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Learning Willamette, one step at a time

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I just got back from up in the Willamette Valley working on that AVA project for Jackson Family Wines. Our particular vineyard is west of the town of Monmouth, in a part of the valley that does not have its own sub-appellation. That’s something I’m looking into, with the idea of coming up with a name that will satisfy our neighbors as well as the Tax & Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the agency that oversees such things.

It’s been a long and winding road, so far, but I’m making good progress—I think (and I’m knocking on wood as I write this, being a superstitious type). My initial plan, for a larger AVA that would have included many more of our neighboring grapegrowers and vintners, seems in retrospect to have been a little too ambitious. I’ve since scaled back, towards a smaller, more focused appellation, which seems like a better idea anyway, because smaller appellations tend to make more sense (from a terroir point of view). I mean, I’ve been the first to criticize gigantic appellations all my years as a wine reporter. So I’m glad we’re able to aim for something smaller, which is easier to understand, and to bring our neighbors with us.

One thing I’ve discovered about TTB is, they do not want to get in the middle of somebody else’s fight! And I can’t say I blame them. They’re probably understaffed; they’re in no position to play Judge Judy. It’s not their job to intervene between quarreling neighbors who disagree about where a boundary is or isn’t. TTB wants us—the petitioners—to get our act together and come to them as a united group that has fulfilled TTB’s basic requirements for approval of a new AVA. That’s not asking too much of us.

Another thing I’ve come to appreciate is how important it is to really understand the land you’re trying to get appellated. I understood, back when I made my first visit up here (last Fall) that it would take me a while to “get” the physical parameters of this part of the valley. Now I’m on my fourth trip, and it’s starting to sink in: I am beginning to understand the slopes and contours, the directionality, where the hllls are, what the elevations are, where the pinot noir thrives and where the it’s better for hazelnuts. I’m getting the roads, too: no more need for GPS. More than that, I’m figuring out the big view: the macro-terrain, where the bowls are, the amphitheaters, the natural topographic features on a many-miles scale. I now have my eye on one such: it seems like a consistent place (in fact it reminds me of the Coombsville appellation in Napa Valley, it’s so compact and geometric). The soils seems to be more or less the same throughout, so does the rainfall, and—well, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. But for me, this is the kind of stuff I love, the sleuthing, the research, the trying to make sense out of a whole lot of unconnected stuff until you begin to see the connections. And, of course, the people we are working with: growers and vintners. Hanging with them, picking their brains, sharing my thoughts, hearing theirs…it’s all so rewarding.

I’m still obviously an outsider, but it strikes me that the Willamette Valley is a huge place, 3.4 million acres, or 35 times bigger than the Russian River Valley; and lord knows, the Russian River Valley seriously needs to be sub-appellated. Willamette Valley already has six sub-AVAs (Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Yamhill-Carlton and Ribbon Ridge), but it seems to my outsider eye that it will take many years if not decades to really figure this place out. I mean every nook and cranny, every slope, every orientation; and this isn’t even to mention the potential Grand Crus. The area to the west and south of Monmouth, which is where I’m working, is very little understood, but I’ll wager it’s going to be important. The little city of Independence, just two miles to the east, has serious plans to develop a winetasting infrastructure on the banks of the Willamette River, and Monmouth is popping up with cute little tasting bars and restaurants. The tourists aren’t flocking here quite yet: they’re going a little further north up the 99, to Eola, Amity and McMinnville. But that’s the beauty of path-breaking winemakers: their curiosity. Tell a winemaker that there’s the potential for beautiful Pinot Noir in an undiscovered region, and light the fire in her eyes. I’m not a winemaker, but it’s fun for a writer to be part of the discovery process, too.

In the end, though, you have to wonder what makes a great AVA—or, at least, one that’s perceived as great. It can’t just be the mere establishment of a perimeter. It can’t just be the petitioner’s claim that the appellation is unique (for most AVAs aren’t, to be perfectly honest). I guess what it takes is a long track record of producing great wine, which doesn’t happen overnight.


A rainy interlude in the Willamette, then snow

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I’m back from my trip to Oregon, where I got to know the byways of the Willamette Valley a lot better than before! Nothing like going back and forth along highways 22, 99 and all those lonely little country lanes to finally figure out who’s who and what’s what. I’d planned my trip a few weeks ago when AccuWeather predicted that the week of Dec. 14-19 would have dry, sunny weather—a rare break in their usual pattern of rain. Well, the weather could have been worse, but it was far from sunny and dry, and in fact they had record rainfall on Wednesday. I tried to drive down to Jackson Family’s Maple Grove Vineyard, outside Monmouth, but never got there: this is a picture of Maple Grove Road, so far as I know the only way into that remote, hilly outcrop of the Coast Ranges.

MapleGrove

I stayed in McMinnville, but the more I learn about the lay of the land, the better it seems to stay further south on future visits. Monmouth or Independence are sort of in the middle of where I need to be, but there are few hotels. Salem isn’t that far; it’s the State Capital, and a nice little city.

Each time I go to Willamette Valley its vastness impresses me. It’s not a compact little valley, like Napa or Sonoma, or even like the Santa Maria Valley. Napa is around 400,000 acres but Willamette is nearly ten times bigger, 3.4 million. It’s also really long from north to south and wide from east to west, and in between the hills and ranges the floor of the valley is flat. The grapes, of course, don’t grow on the flats, but on the slopes. I think it would take somebody a very long time to master an understanding of Willamette Valley terroir and Lord knows it’s not going to be me; but I know more than I used to, and in the future I’ll know more than I do now. So “the arc of Heimoff bends towards understanding.”

I do have to say, though, that I bought a bottle of Chardonnay, from a winery unknown to me, at a little wine shop in McMinnville, after the proprietress highly recommended it. (I won’t ID the brand.) She said it wasn’t oaky. Unfortunately, it was super-oaky, like drinking toothpicks. Mind you, this was a good wine store and the lady seemed like she knew what she was talking about. I find that disconcerting. Can’t we even agree when a wine is too oaky or not?

Anyhow, the Willamette is a warmish place due to the Pacific influence and despite its northerly latitude, so all the precipitation remained in the form of rain. My drive up had been gorgeous: sunny with impossibly blue skies. Here’s a picture of a spiritual-looking Mt. Shasta from that part of the journey.

Shasta

But it was raining heavily on the way home yesterday (Sunday) and as we hit the Siskiyou and Shasta passes the rain turned to heavy, wind-driven snow. I haven’t driven in heavy snow since I lived in the Berkshires nearly 40 years ago, so this was a scary experience for me. The I-5 freeway was down to a single lane in places, the snow and fog made for whiteout conditions, and of course the grades were up to 6 percent not to mention the curves. Throw in all those awful big rigs and it was downright menacing. (We love our long-distance haulers, America wouldn’t be the same without them, but I could live without the trucks. Yes I know that’s a total contradiction.) At one point we stopped at a rest stop and when Gus saw the snow coming down he refused to get out of the car. But I made him see the light so he hopped down and seemed a little disoriented as the snowflakes piled up on his back.

SnowyGus

People were giggling because he was so funny and cute in a WTF way.

Anyhow the trip back to Oakland (from Ashland, where we bunked for the night) took 7-12 hours because of the foul weather. (Ashland: another cute little town like McMinnville although a lot colder since it’s in snow country: shops, restaurants, holiday lights and hippies!) It’s nice to be back home after a week in Mexico and then my week in Oregon. Lots of work to jump on, including a great project concerning the Freemark Abbey renovation Jackson Family Wines is undertaking at the winery in St. Helena.

I’ll try to blog throughout this week. Take care.


Exploring Willamette Valley

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I’ve drank my share of Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs over the years and enjoyed them very much, but I hadn’t been up there since the 1990s. So it was with eager anticipation that I few to McMinnville yesterday for a short but intensive crash course in all things Willamette.

I was lucky in having as my tour guide the invaluable services of Eugenia Keegan, whom I’ve known since her days at Bouchaine. She now is in charge of Jackson Family Wines’ winemaking efforts throughout Oregon, which is to say Eugenia’s got a big, important job.

Prior to my trip I had a fairly sound academic knowledge of Willamette. You could hardly call it exhaustive or even particularly current: I can hardly keep up with all the new brands in California, much less in a state that’s not my own. So how does a curious wine writer even begin to take in and learn about a wine region as large and diverse as Willamette Valley?

Slowly and patiently. I decided not to try and cram dozens of details of scattered bits of knowledge into my brain, but to sit back and absorb. Just let the sights, sounds, scents and information from Eugenia seep in, sort themselves out, and settle, like lees in a barrel. Fortunately, the day was superb, the weather chilly and cloudy in the early morning, but clearing by 11 a.m. to reveal blue, expanseless skies. The temperature quickly warmed up to the high 70s.

My impression of the Willamette is a compound picture of wide spaces flanked by mountains on both sides, but the mountains are much further apart than they are in any California wine valley. Nor is there the grapevine monoculture one sees in California wine valleys, with vast, unbroken carpets of grapes lining the floor and slopes. I found the vineyards relatively scattered, interspersed with hazelnut trees, feed grasses and bovines, and the most insanely cute little towns. I also gained an appreciation of different terroirs: Someone had mentioned that two ranges of hills, miles apart, had very similar conditions of soil and climate; but when we drove from the first to the second one, great differences of terroir leaped out to my eye. The soil was beige-white, not orange; and the foliage was completely different, being lusher than in the first vineyard. Then I learned that the second vineyard was considerably further inland. That made total sense: the further inland you go, the warmer it gets.

I mention these relatively trivial details only to share how my mind works. At some point I will throw myself into the details of weather, soils and history in the Willamette Valley. But I think the best way to newly learn about a wine region is simply to open the senses to their maximum extent and allow yourself to be assaulted by impressions. It’s getting a feel for a place, as opposed to forming an opinion or stereotype about it, which one then imposes on the region.

On the short flight back home we passed right over the Lake County burn area, which was very sad. The Valley Fire has largely passed out of the daily news, but the many victims, who lost so much, will endure their harrowing ordeal for a long time. It was a sobering reminder of the vagaries of daily existence—a message from the Universe to appreciate what we have right now, in the moment, because it could all disappear in an instant.


Tasting Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

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I must confess how much I looked forward to our tasting last week of Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs. I exclusively reviewed California wines for a long time, and Oregon was a bit of a mystery to me. Of course, I’d had my share of Willamette Valley Pinot (and other varieties), but never really sat down for a focused, concentrated tasting. So this was a big deal for me.

It was our final tasting of West Coast Pinot Noir. We started in Santa Maria Valley, then worked our way north: Santa Rita Hills, San Luis Obispo County, Monterey County, Santa Lucia Highlands (with Chalone and Calera for good measure), Santa Cruz Mountains, Carneros, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Anderson Valley. So you can’t really get any further north than Willamette Valley.

With the results of those tastings fresh in my memory, I was eager to see if there really was a “Willamette Valley” character that’s distinct and non-Californian. A few thoughts: for one, this was the best of all our tastings, and that’s saying a lot, for in each tasting, I bought the very best wines—certainly the ones that the critics (including me) have given the highest scores to. Each of our tastings was brilliant, but this Willamette Valley flight was the most impressive, in terms of the sheer balance, complexity and consistency of all the wines.

Were they “earthier” than California Pinot Noir? I suppose, by some stretch of the imagination, they were: I frequently found mushroom and tea notes. But I also did in many of the California wines. I felt that the Oregon Pinots, however, were more Californian than I expected. This may be due to two factors: First, the vintages we explored—2012 and 2013—both were fine. My friends at Wine Enthusiast rated the former at 96 points and the latter at 92 points. Warm vintages = riper fruit = more Californian in style. Then, too, I had the impression that the Oregonians are letting their grapes hang longer than they used to. Although the alcohol levels were somewhat lower, on average, than the California Pinot Noirs, they weren’t that low. So maybe, taking advantage of two good vintages, the Oregonians decided to go for a more opulent, lusher style. At any rate, as I said, these wines were wonderfully balanced despite their richness.

Here are my results, from the lowest-scored to the highest.

The Eyrie Vineyards 2012 Original Vines Estate (Dundee Hills). $85, alc. 13.0%. A disappointment. I found it clumsy and jammy, with some herbaceousness. Score: 87.

Domaine Drouhin 2012 Edition Limitée (Dundee Hills). $85, alc. 14.1%. Very ripe, with lots of cherry pie and cocoa flavors, but a little heavy, and some sharpness. Score: 88.

Domaine Serene 2012 Evanstad Reserve (Dundee and Eola Hills). $70, alc. 14.3%. Could just be too young, but the wine was showing oak, rich fruit and some heat. Score: 89.

Ponzi 2012 Aurora Vineyard (Willamette Valley). $100, alc. 13.9%. We all found this wine candied, but I loved the earthiness. The acidity was quite searing. Score: 90.

Styring 2012 (Ribbon Ridge). $45, alc. 14.7%. The most Russian River-like of the flight. Masses of red fruits, cola, prosciutto. Flamboyant, a crowd-pleaser. Score: 91.

Ken Wright 2012 Shea Vineyard (Yamhil-Carlton). $57, alc. 14.0%. One of the darker wines, earthy and rich in mushrooms, persimmons and red licorice, with some thick tannins to shed. An ager. Score: 92.

Elk Cove 2012 Reserve (Willamette Valley). $85, alc. 14.0%. Another dark wine. Took a while to open up, then turned voluptuous, although the alcohol and oak showed. Score: 92.

Shea Wine Cellars 2012 Shea Vineyard “Homer” (Willamette Valley). $86, alc. 14.6%. Distinctly earthy, with coffee, dark chocolate and black cherry flavors, brightened with brisk acidity. Will age. Score: 94.

Adelsheim 2012 Temperance Hill (Eola-Amity Hills). $75, alc. 13.5%. Another dark, earthy-mushroomy wine, with cherry-berry fruit and good acidity. Just a baby, though, but fabulous. Score: 94, could go higher with age.

La Crema 2013 (Willamette Valley). $30, 13.5%. I had this wine a few months back and thought so highly of it I congratulated Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, the winemaker, which is not something I often do. On this occasion, it continued to dazzle. Raspberry fruit, prosciutto, orange zest, spice, toast, in a delicate framework. A feminine wine, but very intense and polished. Score: 95.

Gran Moraine 2013 (Yamhill-Carlton). $45, alc. 13.0%. What a beauty. Pale in color, delicate in the mouth, but super-intense, with strawberry, raspberry, cinnamon-clove and smoke flavors. Finely-ground tannins, bright acidity, very fine and wholesome. An intellectual wine. Score: 95.

Beaux Freres 2013 The Beaux Freres Vineyard (Ribbon Ridge). $90, alc. 13.0%. This beauty needed time to breathe, but when it opened up, wow. A floral wine, with hints of raspberry tea, cola, cinnamon toast and cherry pie. Great persistence and intensity. A bit of mushroom and earth. I wrote “a wine to talk about.” Spectacular. An ager. Score: 96.

Evening Land 2012 Seven Springs Vineyard (Eola-Amity Hills). $55, alc. 13.9%. One of the greatest Pinots I’ve had in a while. Gorgeous perfume of toasted tobacco, prosciutto, raspberries, cinnamon toast, and I even thought of waffles with butter and maple syrup. Intense, spicy, beautiful acidity. Bone dry, smooth, elegant, classic, simply brilliant. This may be an underscore. Score: 97.

A final word: La Crema and Gran Moraine are owned by Jackson Family Wines. This flight was tasted under absolutely blind (single-blind) conditions. Neither I, nor anyone else in the tasting, knew what the wines were until they were revealed. I’m sure that there are trolls out there who will question my integrity. They are few in number and miniscule in influence.


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