013 Soléna Estate, Chardonnay, Domaine Danielle Laurent
A tiny production Chardonnay from Soléna Estate (120 cases) that gives us a different look at this site from a white wine lens. The site again accents elegance with lemon creme and honeyed aromatics jumping out from the glass. The palate is vibrant with crystalline fruit flavors and incredible balance that have come to be the trademark of Dijon clone Chardonnay here in the Willamette. The palate is accented by lemon creme, nutmeg and ample apple and pear flavors. Pretty, balanced rounded but very,very fresh. Sold Out

Monday, February 08, 2016

Can't Knock the Hustle... Jasper Sisco

Jay Z said a lot of things that rhymed in the track Can't Knock the Hustle, but most appropriately he said "I sip wine and spit vintage flows, but y'all don't know... you can't knock the hustle."

Justin Paul Russell rhymes with hustle. Coincidence? I don't think so.

When we first met Justin he was already hustling, trying to cobble together some funds via an Indiegogo campaign so that he could launch his label, Jasper Sisco named for his great grandfather. That was then and this is now, and if nothing else, we've all gotten older. Time is brutal like that. I caught up with Justin after sampling some of his new releases.

The hustle is still strong with this one, in case you weren't sure, starting a winery is not exactly a picnic. "I wish that I could say I was running a full time wine game at this point but currently I'm still juggling two part time gigs to make sure labels make it onto bottles and the lights stay on. But there have been lessons a plenty. If anything the wine game has taken my normally creative focused thinking and shifted it into high set analytical gear. And by that I mean there a lot more grey hair that has developed just from planning out the next move in the cellar, for the winery, and for Jasper Sisco in general. But it get's me up in the morning.  And I hope to be able to focus full time on it by the end of the year."

While he's still "grindin'" as the kids say, (Do the kids still say that?) Justin is moving Jasper Sisco onward, and upward. There have been plenty of recent, substantial developments besides his grey hair. When the label got started he was working out of a corner of the Maysara winery's cellar and credits the Momtazi family with helping him get his start in the business. Once he moved to the SE Wine Collective location in Portland his production went from 84 cases to the 1,100 neighborhood. And now Justin and Jasper Sisco are onto a new neighborhood as he's setting up new digs in Portland's Sellwood neighborhood on his own. He's hoping to open the doors in May. Justin is also diversifying his wine offerings, and will be up to eight wines with his next release, including a sparkling Muscat, as well as a Cinsault rosé and a Pinot Noir from the eastern side of the Willamette Valley.

Justin's current releases include some different sources for Pinot Noir and a little white wine gem, fancied after the Edelzwicker style. Good luck coming up with a rhyme for that one Mr. Carter. 

Like all good stories, the Edelzwicker-esque story began with too much booze at a barbecue. Justin had been tipped off by Cana's Feast winemaker Patrick Taylor that Washington was the spot for  the Muscat grape with a proper concentration of flavors and so Justin set his sights there. The results gave Justin the same sort of family feeling that got him into this business in the first place. 

" I found Muscat for sale in Fruitland, WA. I agreed to visit the site before opening google maps to the realization that the site was more than a 6 hour drive from Portland.  But not one to go back on my word, I made the trek in early summer of 2104. The place is magic, 1400 ft elevation directly above the Columbia river. nine acres managed by the Benson family who also run the only gas station/postoffice/coffee shop/ food store/auto body shop within an hour or so drive. After spending the weekend with the family it was apparent that we were at the same place in our journey in the wine world." 

2014 Jasper Sisco Gratus Bynum, Fruitland Valley Vineyards
A blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Muscat from this little known Eastern Washington vineyard offers a twist on varieties you may be familiar with on their own. Justin sees it as a place to be excited about "This site has a ton of potential, 2014 was the first year of viable fruit and this year I'm seeing better concentration of flavor and acids across all the varietals."For those who don't know, (Or couldn't be bothered to click the link above, lazy.) an Edelzwicker is German for "noble-blend" and is a mainstay style of wines from Alsace. This wine hints at sweet ripe honeydew and honeysuckle, maybe hey even a little honey, and to throw off our theme, sweet hay, but hey. There's a fair bit of sweet fruit on the palate as well and the rounded mouthfeel comes from the skin contact used on the Muscat. Great acid zips along as an undercurrent to sweet lychee fruit. $18

2014 Jasper Sisco James Clifton Pinot Noir, Zenith Vineyard
This is the first 2014 Oregon Pinot Noir I've tried and while a bit youthful it's apparently a vintage for my palate which prefers zip, herbal elements and earth to black on black on blackberries. Aromas of dried violets, peat and dried fig and an accompanying flavor profile of black fruit, yet quite fresh with strong mineral elements and a zippy fresh mint finish.  I've found Zenith to be more concentrated fruit in the past but I love the dichotomy at play here, ripe fruit really loaded with a strong mineral streak. "Zenith for me feels like one of the heritage sites in Oregon,so when Vincent Fritzsche connected with me Tim Ramey who manages Zenith, I jumped at the chance to work with the fruit. Eola-Amity Pinot noir is something that I've always been drawn to and the wines of Vincent, St. Innocent, and John Grochau from that site have always been some of my favorites.  I love the classic violet, sage, floral, more feminine style of wines that come out of that AVA. It felt like a great counter point to the depth and heft of Momtazi." $34

Monday, January 18, 2016

Don't Sleep on John Grochau and Grochau Cellars

(I don't know if Dee Snider is still a live, but come on man. For the love of God, those eyebrows look like hell.)

The "rockstar winemaker" concept makes me want to vomit in my mouth, by the way. I may be alone at this party, but I doubt it. Unfortunately there's plenty of this sort of back-slapping, pseudo celebrity anointing in the wine world.  Even in this quiet corner here of the Pacific Northwest. There are folks, 1,050 Google results for that term "rockstar winemaker." More than a few of those named winemakers from Washington and I did find one for Oregon. After page 7 I got bored. There were tons of entries from Paso Robles.

There are some folks out there who are uber-talented but they're winemakers. They ain't rockstars.

Sure there are some wineries that have dialed in their marketing. They've got a great vibe, slick packaging and tons of hipster street cred. Just as there are some wineries playing to the score formula as well. Tons of tannin, new oak out the wazoo, chasing that highfalutin' Robert Parker score. That doesn't make them rockstars, just unoriginal and frankly, in some cases, insufferable.

One cat who is making super nice wines that I feel never gets enough attention, is that dude John Grouchau at the eponymous Grochau Cellars. John is not a rockstar, he'd be the first to tell you. When you think of John in fact, terms like humility and humble are the first to come to mind. While his label while not be on the lips of those who speak of what's hip and hot in Oregon wine. The wines are really some of the most consistently high quality coming out of the Willamette Valley and at a very fair price-point. (Grochau Cellars reminds me of the Portland area indie record label, Kill Rock Stars, formerly of Elliot Smith fame; John lives in Portland. Coincidence?)

I was proud to write a feature article about John in Peloton Magazine and I'll borrow a few quotes from it for this piece. The fact is I've known John now for a few years and his wines, and the way he talks about them have never changed. Except that they change every vintage as they should.

"I feel that you get the best translation of site from the wines that you do the least amount to.  The more you manipulate, the more you add, the more “same” the wines can become.  I don’t set out to make the same wine every year, the wine needs to reflect from where and when it came.  Sameness is boring, while it is a necessity for a large winery, it is not what I want to do.  There are many right ways to make wine, and a few wrong ways; everything in between is style.

For Grochau Cellars, who opened a new tasting room last Spring in the Eola-Amity Hills, it's about those sites, special places tended by dedicated farmers that make the Willamette Valley such an outstanding place to make wine. "As I started working with more vineyards I realized it is all about the place from where the grapes come.  The vineyards have their own signature, their own style; and pinot noir is such a transparent grape when it comes to showing where it was grown.” To allow the wine’s signature to really come through, John works closely with the vineyard manager, paying close attention to how the fruit ripens, and sometimes agonizing over when to pick. Being hands on with the fruit in the vineyard allows him to be hands off in the winery.  

John does a number of single vineyard and AVA Pinot Noirs and they all typically have one thing in common, whole cluster fermentation. John uses the stems and rachis to add structure to his wines. John first came to appreciate wine working in the restaurant industry and has always believed a proper food-wine needs structure.

2012 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, Grochau Cellars
A side by side tasting of two of John's 2012 Pinots demonstrates the variance of his Single AVA wines, even in a warm vintage that's been consistently well received by the wine public (while it's not necessarily my favorite). With a growing season as ripe as 2012 there's a bit of fear that consistency and fruitiness might wipe out variance and diversity. Fear not! The Dundee Hills Pinot is effusively aromatic with lots of earth and peat notes, dried violets and hints at graphite. John always uses a fair bit of fruit from Anderson Family Vineyards, one my favorites, and one that's somehow stayed fairly under the radar over the years. The wine veers toward floral as well as bramble berry, with notes of blackberry and black tea, and a touch of gunpowder on the palate. While I've not been in love with the 2012 vintage and its general ripeness, this wine's structure and elegance win me over. $33

2012 Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir, Grochau Cellars
Further to the south of Dundee John's 2012 Eola-Amity Pinot is a study in black fruit and earth. Aromas of ripe black plums, fennel, and turned earth. The palate balances more inky blackness with touches of minerality and firm tannin. Again, a pretty wine but notably riper and rounder than its northern neighbor in the Dundee Hills. The wine opens over a couple of hours to show a bit more depth with clove and cola also coming to the fore. $33

2014 Melon de Bourgogne, Grochau Cellars
Pinot Gris can be so ho-hum and so I'm happy to report that Grochau Cellars doesn't even produce one. Instead try a Melon de Bourgogne, as the name implies the grape originated in Burgundy but it's been made famous in the Loire as Muscadet. The Grochau Cellars' Melon is a departure from the heavy influence of lees you'll often find in Muscadet. This Melon is angular, lively and pulsing. Aromas of crushed stone, cut apple and citrus fruit. A palate that zips with nerves and high acid, lime, and wet stone dominate. $18

All wines provided as samples.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

40 is the New Awesome at Willamette Valley Vineyards

photo of Tualatin Estate courtesy of Willamette Valley Vineyards
Forty is the age when men make really bad financial decisions that involve over-priced sports vehicles. I'm not really sure what drives that, I bought an expensive bicycle instead when I turned forty just last year. But what I've found about being forty, (I just turned 41) is that you're only as old as you feel.

Bill Fuller is perhaps a name that more of us should be familiar with especially those of us who follow Oregon Pinot Noir.  Bill came to the Willamette Valley from California already established as a winemaker in Napa at Louis M. Martini. He was a pioneer in his own right in that regard as those few who proceeded him were more aptly tagged as "upstarts" as opposed to the experienced Fuller who was perhaps best prepared to hit the fresh ground in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, running.

Fuller planted his vineyards, that would be called the Tualatin Estate Vineyards over a July 4th weekend in 1973. His early wines, both a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay won acclaim in Europe in the early 80s and his 1989 estate Chardonnay was the first wine from Oregon to crack into Wine Spectators Top 100 wines. (All of this was pre-Oregon's Chardonnay revival on the strength of the Dijon clone.)

Bill's Tualatin Estate was merged with Willamette Valley Vineyards in 1997 and the wines grown at Tualatin have become a major part of the success and reputation for excellence that the winery has gone onto develop. Jim Bernau called the retired Bill Fuller who after working with Tualatin went on to become the house winemaker at the McMenamin's establishments and invited him out of retirement for a special project. The fortieth vintage of the fruit Fuller planted was coming in the 2013 wines and Bernau thought it would be fun to include Fuller in crafting the wines.

Bill was game for the project and so we have Vintage 40 from Willamette Valley Vineyards, a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made from blocks of the Tualatin Vineyards that Bill prized most. The wines are made in uber-small lots of less than 200 cases and they're priced quite fairly given the quality and scarcity of the project.

Bill is not viewing this as a "one and done," and is back working with the winemaking team at 78 years young with 2015's harvest in the books, he looks forward to the wines of the 42nd vintage of Tualatin fruit.

2013 Vintage 40 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley Vineyards, Tualatin Estate
Classic in all senses of the term for Oregon Pinot. Fresh, brambly fruit and earth aromas and a palate that pulses with great fruit, minerality and balance. The freshness carries through with a kiss of fresh mint on the finish and an elegance throughout. $45

2013 Vintage 40 Chardonnay, Willamette Valley Vineyards, Tualatin Estate
The Pinot is good but the Chardonnay might be the star of the show. Loaded with aromas of honey, sweet white flower and chamomile this is a complex Chardonnay aromatically and it really delivers on the palate. The wine is made from Draper Clone Chardonnay that Bill brought with him from California and in terms of the old vine Chardonnays in Oregon that remain of the California clones, it's the best I've had. I've been a huge champion of the Dijon clone Chardonnays as the only way to go in Oregon and this one proves me wrong. The palate is loaded with lemon creme, minerality, freshness and depth. $35

Monday, October 05, 2015

New School, Old Vines: Durant Vineyards at Red Ridge Farms

Durant Vineyards has been an establishment in the Willamette Valley since nearly the beginning. Founded in 1973 their Bishop's block Pinot Noir are among the oldest vines in the Willamette Valley. While the names on the bottle haven't always said Durant, Owen Roe, Patricia Green, Sokol Blosser, Big Table Farm and a long list of others have come to appreciate the special sites and the resulting Pinot and Chardonnay that the Durants have grown over those long years.

Originally Ken and Penny Durant came to the Willamette Valley thinking maybe they'd plant a nut orchard. At the time the valley floor was expensive as it was fertile farmland so the Durants bought what they could along a ridge that overlooks the valley in the Dundee Hills area. Little did they know at the time that it would be an incredible place to grow Pinot Noir.

With the 2003 vintage, the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the vineyards on Red Ridge, the Durant family decided that it was time that they released wines under their own label.

"These wines are a reflection of how we farm." Says Paul Durant "we don't blend, for better or for worse." At Durant Vineyards they say they're "true to the block." All of their wines are vineyard designate bottlings, blending is out, it's not an option. The nooks and crannies of their vineyards laid out along the ridge, produce individual wines, and the Durants are very, very particular about how those wines are made.

The Durants look for winemakers who believe in "adaptive" versus "prescriptive" winemaking philosophies. Instead of making a wine to a particular style, adaptive winemakers first seek to understand the fruit and site they're dealing with, and then make the wines that will best communicate that story. The folks at Durant have been selling their fruit to a number of the Valley's winemakers over a long time, and they've been able to see who does well with their fruit, who let's it be what it is.

"We've tried to match these winemakers and the skill-sets we feel like they bring to the table to these particular blocks" says Paul. At Durant they're working with six different winemakers, they don't have an executive winemaker or someone setting a sort of house style. Instead, they enlist the talents of a wildly varied group of six winemakers from the Willamette Valley. The list of names includes Marcus Goodfellow from Big Table Farm, Chad Stock of Minimus, Isabelle Dutarte from De Ponte Cellars, Joe Dobbes of Dobbes Family Wines and Jesse Lange, of Lange Estate as well as a few others.
2013 Durant Vineyard, Raven, Chardonnay,
Made by ADEA's Dean Fisher from the Raven block Chardonnay, planted to clone 96. Aromatics of key lime, white flowers and beeswax. The palate is balanced with bright citrus and stone fruit flavors that give way to rounded lemon creme and honey flavors. -$25

2013 Durant Vineyard, Bishop, Pinot Noir
These are old vine Pommard clones, the original plantings by the Durant family that dates to 1973. The oldest block on the property is entrusted to Isabelle Dutarte from De Ponte Cellars. She produces a nuanced and elegant Pinot Noir with aromas of red fruit, barrel spice and earth. The palate offers up layers of dark ripe fruit, dried herbs, clove and a kiss of fresh mint as the acid balances the finish nicely. -$65 (2012 is the current release.)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Taking the Heat: A Look at Oregon's Hot 2015 (So Far)

It's hot man, hot. And even our cool climate Pinot producing region, the Willamette Valley is experiencing a record heat year. While you often hear about how difficult and challenging cooler vintages like 11 or 07 are, a hot, dry vintage like this year can be equally vexing. With very little rain and record temperatures how is Oregon faring? I've asked a few folks to give us a sense of how they're taking all this heat in stride.

In Southern Oregon, where things are normally warmer than they are in the Willamette, heat has been an issue even for varietals that do well in wamer climes. Herb Quady of Quady North is trying to keep his cool, and making adjustments in the vineyards in an effort to make the best wine this vintage will let him.

"One thing, is that we are actively trying to delay maturity, in the hope that temperatures will eventually fall in September, resulting in a more normal ripening curve.  To do this, I've delayed fruit dropping until post veraison.  We'll also be keeping irrigation up during veraison, (at least early)." Herb has some advantages going for him in the way his vineyard was originally laid out. "My home vineyard has an open "V" type system that helps provide some partial shading, so I've felt okay with pulling leaves on the east side.  However, in some tighter vineyards, we have reduced leaf pulling to prevent sun burn. The open V-type system has been really nice this year.  In cooler years, we have had to really aggressively hedge, leaf, and open up the centers, but this year I'm really appreciating the part shading."

Herb expects everything to come early this year, but overall he feels very prepared. The cooler weather this week has been a welcome relief as well.

fruit set in the Elton Vineyard Photo: Christine Collier
Up in the Willamette the folks at Willamette Valley Vineyards are feeling the heat across the board and what that means, is being proactive in the vineyards. Christine Collier the Winery Director at Willamette Valley Vineyards says that decisions they're making now will hopefully put them in a good position for the current hot weather or whatever Mother Nature might throw at them later.

"We experienced near perfect fruit set that is naturally very high yielding. This presents an opportunity and challenge. The sun potentially allows us to ripen more crop, however, we want to assure we are not over-stressing our vines since most of our estate vineyards do not have irrigation. we have spent days in the vineyard assessing each block for canopy vigour, water stress, cluster size, etc. We have made very aggressive decisions to crop down to 2.5-3 tons per acre in our best blocks of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to ensure concentration. This also ensures that the vine does not stall out late in the season due to stress. This will make our harvest dates early and hopefully escape any El Nino pressure of early fall rains that could create disease pressure."

The first week of August was brutal in particular. "Most growers are also experiencing sunburning from last Friday and Saturday when temperatures got above 100 degrees. Rumor has it some sites had 50% loss. We experienced up to 15% sunburning in our estate vineyards and are removing all this damage during crop thinning. In general, at our Elton Vineyard we consciously left more leaves for dappled sunlight, which provided more protection. "
crop thinning at Elton Vineyard Photo: Christine Collier
While we always hear about how stressed vines make for complex and wonderful wines, there is a such thing as too much stress as Christine explained. "Stressed Vine Syndrome creates a tequila-like smell and taste in both red and white wines. It has been most pronounced in Oregon vintages like 1992, 1999, 2012 and 2014. These were all very hot and dry years. It seems to be an Oregon-specific issue, since it isn't a major problem talked about in California (possibly due to irrigation). There isn't a known cause in red wines, but in whites it is suspected to be from an amino acid imbalance."

John Grochau at Grochau Cellars is seeing similar things and while he's never one to jump to conclusions, he knows that what he's doing now has impacts this vintage and beyond. "We are setting up to have the earliest harvest ever… But that can still change. Even though we have had another warm dry year, the plants are still healthy, the exception being the younger vines which are starting to show stress a bit."

"We had a heavy crop load that we are having to cut back pretty far to insure that we don’t stress the plants too much.  Normally in a warm year we will look to carry a slightly heavier crop load to lengthen the ripening a bit.  But with two warm dry years in a row, we are having to keep our crop levels tight so that we don’t stress the plants.  If we stress them too much you can get this stressed agave like character in the wine, you can also set yourself up for problems in the 2016 growing season.

So we hope for some rain and no more heat spikes, or at the very least, the cool weather we have been enjoying this week."

At Stoller Family Estate, vineyard manager Rob Schultz is worried less about young vines, and more about just keeping up as well as getting the work done that's needed in what can be tough conditions on vineyard workers as well.

"We’re holding up well in the heat, but it can be a challenge, both to the vines and ourselves.

For the vines at Stoller, we’re pretty deep-rooted, and without irrigating, our older vines weathered the heat this summer well.  Too well in some cases, as the heat propelled to vines to grow more rapidly than I’d ever seen, so the big challenge of the season became one of keeping up with the pace set by the vines. 

That extreme heat that can come in the late afternoon can cause fruit that’s been recently exposed to the sunlight to burn up or shrivel away.  The key to avoiding that is to expose the fruit as early in the season as possible.  That way, our thin-skinned grapes will have built up something like a “suntan” and won’t burn up later.  We were able to do that this year, and didn’t have any issues even when the heat rose to 107. 

For those of us who work in the vineyard, there aren’t any secret tricks; you do what any farmer does and get to work before the sun rises.  On those hottest of days, those early morning hours are pretty pleasant, and they’re always the most productive of the day."

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Knudsen Vineyards: Knowing Your Roots

When listing off the names of the Willamette Valley's wine pioneers one of the names that many consumers don't necessarily recognize is the name Cal Knudsen.

Cal, along with Dick Erath went on to found the Knudsen-Erath wine label, but that particular partnership stopped producing wines in 1987. Erath, a name we all know, took the winery and Knudsen took the vineyards. After parting ways amicably, Cal Knudsen went on to become a founding partner of the Argyle Winery operation when the company was started in 1987, and his Knudsen Vineyards became the source for nearly all of Argyle's wines, from their Pinot Noirs to their sparkling program.

Cal Knudsen though was one of those most important pioneers whether your average Northwest wine fan knows it or not. Cal was a Weyehauser executive who took seriously the "go big or go home" adage when he bought into vineyard land in the Willamette back in 1971, only a few years behind David Lett. He bought in at around 200 acres (it's closer to 230 these days) and planted in large plots of 20 to 30 acres, in 1975 the Knudsen vineyard was the largest in the state at 60 planted acres at the time. Today it's grown to 130 planted acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, all of which had become an important part of Argyle's sparkling program.

Cal Knudsen (courtesy Knudsen Vineyards)
Cal passed away in 2009 at the age of 85. He was a very accomplished man, both within the wine industry as well as beyond. He came from very humble means and left his mark on both his family and the growing Oregon wine industry. Cal's children have decided to revive the Knudsen name as a wine label with a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay bottling that is just recently hitting the market.

The wines are being made by Nate Klosterman who took the reigns at Argyle after Rollin Soles departed. The folks at Argyle, including the vineyard management team, are well versed in what the Knudsen vineyards are capable of as they've been working with them for years. For Cal's children, though this is more than just a vanity project and so they're working with Nate and other's at Argyle, tasting the wines and ultimately playing a role in the final wines that go into the bottles that bear their name.

I was fortunate enough to taste through the wines with Colin Knudsen and Page Knudsen Cowles. They have a sense of the importance that their father has played in the growth of Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley and the treasure that they have inherited in their father's legacy and the vineyard that their father planted. They've decided to build on their father's legacy and sort of revive their involvement as a family (there are four siblings total) in what their father created. While they live all over the country, the travel to Dundee a few times a year to taste through the wines, and  make decisions about what to do about the aging blocks of the vineyard.

The wines are outstanding, and they're certainly priced at a premium level, but the production is tiny and so they don't stick around for long. The inaugural release, the 2012 Pinot Noir is already gone, almost exclusively snatched up by list members. The first release was done on the strength of a gathering of friends, those friends snatched up every last bottle of the Pinot before it reached beyond the friends and family list.

2013 Knudsen Vineyards Chardonnay $45
This is a beautiful wine and demonstrates that by transitioning a winemaker, Klosterman who's familiar with the site and it's fruit there are zero growing pains from this new label. The Chardonnay would certainly stake its claim among those in the top tier of the Willamette Valley. Aromas of nutmeg, baking spice and poached pear hint at the time in new French oak (35%). It's rounded but the oak is very well integrated with a palate of honey, lemon creme and almond. The acid accents what is a very pretty wine, with weight and lift. (Only 100 cases were produced.)

2013 Knudsen Vineyards Pinot Noir $55 (Not yet released)
Classically Oregon, the acids are great, light to medium bodied, and loaded with those fresh bramble-berry aromas we all love and a dash of wet stone. The Pinot is a blend of a few different blocks, block 3, 6 and 8. The first two are 777 clones and block 8 is Pommard. The north facing block 6 imparts a lot of dark notes to the wine's aromas and palate. There is great minerality, it's a mix of 15-8 year old vines, the acid and finish with lots of fresh wintergreen, lasts what feels like a lifetime.

1985 Knudsen Erath Oregon Pinot Noir, Yamhill County
A thirty year old wine shows, for any fool who is still skeptical that this place is world class. This is a holy shit wine as far as I'm concerned. Aromas of peat moss, mushrooms and earth. Dollops of black fruit and acid that just goes on and on and on. For the record the wine is unbelievably pretty. The wine was liquefied brick in color and while the aromatics were completely muted upon opening it was a remarkable wine that even continued to develop as opposed to deteriorate over the course of a meal.

1983 Knudsen Erath Oregon Pinot Noir, Yamhill County
Some how even more aromatically lively than the 85. What I've learned over my somewhat limited experiences with older wines are that it's not always prudent to expect much in terms of aromatics but the 83 opens up with loads of red fruit aromas. It's insane how alive is wine still is while the palate doesn't pop as much  as the wine two years its junior, it's still showing lively red fruit, and berries for days, or in this case 32 years.

The Knudsen's have history on their side, and the prudence of their father's vision is apparent in these older wines. The site is just right ;and right there in the Dundee Hills. The wines make a case for this new venture of the next generation of Knudsen. Far from a fool's errand these two wines make a compelling case for what they hope to accomplish and the staying power of both the Willamette Valley and the vineyards Cal Knudsen laid down.