Monday, October 14, 2013

Making Wine in the Vineyard

One of the first things a winemaker will tell you is that “great wine is made in the vineyard.” And while obviously, they’re not actually making wine there, rather, growing it, the utterance gives you a real sense of the undeniable importance that proper vineyard location and its subsequent management can have on the final product, the wine in the bottle.

There are things about a vineyard, its soil quality, slope, sun exposure and heat units that made it a good location to begin with. More often than not vineyard sites that are in use today passed muster on most of those criteria before they were even planted. Some of the oldest vineyards in the Northwest were chosen by wine whiz kids coming north from California with these things in mind. While others came into being as the wine industry grew, many were originally established as farms or orchards and as the farmers and land owners watched their neighbors find success in the wine industry they converted their property over. It was a case of making do with what they had.

Stoller Vineyards happens to be a case of the latter, one that worked out, really, really well. A long time family owned turkey farm (notice the little two legged bird on the label) Bill Stoller was convinced by Harry Nedry that his land would make a prime Pinot Noir location. Given its southern exposure, the signature Dundee Jory soils and the great drainage Rob Schultz, the vineyard manager at Stoller thinks it’s a sterling case of serendipity.

“This site is perfect really, so we should be able to get to a place where we’re making history with these grapes.” Rob points out that the Stoller vineyards are one of the warmest sites in what is a cool section of the Willamette Valley’s Dundee Hills. That southern exposure and the diversity of elevation that the vineyard is planted within not only means that ripeness is not an issue but that they can harvest the vineyard over a three week period as the various blocks of the vineyards will reach physiological ripeness at different times.

As Rob toured me through the Stoller vineyards a couple things stood out; by Willamette Valley standards it’s a large vineyard and the site’s contours and topography made for a lot of variance, in terms of elevation, slope, sun exposure, what have you. It’s also been planted over a course of a few years and so they’ve dabbled in different techniques. For example Block 96 is planted in a tight Burgundian spacing and further down the hill you’ll find wider spacing between the rows. Rob joined the team in 2011 and 2012 was his first vintage.

Melissa, the winemaker & Rob, 
For Rob to do his job well it’s about his collaboration and cooperation with the winemaker, Melissa Burr who’s taking those grapes that Rob so carefully tended and trying to make the best Pinot Noir they’ll give her. “We share the same goal of trying to grow & make 100 point wines, of trying to make wines that show the terroir of the site.” While they have different jobs they have a lot in common, whether that’s their taste in wine styles or their closeness in age. That translates to a complimentary philosophy. “I take a winemaker’s approach in the vineyard.  She tries to make the wines taste like the vineyard.”

This played out in the day that I spent with Rob, on our tour he pointed out the vineyard’s section 14. “The tannins are a bit out of hand in that block, it’s something I’m working on.” Later in a tasting with Melissa she said “We’re trying to figure out section 14, I’m trying to coax out more fruit, right now it’s lot’s of tannin, but we’re working on that.” These two are on the same page. 

Melissa ferments each section of the vineyard separately, that allows her and Rob to taste through them once the wine has gone through malolactic fermentation. “We discuss the relative merits of each section and discuss what’s lacking or not.  For instance, certain sections might be lacking in tannin structure.” (They’re probably not talking about section 14.)

In that instance Rob then might be able to do certain things with that block that's lacking in tannin. One common vineyard practice to raise the level of grape tannin is to pull leaves from the vines and allow for more sun exposure. There have been studies examining the effects light has on tannin development in the grapes.

Rob's also got his eye on managing vigor or vine growth. "Vigor is a real issue with Jory soils, and I believe if we can manage that well, get to the right place, we can really move towards perfection in the wines we produce."

You get a real sense of mutual respect from talking with Melissa and Rob, whether that’s in each other’s company or not. There’s a teamwork attitude and approach, and frankly it’s something that comes across from everyone at Stoller. Rob’s gratitude and appreciation for his vineyard workers also comes out almost immediately. He knows that both he and Melissa cannot meet their goals without everyone being on board.

Rob knows what he has to work with and part of his strategy is to take the long view with everything that he and Melissa do and ultimately the wines that result from their decisions and actions. "One thing I do, is to compile all the vineyard information, the fermentation notes, and the subsequent quality into a singular report, and over time, hope to be able to track what I do, what Melissa does, and how that results in subsequent wine quality."

-Photos courtesy Stoller Family Estate


That's a great photo of Melissa and Rob.

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Nice giveaway! Being a wine lover, I always love to explore new wineries of different countries. Experiencing wine tasting and analyzing the flavors of diverse wines have always been fun and exciting for me. I love the whole procedure of wine making from fragmentation through bottling. I have experienced almost all types of wines and this experience has gained over time.

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