Extreme Wine Oregon: Big & Small, Old & New, North & South


I’ve spent a lot of time in Oregon in the last year or so — there is a whole chapter in my soon to be released book Extreme Wine  about the extreme wine people I met at last year’s International Pinot Noir Celebration. But Oregon has a lot of extreme wines and extreme wine people with stories that deserve to be told. Herewith a very brief survey of some of the Oregon extreme wines and people that we’ve encountered in the past few months.

P1050635Extremely Old Oregon Zinfandel

Lonnie Wright is one of the key  figures in the Columbia Gorge AVA that spans the Washington-Oregon border along the Columbia River. He has been instrumental in the development of the vineyards in this region. I am not sure where this part of the Oregon wine scene would be today without Lonnie’s wine-growing and vineyard management expertise.

Lonnie appears in this column not because of a vineyard he planted, however, but because of one he brought back to life: a vineyard of 100+ year old Zinfandel vines that produce a special wine for his The Pines 1852 label. The story is that stone mason Louis Comini came from Genoa to help build the locks on the Columbia River. He stayed in The Dalles when the job was done, helping out at the local Catholic church. The vineyard, planted in the late 1800s, was his work.

I thought I knew what an Old Vine Zin vineyard looked like from my visits to Sonoma, but this one bears no resemblance to the gnarled vines I saw there. It gets cold in this part of Oregon and in the old days the vines were cut off at the ground so that they’d be protected from freezing temperatures by a blanket of  snow. The roots are ancient and gnarly, but the vines not so much as you can see in this photo and in the video above.  Lonnie found this vineyard and recognized its potential. The old vines and the wines that come from them are a tribute to his extreme persistence and sense of history.

P1060171Extremely Old World Oregon Wines

Phelps Creek Vineyard is also in the Columbia Gorge AVA, a short drive from Lonnie’s old vines, but a world apart. Bob Morus began this extreme project in 1990 when the first blocks of Dijon clone Pinot Noir were planted (Lonnie helped lay out the vineyard, Bob tells me). The slopes are steep, the aspect dramatic and the view of Mount Hood is spectacular.

Bob has a pretty extreme view of what his vineyard and winery can accomplish — and ambition to make wines that can not just stand up to the Willamette Valley wines that get all the attention, but to Burgundy, too. He was able to entice Alexandrine Roy of the famous Burgundian wine-making family to become involved with the winery, eventually becoming Director of Winemaking.

Bob generously met with us twice this year, first in March when we tasted a vertical of the Estate Reserve Chardonnay and then again in July, when we sampled a vertical of the Cuvee Alexandrine Pinot Noir at the winery overlooking the vineyards. The wines were elegant and Burgundian in their ability to capture both place and vintage. Really delicious and a great reminder that extreme Oregon Pinot extends beyond the Willamette Valley.

P1060309Oregon’s Largest Winery

King Estate Winery is Oregon’s largest wine producer, but its estate vineyards lie just south of the the Willamette Valley AVA line, so most of its wines carry the more general “Oregon” appellation. King Estate has four main wine lines, the flagship  King Estate Domaine wines made exclusively from estate fruit,  the Signature wines that add purchased grapes to the mix, the wildly popular Acrobat wines and a line called NxNW made from Columbia Valley fruit. Pinto Gris is the top seller and the winery’s flagship wine.  Wine club members have access to special bottlings and single vineyard wines. The beautiful hilltop winery is bursting at the seams with activity.

We met with executive VP Steve Thomson to talk about King Estate’s marketing program (and especially its recent move into the Chinese market) and its plans for the future. Elizabeth Allcott introduced us to wine club members at a wine pick-up party that was going on during our visit. And we enjoyed talking both wine and wine economics with assistant winemaker Derrick Thoma  (both of Derrick’s parents are economics professors — his father Mark is the guy behind the influential Economist’s View blog).

King Estate is large by Oregon standards, but not a megawinery by any means. It is extreme in many ways, but perhaps most notable for its commitment to sustainability, which seems very deep, and its focus on hospitality. We perceived a strong sense of identity and purpose, but also a dynamic feeling appropriate to a rapidly evolving wine region. The winery experience is very well designed and the opportunity to taste estate wines along with locally-sourced food products (many from the estate itself) at the well-regarded winery restaurant is a treat. We will remember for a long time the dinner we enjoyed on the deck overlooking the vineyards with a bottle of 2002 King Estate Domaine Pinot Noir.

The Biodynamic Frontier

We were in Southern Oregon recently — I spoke at a regional wine industry symposium and we attended an event called World of Wine Festival, the premise of which is that you can find a world of wine in this part of the state. And you can! It was great to meet everyone and taste the wines. We found time to visit two wineries that showed two very different wine extremes.

Bill and Barbara Steele were not looking to make wine when they bought a big plot of land in the Applegate Valley. They wanted to pursue their passion for sustainable agriculture and sought out farmland that had been abandoned for many years. Once they found their dream farm, they let the land speak to them (not literally — they did a lot of scientific testing) and what it told them was that it wanted to be a vineyard and farm, with Rhone grape varieties covering most of the territory (distributed according to soil types and heat unit measurements) with a fallow pasture, some vegetable gardens and a stand of hazelnut trees. And, of course, a winery called Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden.

Cowhorn might be the only biodynamic vineyard in Southern Oregon (biodynamics is much more common up north) and it could be the largest integrated (grapes plus other agricultural produce) biodynamic farm in the U.S. (Click here to see the master plan of the estate.) Ironically, biodynamics is notable in grape farming, which movement founder Rudolf Steiner did not specifically address, than in the broader farming community that he intended to influence).

It was great to see the Steele’s bush Grenache vines and to learn about their passionate attachment to their land and commitment to sustainability and natural winemaking generally. Oh, and the wines are extremely delicious.

Pioneers on the Southern Oregon Trail

Just down the road from Cowhorn we came to Valley View Winery and it provides this column’s final extreme. Mark and  Michael Wisnovsky’s family are the second generation to farm this land and they seem to have a special relationship with it. They take care of the land and the land takes care of the family. Wine entered the mix in 1972 when their father planted vines and started the first winery in these parts since prohibition. Modern pioneers! They named it Valley View after a winery that was established by pioneer Peter Britt back in the 1850.

Valley View has one foot in the past — we brought home several bottles of a delicious 30th anniversary Pioneer Label 2005 Merlot with a label as close as government regulations allow to the earlier wines.  But the other foot’s in the future. Mark showed us a line of wine called Rogue Red that has proved popular in Oregon (he does bottle signings at Costco) and will soon show up in Washington and other states. It’s larger volume than the other wines and aimed at the growing market for red blends. Our friend Charles walked out with a case of Rogue Red.

Mark said that he would love it if everything happened right  there on the farm — the grapes, the wine, the tasting room, all right there in Applegate Valley.  But Mark and family recognized the need to look outward (even to Costco) to seize market opportunities while still  respecting their history and the region’s heritage. Rogue Red is successful part of that extreme wine balancing act.

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Thanks to everyone who made these visits so interesting: Lonnie and Sierra, Bob and Becky, all the folks at King Estate, Bill and Barb, Mark, Chris and Allison. Special thanks to research assistants Bonnie and Richard.

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