Category Archives: Oregon wine

60 Second Wine Review — Ponzi Classico Pinot noir

A few quick thoughts on the 2015 Ponzi Classico Pinot noir from the Willamette Valley.

Ponzi Classico Pinot noir

The Geekery

The Ponzis are one of the pioneering families of the modern Oregon wine industry. After moving to the area in the late 1960s, Dick and Nancy Ponzi founded their eponymous vineyard in 1970. They released their first vintage in 1976, a mere 96 cases of 1974 Pinot noir.

Today, their daughters run the estate with Anna Maria Ponzi taking care of the business side of the things and Luisa in charge of the winemaking. Before joining her family’s winery, Luisa Ponzi studied enology in Burgundy with Domaine Roumier and in Piedmont with Vietti.

Since 2000, all of the family’s estate vineyards are sustainable as well as the fruit they get from partner growers.

Outside of wine, the Ponzis also founded Bridgeport Brewing Company in 1984, a key event in Oregon craft brewing. The family no longers owns the brewery, selling it in 1995 to The Gambrinus Company.

The Classico Pinot noir is a blend from Ponzi’s 130 acres and partner growers. The fruit for the 2015 vintage was sourced from the Chehalem Mountains, Yamhill-Carlton and Eola-Amity Hills AVAs with 7000 cases made.

The Wine

Photo By Selena N. B. H. from Fayetteville, USA - English Westminster Uploaded by JohnnyMrNinja, CC BY 2.0,

One of my favorite notes in Oregon Pinots.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very red fruit dominant (cherries and raspberries) with floral undertones. A little air brings out more savory herbal notes and my catnip for Oregon Pinots–black tea.

On the palate, the red fruits carry through but taste richer and weightier with a medium-plus body. Moderate oak introduces some baking spices and a creamy vanilla mouthfeel. Medium-plus acidity keeps the fruit feeling fresh and balanced with ripe medium tannins. Long finish brings back the floral and tea notes.

The Verdict

At $36-43, this is a very delicious Oregon Pinot that’s rather underpriced. I can easily see this bottle fetching $50-60 labeled as a single AVA if it had qualified. However, being a blend saddles it with the more generic “Willamette Valley” appellation.

It certainly doesn’t taste like a generic wine and is well-worth snapping up.

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Joe Wagner vs the Oregon Volcano

Joe Wagner, with his Copper Cane Wines & Provision, has been one of the most successful wine producers of the 21st century. But that fame and success doesn’t shield him from the ire of lawmakers and Oregon wineries who feel he has been playing fast and loose with state and federal wine labeling laws.

Joe Wagner's Elouan

These producers, led by Jim Bernau of Willamette Valley Vineyards, believe that Wagner’s wine labels confuse consumers and devalue the branding of Oregon. Wagner contends that he is being truthful about where the grapes are coming from and that his wines bring Oregon to the attention of more drinkers.

While the legal aspects of labeling will be debated and hashed out by government agencies (with so far Wagner and his labels losing the battle), I wanted to investigate the idea of whether Wagner’s wines help or hurt the image of the Oregon wine industry among consumers. To test that, I held a blind tasting featuring the offending Wagner wines against more traditional Oregon Pinot noirs.

I wanted to see if Wagner’s wines stood out and if there’s smoke behind this controversy erupting in Oregon.

The Background

Joe Wagner started his winemaking career with the establishment of Belle Glos in 2001. Focusing on vineyard designated Pinot noirs, Wagner was inspired by the wines of Kosta Browne and soon built Belle Glos into a 100,000 case production. In 2006, he introduced Meiomi–a unique Pinot noir with Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and sometimes Grenache blended in.

By 2015, Meiomi was selling more than half a million cases a year. Wagner cashed in that success by selling the brand to Constellation Brands for $315 million. That sale allowed him to focus on his other brands–including Elouan which was founded in 2014 to highlight Oregon Pinot noir.

The Controversy and Current Rules for Oregon Wines

Elouan Reserve labeled as from the Rogue Valley.

Wagner makes all his Oregon wines (Elouan and the Willametter Journal) in California–primarily at Copper Cane’s Rutherford winery.  In interviews, Wagner has stated his reasoning for trucking the grapes down to California was to maintain quality control.

Compared to federal standards, the rules for labeling wines in Oregon are more restrictive. For instance, to have a wine varietally labeled from Oregon, it must be at least 90% of the stated variety. Federal laws only mandate 75%.

To list an AVA on an Oregon wine, it must contain at least 95% of fruit sourced from that AVA. Crucially, the wine must also be produced solely within the state of Oregon. While the federal standard for AVA designation is only 85%, like Oregon, Federal laws also dictate that a wine using an AVA needs to be “fully finished” in the state containing the AVA. However, it does allow wines to be finished in adjacent states if it labeled under a more generic state designation such as “Oregon”.

While the basic Elouan has Oregon listed as it designation, the reserve wine uses the Rogue Valley AVA. With the wine being “fully finished” in California, this does seem to be a clear violation of labeling usage. Likewise, the case packaging of Elouan makes reference to the Willamette Valley, Rogue and Umpqua Valley. For the Willametter Journal, the grape source is listed as the “Territory of Oregon” which is a fanciful term not currently recognized as an approved AVA. Additionally, Willamette is prominently highlighted in red ink on the label as if it was an AVA designation.

Mega Purple — Mega Illegal In Oregon

The Willametter Journal has the word “Willamette” highlighted on the label in bright red.

Another unique aspect of Oregon wine law noted by Jim Bernau, is the use of additives like Mega Purple, Ultra Red, Purple 8000 and Red 8000. These are illegal in Oregon since they are based on teinturier grapes like Rubired that are not currently grown at all in the state. Essentially, the law views the use of these color and mouthfeel enhancing additives as illegally blending in grapes grown elsewhere.

Wagner and Copper Cane’s representatives have denied using these additives. However, there is wide spread belief in the industry that they are used frequently in California–particularly for inexpensive Pinot noirs.

The Big Questions

In setting up the blind tasting, I wanted to look at three focus points that I’d hope would answer the overarching question of whether Wagner’s wines help or hurt the branding of the Oregon wine industry.

1.) Does Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines stand out when compared to other, more “traditional” Oregon producers?

2.) If his wines do stand out, is this because of a signature winemaking style that overwhelms terroir? While we can’t prove if he is blending in other grape varieties (like he did with Meiomi) or using additives such as Mega Purple, a strong winemaking signature could give credence to the idea that his wines may “confuse” consumers about what Oregon Pinot noirs usually taste like.

3.) And finally, when compared side by side, what wines do people enjoy drinking?

The Tasting Format and Participants

Several of the folks who graciously offered their palates for the blind tasting.

To help with answering questions #2 and #3, I included 3 of Joe Wagner’s California wines in the lineup to go along with the 3 offending Oregon wines. While not part of the controversy, I thought the inclusion of Wagner’s popular California Pinot noirs could shed light on if he has a signature winemaking style that his Oregon wines would also demonstrate.

The Wagner Wines

2017 The Willametter Journal Oregon
2016 Elouan Oregon
2015 Elouan Reserve Rogue Valley
2014 Belle Glos Diaryman Russian River Valley
2016 BÖEN Santa Maria Valley
2016 Tuli Sonoma County

Included in the tasting were 15 Oregon wines from other producers. Additionally, there was 1 wine from British Columbia–the 2016 Quill from Blue Grouse Estate–that a guest brought. While originally I wanted to limit this to just Wagner and Oregon wines, I thought the Quill could serve as an interesting control. Would it be pegged as an “outsider” or “Wagner wine”? Or would it slipped in seamlessly with the Oregon wines. If so, that could indicate that perhaps the distinctiveness of Oregon wines are not as clear cut.

Oregon wines featured:

2016 Erath Oregon
2016 Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster
2015 Domaine Loubejac Selection de Barriques
2015 Citation, Willamette Valley
2014 Domaine Drouhin, Dundee Hills
2016 Stoller Estate Reserve
2013 Patton Valley Vineyards West Block
2014 Welsh Family Wines Bjornson Vineyards, Eola-Amity Hills
2011 Siltstone Guadalupe Vineyard, Dundee Hills
2016 Marshall Davis, Yamhill Carlton
2014 Noel Vineyard, Willamette Valley
2012 Colene Clemens Margo
2016 Ayoub Pinot Noir Memoirs Dundee Hills
2012 Cristom Pinot Noir Mt. Jefferson Cuvée Willamette Valley
2009 Coelho Winery Pinot Noir Paciência Willamette Valley

The wines were all served blind with only myself knowing the identities. Since some of the Wagner wines like the Belle Glos and Elouan Reserve had visible wax capsules, I placed those wines along with random Oregon bottles in one of 8 different decanters.

While there was a handful of industry folks from the retail side, the vast majority of the participants were regular wine consumers.

The Results

More traditional Oregon wines like the Stoller Reserve, Patton Valley West Block and Marshall Davis were the runaway favorites of the tasting.

During the tasting, many participants began noticing a trend of some wines being noticeably darker and fruitier–especially compared to other wines. A couple wines even stained glasses in ways that usually aren’t expected of Pinot noir.

The conversation emerged that in order to “Pin the tail on the Wagner”, one needed to look for the least “Pinot-like” wines of the bunch. This would turn out to be a worthwhile strategy that several tasters adopted.

After the tasting I asked the participants to first pick out their favorite bottles. The results were overwhelming for Oregon with the 2016 Stoller Estate Reserve, 2016 Marshall Davis and 2013 Patton Valley West Block getting multiple votes. The BC wine, the Quill, also got some votes as a favorite with many tasters thinking it was an Oregon wine from areas like McMinnville.

But the surprise of the favorite reveal was the inclusion of one of the controversial Oregon Wagner wines–the 2017 Willametter Journal. While the wine was more lush than the others, tasters compared it favorably to warm vintage Oregon Pinot noirs from AVAs like Ribbon Ridge and Eola-Amity Hills.

Pin the Tail on the Wagners

With the Willametter Journal already revealed, the quest then moved to see if the tasters could identify the 5 remaining Wagner wines. It should be noted that several participants had the Willametter Journal pegged as a Wagner.

Voting on what was a Wagner wine.

In the end, the tasters identified all but one Wagner wine blind. The 2015 Elouan Reserve Rogue Valley was the most obvious Wagner. It was near unanimously picked as being the least “Pinot noir-like” wine in the entire tasting. Several tasting notes alluded to a “root beer soda-like” quality and compared it to other grapes like Syrah and Zinfandel.

The only Wagner wine to escape detection was the 2016 BÖEN Santa Maria Valley. This one reminded a few tasters of Oregon wines from areas like Dundee and the Eola-Amity Hills.

Most surprising of all were two Oregon wines that were pegged by multiple tasters as Wagner wines–the 2016 Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster made by Jim Bernau and the 2015 Citation made by Howard Rossbach who founded Firesteed Cellars. The 2016 Erath Oregon also got some votes for being a “Wagner wine” as well.

Takeaways

Both the Citation and Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster were popular picks as Wagner wines.

For the most part, Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines stood out and tasted noticeably different compared to other Oregon Pinot noirs.

However, it is extremely interesting that the best selling Oregon wines (at least from a volume perspective)–the Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster and Erath–struck so many tasters as potentially being Wagners. While we didn’t have a bottle of Firesteed Cellars (recently sold to Vintage Wine Estates in 2017) in the tasting, the identification of Rossbach’s Citation as a potential Wagner goes along with that trend.

Together, those three wines (WVV, Erath and Firesteed) dominate restaurant wine lists and supermarket retail for Oregon wines. They’re popular wines that appeal to many consumers’ palates.

Likewise, Joe Wagner has built his success on producing wines that strike a cord with consumers–especially at restaurants and supermarket retail. While his style is distinctive, it is a style that sells. It’s also very telling that the Willametter Journal, one of the wines at the heart of the controversy, was selected as a favorite even as it was noted for being very different from the other Oregon wines.

However, overall, the Willametter Journal was an outlier. While wines like Stoller, Patton Valley and Marshall Davis might not sell at the volume of Wagner’s wines (or WVV, Erath and Firesteed for that matter), when tasted side by side–the vast majority of tasters went towards these more traditional-style Oregon Pinots.

Help or Hurt?

The Erath Oregon Pinot noir, now own by Ste Michelle Wine Estates, is made in a style that reminded quite a few tasters of Joe Wagner’s wines.

Now to the question of whether Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines help or hurt the image of Oregon wines among consumers.

The results are a mix-bag.

Does his wines represent Oregon? Definitely not at the top tier.

But at the entry-level? That’s a hazier question.

It’s hard to make the argument that Wagner’s “hurting” Oregon when many of the most popular Oregon wines seem to appeal to the same palate his wines do. These wineries (like Willamette Valley Vineyards, Erath and Citation/Firesteed) may not be using the same techniques as Wagner but, whatever they are doing, they’re making easy-drinking and crowd pleasing wines that hit the same notes as Joe Wagner’s wines.

While I’m sure there are a few Oregon wine producers who would like to throw Joe Wagner into a volcano, I don’t think we can dismiss the likelihood that his wines (or similarly styled Pinots) will be the tipple of choice at the luau.

Regardless of how they’re labelled.

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60 Second Wine Review — Erath Pinot noir Rosé

A few quick thoughts on the 2017 Erath Pinot noir rosé from Oregon.

The Geekery

Erath Pinot noir rose wine

Dick Erath founded his eponymous winery in 1968 with the purchase of vineyard land in the Chehalem Mountains. Sourcing fruit from the Dundee Hills as well, he released his first 216 cases of commercial wine in 1972.

An engineer by training, Kenneth Friedenreich notes in Oregon Wine Country Stories that it was the “left to right brain relay” of winemaking that appealed to Erath. Planting dozens of different grape varieties to see what would grow in the nascent Willamette soils, Erath found he could test and experiment while indulging in the creativity of wine production.

In 2006, Erath sold the winery to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates where today it is part of a portfolio of brands that includes 14 Hands, Columbia Crest, Red Diamond, Snoqualmie and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars among many others.

The current winemaker for Erath is Gary Horner who previously worked at Bethel Heights, Witness Tree Vineyard, Washington Hills Cellars (now part of Precept), Avatar Partners in Napa Valley and Benton-Lane Winery before joining Erath in 2003.

The 2017 Pinot noir rosé is 100% Pinot noir from fruit sourced throughout the state. The wine was made using the short maceration method of brief skin contact with 16,600 cases produced.

The Wine

Photo by Picasa 2.0 AutoCCD . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.5

Simple strawberry notes characterize this wine.

Medium intensity nose. A mix of red strawberry fruit, white peach and vague floral notes. A little sweet smelling.

However, on the palate the rosé comes across as dry with medium-plus acidity. Light bodied fruit carries through more strawberry than the peach. Short finish ends on the fruit.

The Verdict

At $12-15, this Pinot noir rosé is decent but definitely not anything that would particularly wow you. It’s best role was probably as a simple summer time patio sipper.

However, as we enter the cooler fall and winter seasons where rosés need more “umph” of depth to hold up to heartier food pairings, I fret that this Erath may be too light to get the job done.

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Getting Geeky with Welsh Family Wines Blaufränkisch

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this 2016 Welsh Family Wines Blaufränkisch from Dauenhauer Farms in the Willamette Valley.

Full Disclosure: This wine was received as a sample. I also went to winemaking school with Dan Welsh of Welsh Family Wines at the Northwest Wine Academy.

The Background

Welsh Family Blaufränkisch wine

Dan Welsh and his wife, Wendy Davis, started Welsh Family Wines in 2014. A protege of Peter Bos from the Northwest Wine Academy, Welsh utilizes native yeast fermentation and minimalist winemaking to produce food-friendly wines.

Sourcing fruit from dry-farmed vineyards throughout the Willamette Valley, Welsh makes single vineyard designate wines from Armstrong Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, Bjornson Vineyard and Eola Springs Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills, Dell’Uccello Vineyard near Eugene as well as Dauenhauer Farms in Yamhill County.

The wines are made at the SE Wine Collective in Portland. Here Welsh Family Wines shares space and a tasting room with several other urban wineries such as Esper Cellars, Laelaps Wines, Stedt Winegrowers and Statera Cellars. Alumni wineries like Fullerton Wines, Vincent Wine Company and Bow & Arrow started out as part of the SE Wine Collective before moving on to their own facilities.

The 2016 vintage was the first release of Welsh’s Blaufränkisch from 30+ year old vines planted at Dauenhauer Farms. Multi-generation farmers, the Dauenhauers also produce a Lemberger/Blaufränkisch under their Hauer of the Dauen (Hour of the Dawn) label.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that several grape varieties have been known as “Fränkisch” since the Middle Ages. Distinct from Heunisch grapes believed to have originated from Hungary, these Fränkisch varieties were thought to be more noble grapes associated with wines of the Franconia region.

Photo by Ulrich Prokop. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Blaufränkisch grapes growing in Germany.

The first written record of the name Blaufränkisch dates back to 1862 when the grape was presented at a exposition in Vienna. Later that century, the grape appeared in Germany under the synonyms Lemberger and Limberger. Both names seem to have Austrian origins and may indicate the villages where the grape was commonly associated with–Sankt Magdalena am Lemberg in Styria and Limburg (now part of Maissau) in Lower Austria.

DNA evidence has shown that Blaufränkisch has a parent-offspring relationship with the Heunisch grape Gouais blanc. It also crossed with Gouais blanc to produce Gamay noir. This suggests that the grape may have originated somewhere between Austria and Hungary though Dalmatia (in modern-day Croatia) is also a possibility. Here the grape is known as Borgonja (meaning Bourgogne) and Frankovka. However, the identification of these Croatian plantings with Blaufränkisch was only recently discovered so the grape’s history in this region is not fully known.

Beyond Gamay noir, Blaufränkisch has also sired several other varieties such as Zweigelt (with St. Laurent), Blauburger and Heroldrebe (with Blauer Portugieser), Cabernet Cubin and Cabernet Mitos (with Cabernet Sauvignon) and Acolon (with Dornfelder).

Blaufränkisch in Europe.
Photo by qwesy qwesy. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Lemberger vines growing in Württemberg, Germany.

In Austria, Blaufränkisch is the second most widely planted red grape variety after its offspring Zweigelt with 3,340 ha (8,250 acres) as of 2008. Covering 6% of Austria’s vineyards, most of these plantings are found in the Burgenland region.

Most German examples of Lemberger/Limberger are found in Württemberg (part of the historic Franconia region). There were 1,729 ha (4,272 acres) of the grape planted in Germany as of 2009.

The 8000 ha (19,770 acres) of Hungarian Kékfrankos, the local translation of “Blue Frank”, are scattered throughout the country. Sopron, bordering Austria, is particularly well known for the grape as well as Kunság. In Eger, Kékfrankos is a primary grape in the region’s famous “Bull’s Blood” wine of Egri Bikavér.

Prior to the discovery of Borgonja as Blaufränkisch, Croatian plantings of Frankovka accounted for 2.7% of the country’s vineyard.

Blaufränkisch in the US.

Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines and Wineries that Dr. Walter Clore pioneered planting of Lemberger in Washington State in the 1960s and 1970s. Sourced from cuttings in British Columbia, Clore thought the grape had the potential to be Washington’s answer to California Zinfandel.

Photo source https://cahnrs.wsu.edu/blog/2007/04/a-brief-history-of-washington-wine-walter-clore-washington-wine-history-part-1/

Dr. Walter Clore, the “Father of Washington Wine” and pioneer of Lemberger in the state. Photo courtesy of WSU’s A Brief History of Washington Wine.

In those early years, the grape was mostly used in blends and port-style wines. Kiona Vineyards released the first commercial example of Lemberger in the United States in 1980. Under Clore’s influence, Thomas Pinney notes in “A History of Wine in America, Volume 2”, the grape became something of a “Washington specialty”.

While consulting for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ Columbia Crest winery, California winemaker Jed Steele discovered Washington Lemberger. He eventually partnered with the winery to make his Shooting Star Blue Franc.

Lemberger hit a high point of popularity with 230 acres in 2002. But in recent years the variety has seen a steep decline with only 54 acres in production as of 2017. Today, some of the oldest plantings are found on Red Mountain at Kiona and Ciel du Cheval.

In Oregon, there is not enough plantings of Lemberger/Blaufränkisch to merit inclusion on the state’s acreage report. Outside of the Pacific Northwest there are some plantings in Lodi, New Mexico, New York, Michigan and Ohio.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. A mix of red fruits–cherries and raspberry–with floral notes like carnations. With air some forest floor earthiness comes out. Little to no oak influence except for maybe some slight allspice baking notes.

On the palate, those red fruits carry through and are amplified with high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The acidity also brings out black pepper spice and makes the forest floor earthiness seem more fresh. Soft medium tannins balance the medium-minus body weight of the wine very well. The moderate finish lingers on the red fruit.

The Verdict

Photo by Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Lots of juicy red cherry notes in this wine.

This is a very Pinot noir-like Blaufränkisch that is very different from the Washington Lembergers I’m familiar with from Kiona and Alexandria Nicole. Those wines tend to have a much bigger body with dark blackberry fruit and more noticeable oak influences.

The lightness of the body, ample acidity and spice notes are certainly closer to Austrian examples of the grape. Though the fruit in Austrian Blaufränkisch tends to be more on the black fruit side of the spectrum than this very red-fruited Oregon wine.

As this was my very first Oregon Blaufränkisch, I can’t say if this is typical of how the grape responds to Oregon terroir. My gut is that it is because the Pinot comparisons are inescapable.

The best way to describe this wine would be if an “old school” Oregon Pinot noir (like Rollin Soles’ ROCO) and a Cru Beaujolais (like a Côte de Brouilly) had a baby.

While it is enjoyable on its own (especially if served slightly chilled on a warm day), the best place for this wine is on the table with food. Here its mouthwatering acidity and interplay of fruit & spice can shine with a wide assortment of dishes. At $20, this would be a terrific bottle to think about for Thanksgiving.

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Book Review — Oregon Wine Country Stories

Even though it is still Washington Wine Month, I wanted to take a detour down south to review a book I first started reading back in May during Oregon Wine Month — Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape by Kenneth Friedenreich.

I first came across Oregon Wine Country Stories while scouting out new wine books to read for the March 15th edition of Geek Notes. At the time I was looking for the Oregon wine equivalent of Paul Gregutt’s Washington Wines and Wineries and I was wondering if Friedenreich’s book would fill in that sorely needed gap on my book shelf.

It turned out to be quite different from what I expected.

While titled Oregon Wine Country Stories, in many ways this book actually is about one story–the story of our personal relationship with wine and the taste memories we create with each sip. To Friedenreich, wine is “a kind of communion for which no prayers are mandatory” and through a backdrop of anecdotes and observations about the growth of and future of the Oregon wine industry, he invites the reader to listen to the stories that can be found in their own glass.

Overview

A native New Yorker, Friedenreich’s peppers Oregon Wine Country Stories with details of his own journey with wine that included more than 30 years in California before finally settling at home in Oregon where he write frequent columns for California Homes Magazine in between frequenting local wineries with his good friend Doc Wilson–the longtime sommelier for Jake’s Famous Crawfish in Portland, Oregon and the “Kevin Bacon of Oregon Wine”.

Photo by dewet. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

And wine trains.

I got the first inkling that Oregon Wine Country Stories wasn’t going to be your typical wine reference book while reading the Prologue where Friedenreich shared some of his experiences with the booming California wine industry during the 1970s and 1980s that included time working as a writer for Orange County Magazine covering the Premier Napa Valley Wine Auction. That chapter takes on a mournful tone as Friedenreich describes a return visit in 2008 to find the Napa Valley he once knew was now a parade of weddings, hot air balloons, tour buses, sky high bottle prices and people with more money then what they know how to spend.

Circling back to Oregon, he notes that “If Napa has become Babylon, Willamette and beyond still have intimations of Eden and the pastoral. Get to it before it goes away.”

That call to enjoy and take in what the still young Oregon wine industry bequeaths is a frequent narrative throughout the book as Friedenreich intersperses stories about pioneering Oregon figures such as Richard Sommer of HillCrest Vineyards, David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards, Jim Maresh of Maresh Vineyard, Dick Erath of Erath Winery, Harry Peterson Nedry of Chehalem Winery, Dick & Nancy Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards and others in between commentary on some of the ills that he felt befell Napa and the wine industry in general–from the failed experiment of Prohibition to the modern ills of pandering to critic scores or not having a succession plan in place to guide succeeding generations as they take over from the founding families.

Photo by Ponzi Vineyards Collection. Jerald R. Nicholson Library. Linfield College, McMinnville, Oregon. Donated by Dick and Nancy Ponzi, 2012.. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0 with OTRS permission

Dick and Nancy Ponzi barrel sampling wines in the 1970s.

But perhaps the biggest ill that threatens Oregon or really any wine region’s Eden is the apathy of wine drinkers towards the stories that are in their glass. To answer this affliction, Friedenreich dedicates several chapters towards coaxing the reader into thinking more deeply about the “historical memory” of wine, the stories behind each vintage year (Chapters 3 & 4) and the act of actively engaging with the wine (Chapters 10 through 13).

In Chapter 6, he turns the microscope on the words we use when speaking about wine, encouraging us to favor meaning over jargon. To Friedenreich, flowery prose in tasting notes are meaningless when the bigger lesson is about trusting your self–your own palate and your own response to the wine.

Some Things I Learned

Even though I would certainly characterize Oregon Wine Country Stories as more commentary verses a wine reference book, I nonetheless learned quite a bit–especially in Chapter 7 which is the most Oregon-centric chapter of the book and covers the 18 AVAs of Oregon.

I found myself particularly fascinated with the southern Oregon AVAs like the Umpqua Valley (approved in 1984), Applegate Valley (2000), Rogue Valley (2005), Red Hills Douglas County (2005) and Elkton (2013) because of the vast diversity of varieties they grow beyond just Pinot noir, Pinot gris and Chardonnay. While those grapes are undoubtedly stars in the state, my taste buds water with excitement for the potential of Oregon Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Viognier and more.

Photo take by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as user:agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

A lot of wine drinkers want to dismiss the cool 2011 vintage but there were plenty of delicious wines produced that year by wineries that heeded the lessons learned from troublesome vintages in the past.
One of the stand out producers in that vintage, in my opinion, was Bethel Heights owned by the Casteel family in the Eola-Amity Hills.

While I was familiar with the story of Richard Sommer and his first Pinot noir vineyard at HillCrest, it was fun to learn that Honeywood Winery actually predated HillCrest by almost 30 years as a pioneer in Oregon wine. Originally founded as Columbia Distilleries in 1934, shortly after the end of Prohibition, they are the holders of bonded winery license no. 26–the lowest number currently in the state–and are a specialist in fruit wine production.

Doc Wilson contributes a chapter titled “The Conscience of the Calendar” (Chapter 5) where he highlights the role that vintages have played in Oregon’s wine history–from the pivotal early 1980s vintages of 1983 and 1985 to the difficult but quality producing years of 1998, 2002 and 2003 which taught Oregon winemakers several valuable lessons that paid off during the excessively hot vintages of 2006 & 2009 and the very cold and late ripening 2011 vintage.

New Reading Recommendations I Got From This Book

I’ll admit that sometimes I get too “wine-centric” with my head buried deep into wine books and my ears filled with the siren songs of podcasts. But one of the things that charmed me the most about Friedenreich’s book is that it continually pointed me to a world outside of wine that was still tangentially connected.

A big takeaway that I got from this book is that if you wish to taste the world of wine in your glass then you should have more than just a passing familiarity with the world around you. It’s no surprise that instead of the usual roll call of wine books, the bibliography of Oregon Wine Country Stories is rich with literary and history narratives that are worth adding to my reading list.

C.S. Lewis’ Studies in Words — For Friedenreich tasting wine is more than just about scribbling notes and evaluating bouquet or acidity. You can see a lot of Lewis’ influence in his argument that the meaning and the “taste memories” formed from that glass of wine merits being described with words that resonant with the drinker instead of just a pithy tasting note.

Kevin Starr’s California: A History — A strong thread throughout Oregon Wine Country Stories is Friedenreich’s cautionary tale of some of the pratfalls and bumps that the have befallen the California wine industry in its history and his earnest desire to see the winemaking families of Oregon avoid a similar fate. To understand those bumps one needs to understand the make up and mettle of the people of California itself with Friedenreich encouraging readers to check out the work of the late Californian state historian that includes Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era and Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California

Ellen Hawkes’ Blood and Wine — One of the few explicitly wine-related books that Friedenreich name drops (along with the Kladstrup’s Wine and War which I already own) is a history of the rise of Gallo’s empire.

Final Thoughts

An enduring lesson from Oregon Wine Country Stories is the need for balance–not just in the wine but also in our approach to it.

Kenneth Friedenreich’s Oregon Wine Country Stories is not your typical wine book and I must confess that it took me a second reading before I really “got it”. That is partly because of the many different tangents and perspectives that Friedenreich weaves throughout but also because of my own inclination to sometimes miss the forest through the trees when it comes to wine.

My light bulb moments with this book came in Chapter 18 (A Postcard from Oenotria) and particularly Chapter 19 (Everything Wears Down) when I came across the line “Wine knowledge is a goal post or target constantly on the move.”

That got me wondering if all I’ve been doing lately is constantly chasing goal posts? Have I’ve gotten so wrapped up in “geeking” and eagerly trying to learn as much as I can about terroir and chemistry, vintages and viticulture that I’ve grown deaf to hearing the stories in my glass? How much worth is it if I fill my head with facts and figures but lose the heart that caused me to fall in love with wine in the first place?

It is ultimately that call to get back to the glass that is the thread which ties Friedenreich’s work together and it is a unique journey that different readers will react to differently. Like me, I’m sure there will be many readers who pick up Oregon Wine Country Stories with expectations of it being a reference or buying guide on the wines of Oregon only to end up discovering that is not quite the case.

My best advice for someone diving into Oregon Wine Country Stories is to heed the advice that Friedenreich gives in his Epilogue to “Allow the story in the wine a chance to unfold…”.

Likewise if you allow Friedenreich’s Oregon Wine Country Stories a chance to unfold, you will find plenty in the glass.

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Celebrating Oregon Wine Month at Vino Volo

It seems only fitting as I sit at the airport getting ready to board a flight for my trip to the Pinot noir homeland of Burgundy that I indulge in a little Oregon Pinot action at one of my favorite travel haunts–Vino Volo.

While the small bites and wine are a bit overpriced (even by airport standards), there is no better selection of by the glass wines and tasting flight at the airport. Plus with comfy chairs and plenty of plugs to charge the phone, it’s a must stop for me on every trip.

Today I found the SeaTac location offering a “Northwest Noirs” flight of 3 Willamette Valley Pinot noirs for $19. On the menu, the 2015 J. Christopher Volcanique ($18 glass pour/ $30 Wine Searcher Average) was listed but when the flight was brought out, I discovered that instead I was given the 2014 Ken Wright Cellars Willamette Valley. While I enjoy Ken Wright’s wines, I must confessed that I was slightly disappointed not to have a chance to geek out comparing the volcanic soil grown J. Christopher with the marine sediment grown Andrew Rich. But c’est la vie.

The Wines

2015 Stoller Family Estate Reserve Pinot noir, Dundee Hills ($20 glass pour, $56 a bottle at Vino Volo/ $36 Wine Searcher Average)

The Geekery

Stoller was founded in 2001 by Bill Stoller on property that he purchased from his cousin in the Dundee Hills in 1993. Stoller, who was already co-owner in Chehalem Winery with Harry Peterson-Nedry, was born on the property and began converting his childhood home from a turkey farm to plantings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay.

The first vintage of Stoller was released in 2001 with the help of Peterson-Nedry and soon under the winemaking of Melissa Burr would earn critical acclaim–including being named Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year in 2014. Today with 190 acres planted, it is home to the largest contiguous vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA.

The Vino Volo tasting flight. The notes are nice but I often find myself disagreeing with them.

In 2018, Stoller assumed complete control of Chehalem Winery but both estates will continue to be operated as separate entities.

Stoller practices sustainable viticulture on all its estate vineyards and was the world’s first LEED Gold Certified winery in 2006.

The Wine
Medium-plus intensity nose. Very inviting black cherry and fresh rose petals. With some air, a little baking spice of cinnamon and allspice come out but the fruit and floral notes dominant.

On the palate, those cherries notes come through but seem more red and juicy than the black cherry notes on the nose. The ample medium-plus acidity is exceptionally well balanced with the fruit and ripe medium tannins. Very savory and mouthwatering with the spices coming out more for the long finish.

The Verdict

This is very well made and scrumptious Pinot noir that is showing well now but will only continue to develop layers and depth with some bottle age. It’s well worth the $36 retail average but would still deliver plenty of pleasure to merit a $56 restaurant mark up price.

2014 Andrew Rich Marine Sedimentary Pinot noir Willamette Valley ($23 glass pour, $67 a bottle/ $42 Wine Searcher Average)

The Geekery

Andrew Rich was founded in 1994 when Andrew Rich, a protege of Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon, arrived in the Willamette Valley with the goal of producing cool-climate Rhone varieties. Finding limited supply, he drew on his experience studying viticulture in Burgundy to produce Pinot noir in his early vintages while sourcing Rhone fruit from Washington State.

Today he produces around 6000 cases a year (about 1/3 Pinot) at the Carlton Winemakers Studio.

Unfortunately his website doesn’t include tech notes for the 2014 Marine Sedimentary but looking at notes from previous vintages of his Pinot noirs, he sources from several vineyards with this soil type including Beacon Hill in the Yamhill Carlton AVA and Greyhorse in McMinnville AVA.

The Wine

Medium-minus intensity nose. Faint red cherry and raspberry with a rosemary herbal element. Some air brings out a little more of the floral herbal element (akin to Provençal garrigue) but overall this is a rather shy nose.

There is a tad more life on the palate with the red fruit notes making their presence felt with medium-bodied weight and enough medium-plus acidity to be fresh without straying to tart. The Vino Volo tasting notes suggest blackberries and blackcurrants but there is no trace of dark fruit in this glass. Medium tannins are softer than the Stoller but overall contribute to the thin and light profile of this Pinot noir. Moderate finish lingers on the red fruits with the subtle floral herbs sadly fading.

The Verdict

The only thing “Rich” about this wine was the name.

I fret that this Pinot noir needed a better food pairing than the meat and cheese plate I was having it with. The acidity and herbal notes in particular have me wandering how well it would have done with a mushroom risotto. Though the lightness of the wine may have been overwhelmed by that hearty dish.

That said, it’s hard to find this wine being a compelling value apart from its inclusion in a smashing food pairing. Especially compared to the Stoller and Ken Wright which regularly retail for less.

2014 Ken Wright Pinot noir Willamette Valley (No glass pour list, $47 a bottle at Vino Volo/ $28 Wine Searcher Average

The Geekery

Ken Wright is a native of Bourbon County, Kentucky who went to California to study winemaking and spent years working in Monterey County at wineries like Ventana, Chalone and Talbott Vineyards before moving to Oregon in 1986.

He founded Panther Creek winery that year before eventually selling the winery to Ron and Linda Kaplan in 1994 to open up his eponymous winery in Carlton, Oregon.

Ken Wright Cellars specializes in

vineyard-designated wines with the winery working with over 13 different vineyards. In 2006, Wright’s work with highlighting the different terroirs of the Willamette Valley was influential in the establishment of several sub-AVAs including the Yamhill-Carlton District AVA.

The Willamette Valley Pinot is the “baby brother” of the family and is sourced from several of the vineyards that Ken Wright uses for their vineyard designated line-up which includes such notable names as the Abbott Claim Vineyard and Shea Vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton, Bryce Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, Canary Hill Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills as well as the Freedom Hill and Guadalupe Vineyard in the greater Willamette Valley.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. The Vino Volo notes did hit it right with strawberries. This wine does smell like a basket of strawberries with some cola spice.

On the palate those strawberry notes carry through but are joined by some rich tasting Rainier cherries. The cola spice is still present but has a black tea element that is highlighted by the wine’s phenolic texture and slight bitterness. It’s not off-putting in the slightest but has me wondering what percentage of stems and whole clusters were used in the fermentation. Medium acidity and medium-plus tannins give this wine a lot of weight on the palate, making it feel much heavier than the other two. Moderate finish lingers on the red fruits and black tea notes.

The Verdict

Considering that most of Ken Wright’s vineyard-designated wines run in the $55-65 range, it’s hard not to be impressed with the value of this wine at under $30 retail. While not as much of a complete package as the Stoller, it is still very well-made with lots of layers that would be worth savoring over a few glasses.

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60 Second Wine Review — Ayoub Blanc de Noir

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Ayoub Blanc de Noir Pinot noir from the Dundee Hills.

The Geekery

Ayoub Wines was founded in 2001 when Mo Ayoub planted 4 acres of vines in the Dundee Hills. The first few vintages of Ayoub were made by Josh Bergström at the Bergström Winery until space was finished at Ayoub’s home to accommodate production.

Winemaking was turned over to former Stags’ Leap Winery winemaker Robert Brittan (who also makes the wines for Winderlea) and eventually production was expanded from 400 cases a year to around 2000 cases.

The estate vineyard is planted to 5 clones of Pinot noir–667, 777,114, 115, 04. The Blanc de Noir (white Pinot noir) is made by harvesting the red Pinot noir grapes and quickly pressing them to avoid skin contact and color maceration. This style is becoming more common in Oregon with several producers experimenting with different methods (such as harvesting and pressing like Champagne grapes to vin gris production).

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose with an intriguing mix of ripe white peach and red plum notes. Very rich and fleshy aromatics with some subtle oak baking spices in the background.

On the palate those rich fruit flavors carry through with very full-bodied weight. However, the ample medium-plus acidity gives its exceptional balance that keeps the palate from being weighed down. The oak notes on the nose become more faint and give way to exotic Asian spices like tumeric, star anise and, particularly, ginger. The long finish lingers on those spices and the red plum notes.

Photo by Evan-Amos. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Very rich and fleshy red plum notes characterize this white Pinot noir.

The Verdict

There were a lot of similarities with this Ayoub wine and the Henri Gouges La Perrière White Pinot from Nuits-St-Georges (especially with the exotic spices) and I enjoyed geeking out over both wines.

I won’t deny that at $45-55, this is a premium for an Oregon white wine but it’s undoubtedly a very character-driven and interesting wine that I would put on par with some of the state’s great red Pinots in the same price range.

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60 Second Wine Review–WillaKenzie Pinot blanc

Continuing our Oregon Wine Month celebration, here are a few quick thoughts about the 2013 WillaKenzie Pinot blanc from the Yamhill-Carlton District.

The Geekery

WillaKenzie was founded in 1991 by Bernard and Ronni Lacroute with the winery named after the mustard color series of sedimentary soils prominent in the Yamhill-Carlton District, McMinville and Ribbon Ridge AVAs.

With a slogan “Dirt Matters”, author Kenneth Friedenreich notes in Oregon Wine Stories that along with the Campbells of Elk Cove, Kramer Vineyards and the Bergs of Roots Wine Co., WillaKenzie helped raised the profile of the Yamhill-Carlton District as a destination in Oregon wine country.

In 2016, the Lacroutes sold the winery to Jackson Family Estates where it joined a portfolio of brands that now includes Copain, Carmel Road, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey, La Jota, Brewer-Clifton, Byron, Cambria, Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Matanzas Creek, Gran Moraine, Zena Crown, Penner-Ash among many others.

With the changing ownership came a change in winemakers with Erik Kramer (previously of Domaine Serene) taking over from Thibaud Mandet who was mentored by WillaKenzie’s longtime winemaker Laurent Montalieu before he left the winery in 2003 to focus on his Solena, Domaine Loubejac and Kudos labels.

The 2013 Pinot blanc is sourced from the winery’s estate vines that were planted in 1992-93 and are sustainably farmed.

The Wine

Medium-minus intensity nose with green apples and faint Meyer lemons.

Photo by  Genet. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Rich citrus notes like Meyer lemons characterize this wine.


On the palate the lemon notes become more pronounce and have a slight custardy texture with the medium-plus body weight. Medium acidity gives some balance but could probably use more. There are no overt vanilla oak notes but some subtle baking spice (clove, allspice) notes appear on the moderate finish that suggest maybe a touch was involved.

The Verdict

At around $23-28, this is not a great value but it is a decent white wine for fans who crave something with body but different than a Chardonnay.

At 4+ years of age, it is holding up fairly well but is clearly on its last legs so I would recommend drinking it soon.

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60 Second Wine Review — Toil Pinot noir

Let’s continue our celebration of Oregon Wine Month with a few quick thoughts about the 2014 Toil Pinot noir from the Willamette Valley.

The Geekery

Toil is the Oregon wine project of Chris and Gary Figgins (of Leonetti fame). After years of running their successful Walla Walla winery, the Figgins were inspired by Oregon producers such as Domaine Serene and King Estate buying fruit from their Seven Hills Vineyard and decided to “return the favor” by exploring Pinot noir in the Willamette Valley.

2012 was the inaugural vintage of Toil with 235 cases produced from fruit sourced from the Schindler Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills and the Ridgecrest Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge sub-AVA of the Chehalem Mountains. The success of that vintage encouraged the Figgins to purchase 42 acres in the Chehalem Mountains.

The following year Toil didn’t release any wines due to the difficulties of the 2013 vintage in Oregon.

The 2014 vintage of Toil was sourced from vineyards in Ribbon Ridge. The wine spent 11 months aging in French oak barrels (30% new) with 316 cases made.

The Wine

Photo By Tahir mq - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The rich black plum notes of this wine reminded me more of a Merlot than a Pinot at first.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Big dark fruits, black cherries and black plums with even some dark chocolate notes. At first, the wine smells remarkably like a California Merlot until a little bit of air brought out the cola and spice notes I associate more with Oregon Pinot.

Those dark fruits carry through to the palate with medium-plus bodied weight and ripe medium-plus tannins contributing to a very filling mouthfeel. The medium-plus acid gives enough freshness to balance. Moderate finish brings back a little of those spice notes.

The Verdict

This is a big Pinot that is tailor-made for fans of big, bold reds like Cab, Merlot and Syrah. For the Pinot purist, though, it may not be their cup of tea.

At $55-65, it is one of the more affordable wines in the Leonetti stable. But compared to its Oregon peers you will still be paying a bit of a premium.

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