OREGON'S EMERGING PINOT-SCAPE
Winemakers define success on their own terms
By Cole Danehower, Special to The Chronicle
Forty years ago this spring, David Lett planted the roots of Oregon's Pinot Noir industry when he put the first Pinot vines into the cool-climate earth of the Willamette Valley.
Lett and a handful of other iconoclasts named Erath, Ponzi and Adelsheim created a distinctive winegrowing culture that celebrated both individualism and camaraderie. The community they built has helped the region grow to become one of the world's most respected sources of Pinot Noir wines.
"It's a great and true story that has brought a lot of people to Oregon and helped build the industry," says Bergstrom Wines' Josh Bergstrom, 31, one of the most visible of the state's younger winemakers. "But something is happening in Oregon right now. The winds have changed."
What has changed is growth.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Oregon Field Office, in the 10 years between 1995 and 2005 sales of Oregon wine doubled to nearly 1.6 million cases annually. Vineyard land doubled to more than 14,000 acres, and the number of wineries more than tripled to 300-plus.
Pinot Noir is still the most important grape, but it's rivaled by Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Oregon Wine Center research estimates the economic contribution of the Oregon wine industry is now $1.4 billion.
This dramatic influx of new money, people and market demand has affected the character of Oregon's wine community. What was once a collegial cottage industry that thrived on eccentricity and zeal is rapidly becoming a potent economic force, where success requires coping with unaccustomed issues of competition, marketing, product quality and brand identity.
In the middle of such a fast-changing industry, some young and hard-charging winemakers are achieving marked success -- by being notably, Oregonian-ly, individualistic. Some are chronologically young like Bergstrom, while others are just young to winemaking. What they have in common is that they are working to preserve the best of Oregon's historical wine community character, while at the same time succeeding in the marketplace by doing things their own way.
Bergstrom, for instance, believes the key to success is combining an attention to business detail with a commitment to quality winemaking.
"We started out with a vision statement, a mission statement and a business plan," he says of his family's enterprise. "Our goal from the very beginning has been to craft the greatest possible wines we could, to stay true to our product and story, but to also have a successful growing business that allowed us to continue to do that."
Bergstrom burst onto the scene when his first wine, the 1999 Bergstrom Winery Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, received high scores from influential critics. His wines continue to attract attention, and production has grown from 180 cases in 1999 to an expected 5,000 cases this year.
That's a lot less than Oregon's largest wineries, such as King Estate, Bridgeview and Willamette Valley Vineyards, which produce between 80,000 and 100,000 cases a year.
It's also way below what the now-mature pioneering wineries make today. Erath produces 65,000 cases annually, Adelsheim around 24,000, and the Eyrie Vineyards up to 15,000. But Bergstrom's small volume is typical of Oregon's newer winemakers.
An energetically intense man with a broad smile, Bergstrom takes pride in both his wines' acceptance and his business growth.
"I make wines that suit my palate, but I am also a businessman," he says. "I know what sells and I know what critics like. It's all about putting out a wine that I like and am proud of, yet I know the average American consumer will like, too."
And what kind of wine is that?
"Bergstrom Pinot Noir needs to be just like me," he says with a big grin, "young, opulent, a broad personality, sometimes obnoxious. It needs to make you smile and feel good. It needs to shock you into saying, 'Wow'!"
While Bergstrom finds success with big-boned Pinots, fellow winemaker Scott Wright treads a different stylistic path to the market.
"I have a very specific focus for my product that reflects what I think Oregon Pinot Noir can and should be," he says in a resonant, radio-announcer voice. "My wines are maybe lighter in body, more aromatic, with interesting textures, and driven more by fruit than by oak."
Wright started making wine in 1999, under his Scott Paul Wines label, first in California with fruit from the Pisoni Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation of Monterey County, and then in Oregon. He spent time as managing director of Domaine Drouhin Oregon in Dundee before leaving to manage Scott Paul Wines full-time in 2004.
Without vineyards of his own, Wright has had to forage for fruit.
Having secured long-term contracts with big-name vineyards such as Shea and Stoller, Wright says his key challenge now "is to help our little brand find its way through the traffic." He recognizes that his style may make that more difficult.
"I think the perception is that major critics seem to prefer bigger and more extracted Pinot Noirs. Those are wonderful wines, but it's just a different style than I want to make. My Pinot Noirs are more elegant, feminine -- Audrey Hepburn rather than Pamela Anderson."
Wright seems to have found his like-minded market. This year he's opening his own 3,500-case capacity winery and tasting room, as well as launching a Burgundy import business. And Michael and Isabel Mondavi and their children Rob and Dina have asked Wright to work with them to make an Oregon Pinot Noir for their new I'M label.
Jim Prosser, 43, is another winemaker having an impact with a go-it-alone style. He sees the changing Oregon market as challenging, but thinks the traditional local wine community values point the way to success.
"The beauty of Oregon to date has been that we all work together, stacking strength on top of strength. If you are coming into the industry and your intention and actions move toward increasing the quality of Oregon winemaking, then the community accepts you and you can borrow expertise, equipment -- whatever you need," he says.
A beneficiary of this culture, Prosser worked for some of the state's top wineries, including Erath, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Brick House and Chehalem, before establishing his own J.K. Carriere Wines company in 1999, near Newberg in Yamhill County.
"I make only Pinot,'' he says. "I could live to be 108 and I'd still be learning about this singular grape."
An outdoorsy guy with tousled good looks, Prosser speaks in thoughtful sentences. His 1,500-case production winery is in a century-old barn on a working hazelnut orchard that also houses a modern kinetic sculpture of a Viking "soul boat." His wine label depicts a wasp -- a tribute to the possibly fatal allergic reaction he risks if one stings him during harvest.
"I'm not trying to be like the rest of the pack," he says. "It may not be fashionable to have finesse and subtlety in your Pinot Noir, to have high acidity and smooth tannins, or to age your wines for eight years before you drink them -- but those are things I like, and what I build my wines to achieve."
Another independent Pinot producer is Eric Hamacher of Hamacher Wines, who says, "I believe in the importance of blending in order to achieve balanced wines. Blending shows off the vintage better, and it creates more consistency that consumers can rely on."
In 1995, Hamacher brought to Oregon his U.C. Davis degree and experience working 15 harvests in California at Mondavi, Chalone, Etude and other wineries. Since then, he has been making only Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Fit and energetic, he conveys the sense of a cat ready to spring -- especially if you ask him about Pinot Noir.
"I source fruit from as many as 10 or 12 vineyards because I can get many different lots that have distinct profiles that are characteristic of the vintage. When it comes to making the cut when I'm blending, I'm ruthless. I can leave up to 50 percent behind because I want only the best blend."
He also holds his Pinot Noir in barrel and bottle far longer than the average.
"American society has never really embraced the idea of cellaring -- we drink our wines faster -- and I think that's a shame," he says. Hamacher ages his wine for 18 months in oak (which is always lightly toasted -- carbon is a filter, he says, "so why would you put delicate and aromatic Pinot Noir into a charcoal-lined barrel?"), and then an additional 24 months in glass.
"Oregon Pinot Noir gains succulence, texture and richness in the bottle," he explains. "If it is true that most wines get consumed within 24 hours of purchase, then I want my customers to experience what a mature Oregon Pinot is like when they open my wine."
In essence, Hamacher ages his wines for his customers -- his current Pinot Noir release is from the 2001 vintage.
Other Oregon Pinot makers have a different challenge: making wine that supports a brand someone else owns. For Tony Rynders, that means blending a consistent style of Pinot Noir for Domaine Serene winery, in the Dundee Hills of Yamhill County.
"A lot of people make only single vineyard Pinot Noir every year," he says. "I'm a strong believer that often you need to blend to get the best wine -- not every single vineyard hits the mark every single year."
Rynders, who has an easygoing friendliness combined with incisive intelligence, has been Domaine Serene's winemaker since 1998. His wines have gained national prominence, high ratings, and a reputation for consistency -- something Rynders believes is due as much to Oregon's winegrowing maturation as his own skills.
"If you look over the last eight to 10 years of production, I think Oregon has conquered the last major hurdle to respectability, which is consistency. Not that the wines all taste the same, but that we've dampened the huge swings in quality between vintages." (See "The rise of Oregon's signature flavors" elsewhere on this page.)
Using grapes from a variety of estate vineyards, he keeps individual blocks separate during fermentation and in barrel. From up to 80 lots each vintage, he puts together the winery's flagship wine, the Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir -- a wine that has become emblematic of Oregon Pinot Noir in many parts of the country.
"I want our wines to be reflective of the vintage, but with a Domaine Serene overlay," he says. "I think our wines are very complex, fruit-driven, with good power, a mouth-filling generosity, but also with some elegance."
Diners seem to agree: Domaine Serene is now the fourth most popular Pinot Noir in American restaurants, according to Wine & Spirits magazine.
Also in the Dundee Hills, Melissa Burr, winemaker for Stoller Vineyards, strives for consistency, too, making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay exclusively with estate-grown fruit.
In the early 1990s, local businessman Bill Stoller purchased a 373-acre former turkey farm outside of Dayton, Ore. It was where he had grown up, and he didn't want to see it become condo blocks. In 1995, he began planting a rigorously planned vineyard that quickly became one of Willamette Valley's most important sources of Pinot Noir fruit. In 2001, he started his own label, and earlier this year he opened a 10,000-case capacity winery.
As Stoller's winemaker, Burr, 31, worked closely on the design of the innovative winery to help achieve both wine production quality and eco-friendliness. She is the first person to produce wine in what is today the country's only winery to be awarded LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council at the prestigious Gold level.
"Stoller fruit has always had a uniqueness to it, and I want to showcase that in our wines," she says. "We have a reputation for a trademark earthy and fruity elegance that shines through, so I don't want to disguise it with a lot of oak or too much extraction."
Burr grew up in the Willamette Valley and learned winemaking by working locally. She's relied on the Oregon wine culture to support her.
"The feeling of community and collaboration is wonderful -- it has helped my winemaking," she says.
For Burr, expressing her individuality means bringing out the vineyard's character.
"A lot of us are going after the same target of balanced Pinot Noirs that reflect our vineyards," she says. "I'm not here to do something radical in style. I want consistency of the product at the highest level of quality to show the Stoller uniqueness -- then it's going to be about marketing and placement and just getting the Stoller wine into the minds of the people."
"Getting the wines into the minds of the people" might be a good mantra for today's Oregon Pinot Noir industry.
On the global scale, the state's wine production is just a fraction of California's volume, and the wines tend to be expensive. Oregon's pioneering Pinot producers learned that getting the best quality fruit required costly hand farming and small yields, averaging about 2.5 tons of Pinot Noir fruit to the acre. Consequently, prices for the best Oregon Pinots are relatively high, $25 and up, and availability low, with many releases available only in the hundreds of cases.
But historically, Oregon's Pinot Noir industry has succeeded in attracting market attention much greater than its size -- thanks largely to the individual passion of dedicated winemakers who focused on bringing only the best quality wines to consumers. Even as the Oregon wine industry grows and evolves, that legacy remains in good hands with today's newest generation of Pinot crafters.
Sampling Oregon variety
The 2003 vintage of Pinot Noir from most Oregon producers is currently available on restaurant wine lists and wine shop shelves, with the low-yielding 2004 vintage wines beginning to be released as well.
The Willamette Valley saw one of its warmest growing years ever in 2003, and many of the wines are plump, richly extracted and deeply flavorful, with strong structure. In 2004, the weather was cooler and there was some rain during harvest, but careful picking produced lithe and elegant wines with more acidity, fresh fruitiness, and less tannin than 2003.
Here are some favorites from the featured winemakers:
2004 Bergstrom Winery Cumberland Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($35) Spicy red fruit aromas, supple cherry and blackberry flavors with hints of earth and vanilla, crisp acidity and round tannins make for a stylish Pinot Noir capable of further aging.
2003 Domaine Serene Winery Hill Estate Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($75) Arresting aromas of blackberry, cedar and sweet dried potpourri introduce a layered and viscous palate of earthy black cherry, toasted spices and plush tannins -- worthy of cellaring.
2001 Hamacher Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($35) Earthy and lightly gamey trademark Pinot aromas are balanced against a sweet cherry core of silky, lean and lengthy fruit -- a wine that develops wonderfully in the glass.
2003 J.K. Carriere Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($36) Scents of smoke-ringed cherry and blueberry lead to similar flavor concentration on the tongue, with subtle herb and earth notes adding complexity to the deliciously balanced whole.
2004 Scott Paul Audrey Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($50) Lean and lightly sweet scents of strawberry and raspberry frame graceful yet high-toned flavors of cherry and blueberry with a light toast touch, youthful tannins and a graceful finish.
2004 Stoller JV Estate Grown Pinot Noir ($22) Scents of red fruit and autumn leaves combine with rich black cherry and tea leaf flavors for a well-balanced and satisfying drink-now character.