Oregon Pinot Noir Reassessed

27 July 2019

Winemaker of The Four Graces, Marc Myers

I don’t buy Oregon Pinot Noir, and I haven’t written about Pinot Noir from Oregon on this site. Not once in Odd Bacchus’s eight years of existence. The problems I had with Oregon Pinot Noir were twofold.

First, I couldn’t afford anything that was more than merely drinkable. As any wine writer will tell you, Pinot Noir is a “finicky” grape, and it’s very difficult to produce good Pinot inexpensively. Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal just wrote a column about this very fact (she did find two Oregon Pinots that each cost $20 that she liked, the 2017 La Crema and the 2017 Stoller Family Estate Dundee Hills).

Second, when I did drink an Oregon Pinot Noir, more often than not, I detected a certain meaty quality. I didn’t care for it, and I saw no reason to shell out $20 (or more) to experience it.

Nor did Oregon Pinot Gris, one of the state’s signature whites, ever dazzle me. Only the occasional Müller-Thurgau or Pinot Blanc caught my eye.

And so it was with rather low expectations that I went to a recent tasting of Oregon Pinot Noir, held here in Chicago. The PR representative who invited me was very kind, even remembering that I had been traveling during last year’s tasting, so I felt I had to at least give it a try.

No stranger to the Pinot Noirs of Burgundy — I’ve had the fortune to visit the region on four separate occasions — I wanted to know what the argument for Oregon was. So I decided to ask every winery representative I met that very question. Why drink Oregon Pinot Noir, rather than an example from Burgundy, New Zealand or somewhere else?

The “Pinot in the City” tasting in Chicago

I got a lot of fascinating answers:

Rebecca Oliver, the National Sales Manager for Lemelson Vineyards, sounded two notes that I was to hear more than once over the course of the tasting: “We have such camaraderie here in Oregon, and the sense of place is unlike anywhere else; Oregon Pinot tastes different from Pinot in other places. We’re all farmers, and we’re all here promoting Oregon first, then Pinot, then ourselves.”

Megan Joy, Associate Winemaker for Goodfellow Family Cellars, had this to say: “The beautiful thing about Pinot Noir is that it’s an expression of place. It’s not about one or the other. There are lots of beautiful Pinots out there from different places, but I happen to love the ones from Oregon.”

Heather Early, the Illinois State Manager for The Four Graces winery, did not mince words: “Oregon — it’s like the Wild West. We don’t have the rules and specifications they have in Burgundy. We do whatever the f*** we want.”

Ashley Campion, Assistant Winemaker of Lemelson Vineyards

I also asked The Four Graces’ Winemaker, Marc Myers, what he thought: “I would say passion. Everyone I know who works in Willamette is passionate, and I haven’t seen that everywhere. And second, I would say collaboration. We’re all working together [to promote Oregon wines].”

Jessie Bates, the National Sales Manager for Trisaetum, didn’t necessarily care for the comparison with Burgundy: “I wouldn’t say to buy [Oregon Pinot Noir] instead, buy it alongside. We know what our relationship to the Old World is; I don’t say the “B” word. It’s very different. It’s America, it’s Oregon wines. Americans are much more sophisticated now than they’ve ever been. And the message is that we can make wines as good as any in the Old World, in spite of the relative youth of the region.”

The Director of Sales of Dusky Goose, Natalie Sigafoos, echoed what some of her fellow Oregonians had to say: “It’s a matter of style. No matter who the winemaker is, we have a central core, even with different soils and climates. Also, we’re very supportive and we lift each other up. The collaboration and cohesiveness is amazing. Whenever a problem comes up in a vineyard, vineyard managers talk about it with each other. Winemakers have each other on speed dial. I moved from Napa 15 years ago, and it was not like that at all.”

But what is the central core of Oregon Pinot? And is it worth the money? I tasted examples from the above wineries, wineries chosen entirely at random. (Or more accurately, chosen because there weren’t many tasters crowding their tables at the time I approached.) I didn’t detect any unpleasant meatiness in any of the wines. In fact, I didn’t find a stinker in the bunch. Every single wine was obviously very well made, and most of them were even to my taste.

The 2015 Lemelson Vineyards “Thea’s Selection” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($34) is a fine example. It had an enticing aroma of ripe cherries and spiciness, and I loved its texture: simultaneously full and light on its feet. I mentioned this to Oliver, who agreed. “Texture is paramount to us,” she said, and those are welcome words to this mouthfeel queen. I also very much enjoyed its ripe fruit flavors, focused white-pepper spice and precise sour cherry acidity that kept the bottom from ever falling out. What a delight.

Goodfellow Family Cellars’ 2016 Whistling Ridge Vineyard Heritage No. 7 Single Block Pinot Noir ($70) was similarly delicious, with a hint of violet in the aroma and some pie crust mixed in with the cherry fruit and focused acidity.

The 2017 Four Graces Dundee Hills Estate Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir ($45) was more brooding and dark; a sexy wine that had just a hint of spicy funk mixed in with the expected dark-cherry fruit and refined white-pepper spice.

Dusky Goose also made a wonderful wine from Dundee Hills fruit (this region is regarded by many as one of Oregon’s best). The 2014 Dusky Goose Dundee Hills Pinot Noir ($70) had those delightful notes of purple flowers and ripe fruit that bordered on cough-syrup cherry. But the focused spiciness and lively acidity had such force, the wine maintained excellent balance. It was at once pretty and strong.

Nor did the 2017 Trisaetum Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($30) disappoint, with its juicy dark-fruit aroma, flavors of cherries and pie crust and well-integrated tannins. This was also a wine that balanced its ripe fruit with aplomb, developing with deliberateness and obvious structure.

In addition to these wines, I highly recommend trying Dusky Goose’s 2015 Chardonnay ($60) — dare I say it felt Burgundian? — and Trisaetum’s 2018 Ribbon Ridge Estate Dry Riesling ($49), redolent of dark citrus and pear.

Well, it seems there is a whole state’s worth of delicious wines that I’ve denying myself. It’s not often that I spend $30 to $70 (retail) on a bottle of wine, I must admit, but if that is within your budget, Oregon’s wines should definitely be in your sights. I’m still unconvinced that the state’s less-expensive offerings are worthwhile, but in that price range, the wines are a delight, pure and simple.

What Vintages Are Best?

28 February 2019

As I poured a glass of wine for a friend, she asked me a surprising question. “So, what makes a wine vintage? If it’s five years old or older?” I was taken aback at first, but I realized the question was quite reasonable. Vintage clothes, for example, don’t come from a specific year. “Vintage” in that case just means old.

Most wine drinkers already understand what a vintage wine is, but the question of which vintages are best is far less clear. Of course, vintages vary according to region. And certain authorities ascribe quality ratings to each year, which means that there must be general agreement on a region’s good years and bad years, right? Well, sort of.

If someone tells you to avoid a certain vintage, take that advice with a grain of salt. Just because the 2016 vintage in Burgundy was bad for growers, for example, it doesn’t mean that the bottle of 2016 Burgundy in front of you is bad. In our latest Name That Wine episode, we explain why.

We also tackle the challenge of chronologically ordering three different vintages of Alloro Vineyard Pinot Noir. As we blind-taste the 2015, 2014 and 2013, we talk about how wines change over time, and do our best to put that knowledge into practice. Alas, the wines we’re tasting aren’t very far apart, so we’ve set ourselves up for quite a difficult task! Well, if nothing else, we can laugh at ourselves:

Note: We received these three bottles of wine as complimentary samples for review on Name That Wine.

Walla Walla Speed Blogging: The Reds

12 October 2018
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Amie Brittle of Maryhill Winery, and Liz Barrett, cohost of Name That Wine and writer of What’s in That Bottle, at her first Speed Blogging event

People don’t have shorter attention spans nowadays, according to the Wine Blogger Conference‘s keynote speaker, Lewis Perdue. They’re just more impatient. That’s good news for those of us who write overlong blog posts about wine minutiae. Ahem. And it’s good news for my favorite event at the Wine Bloggers Conference: Speed Blogging.

The conference organizers like to call it “speed dating for wine.” In case you’re too young to remember what speed dating was — does anyone still speed date? — speed dating involved spending a few minutes per person with several different potential matches. I can speak from experience when I say that “eight-minute dating” was about five minutes too long. Nevertheless, I met my husband at a speed dating event, so obviously the format has some merit.

I also love Speed Blogging because, in this era of supposed shorter attention spans, it demands total focus for the hour of its duration. We bloggers, sitting at tables in a big ballroom, have only five minutes each with 12 different wine presenters. They’re trying to tell us about the wine, we’re shouting questions at them, they’re trying to give us carefully produced press kits, we’re tossing them on the floor because we don’t have time to read them… And, through it all, we’re trying to pay attention to the wine so that we can say something intelligent about it. It’s mass chaos, and it’s a joy.

You might reasonably think that we have no business evaluating wines in such a setting. But it’s precisely because of the noise and the speed that Speed Blogging works. I focus intensely on my first impression of the wine, often more intensely than when I’m sitting in my silent living room with no distractions. It’s a challenge to assess wine in these circumstances, and like a vine under stress, the fruit of it can be richer and more concentrated.

On to the reds, mostly from Washington, in the order in which they were presented!

Sager Small of Woodward Canyon

2014 Woodward Canyon “Artist Series #23” Cabernet Sauvignon: The vineyard producing this Cabernet dates back to 1976, making it “old” by Washington State standards. Each label of the Artist Series wines, started in 1992, features a different Pacific Northwest artist’s work (rather like Mouton Rothschild). Composed of 92% Cabernet 6% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot, this wine had a rich, dark fruit aroma with cassis and some vanilla. Very enticing! My mouth filled with fruit, followed by white pepper spice and supple mocha tannins. Oo, that’s a big boy, but with plenty of grace as well — not an easy balance to strike. It’s $59 at retail, and in this case, definitely worth it. “I kind of wish one of you had a steak in your pocket right now,” friend and fellow blogger Liz Barrett told Sager Small, the son of the winery’s owners and its viticulture and production assistant. Alas, he did not.

2015 Mullan Road Cellars Red Wine Blend: Founded by Dennis Cakebread, Washington-based Mullan Road is the “family’s first foray outside of California.”  This blend of 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot and 17% Cabernet Franc had a very appealing aroma of ripe dark cherry, with a bit of chocolate and a touch of green peppercorn spice. Another rich beauty, with full fruit, focused acids and well-integrated, big mocha tannins. Through it all, a shaft of white-pepper spice held everything together. I would pay the $45 retail price for this wine, no question.

2014 Maryhill Winery Malbec: This wine wasn’t the only Washington Malbec that caught my attention at the conference. “We like to consider ourselves representative of the potential of the Columbia Valley; we work with 35 different varieties, and make 50 different wines,” according to Cassie Courtney, marketing director. That’s a lot of wines to keep track of, but certainly they didn’t give the Malbec short shrift. It had delightful fresh plum and prune fruit aromas. Flavors of deep, dark fruit were buoyed by a shaft of green peppercorn spice. Nice, even development, with focused acids and spice — what a deal at $26!

2015 Columbia Winery Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: Columbia was the first to produce Syrah and Pinot Gris in Washington, but today, they poured their Cab. I liked its plummy aroma, with more of that deep, dark, ripe fruit so many Washington reds seem to have! It developed with grace on the palate, moving from fruit to focused acids and spice to tannins, which get bigger and bigger. The tannins get pretty darn serious by the end, so I would love to try this wine again in a few years. This wine is available only in the tasting room, “So come and see us in Woodinville.” Not at all a bad value at $38.

2015 Domaines Barons de Rothschild “Légend” Pauillac: “I’m in,” as my neighbor said when she saw this wine, and who could disagree? “A wine for every day” produced by the same winery that makes Lafite Rothschild, Légend is intended to make Bordeaux accessible to consumers. This blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot had a fresh plum aroma with some blueberries, and even a touch of cinnamon in the nose. It felt light on its feet, with bright, ripe cherries, some eucalyptus freshness and rather rough-and-ready tannins. They weren’t yet as well-integrated, or as graceful on the finish as I might have hoped for the $50 price. And though I realize that $50 is crazy cheap when compared to Lafite Rothschild, I’m not convinced that price is what most of us are looking to pay for an “every day” wine!

2015 Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: “I love this wine, with its cassis and black raspberries,” said Marisa McCann, who handles sales and events at the winery. Please don’t give me tasting notes! Now all I’m smelling is cassis. Well, and a touch of mocha. It’s awfully appealing, I must admit. She said something about Disney and Pretty Woman, but I was too distracted by the wine’s opulent fruit leavened by super-sharp acids and spice, followed by plush mocha tannins. I love it. “That’s a quintessential Napa Cab,” a fellow blogger remarked. Yes. $58

Caleb Foster, winemaker of J. Bookwalter

2015 J. Bookwalter “Chapter 8” Cabernet Sauvignon: This Washington wine comes from vines planted in 1988, which apparently counts as an “old” vineyard. Good Lord! Bookwalter restricts the yield for its Chapter 8 to about one bottle per vine, ensuring impressive concentration. Most vines yield two or three bottles of wine. It smelled of mocha and green peppercorn, and tasted of fresh plum with dark chocolate. I loved the wine’s confident, slow development from fruit to green peppercorn spice and mocha tannins. What a joy! Concentrated, yes, but with real freshness to balance. Sensational. If you can spend $100 on a bottle of wine, you’ll get your money’s worth with this one.

2015 J. Christopher Dundee Hills “Volcanique” Pinot Noir: Dr. Loosen is most famous for its fantastic Mosel Rieslings, but it also partners Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington and Dundee Hills in Oregon. And anything the Doctor has his hands on is bound to be good. Clifford Robben, CFO for Dr. Loosen USA poured this Pinot, which had a bright cherry, cough syrup aroma, leavened with a bit of dust and vanilla. (That’s a very enticing aroma, if you’re in doubt.) It’s a cherrypalooza to start with, moving to white pepper spice and some soft, supple tannins on the finish, with no sag in the middle, as sometimes can happen with lighter-bodied wines. Great balance, and I would certainly pay the $30 price.

2013 G. Cuneo Ripasso Red Wine: I had a little trouble hearing owner and winemaker Gino Cuneo, but I believe he said he dries the grapes for three and a half months on mats, before crushing them. Ah yes, he’s pouring a Walla Walla ripasso, similar in style to an Amarone! I am IN. This blend of Barbera, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo was quite a transparent ruby-red, and wow, it’s nimble, with big cherry fruit, bright and juicy sour-cherry acids, and supple tannins. It’s lighter and less raisiny than I would have expected, but nevertheless, it’s beautiful. A very good deal at $45 a bottle.

2016 Artesana Tannat Merlot Zinfandel: This winery is a project of three girlfriends, according to the presenter, who is foolishly trying to present two wines. In speed blogging, that immediately makes me hate you. This blend incorporates the first and only Zinfandel produced in Uruguay. It has a heady, dark red-fruit aroma, and it’s really lovely, but the chatter about the other wine is driving me crazy. It’s a full, ripe, tannic blend, with sparkling spice and acids keeping it balanced. I rather love it, especially at the $20 price — that’s a great deal. They should have just focused on this wine, since it’s so good. I’ve had mixed experiences with Uruguayan wines in the past, but if this bottling is any indication, they’re making some delicious stuff down there these days.

From The Alsace To Oregon

14 August 2013

Youngberg Hill Pinot BlancI still remember the first time I tried a Pinot Blanc. Some fellow students and I biked across the Rhein from Breisach, Germany, to Colmar in France’s Alsace region. After seeing Grünewald’s startlingly expressive and distressing Isenheim Altarpiece, we made our way to a grocery store, which, to our delight, was hosting a wine tasting. I tried a Wolfberger Pinot Blanc, among others, and was immediately hooked. We bought some bottles and sat down to consume them on the lawn in the square in front of the Unterlinden Museum. As we drank our wine and became a little tipsy, we decided it would be smart to (rather loudly) sing German songs. That way, no one would guess it was a group of Americans getting drunk in public and making a spectacle of themselves. We surely had everyone fooled.

Since then, I’ve rarely passed up the opportunity to try an Alsatian Pinot Blanc or a Weissburgunder (the German synonym for Pinot Blanc). But I’ve had very few domestic examples, most likely because, as The Oxford Companion to Wine notes, aside from about 700 acres in California, “Elsewhere in the New World, Pinot Blanc is largely ignored in favor of the most famous white wine grape.” (That would be Chardonnay.)

It was quite the treat, then, to receive a complimentary sample of  2012 Youngberg Hill Pinot Blanc from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I’d never tasted an Oregon Pinot Blanc before, and I couldn’t wait to give it a try. Surely Pinot Blanc, which flourishes in the rather cloudy and cool Alsace region, could also flourish in Oregon the way Pinot Noir has. The bottle did not sit long in my rack.

I did give myself a little time to read the press kit of the winery, and I was very pleased with what I discovered. The winery farms the Youngberg Hill vineyard, which is located just 25 miles from the coast, in organic and biodynamic fashion. Indeed, owner Wayne Bailey claims to go “beyond biodynamic,” working the land in a “seriously organic, holistic” manner. Healthier grapes make better wine, according to Bailey, and who could argue with that? In addition, the vineyard site seems primed to make excellent wine. Its proximity to the coast, according to the press kit, paradoxically provides it more rainfall than the rest of the valley as well as more sunny days during the summer season.

The care Mr. Bailey takes with his vineyard pays off in the bottle. This Pinot Blanc could go toe to toe with just about any from the Alsace. It smelled “fruity and floral” and “crisp and clean,” as two fellow tasters noted, and I detected some pear, apple, and even a little earthy funk  in the aroma (that’s a good thing). It tasted fruity, with a lush texture balanced by zesty acids which gave way to some focused gingery spice. It left me with a chalky aftertaste in the back of my throat, completing a most pleasant journey. Not at all a bad value for $20 a bottle.

The Alsace has a reputation for making the best Pinot Blanc in the world, but as this wine demonstrates, Oregon could give it some serious competition.

Note: This wine was a complimentary sample.

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