Tag Archives: Oregon vintages

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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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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60 Second Wine Review — ROCO Pinot noir

May is Oregon Wine Month so I’m going to kick off the festivities with a few quick thoughts about the 2012 ROCO Pinot noir from the Willamette Valley.

The Geekery

ROCO was founded in 2001 by Rollin Soles and his wife Corby Stonebraker-Soles. In 1987, Soles founded the sparkling wine producer Argyle in the Dundee Hills with Australian winemaker Brian Croser. Argyle expanded to still wine production in 1992 with Soles at the helm till 2013 when he stepped down as winemaker to focus on ROCO. He is also the consulting winemaker for Domaine Drouhin’s Roserock project in the Eola-Amity Hills.

During his time at Argyle, Soles wines were featured on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list more than any other Oregon winemaker with his Extended Triage Brut being the top scoring American sparkling wine for six straight years.

Prior to his time at Argyle, Soles worked at Wente Brothers and Chateau Montelena in California and at Petaluma Vineyards where he met Brian Croser.

In 2016, Soles released his first post-Argyle sparkling wine, RMS.

The 2012 Willamette Valley Pinot is sourced from vineyards in the Chehalem Mountains, Yamhill-Carlton District and Dundee Hills AVA. Around 2500 cases were made.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Fresh red cherries with a mix of red and blue floral notes.

Photo by CorinthiaBTSm. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Juicy red cherry notes are abundant in this ROCO Pinot noir.

On the palate, the cherries come through and bring raspberry notes with medium body weight. High acidity is ample but doesn’t veer into tartness. Medium tannins have noticeable grip but are soft. Moderate finish introduces a cherry cola note that adds some intrigue.

The Verdict

I was a bit surprised at how elegant and light this Pinot was for the very “California-like” 2012 vintage that saw drought conditions which concentrated flavors. Usually from this vintage, I expect to find more full-bodied and fruit forward Pinots.

Instead, this wine came across as more of a “classic Oregon” Pinot with restrained, but present, fruit and ample acidity that shines on the table. At $27-30, it is a solid bottle for fans of that old-school, classic style.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/10/18 — Rising Wine Prices, Reviewing Young Wine and Flashcards

Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Wine prices to rise as bad weather brings worst harvest for 50 years by Zoe Wood (@zoewoodguardian) of The Guardian (@guardian). Brought to my dash via John Corcoran (@jncorcoran1).

2017 was pretty much a rough vintage across the globe with yields hitting some of the lowest levels seen in over 50 years. The Drinks Business had a particularly eye-opening chart about just how low crop levels were in Bordeaux.

There is going to be consequences to what has been called “The worst global harvest since 1961” with the most immediate being seen in increased prices for early release wines such as sparkling Prosecco and white wines like Pinot grigio.

Now this article is written from a UK POV and for US consumers, I don’t think the situation is quite as dire. As we noted in the 3/6 edition of Geek Notes, the 2017 vintage in Washington was actually the second largest in state history. While there was some bumpiness in Oregon and California, for the most part the major wine producing areas of the US emerged from 2017 in good shape.

That said, this article is still helpful for US wine drinkers to consider because we will likely see higher prices for European wines–particularly Prosecco and Rioja–simply because there will be less supply. Especially with Prosecco’s continued and sustained popularity, sparkling wines fans are going to have to pay the piper of market demand. Now instinct would think that Cava would be the beneficiary of Prosecco consumers looking elsewhere but, like Rioja, the Cava DOs had their issues in 2017.

Perhaps producers in the budding Oregon sparkling wine industry will capitalize on this moment with introducing value priced bubbles?

Great acidity, great fruit, great structure. This young 2016 Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon could be great–but right now it is just a baby.

Young Red Wine, Wise Red Wine by Meg Houston Maker (@megmaker) of Terroir Review. Brought to my dash via Vino101 (@Vino101net).

Every year the market sees a flood of brand spanking new wines emerge for people to enjoy. But the thing is, a lot of these new wines simply aren’t ready to be enjoyed yet.

Still these fresh-faced, juvenile wines are sent to critics to be reviewed and to wine shops to be put on the shelf as soon as the previous vintage is sold.

In many ways, it is unfair to judge these wines critically and Meg Houston Maker goes through the process of what it is like as a critic trying to play prognosticator of a wine’s future.

Meg’s post has particular resonance for me after finishing my 60 Second Review of the Oh-So-Young-But-Potentially-Oh-So-Good 2016 Hedges In Vogue Cabernet Sauvignon. At around $30 for a Red Mountain Cab from a top producer, it certainly looks like it could be an absolute steal of a wine that may be worth stocking up on. But it just so young right now and while my gut instinct feels like its going to develop into something magnificent, at this point it is just what Houston Maker says–an exercise in prognostication.

Something fun to get your Geek-on!

Via Reddit, I discovered this cool Instagram account featuring Wine Study Flashcards. There are over 150 flashcards so far, covering a variety of topics and the account looks to be fairly active with periodically adding new flashcards.

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