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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.

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