31 Oct 2011

Location, Location, Location (Woodenville, Washington)

The first winery in Washington was founded in the 1950s. Ironically it was founded in the Eastern part of Washington, which is generally too cold and wet for viticulture. It was however, less than an hour from Seattle, their primary (and only) market. Washington is the second largest producer in the United States behind California, and nearly 99% of all grapes are grown West of the Cascade Mountains in the dry, warm and irrigated parts of the state. In terms of visiting wineries the best place is Woodenville, less than an hour from Seattle. Just don't expect any vineyards.

It seemed logical to start at the beginning in Woodenville, so the first winery I visited was Chateau Ste. Michelle. This winery is the biggest in Washington, and as you would expect the visitor centre is world class. During the busy Summer period they offer tours every half hour, far more than the three per day we would conduct at Chandon Australia. The winery is huge, and only produces the white wines for the brand, the reds made in Eastern Washington. The wines are quite good for the price, and are a great ambassador for Washington wines. They have a couple of interesting projects they run. One is a Columbia Valley riesling made in partnership with Dr. Loosen, the other a Bordeaux variety blend made in partnership with Antinori. This partnership with European winemakers with Washington fruit confirms the potential and quality of Washington in the wine world.

Chateau Ste. Michelle
Vertical tasting of Col Solare, a wine made in partnership with Chateau Ste. Michelle and Antinori
A winery that has been hailed as the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild of Washington, De Lille Cellars has been gaining attention for it's Bordeaux variety and Rhone variety wines. One of their wines in particular regularly is included in the Top 100 wines in Washington, the Grand Ciel. The tasting room is located about half a mile from the winery, which is only open for special events. The wines made with Bordeaux varieties are labelled under the De Lille brand, whereas the Rhone variety wines are labelled under the Doyenne label. The Doyenne Syrah, confirmed for me how good the Red Mountain AVA is for Rhone varieties, and the Chaleur Estate Blanc was one of the best white Bordeaux blends I have tasted in a long time. The Grand Ciel is an exceptional wine, but is far too young to be tasting at less than five years of age.

The author tasting the De Lille Chaleur Estate Blanc 
De Lille Cellars Grand Ciel
Sparkman Cellars has their tasting room behind De Lille in a shopping strip. It is very much a mom and pop operation as Chris and Kelly Sparkman make the wines together. They have a large range of wines, which could be cut back and focused a little bit. The wines are very good, but only a few stood out, the rose in particular. A couple in the tasting room told me a funny story. Apparently an Australian winemaker went to work for a winery in California, and they had provided him with either a 17 or 70 year old secretary. When he arrived he noted something missing, and asked his secretary to procure a rubber for him, preferably a white one so it didn't leave any marks. Classic cross-cultural misunderstanding, couldn't have been scripted better.

Sparkman Cellars Tasting Room
Mark Ryan is considered the rebel of Woodenville. He rides a Triumph, he loves rock music, his labels are designed by a graphic artist known for album covers. Much like Charles Smith, Mark is largely self-taught and had very inauspicious and simple beginnings in 1999. He is know recognised as one the most gifted winemakers in Woodenville, sourcing fruit from Eastern Washington and the Willamette Valley for his pinot noir. I found his wines exhilarating in their elegance and texture, and wish I could have tried a few with a good meal.

The Mark Ryan range of wines
Another famous mom and pop outfit can be found up the hill at JM Cellars. John and Peggy Bigelow started small, and made the decision to grow slowly. Like most in Woodenville, they purchase their fruit with the exception of one vineyard, the Margaret Vineyard in Walla Walla. Distinctive well crafted wines are the key at JM Cellars. As I tasted the winery was processing fruit in the rain, poor buggers, and I had a quick look at some ferments and soaks before heading off.

JM Cellars Longevity
Ferments and barrels

30 Oct 2011

Where the vineyards are (Yakima Valley, Washington)

The Tri-Cities area is one of the least interesting places I have been to on my trip so far. It is a very functional area, as the gateway to the South East, and there are many new communities that have blossomed in housing estates. But it is generally a city without much heart and soul. I was fairly glad to be heading off along the Yakima River towards Seattle, as it would take me through areas where a third of the fruit is grown in Washington. After trying many wines from the Yakima AVA I was keen to see how the environment influenced the wines.

The most South Eastern sub-region of the Yakima Valley is Red Mountain, where many of the best reds come from. Whilst it is at least a quarter of the size of the Walla Walla Valley, it amazingly grows more fruit. It is very dry, and probably gets very hot in summer. In a way it reminded me of the Barossa Valley, so naturally Rhone varieties like Shiraz do very well here. This is certainly not white wine country, otherwise it would be called Red & White Mountain.

Seeing the vine leaves change colour in Red Mountain AVA
Red Mountain AVA
There are very few wineries in the Yakima Valley though, a lot of the fruit either travelling to Walla Walla or closer to Seattle. Most of the best wineries are in these places, relying on wine tourism and their location to sell their wines. The Yakima Valley is about 60 miles in length and most of the towns are very small with little accommodation. I only visited two wineries in the Yakima Valley, and they were both very good for the prices they were charging, but not exceptional quality. Fidelitas was established by a former Chateau Ste. Michelle, like most people in the Washington wine industry. They make a range of single varietal wines which are very solid but not outstanding. Hyatt Vineyards is one of the oldest wineries in the region. They make a range of very good wines that sell for $10-$15 are are the best value I have tasted.

Fidelitas Semillon
Hyatt Estates
Driving from the Yakima Valley to Seattle is one of the most dramatic and beautiful I have experienced. As you drive through the semi-arid part of Washington State the landscape opens up and stretches for miles towards the Cascade Mountains. As you climb the scenery changes back to being fertile and forested again, and snow-covered mountains appear. This is the major skiing area in Washington, and the snow season isn't far away. The pass through the mountains closes annually for four months, which effectively shuts down the wine tourism East of the mountains. It pays to be closer to Seattle during this time of the year.


27 Oct 2011

Writing the rule book (Walla Walla Valley, Washington - Day 2)

As I mentioned in my previous post, the wine industry in Walla Walla is nothing if not progressive. A region that has really only been around for 15 years, they aren't so much in a revolution as an evolution, not a renaissance but a birth. As Charles Smith said to me the previous day, there are no rules here. They are all just trying to figure out what does well here, and they are so far ahead of the curve it isn't funny. Much like the winemakers in southern NSW these guys are getting access to amazing fruit in new viticultural areas and expressing wines that are both impetuous and yet refined. Is it any wonder that wine critics in Washington and the rest of the US are so excited about this place?

The Walla Walla Valley
Starting my day with the second oldest winery in Walla Walla, I tried the wines on offer at Woodward Canyon. Located right next door to L'Ecole, Woodward Canyon make two ranges of wine, the second under the Nelms Road brand. They are very classic style wines, the labels are certainly a reflection of this, as is the tasting room. They release a non-vintage red, not the first I have encountered so far, which is sensational for $20.

Woodward Canyon Red Wine & Nelms Road Merlot
Having visited several tasting rooms on the western side of town and in downtown, I headed south of town for some visits. The first was to visit Rasa Vineyards. Enamoured of the greatest wines in the world, brothers Pinot and Billo Navarane decided leave their careers in the computer industry to establish a world-class winery. Wanting to have their focus on syrah and bordeaux varieties, they searched many places throughout California and Washington, and decided to settle in Walla Walla. They are truly passionate guys, very pragmatic and scientific in their approaches, but understanding there is an art to viticulture and winemaking. Their philosophy and origins weave nicely into the wines, incorporating scientific principles into the names of their wines. The liquid contained within these bottles is gaining well-deserved attention, and they are going to get even better. Check out their blog and twitter; http://rasavineyards.com/

Billo and Pinto Navarane from Rasa Vineyards
QED Syrah (co-fermented with viognier)
Pepper Bridge and Amavi Cellars are connected by marriage, like so many great wine families in the world. The Goff and McKibbin families combined their businesses several years ago, and allowed Swiss-born Jean-Francois Pellet to oversee the winemaking for both brands. The focus for Pepper Bridge is on Bordeaux variety blends, whereas Amavi tends to be a mixture of varieties. The vineyards at Pepper Bridge looked very fatigued and under stress, with very dry leaves and shriveled shoots. Apparently Pepper Bridge have suffered a number of devastating frosts which have destroyed vines. With quite significant diurnial shifts between day night temperatures being further from the coast, frosts are common in spring and autumn, very dangerous periods in the vine life cycle.

The new optical sorter in use at Pepper Bridge
The Amavi Tasting Room in Walla Walla
Further confirmation of the progressive nature of Walla Walla was discovered to the east of town. In an area that used to be a US Airforce training base are a number of small wineries and tasting rooms. The grid on which the streets are located are either numbered like every town and city, or they are named after a plane model. The local council built five "wine incubators" for start-up producers to make their wine and sell direct to wine tourists. The lease lasts for six years, so they need to grow fast. The winery I visited had pretty poor wines, a nice reminder that not all the wines produced here are good.

Port of Walla Walla Wine Incubators
Walla Walla Airport Wine Incubators
Heading out through town I called on Corliss winery where the senior winemaker is Australian. Andrew Trio, a Perthian(?), graduated from Adelaide Uni in 2005, and has spent several years working in California and Washington. He's in a pretty enviable position, as Corliss is a winery that has had serious investment from it's owners, and has some amazing toys. Apart from the standard French Oak fermenters, sorting tables, and bottling line, he also has the first cement egg fermenter I have ever seen. The winery was pretty busy processing fruit, and I wish I had been staying in Walla Walla to hang out, but I had to keep going.

Corliss winemaker Andrew Trio
I call him Humpty
The largest private-owned winery which makes numerous brands is located on the western side of town. The facility and tasting room are amazing, quite new. Waterbrook was the original winery in the Walla Walla Valley, but is now part of the Precept group, the second largest wine company in Washington after Chateau Ste. Michelle. The wines are very good commercial examples, but they taste better in the modern and spacious tasting room.

Waterbrook Tasting Room
Whilst visiting wineries in Walla Walla was really cool, and there are some awesome people in the this part of the world, I feel that there aren't enough Walla Walla wines out there. Maybe they are all really hard to get and expensive. Hopefully I'll try more in the future. For now I'll have to remember this part of the world for it's groundbreaking vintners...


I'm so excited and I think I like it (Walla Walla Valley, Washington - Day 1)

Way down in the cocoon of Melbourne there isn't a lot of North American wine available. It's mostly either Californian, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, or Inniskillin. So in this environment I had no idea that the Walla Walla Valley is the most exciting place for wine in the entire United States. In doing research just before I came across I found a video of online wine phenomenon Gary Vaynerchuk stating that Walla Walla is the best region for wine, angering many in the Napa Valley. Having visited for the first time yesterday I am tempted to agree with him.


The Walla Walla Valley had grape vines introduced by Italian migrants back in the mid-1800s but like everywhere else, the first bonded winery wasn't founded until after prohibition in 1950. The Pesciallo family who founded Blue Mountain Vineyards were certainly way ahead of their time, as they didn't survive and vines weren't then planted until the 1970s. Walla Walla went unnoticed for almost thirty years until the mid '90s when there were less than 10 wineries, and a number of wines started to get rave reviews. This started a serious boom in the region, to the point that there are now about 160 wineries sourcing fruit from the entire Columbia Valley & Walla Walla AVA. This is a region seriously on the move, so pay attention.

L'Ecole No 41 Tasting Room
One of the oldest wineries in the region is L'Ecole No 41, founded in 1983. Possibly the most prominent Walla Walla winery in the market, they are named after the schoolhouse that is located on the same property as the winery, which was originally built in 1915. L'Ecole were one of the wineries that put the region on the map, and have grown significantly in the last 10 years to meet demand. The tasting room is located in the schoolhouse, and has a very studious feeling to it. There are two ranges of wine, one which uses Columbia Valley fruit at an entry level price-point, and the Walla Walla Valley wines which range from $19 to $49. It was great to be introduced to the region with such a solid and established performer, particularly as I was given some great advice on where to visit, and had an appointment lined up for my next visit.

L'Ecole No 41 Schoolhouse
Allen Shoup is considered a true pioneer in the Washington wine industry, working at Chateau Ste Michelle for 20 years. He established Long Shadows in the Walla Walla Valley in 2002 with  with a visionary ideal; to identify the best sites for the best varieties and wines in Washington. In an effort to achieve this he designed a built a world class winery, and then invited world class winemakers from around the world, famous for particular wine styles. To make his riesling he invited a German (Armin Diel), to make his sangiovese blend he invited a pair of Tuscan brothers (Ambrogio & Giovanni Folonari), and to make his merlot blend he invited a Pomerol expert (Michel Rolland). John Duval makes the syrah, as he is famous for crafting Penfold's Grange for 16 years. Each wine has a distinctive brand identity and is designed to be the best in it's class. The wines are exceptional, showing the potential of this area. The riesling and merlot stood out for me, as did the very classy modern tasting room.

Long Shadows Tasting Room
Reininger is a winery not far out of Walla Walla that make a large range of wines that are all very well priced. They are using varieties that are both common (classic French), and uncommon (sangiovese and carmenere). The tasting room is quite large and well located by the freeway, on the way into town I could imagine it would be quite busy on weekends. I may have been a bit too abstract as I was tasting as my host was not used to the Australian sense of humour.

Reininger Merlot
My timing in Walla Walla wasn't great, as not only are they in the middle of vintage, but most tasting rooms are only open Thursday to Sunday. Even tasting rooms in downton Walla Walla were depressingly closed as I drove past. One of the exceptions is the King of Walla Walla, Charles Smith. With about $5,000 in his pocket and a crazy dream Charles Smith came to Walla Walla to start a wine company. He is now one the most important figures in the Washington wine industry, and one of the most striking with his Sideshow Bob hair and frank attitudes. Charles Smith is my kind of crazy, a truly intuitive (self-taught) winemaker and marketer. His wines and their packaging reflect his character, very wild and against the mainstream. He undeniably has a well deserved ego, but thankfully these don't intervene in the wines themselves, they are balanced and textured with great food-friendly elegance. I'm sure working for Charles would be both challenging and thrilling, as he seems like the kind of passionate person who demands the best that he aspires to. If I could compare him to someone in the Australian wine industry, it would be Phil Sexton.

King Coal and The Creator (aka Charles Smith)
Charles Smith Tasting Room in downtown Walla Walla
The awesome Kristin Fish at the Charles Smith Tasting Room made some calls on my behalf to various winemakers around the area, and so I headed off to the Artifex commercial wine making facility on the outskirts of town. This custom crush house is designed to accommodate a number of smaller wine brands that cannot afford their own facility but need access to equipment and barrel storage. It is amazingly collaborative and very progressive, a theme I consistently picked up in the valley. I met with Brian Rudin, the winemaker for Middleton Family Wines, who produce brands like Cadaretta and Clayhouse. A young, energetic and honest winemaker, Brian sources fruit from all over the Columbia Valley for his wines, like most of Walla Walla. I got the opportunity to join Brian and his team as they assessed many of their ferments in various stages, and it showed how variable the vintage conditions were. I also got to crush some cabernet to check the brix, perfect ripeness.

Brian Rudin and his team check some ferments

26 Oct 2011

Dramatic landscapes (Columbia Gorge, Oregon/Washington)

I'm starting to get used to the disappointment that I can't spend more time in all the places I am going, and Portland was one of the hardest to leave so far. It's much nicer staying in the hostels because you are around people more and there's stuff to do in the evening. It's nice having some space and quiet in the motels, but it's pretty boring and lonely. It does give me a chance to catch up on things and look ahead for arrangements, but I do waste a bit too much time flipping through the thousands of channels on the television.

Colubia Valley, Oregon to the left, Washington to the right
The Columbia River is one of the biggest I have ever seen, and stretches at least 80 metres wide most of the time. As you drive east out of Portland you are treated to very lush vegetation and trees, which are particularly beautiful at this time of year as the leaves change colour. The Columbia River becomes the Columbia Gorge as hills shelter the river on both sides. To the South is the state of Oregon, and to the North is Washington which is my next destination. Like a number of regions in the Pacific Northwest, Columbia Gorge sits across the two states. The only winery that was open was Cathedral Ridge, and the wines were pretty ordinary so not worth talking about. The only interesting wine was a secret blend of riesling and an undisclosed red wine.

Cathedral Ridge Halbtrocken
An interesting thing happens as you drive East along the Columbia River. Once you hit the town of Lyle on the Washington side of the river, the scenery changes from lush verdant forests and green grass, to very dry and sparse semi-arid tundra. The difference is both stark and sudden. As you drive on the ridges of the Columbia Gorge you see extensive wind farms as far as the eye can see. Victoria could learn a lot from this area, as they are certainly not an eyesore, looking like toothpicks sticking out of a leg of lamb from afar at sunset.

Windfarms in Washington
One of the largest wineries in Washington, and the 100th to get their license, was Maryhill Winery. Maryhill can be found on a very scenic ridge that has amazing views both up and down the river. The most exciting thing about this winery is that they truly understand the value of wine tourism. Columbia Valley is at least two hours from the closest major city, and isn't between any major cities either. There are very few wineries in this area, and the ones that are aren't amazing. There are very small communities that are spread out and there aren't a lot of things to do. So they have created a reason for people to come out; concerts. An amphitheatre was built from day one 10 years ago, and they have just opened a brand new multi-purpose stage. They have hosted the likes of Lyle Lovett, Styx and Counting Crows, and most weekends have music playing in the courtyard. The wines are very good but not amazing, and many have some R/S, but that is what their customers want.

The Maryhill amphitheatre and stage

23 Oct 2011

Variations on a theme (Willamette Valley, Oregon - Day 3)

One of the major things I'm going to take away from my time in the Willamette Valley is that there are so many variables in wine that can influence style. Even though pinot noir is the king of grapes in Oregon, there is such a wide variety of styles due to site, clone, vintage and winemaking. In one day today I saw such a range of wines that it was hard to believe they all came from the same grape variety.

Pinot noir fruit at Domaine Drouhin Oregon
At short notice I had managed to get an appointment to taste the wines at Beaux Freres, and boy was I glad I did. The name Robert Parker Jnr. is probably the most important in the USA, and no one influences trends in wine more than he has. So when Michael Etzel found a site in the Ribbon Ridge sub-sub-region in 1986 on which to grow grapes, he partnered with his brother-in-law Robert Parker to find a third backer to purchase and establish the property. It wasn't difficult to do this, and in 1991 after working several vintages at Willamette pioneer Ponzi Vineyards, he decided not to sell his fruit but make the wines himself. The rest was history.

The focus at Beaux Freres is clearly on pinot noir, as they only produce wine from this grape. Today they only release three wines, a blend of the two vineyards they grow on, and the two single vineyard wines. The tasting consisted of comparing two vintages of two of the wines, and finish with the other single vineyard wine which needs more time before being offered full-time. When wines are made in such a hands-off style and the fruit is allowed to express the naunces of the site, you can see a big difference between vintages. The 2007 wines looked exquisite, with tight acid and tannin holding the fruit together well. These wines will live. The 2009 wines are very young but will soften and then hold together for less time. The Beaux Freres wines were the best I tried in the Willamette Valley.

Beaux Freres Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 & 2009
In 1991 the wine world stood up and took notice of the Willamette Valley and Oregon for pinot noir. The catalyst for this was the inaugural release of the Domaine Drouhin 1988 Pinot Noir. The fact that one of the most important houses in Burgundy had invested in a new world winery, and identified the quality and potential of wines from this region was big news. A flurry of new operations and investment swept over the valley, inflating the number of producers and the overall quality of the wines. The Drouhin winery is one of the most important in the Willamette Valley, as it was the first entirely gravity-fed in the region. They are one of the larger producers, but there is no compromise on the quality. It is exciting to see some great chardonnay here, it's a shame there isn't more, but from the sounds of it they are planting more suitable clones for the climate. As I walked through the winery pinot fruit was being processed and you can see the stems falling down a chute into a bin below.

Pinot stems after de-stemming
This past week in New York City was the Wine Spectator 2011 Wine Experience, a three-day festival where the best wines in the world are on show. A number of the wineries I have visited were exhibiting their wines, including Kistler, Ridge and Shafer. I had contacted Michelle from Domaine Serene about visiting the winery, but unfortunately she would be over for the event as well and wouldn't be at the winery to meet me. I thought I'd drop in and taste some wines anyway, and it was interesting to see the difference in expression between two wineries so close to each other. The Domaine Serene pinot noirs are full, dense, dark and tannic, and a little warm. They are wines that require ageing, compared to the wines at Domaine Drouhin which are soft and approachable in youth. The syrah uses fruit sourced from the Oregon side of the Walla Walla region, and is nice and earthy and dark with good concentration and spice.

Domaine Serene SoNo Syrah
I was really pleased to have met the winemaker at Stoller Vineyards, Melissa Burr. The vintage had begun and they were naturally very busy in the winery processing fruit, so I was glad she could spare some time. At age 31 she is one of the youngest chief winemakers I have met, so it was really exciting to taste her wines and hear her background. She seemed very interested in my background and future plans, so I hope I can stay in contact with her as I think she will be a very important winemaker wherever she goes. I highly recommend reading her winemakers blog, as it is great insight into the goings on at Stoller. http://blog.stollervineyards.com/

Argyle is one of the oldest wineries in the Willamette Valley, and their focus is on sparkling wines. The cool climate is ideal for growing fruit for sparkling base, and it was nice to see them using pinot meunier in the classic Champagne mould. The most fascinating wine was probably the sparkling pinot noir wine, which was nothing like the classic Australian sparkling shiraz, but delicious nonetheless. Argyle only make vintage bubbles, which is rare in both the old and new world.

Argyle Black Brut Sparkling Pinot Noir
Before heading back to Portland I stopped in at the Chehalem Tasting Room in Newberg. Chehalem is part owned by the Stollers, and is located in the Chealem Mountains AVA. The wines themselves are very sound, delicious and full. There is good balance and depth to them, however I feel that they are on the safe side and aren't taking any risks. The risk and revolutionary element at Chehalem is the fact that they seal all their wines under screwcap, conducting many years of closure trials. In a region that is predominantly pinot noir red wine, this is a bold stance and should be commended. The founder of the winery, Harry Peterson-Nedry, happened to be in the tasting room, and it was fascinating talking to him, as such an important figure in the region and a pioneer. He generously invited me to contact him should I want to come back to Oregon to work vintage in the future, which I am considering now...

The Chehalem Tasting Room
Portland is a very relaxed city, and the business district is very easy to get around. I spent the following just wandering around as is my wont. Most of the famous food carts were closed for the weekend, but I really enjoyed the soul food style BBQ pulled pork sandwich from one that was open. The botanic gardens are lovely, and nicely located on a hill above the rest of the city. I wish I were spending more time here, as it is my kind of town. On to Washington tomorrow, onwards and upwards!


22 Oct 2011

Sub-regional revolution (Willamette Valley, Oregon - Day 2)

It's safe to say that wine regions in the USA, much like in Australia, are big. This makes it difficult to categorise a region as having a certain style or characteristic. This is partly because there are differences in approaches to winemaking, but mostly becasue there are countless micro-climates and differences in appelation and site within a broad region. The size of the region also means you are covering a large distance when you are visiting, and getting from one appointment to another in time can have complications.

Having tasted the Bergstrom Pinot Noir with Mark Bixler from Kistler, and also noticing its reference in Vertical (new Rex Pickett book), I was intrigued to visit the winery. It's a relatively new player but has been gaining serious attention from consumers and media alike. This doesn't surprise me as the wine style is definitely in the more robust and full spectrum. Lot's of black forest fruit and dark cherry with dense tannin structure. These are wines that in a group of pinots in a blind tasting or wine show would stand out. They are expressive of their location in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, which is characteristically elevated marine sediment soils. The gentleman tasting next to me was clearly a devoted follower, as he was buying at least six dozen bottles.

Bergstrom Winery Block Pinot Noir 2009
The team at Elk Cove had invited me to join them for vintage lunch, so I was in a bit of a hurry to get there on time as I didn't want to miss out. Elk Cove was the first winery to be established in the Yamhill-Carlton sub-region, way back in 1974. Since establishing they have grown to be one of the most important producers in Northern Oregon, owning vineyards covering 220 acres. Like the vast majority of the Willamette Valley, Elk Cove is proudly family owned and operated, the winemaker Adam is the son of Pat and Joe Campbell that established the estate. Pat makes a mean lunch, a delicious feast of mexican-style faire pork ribs and tortillas, which all the trimmings. Enjoying the good food and discussion we were late in starting the tasting of some fantastic wines, and I ended up being a bit late for the next appointment. I was sad to leave Elk Cove in such a hurry, but I'm sure our paths will cross again.

Elk Cove La Boheme Pinot Noir Vineyard
Similar to Elk Cove, Adelsheim Vineyards was the first winery established in the Chehalem Mountain AVA in 1971, by David and Ginny Adelsheim. Again much like Elk Cove, they have grown significantly in stature and size, now totalling 190 acres of vineyards. The winemaking facility is pretty large, when I visited they had a lot of vats of pinot noir fermenting and macerating. Many other wineries haven't started vintage but Adelsheim are almost half way through. They make a number of wines, including an Auxerrois which is very sharp on the palate, i.e. high acidity. The pinot noir wines are very generous and soft, and some of the labels feature beautiful drawings as you can see below.

Adelsheim Elizabeth and Caitlin's Reserve wines
Getting late I could only fit one more winery in, and it had to be close. A former assistant winemaker at Rex Hill Winery, Lynn Penner-Ash established her own winery with her husband Ron Penner-Ash in 1998. She had previously worked at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, the famous winner of the 1976 Paris Tasting. The winery and estate is located on a hill in the Chehalem Mountain district, and has an amazing view, as you can see below. The wines are pretty full-on, dark and earthy. Not heavy per se, but products of the 2009 vintage being quite warm. I was very apprehensive about the pinot syrah blend, but was shocked to discover it was a great wine, and great value at $20. One of the tasting room hosts was interested to hear of my recent studies, as she is considering studying wine marketing at Adelaide University.

The view from Penner-Ash winery
Check out some of the other photos I took on this day by clicking the link below.


21 Oct 2011

Come on down to pinot town (Willamette Valley, Oregon - Day 1)

I think that Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor richly deserved the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for Sideways. Having finished Rex Picketts sequel to the novel Sideways, and seeing how poor not only his prose is, but also his proof-reading, I can only imagine how badly written his first book must have been. It's been interesting to discover what happens to the characters, and it might make an interesting film sequel. It has also proved interesting to read it as I have travelled up the west coast, following almost the same route as Miles and Jack. I have now arrived at the zenith of the novel, and the primary wine region the characters reside in. That region is the Central Otago equivalent of North America; the Willamette Valley.

Steve Naughton from Pinot NOW had given me a detailed list of wineries to visit, and over the past few weeks I had contacted most of them, and most had got back to me. Much like the rest of my trip up the coast so far, my timing was a little off as vintage was fast approaching and the much smaller wineries in the Willamette Valley were tentative to set anything up until closer to the date. They were very positive about me visiting, which was a lot more than I had gotten out of some Californian regions.

As I headed up the driveway of Evesham Wood there were small trays of freshly picked pinot gris and pinot noir sitting at the ends of rows. These were off some of the lower blocks of the estate vineyard, and up at the winery they were understandably anxious about what this record-breaking delayed harvest would provide. This is only the second vintage that the winemaker Erin Nuccio has been entirely in charge, and as was 2010 this vintage is set to be challenging. It's a very small winery built next to and under the owners house, which is now vacated since they are enjoying early retirement. Newly pressed pinot gris juice were seeping out of the bladder press, as small batches fermented in the cellar in small kegs. Several small fermenters held crushed and de-stemmed pinot noir fruit cold-soaking on skins to draw some colour before fermentation. It was far from crazy, but on the precipice. Erin was really cool and nice to spare a bit of time to chat about my trip so far and my plans. Sensing his mind was elsewhere I excused myself and hit the road.

Freshly picked pinot noir at Evesham Wood
Evesham Wood Winery
There was a similar feeling of trepidation around the corner at Cristom. The winemaker at Cristom is Steve Doerner, and he has a serious pinot noir background at Calera. He lamented the delayed commencement of vintage in the fact that cellar hands that had secured leave from various positions were soon to return to work, leaving him short staffed once more fruit started to come in. In the background John Farnham was playing, courtesy of the cellar hand joining them from Henshke. Steve has a very hands-off approach to his winemaking, less new oak, less maceration on skins, more whole-bunch fermentation. It is not hard to see the influence in the wines, which are very subtle, and express the site better than a lot of the wines I tried in California. It may have something to do with less intervention in the winery?..

Cellar Hands at Cristom glad to have some fruit to process
On the same hill as Cristom sits Bethel Heights, established in 1977 by twin brothers Ted and Terry Casteel. The tasting room sits above the vineyards and has a beautiful vista, accompanied by the winery cat bathing itself. It was interesting to try the three single block pinot noirs they produce, as two of them are a Dijon clone introduced less that 20 years a go. The third block was planted to Pommard clone back in 1977 before the Dijon clone had been introduced. Comparing the three wines, the Dijon clone wines looked very tight and young, whereas the Pommard clone wine was more developed, fuller and silkier, more approachable now. They also made the best un-oaked chardonnay I have tried so far.

The Bethel Heights Winery cat
Several people including Steve Naughton had suggested I visit Eyrie Vineyards, but I had neglected to do my research as to why. The winery and tasting room are in the town of McMinnville, and it reminded me of visiting Alsace where the wineries tend to be in the towns rather than on the estates. I soon learnt the reason why the winery was located here, as Eyrie was the first vineyard planted in the Willamette to pinot noir and chardonnay, and the first to pinot gris in the USA. The vineyards are on Dundee Hill, and in the late '60s it would have been complicated to get machinery and trucks, not to mention visitors up there.

The Eyrie Vineyards Tasting Room
The wines made here are fascinating. They use barely any new oak, and tend to use it only on their lower priced pinot rather than the reserve. Clearly they understand that the oldest vines produce fruit that needs the least done to it in the winery. They had one pinot which was a non-vintage blend of 2006, 2007 and 2008 fruit, and was intended to raise funds for the cellarmaster's wife's kidney transplant, which as you can imagine is expensive in the States. The Reserve Estate Pinot Noir was a unique and exceptional wine, but the stand-out was the very Alsation-inspired pinot gris.

The Eyrie Reserve Pinot Noir
I was very excited to visit the Carlton Wine Studio for two reasons. The first is that it is a co-operative winery where very small artisan producers make and exhibit their wines. The second reason is that I lived for the last three years in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton. Tasting through the pinots it was fun to see the different expressions, from different sub-regions, to different winemaking styles. One wine in particular was a deep purple colour, intense and dark but not heavy. The style of wine was reflected in the bottle; deep punt, thick heavy glass and a metallic label.

The Retour Pinot Noir at the Carlton Wine Studio
The little I have seen so far of Portland has been excited about, and I look forward to experiencing it more over the next few days.

Click here to see more photos from Day One in the Willamette Valley, Oregon.