Category Archives: Oregon wine

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

Continuing our celebration of Oregon Wine Month, 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

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.

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.

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 give 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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