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.

Fifty Ways to Sell Your Misunderstood Wine

Last week I wrote about two “misunderstood” or maybe “misunderappreciated” wines — Riesling and Oregon Pinot Gris — and the conferences that Sue and I attended where the problem of marketing them was discussed. This week I report on those discussions and try to draw some conclusions.

Identity Crisis

So how do you get consumers to buy wines that they don’t necessarily completely understand or fully appreciate? Well, perhaps predictably the discussions at both the Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium and Riesling Rendezvous turned early on to the idea of a cool motto — the “Got Milk?” killer tagline for their respective wines.

This always seems to happen when wine people get together to talk category marketing despite the fact that there are darn few generic marketing slogans that have had much impact on sales (how many can you think of?) and even fewer when it comes to wine. I used to think that this discussion was simply a waste of time, but now I recognize that the function is not so much to bring in consumers as to give wineries and distributors a rallying cry.  No harm in that, so long as the slogan isn’t offensive, and it might even be useful.

Chateau Ste Michelle CEO Ted Baseler proposed “Right On, Riesling!” and that seems fine — certainly better than the vaguely suggestive “Riesling: Just Put It In Your Mouth” that one break-out group played with for a while during a discussion of how consumer perceptions change when they actually taste different Riesling styles.

Similarly, the Oregon group settled on “Oregon, Get Your Gris On!” for a summer campaign, which I prefer to “Fifty Shades of Gris,” which may be more descriptive of the wide range of styles of Oregon Pinot Gris, but is a bit too reminiscent of the title of a recently popular erotic novel.

Radar Love

Fortunately, the discussions soon turned to what I see as more substantive ideas. Riesling Rendezvous panelist Blake Gray (of The Gray Report) offered the very useful suggestion that efforts to bring new wine drinkers into the Riesling camp should perhaps be secondary to strategies to get consumers who already know and like Riesling to drink more of it.  Riesling is already on their radar, so they are your best prospects for increased sales.

This idea is particularly relevant for Riesling because research reported at the conference suggested that Riesling lovers don’t focus on their favorite wine with quite the intensity as Sauvignon Blanc followers, for example. I’ll bet this is true for Pinot Gris consumers, too.

So how do you do that? Well, I’m not quite sure (although I have ideas — I think the Summer of Riesling project is terrific), but the point is that it is a different problem than trying to convert consumers who don’t currently drink Riesling either because they don’t know it yet or because they were unhappy with a previous Riesling experience. Current drinkers are known knowns, as one former Bush-era official might have said. The non-drinkers have many unknown unknowns and that’s a different problem.

There Must Be 50 Ways

But even if increasing consumption by current buyers should be the number one priority for both Riesling and Oregon Pinot Gris, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the market is unimportant. So how do you win them over? Well, it seems to me that the examples of Ernst Loosen (in the Riesling group) and David Adelsheim (at the Oregon Pinot Gris symposium) are instructive. Ernie and David have worked tirelessly to promote their wines. I can’t imagine how many times they (and their colleagues at other wineries) have poured the wines, told the stories, answered the questions and then gone on to do it all again.

There isn’t any one way to build a market for a misunderstood or misunderappreciated wine — no silver bullet as we say in the U.S. And it’s not really rocket science either, despite what that mashed up Einstein photo above seems to suggest. There must be 50 ways (or 500), but they all seem to boil down to hard work that is done one glass and one consumer at a time (leveraged by whatever peer-to-peer social media effects you can muster and of course beneficial media attention). Unite behind whatever rally cry works for you, residents of Planet Riesling and people of Oregon Pinot Gris, because there really is strength in numbers, and get on to the hard work.

Do Think Twice (About Price)

But this still leaves the problem of price which, as you may remember from last week’s column, is the sticking point for Oregon Pinot Gris. The difficulty of raising price is seen by at least some Oregon producers as an obstacle to raising quality and assuring a sustainable future.

Raising price, especially in the face of rising costs, is a problem all right, but not exclusively a problem for Oregon Pinot Gris or even for wine. Many business sectors struggle to find a way to pass on costs to distributors and final purchasers, as a recent “Schumpeter” column in the Economist magazine makes clear.

Many businesses, the Schumpeter columnist writes, have prices but not a pricing strategy or, if they do, it is determined at a low level in the business structure (perhaps because selling stuff isn’t always given a high priority compared with making stuff or organizing the business). Sometimes prices are “eye-balled” based on intuition rather than carefully calculated or strategically set.

It wouldn’t be fair to pick on Oregon Pinot Gris when it comes to pricing strategy, since this is a general issue, but it is probably true that improvements could be made. Purchasers generally see Pinot Gris in the context of other Oregon wines, especially Pinot Noir, so that a joint pricing strategy is probably necessary to account for the complex complement and substitution effects.

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The British economist economist John Maynard Keynes famously took an interest in the pricing of Champagne in the bar at the Cambridge Arts Theatre where his wife, the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, often danced. As chair of the theater’s board, Keynes would have  to help fund the inevitable operating deficit, so anything that increased revenues was highly desired.

Keynes wanted to nudge patrons to move up to the better Champagne on the bar menu, where profit margins were higher. His strategy? Not to cut the price of the good stuff in an attempt to sell more, which he had reason to think wouldn’t work because of inelastic demand. And not to raise the better wine’s price, which was sure to make enemies. Instead he pressured the bar manager to raise the price of the ordinary product, thereby lowering the relative cost of the upgrade to the better Champagne that he suspected many patrons secretly desired.

Marketing Misunderstood (and Misunderappreciated) Wines


How do you market misunderstood wine? That was the question posed at two otherwise very different wine industry symposia that Sue and I attended in recent weeks.

Although neither meeting arrived at a definitive solution, I think I begin to see the outline of an answer as I compare the two situations and start to connect the dots.

Gris: The Other Oregon Pinot

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The Pinot Gris gathering

The first gathering took place amid barrels and cases of wine in the cellar room of Oak Knoll winery near Hillsboro, Oregon. The common thread that united the small group that assembled was Oregon Pinot Gris.

The first Pinot Gris vines in the United States were planted by David Lett at The Eyrie Vineyard, so Oregon has a legitimate claim to this wine, which is hugely popular in its Italian Pinot Grigio identity, but still not as widely embraced when presented as Alsace- or Oregon-style Pinot Gris.

The wines themselves can be wonderful and distinctive and Jo Diaz is helping to organize a movement to make Pinot Gris Oregon’s signature white wine (to complement Pinot Noir, the signature red). But there are problems to overcome.

The first is consistent quality, which is obviously key. Oregon Pioneer David Adelsheim told the group that the variability in quality, which was once shockingly high, is now thankfully reduced. Although there may not be a distinctive “Oregon style” there is far more consistent quality. Good news.

Misunderappreciated Quality

Perhaps because of this quality, the wines sell very well. When Paul Gregutt asked the wine makers if they sell out of Pinot Gris, a great many hands were raised. Much of this action is in the tasting room and it seems that tasting is believing. They come for the Pinot Noir, but when they taste the Gris (at half the price of the Noir and sometimes less), they walk out clutching bottles. Sounds like a success story.

But that’s also the problem, too, Adelsheim noted. Pinot Gris sells very well in the $15 to $20 price range, but there are precious few PGs that break though the $20 glass ceiling. My calculations (based on very limited data) suggest that a $15 Oregon Pinot Gris is not hugely profitable when sold directly and less so when sold into the 3-tier system at a discount. Low profitability puts a glass ceiling on quality, according to some of the winemakers present, who believe that additional research and investment in viticultural and winemaking practices could make Oregon PG as great in its own way as Oregon Pinot Noir.

Consumers misunderstand Pinot Gris — or maybe I should say they misunderappreciate it (if that is indeed a word). They love it, but they don’t appreciate its quality (maybe it is the Pinot Grigio curse?) and won’t pay prices that would power the category to new heights. That’s what we heard in the Oak Knoll barrel room. What is to be done?

A Riesling Rendezvous

P1060135

300 participants x 20 dry Rieslings each = 6000 Riedel glasses

The second gathering started on the grounds of Chateau Ste Michelle in Woodinville, moved to the Bell Harbor Conference Center on Elliott Bay and concluded (lavishly) at the Chihuly Gardens at Seattle Center. Riesling Rendezvous gathered together Riesling makers, drinkers, distributors, sellers and critics from just about everywhere on what master of ceremonies Stuart Pigott calls “Planet Riesling.”

Winemakers (and their wines) came from seven U.S. states (Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Michigan, New York and New Jersey) and seven  countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States) .  France was missing in action (Planet Riesling sans Alsace? Incroyable!), but they made a big appearance at the last Rendezvous three years ago and so perhaps can be given a pass this time.

(Riesling Rendezvous is part of a three year rotating series of international Riesling gatherings with the other meetings taking place in Germany and Australia. This was the fourth edition of Riesling Rendezvous and my third.)

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Mike with Ernie Loosen

Riesling Rendezvous is organized by Washington State’s Chateau Ste Michelle, the world’s largest producer of Riesling wines, and Germany’s Dr Loosen. Ernst Loosen is perhaps the world’s foremost, most enthusiastic and hardest-working proponent of Riesling. And he makes some damn good ones, too.

So what’s the problem with Riesling? Well the issue, which has been discussed at each of the four meetings of this group, is that most consumers misunderstand the wine and the issue is usually sweetness. Riesling is fascinating because it comes in such a vast array of styles — I almost run out of dimensions when I try to explain all the aspects of Riesling, but sweetness seems to be the focal point.

Rieslings come in all shades of sweet from not sweet — as dry as you can get — all the way over to intensely sweet (but usually balanced by acidity).  What you think of Riesling may be determined by your first sip and for many people that sip was uncomfortably sweet (especially if you weren’t expecting it).

So Riesling (like Sherry, another misunderstood wine) is held to be guilty of criminal sweetness until proven innocent. And many consumers, convinced by what they have heard or believe, never give it a fair trial.

Even worse in a way is the fact that some people who like sweeter wines are confused when they chance into a dry Riesling. Is that Riesling? Not what I expected. The opposite confusion can confront the dry Riesling fan who ends up with a bottle of off-dry to sweet wine.

It isn’t always easy to tell sweet from dry from the information that you find on the bottle, although the sweetness scale created by the International Riesling Foundation (an organization that came out of the first Rendezvous meeting) certainly helps.

Research presented at the conference suggests one final problem. The people who love Riesling the most (perhaps because they appreciate its diversity) apparently also appreciate the diversity of wine generally. They drink Riesling, of course, but not with the single-minded resolve of, for example, Sauvignon Blanc fans, who come back more frequently to their favorite wine than do Riesling’s core consumer group.

As with Pinot Gris, the problem isn’t life threatening, just frustrating. Riesling, in fact, has been a hot wine category in the U.S., but growth has faded a bit recently and the momentum shifted elsewhere. That seems to make everyone on Planet Riesling nervous.

Misunderstood Riesling. Misunderappreciated Oregon Pinot Gris. What is to be done? A further report on the discussions and perhaps the outline of a strategy in the next post.

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Thanks to both the Oregon Pinot Gris group and to Riesling Rendezvous for allowing us to participate. Thanks to Sue Veseth for the photos.

Between Two Worlds: The Paradox of the Columbia Gorge AVA

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Columbia Gorge: Washington on the left, Oregon on the right.

Washington State produces much more wine than Oregon, but Oregon wines are sometimes easier to find outside the Pacific Northwest. That was a paradox that I discovered as I traveled around the country last year on the Wine Wars book tour and giving alumni talks for the University of Puget Sound.

The Signature Wine Advantage

One explanation for this surprising situation is that Oregon has a “signature wine” while Washington does not. When people think of Oregon they think Pinot Noir and so retailers know what to stock — Pinot Noir at various price points. But what comes to mind when you think of Washington? Nothing, the argument goes, because Washington is many things — Cabernet, Merlot, Riesling, Chardonnay, Syrah, various blends, etc. etc. — and not any one particular thing. Lacking a signature wine variety, retailers don’t know what to stock on their shelves, so they stock less, concerned that it might not sell.

This argument is over-simplified for sure and probably over-sold, too, but the signature variety issue does seems to give Oregon a bit of an advantage over Washington and has caused much  hand-wringing on the north side of the Columbia River over the years.

Lucky Oregon — they’re Pinot Noir. Everyone knows who they are. Poor Washington — we’re [almost] everything, but how do we communicate that? I want to look at both sides of this dilemma over the next few weeks and see if I can shed any light on the question of how wine regions define themselves and the challenges and opportunities of the different strategies.

The Other Oregons

So let’s talk about Oregon. It is rightly known for its fine Pinot Noir wines and it highlights this fact each year at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville.  The IPNC gathers Pinot-makers and Pinot-lovers from all around the world, drawing attention to the Oregon industry. It’s an intense experience — so intense that I use it as the focal point for the chapter on “Extreme Wine People” in my forthcoming book Extreme Wine.

But Oregon is not really a one note samba — it is more than Pinot Noir and more than the Willamette Valley, too. And that’s a bit of a problem, because while signature varieties like Oregon Pinot open doors to a wider market, they can also erect barriers to public recognition of other wines and regions. The wine world is very complicated and I wonder if consumers and retailers who think they finally understand Oregon (or Washington or Chile, etc. etc.) are interested in having that understanding challenged, even if the result would benefit them?

I’m exploring how this question plays out in the “other Oregons” in two stages. We’ve just returned from a weekend of research in the Columbia Gorge AVA, to see one example of Oregon beyond Pinot Noir, and we plan to visit Southern Oregon later in the year for a different take on the situation.

Absolutely Gorgeous

The Columbia Gorge AVA, established in 2004, is a beautiful region with many excellent wines, but it is sort of trapped between two worlds. It starts near the town of Hood River, about an hour east of Portland on Interstate 84, and extends past The Dalles. The AVA runs along both sides of the Columbia River, embracing vineyards and wineries on both the Washington and Oregon shores. Is it a Washington AVA or an Oregon AVA? Both, I think, but that’s part of the “two worlds” confusion.

Vineyard

A typically complicated Columbia Gorge terroir.

The western end of the AVA is very much classic Oregon on both sides of the river. Like the Willamette Valley, the climate is rainy (36 inches a year on average, but as much as 50 inches at the famous Celilo Vineyard) and cooler climate grapes like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer do well here.  The Chardonnays and Pinots we tasted at Phelps Creek Vineyards were distinctly and intentionally Burgundian in style, for example, and Rich Cushman’s Rieslings at Viento Wines are works of the Riesling-maker’s art. Nice wines!

Oregon to the West, Washington to the East

So the Gorge is Oregon on the west end (and on both sides of the river), but as you drive east things begin to change. By the time you reach The Dalles you’ve experienced a rain shadow effect and the average rainfall is just 10 inches! Cabernet and Merlot (Washington wine grape varieties) do really well here as do Syrah and even Zinfandel. (Watch for a future post about the 120 year-old Zinfandel vines we found!).

Washington or Oregon? It’s not so much which side of the river as which end of the AVA. But it gets even more confusing (for anyone seeking a simple identity for the wine region), because elevation and aspect are key factors, too. Winegrower Lonnie Wright (the curator of those old Zin vines), drove us to a hilltop where rows of Zinfandel vines cascaded down the south-facing slope while Pinot Noir vines streamed down the north-facing side, the Zin benefiting from the advantageous aspect while the Pinot prospered because of the elevation.

It’s Complicated

The Gorge is divided in other ways, too. While you and I might think of it in terms of wine, other crops are probably bigger business for the local landowners. You can’t imagine the acres of apples, pears and cherries we drove through on our way to the hillside vineyards. And tourism just might be a  bigger industry in the long run. Fortunately these three sides of the Gorge economy mainly reinforce each other in a happy way except of course when they don’t (water rights in drier areas, for example).

Washington or Oregon? Well, as I said, both, but not a region that clearly fits into the stereotype of either state’s wine industry. Some of the wine people I met were happy to have the Oregon association since that is so clearly defined (and works quite well for the quantities of Pinot Noir grapes grown here, which often end up in Oregon appellation wines from Willamette Valley makers). But obviously it cannot encompass the great variety of terroirs, climates and grape varieties found in the Gorge.

Wine is just too darn complicated to be reduced to a single thing. Even in Oregon. Or Washington. Or wherever the Columbia Gorge is!

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The paradox of the Columbia Gorge AVA is just one aspect of the increasing interwoven nature of the the Washington and Oregon wine industries (and the fact that the Columbia River actually unites these regions more than it divides them). The Walla Walla AVA also crosses the state line, of course, and many “Oregon” wineries have grapes trucked down along the river from Washington AVAs such as Horse Heaven Hills to wineries in the Gorge and the Willamette valley, where they make “Washington wines” in “Oregon” wineries — a good thing for everyone involved in my book even if it adds to the wine region identity crisis just a bit.

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Thanks to Lonnie Wright (The Pines 1852) and Rich Cushman (Viento Wines) for showing us their sides of the Gorge — look for more about their projects in future posts. Thanks to Bob and Becky Morus for making our visit to Phelps Creek possible.  Thanks to research assistants Bonnie Main and Richard Pichler for their expertise and enthusiasm.  Thanks to contributing editor Sue Veseth for research assistance and the photos shown here.

Story Hour at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference

We are just back from the 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference, which was held this year in Portland, Oregon. It was a big event, with a sell-out 350 registered participants and about 40 more on the wait list hoping to get in. Randall Grahm gave one of the keynote addresses and Rex Pickett (author of Sideways and Vertical) gave the other. I was a moderator in a wine blogging workshop.

It was great to meet so many wine bloggers and to get a personal sense of the vast virtual community of wine enthusiasts who read, write and comment on the web.

Beyond Hegemony?

The conventional wisdom is that the days of traditional media’s hegemony in the world of wine are numbered (if not already passed) and that younger wine enthusiasts will increasingly draw their influences from social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter and so on) and not Robert Parker or Wine Spectator.  The future of wine media might not be blogging, according to this viewpoint,  but wine blogs are part of the evolutionary process.

No one really knows if this is true or not, of course, and many wine bloggers secretly suspect that their readership is made up mainly of other wine bloggers. But the theory is just plausible enough to make wine blogging and a big conference like this difficult for the wine industry to ignore. So I was interested to see who would show up to try to develop relationships with the wine bloggers and how they’d go about it.

The list of wine industry groups in Portland is quite long. Here, for example, is a list of the official sponsors. And then there were other industry groups, wine producers, public relations firms and individual  Oregon wineries who had hospitality suites or organized pre- or post-conference events.

Grand Sponsors

Premier Sponsors

International Wine Night

Event Sponsors

Partners

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Story Hour: High Oregon Art

Why did all these industry groups converge around the bloggers? Well, people might think that the wine business is about bottles and corks (and it is to be sure), but it is really about relationships and, more than that, it’s about story-telling. The wineries, wine businesses and regional wine groups were in Portland to tell their stories to the story-tellers and then hope that the message would spread. The fact that they would invest not insignificant resources to be at the conference says something about the importance of relationships and narratives in the wine business.

There are lots of ways to tell a story and some were certainly more successful than others. The Oregon wine industry did an excellent job by embedding their wines firmly in the culture of the region, giving the bloggers a sense of the values that the wines are meant to represent.

I’ve inserted above the short video that King Estate produced to be shown at the awards banquet, which they sponsored. It gives a good impression of the Oregon story generally as well as the particular philosophy of the King Estate family. Take this as an example of the high art of wine story telling (even though the wine itself plays only a cameo role in the video).

You can only imagine how effective it was when the video, which introduced the faces, places and values, was followed by the actual food and wine and the real people who made them. It and the other messages that Oregon producers and the Oregon Wine Board scripted cannot but have left a strong impression on the attendees. Bravo.

Rich Narratives: Wine Story Tasting Notes

Winebow, an important wine importer and distributor, also showed great story telling skills. Winebow’s sessions showed off two faces of their import portfolio very effectively.

The first program focused on the wines of Argentina (they import several brands including Bodega Catena Zapata and Bodegas Nieto Senetiner). Each wine was paired with a tasty bite and a story about the wine and food of the region. The variety of Argentinean wine was showcased along with the food and even the culture (we were treated to Tango dancers). The combination encouraged us to slow down and listen, think and talk about the wines and the country. If the story is that yes, Argentina is Malbec and steak (and this is a wonderful combination), but it is also much more, then I think it was told very well indeed.

The second Winebow session was about “Off the Beaten Path” wines and it showed off the depth of Winebow’s portfolio. I think it was my favorite part of the conference. Sheri Sauter Morano MW led us in a tasting of  seven wines that most of us had never tasted before and that many consumers would hesitate to try because of their unfamiliar names or place of origin. As I have written before, wine is ironically one of the least transparent everyday products and the uncertainty about what is in the bottle is a limiting factor in wine sales and wine enjoyment.

Sheri focused on the story-telling aspect. She had us taste the wines “blind” and asked us to think about how we would describe them and tell their stories to readers. What reference points (in terms of more familiar wines or other qualities) could we use and how might we distinguish their signal qualities? The “reveal” provided additional information about each wine and challenged us: How could we tell the wines’ stories in a way that would resonate with readers and allow them to have the same interesting and enjoyable wine experience? I thought this was a brilliant approach and I hope some of the bloggers embrace it to introduce their readers to new wine varieties and regions.

Food Truck Wine?

Wines of Chile is another skilled story-teller. I have worked with them on several projects and have always been impressed with their commitment to developing their brand message and their focus on social media strategies. They invited us to a participate in a pre-conference tasting that was a sort of moveable feast. About 20 of us boarded a double-decker London bus and visited three local venues (including an iconic Portland gourmet food truck cluster) where small plates of food were paired with particular Chilean wines. It was a very effective way to feature the wines and an opportunity  to provide detailed and relevant information.

Taking all of the events together, including pre- and post-conference events and the chaotic “live-blogging” tasting events, I think most  New World and Old World wine regions were represented in one way or another. Who has missing? I’m not sure I saw any wines or literature from either Austria or South Africa but I admit they could have been there and I just missed them. And of course if would be impossible for all the different wine regions of France, Italy  or Spain to be present, but the national industries were well represented by the groups that did attend.

Bloggers need stories to tell and the wine industry needs story-tellers. No wonder everyone got on so well together at this conference.

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Thanks to all the sponsors who made the Wine Bloggers’ Conference possible. For more information I recommend Tom Wark’s  assessment of the conference. I agree with Tom about most things, especially the value of real person-to-person face-time versus Facebook and Twitter.

Extreme Wine: Mad Wine Science in Oregon

Jason Lett’s business card reads “President, Winemaker & Curator” and it is true that he performs all three tasks at Oregon’s The Eyrie Vineyards. The first two jobs are easy to understand, but Curator? Yes, of course, since Eyrie is an important part of Oregon’s wine history and Lett’s challenge is to preserve the heritage without choking off the innovative spirit that defines the place.

Three jobs are a lot, but maybe Jason Lett should add a fourth to his business card: Mad Wine Scientist. The scientist part is uncontroversial — Lett has scientific training and he seems to approach wine and life with a scientist’s combination of curiosity and discipline. The “mad” aspect … well I’ll leave that up to you to decide.  Maybe it’s not madness so much as innovation and experimentation taken to the extreme. Either way he seems to belong in The Wine Economist’s “Extreme Wine” file.

Sue and I visited Jason Lett at Eyrie last fall when I was giving lectures at Linfield College. Jason invited us to visit the winery (housed in a converted turkey processing plant) and when we arrived he asked if we wanted to taste through the current releases or to check out some of his experiments. No question, we said. Take us to your laboratory. And so we learned about and sampled three different extreme wines.

Extreme Pinot Gris

Oregon is Pinot country — everyone knows that! But let me tell you a secret. It’s Pinot Gris (PG), not just Pinot Noir. Pinot Gris is Oregon’s #2 wine grape variety and its a darn useful one, too. Pinot Gris is what I call a Chateau Cash Flow variety, since the time from harvest to market is shorter than Pinot Noir and the production expense (think expensive oak barrels) is lower, too. No doubt about it, Oregon PG is a great wine for producers and consumers.

But there’s that respect thing. White wines seems to get less respect than reds in most parts of the wine world and probably nothing can match the status of Pinot Noir, so Oregon PG is the “second wine” in more respects than vineyard acreage. No wonder a group of winemakers has come together to create OregonPinotGris.org in an attempt to get their grape the recognition it deserves.

Eyrie was one of the PG pioneers in Oregon, but these wines (which account for 60 percent of Eyrie’s production) suffer from the recognition problem, too. (“Oh, it’s just Pinot Gris?”) So Jason Lett decided to try to do something to change the perception of PG — by tweaking it in a modestly extreme way. The result is the 2008 Pinot Gris Original Vine Rose, which has three unusual qualities according to Lett: 1) all “original vine” (first planting in the US ca 1965),  2) 100% skin contact fermentation like Pinot Noir  and 3) three years age sur-lies.

It was Pinot Gris all right, but a very different take on it. More serious? Maybe. It certainly made me think about Pinot Gris differently, which is what extreme wines are supposed to do.

The History of Oregon in a Glass

The second extreme wine was actually more interesting than delicious … but that’s not a criticism because it was very interesting. It was the history of Oregon wine in a glass and it came about through Lett’s curatorial duties.

Eyrie’s wine library contains Chardonnay vintages going back to the very first year. Lett went through these wines sorting out the good wines, the ones that had gone bad and some interesting wines in the middle — oxidized (“sherried” I guess you’d say) but still drinkable, with a certain distinct character. Lett mixed these middle wines from all 40 vintages along with some fresh 2009 Chardonnay and a little eau to vie made from estate grapes.

The wine tasted old because of the oxidization, but made me think about how young the Oregon wine industry really is — so young that you can drink a slice of its history this way. An extreme non-vintage blend. Very memorable.

Coltraine versus Hildegard

The final extreme wine was the result of a mad experiment. Lett knew about Clark Smith’s theories of wine and music. Wine’s taste can change depending on the music you are listening to, according to Smith. Although this sounds a bit wacky, some of my students have experimented and they say that there is some effect.  There’s a potential scientific basis, too, since music stimulates some parts of the brain that are also active in the sensory perception of wine. So far, so good.

But Jason Lett decided to take the next step. If music makes a difference when you taste wine, then how about when you make wine?  You know, the way that they say it is good for pregnant women to listen to Mozart — it is supposed to help the baby’s brain develop? (Alois Lageder has his “pregnant” wine barrels listen to Mozart played at a very low speed.)

So Lett set up an experiment. Identical grape juice and yeast, but with different music. One fermentation listened to music by  Hildegard of Bingen (click on the YouTube video above to get a sense of what this might sound like) while the twin tank grooved to the jazz of John Coltrane (see video below for one of my favorite Coltrane performances).

Incredibly, the two fermentations developed differently (the Hildegard started first) and the wines taste different, too. Or at least that’s what Sue and I thought as we tasted back and forth. Hmmmm. Maybe there’s something to this music thing!

Sue challenged Lett to take the next step. Does the Hildegard taste different listening to Hildegard than to Coltrane? Does the affinity for the music extend all the way down the line? Maybe we can find out when we go back in July for the International Pinot Noir Celebration.

Jason Lett isn’t really a mad scientist, but he is an innovator and I think that’s great. His role at Eyrie represents perfectly the modern winemaker’s dilemma — how to respect the past while creating the future.  Cheers!

Grape Transformations: Oregon Origins

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I had a hidden agenda when I visited McMinnville, Oregon a few weeks ago. Ostensibly I was there to talk about my new book at Linfield College and to the local Rotary Club. Those events were great but I would not have been happy if I hadn’t done one more thing: return a minor piece of Oregon’s  wine history to its rightful home.

“To Nick, Cheers for all the years — past & future. David Lett, Christmas 1989.”

That is the inscription I found in a second-hand bookstore copy of Vintage Timelines, a neglected classic book that Jancis Robinson wrote over twenty years ago. The idea of the book was to select a group of the world’s greatest wines and examine how different vintages have evolved (and would be expected to continue to evolve) over time.  The research required Jancis to taste trough verticals of each great wine (research is such a drag!) and compare notes from previous years to create complex and quite fascinating graphical timelines.

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Darn few American wines were good enough (in terms of their ageing potential) to make the cut and only one wine outside of California — the Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve made by David Lett. Lett planted the first Pinot Noir vines in the Willamette Valley and he, along with the group they call “the Pioneers,” set Oregon wine on its present course.

Nick’s Back Room

The Nick in the inscription is almost certainly Nick Peirano of Nick’s Italian Cafe. Lett’s audacious egg was incubated and eventually hatched by the Pioneers and others over countless discussions in Nick’s back room. I’ve loved owning the book, but felt it didn’t belong to me. I needed to take it home and give it back. But to whom?

My first thought was my friend Scott Chambers, a professor at Linfield College and a friend of both Nick and the Lett family. He’d love to have the book, I thought, but it didn’t really belong to him any more than me. Maybe Jason Lett, David’s winemaking son who is carrying on the Eyrie tradition and building upon it? Yes, that would make sense.

But then I learned about the Oregon Wine History Project at Linfield College and that sealed the deal. They were pleased to add my copy of Vintage Timelines to their archive as a document chronicling the Eyrie Reserve’s early international recognition as well as the role of Nick’s back room in the region’s early development. Jeff Peterson, Director of the Linfield Center for the Northwest, accepted the book and both Scott and Jason supported the decision.

A Remarkable Story: David Lett (and the Pioneers)

David Lett is one of my heros and I am including him in my “Grape Transformations” list of people who have changed the way people think about wine or wine regions. He was certainly instrumental in the transformation of Oregon from a place known for fruit and nuts rather than grapes to a region frequently mentioned in the same breath with Burgundy.

Lett’s story is remarkable. Trained at UC/Davis, he came north looking for terroir where he could make Pinot in the Burgundian style. The first Pinot vines were planted in 1965; 1970 was the first Eyrie Pinot vintage.  After one or two false starts he hit paydirt. Great wine.

But from Oregon? Rainy old Oregon probably seemed like the last place on earth to make world class wine in the 1970s.

Olympic Gold

Then came the Wine Olympics of 1979. This was a competition, sponsored by  the French food and wine magazine Gault Millau, that featured 330 wines from 33 countries tasted blind by 62 judges. The 1975 Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve attracted attention by placing 10th among Pinots. A stunning achievement for a wine from a previously unknown wine region.

Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin, a Burgundy negociant and producer, was fascinated and sponsored a further competition where the Eyrie wine came close second behind Drouhin’s own 1959 Chambolle-Musigny. Thus was Eyrie’s reputation set (and Oregon’s, too). It wasn’t long before Domaine Drouhin Oregon (DDO) was built in the same Dundee Hills as Eyrie’s vineyards — a strong endorsement of the terroir and recognition of the achievement.

The Pioneers founded the Oregon wine industry, but now the torch has been passed to a group that you might call the Sons [and Daughters] of the Pioneers. Some of them appear in the video at the top of this post (don’t be discouraged by the poor audio at the start — it gets better quickly). I’ll have something to say about this group in an upcoming post.

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Special thanks to Scott Chambers and Jason Lett for their hospitality during our stay in McMinnville.

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Update 11/16/2011: You might be interested in Katherine Cole’s recent piece on the 50th anniversary of wine in Oregon — it includes a nice annotated chronology of the wine industry.

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