We just finished a blockbuster week of Pinot in The City organized by the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. WVWA held a full day of trade tastings (70 wineries) and seminars given by Elaine Chukan Brown, Hawk Wakawaka wine reviews and the American wine reviewer for Jancis Robinson. In addition, that same night they held a sold out consumer event. There were ancillary dinners held during the week like Oregon versus the rest of the world at the Beacon Tavern (organized by the awesome wine director Jon McDaniel, Beverage Director and Sommelier for the Gage Hospitality Group).
There has been a lot of comparisons made in the wine media between the Willamette Valley wines to Burgundian wines and sometimes the implication is that the Willamette is another Burgundy. Many French winemakers like Drouhin have moved there as noted in this piece by the blogger PrinceofPinot . However, as Drouhin notes in its tagline, “French Soul but Oregon Soil”, the grapes are grown on the specific soils, subsoils and rocks of the Willamette region which are mostly basalt and marine sediments with subcategories within each which are different than Burgundy so the wines are different and unique to the region. As Elaine demonstrated in her seminar on the Willamette AVAs and subAVAs, the wineries are carving out their authencity and identity on the same values as Burgundy, topography, geography, geology, climate and slopes, all the characteristics that have uniquely differentiated Burgundian wines as documented by the monks since the Middle Ages. Since all these factors are different in Oregon than in Burgundy, the wines taste very uniquely Oregon and in particular Willamette and in particular, the northern Willamette.
I took the Pinot Noir masterclass given by Elaine and it was chock-a-block full of great information on the specifics of the terroir of each of the 6 AVAs, McMinnville, (due to winds, berries are smaller and thicker skins, soils basalt, marine sediment, 200 – 1000ft elevation), Yamhill-Carlton (marine sediment, 200- 1000ft, one of driest), Dundee Hills (eroded, fine-grained basalt, turns into clay, red soils, fine tannins), Ribbon Ridge (nested AVA within Chehalem, lower elevation, hotter, marine sediment), Chehalem Mountains (largest AVA, greatest soil diversity, basalt, marine sediment, loess, really 3 separate neighborhoods, Laurelwood, is in the north nearest to Portland, Parret Mountain and Bald Peak highest peak in Willamette) and then Eola-Amity (has the greatest concentration of vineyards, basalt, marine sediment, direct impact by Van Duzer corridor, persistent wind). Elaine went into further detail on the different soils and subsoils, basalt and marine sediments, the size of the rocks and pebbles, the weather, the impact of the Coastal range and the Van Duzer Corridor, the wind, fog and topography, how the slope changes from AVA to AVA. Rather than going into and repeating what was said in the class, Elaine has written a piece on the sub AVAs of the Willamette on JancisRobinson.com. which encompasses what she said in the class and more. You can get an intro to the piece at wakawakawinereviews.com. I recommend signing up her for email list if you haven’t already.
Here is a video interview she gave to the Linnfield College, Oregon History Wine Archive. This Wine Archive has interviews from all the key figures in the region. This wine archive is an incredible resource for anyone trying to increase their knowledge of Oregon wine and wine in general without having to travel to see the winemaker or pay a fee to take a course. From the looks of the pieces, this is just an incredible gem of information that I have bookmarked and will go back to from time to time, I listed the link at the start of this paragraph.
In the seminar we tasted a comparison of 2011 wines from each AVA. The 2011 vintage was the coldest on record. I listed the wines we tried in the picture above but below are a few of the winemakers whose tables I visited at the grand tasting. My plan to photograph all the winemakers disintegrated right away as the room got so crowded and I start speaking with the winemakers and my enthusiasm about the wines takes away my focus of getting the pictures. I did get pictures of a few of them.
Steve Thomson, Randy Ford, Cristom Vineyards,Eola-Amity AVA, and not poured in the Pinot seminar but instrumental in the development of the Willamette Valley wine Adelsheim Winery. I sat next to Lizzie Adelsheim, who now works for the WVWA, at the Women Winemakers Dinner.
To top off an incredible event that was Pinot in the City, the next night I was very fortunate to have dinner with some pretty awesome, stellar wine ladies of the Willamette.
Lynn Penner-Ash was the first female winemaker hired in Oregon, she went from California in 1988 to Rex Hill Vineyards. She and her husband in 1998 started Penner-Ash while still at Rex Hill, went full-time on Penner-Ash in 2001 and then eventually in 2005 they designed and built a sustainable, gravity-flow winery surrounded by estate vineyards. It was so fun and interesting to hear her stories and descriptions of wine growing directly from her. You can listen directly to her from the Wine Archive library of Linnfield College here. I didn’t capture all the wines we tried at dinner but here are 2 of them below. The lighting of these pictures isn’t great but you get the gist. The 2000 Pinot Noir was still very fresh and the Pas de Nomwhich is a blend of vineyards was really elegant and beautiful.
I ,also, sat next to Annedria Beckham of Beckham Family Vineyards. Their story was pretty incredible. Their winery and estate is located on Parrett Mountain in the Chehalem AVA. Her husband, Andrew is a master ceramicist besides being the winemaker. He crafts these terra-cotta amphorae that the wines are aged in.
We started with this unfiltered, amphora-aged pinot gris that was crisp, bright with notes of apricot and marmalade at the same time. We tried their Estate Pinot Noir which had really nice acidity and black cherry and strawberry notes. Annedria explained how they grow a lot of different grapes on their estate, vermentino, grenache, syrah, viognierand they have recently started to grow riesling.
Finally the third producer at the dinner was Jessica Mozeico of Et Fille Wine, which is located in Yamhill-Carlton. The winery was named after Jessica, whose father started the winery with her in 2003 until his untimely death in a tractor accident last year. We tasted several of Jessica’s wines including this lovely 2014 Pinot Noir.
Among the other wine stars at the table was Bree Boskovwho I did not get to speak to directly but had heard of. She is a MW which as I go down the WSETpath, the further down I go, the more I realize what an Everest the MW certification is. Bree among many wine pursuits is on the Oregon Wine Board. Elaine was at the dinner who is just full of so much knowledge of the region, it just kind of flows out of her. So I was just trying to absorb as much of the conversations as I could, hoping that some of it would stick, it didn’t hurt that we had these complex, elegant wines in our glasses. I think the gals of the WVWA, Morgen McLaughlin, the Executive Director, Lizzie Adelsheim and then Emily Petterson of EKPMedia, are wine stars themselves with their enthusiasm and endless energy of what must have been an exhausting week.
Even though most of these producers are small, family wineries they have tasting rooms if you go out to visit. But as much as these wines can age, they are drinkable now and very approachable and I think will appear on more wine lists as sommeliers see that consumers recognize the wines and like them. The wines are complex and elegant. From the enthusiasm here in Chicago last week, Willamette Valley wines are now sought out wines, look for them on wine lists and the Willamette is a major wine destination now for sommeliers to visit, wine students and just anyone who appreciates beautiful wines.