As a winemaker, I have a philosophy that guides the style of my wines. First, I make wines to enjoy with food. Although it might seem obvious that wine goes with food, many New World winemakers have gravitated toward producing wines that deliver immediate appeal. These wines are often initially tasted by consumers and wine writers in the absence of food. This is accomplished by emphasizing power, richness, fruit, and oak. While these might be positive attributes in a wine, when taken to the extreme they usually create a wine that does not work well with food because it lacks balance.
Interestingly Old World wines that are unremarkable by themselves are able to create wonderful memories. This happens because they integrate perfectly with a regional cuisine. Charmed, we buy these wines, take them home, and then wonder why it is not the same wonderful experience. Without the meal, they are no longer perfection.
My goal is to create wines with balance. I want the aromas, flavors, and textures to integrate and create a complete “personality”. The fruit, spice, earth, acid, tannin, and alcohol interact with food producing an experience where both the wine and the food taste better together. The nuances of both are accentuated by their pairing.
One aspect of the personality in wine that fascinates me is the ability of wine, especially Pinot noir, to express the place where the grapes grow. The French call this “terroir”. This expression is not found in how big the fruit is or in the sweetness of the oak the wine was aged in. It is mostly expressed in the secondary notes: spicy, floral, earthy, and savory facets. Texture is very important. The way a wine feels on your palate, where you taste it, how it lingers, its density or lightness are all an expression of a specific place.
The variety of vineyard sites creates distinct personalities in my wines. This is a large part of their appeal to me as a winemaker. It enables me to make distinctly different wines from the same varietal. The type of soil, the orientation to the sun, the altitude, the relative daytime and nighttime temperatures all affect the way the vine grows and the way the grape matures.
I work with new oak. However, I find that the sweet and smoky oak aromas and flavors from a barrel can obscure terroir. Modest use of oak can help support a wine and create a clearer expression. Usually very great sites can integrate a higher percentage of new wood without the oak flavor dominating. It is my intention that you taste the wine and not the oak.
Vintage is another expression of personality: some are more flamboyant and others more charming. I believe it is my job to make lovely wines in every vintage. I do not see a particular vintage as “good or bad”. It is harder to make lovely wines when the conditions are difficult. However, some of my favorite wines came from vintages that were challenging. For more details on the style of specific vintages, see our Ageability section.
Below are broad descriptions of the “personality” of my wines. My hope is that it will serve as a guide for you to explore the wines I love to make.
Sites that are cooler, ripen later in the growing season create wine with this character as these vineyards are usually very high in altitude and do not get as warm in the day and cool more quickly at night. Cool nights create better natural acidity that is the foundation for food friendly wines. These locations do not become flamboyantly ripe, resulting in a fresher fruit profile rather than a jammy quality. Being just on the edge of ripeness, their flavors are uncomplicated with an intrinsic balance of flavor and aromatic nuances. They are not “showy”; they are charming.
Temperance Hill is our highest altitude vineyard and the highest vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. It is the most “uncomplicated” of my Pinot noirs. It is an honest, straightforward wine with aromas and flavors that are familiar. This vineyard was honored by Wine & Spirits Magazine as its Vineyard of the Year in 2014. Twice Burghound gave our Temperance Hill Vineyard Pinot noir the highest score of the vintage.
The Villages Cuvée Pinot noir is inspired by Pinot noirs from the cooler villages of Burgundy, like Fixin, Savigny-les-Beaune, and Beaune. These wines are ideal matches for the rich and layered fish, foul, and pork dishes typical of Burgundy chefs. The wines are nuanced, delicate with lovely perfume. They are never dense, saturated, oaky, and intensely fruity. By blending wines from many sites, I create a Pinot noir with very soft and balanced profile inspired by this style of wine. If you do not drink white wine and enjoy white meats and pasta dishes, this is the perfect wine.
Our Chardonnay comes from Freedom Hill Vineyard. Here the key is both the soil and the temperature pattern. The soils at Freedom Hill are ancient ocean beds that are located at the extreme west side of the Willamette Valley. This site gets a lot of sun resulting in complete ripeness. Located close to the ocean, it gets the first cool winds in the evening retaining a fresh acidity. Like Chablis, the very old sedimentary soils create a very pure fruit and a sense of minerality, a “stoniness” in the wine. To retain the minerality, we ferment Chardonnay juice in very old neutral barrels. We add no yeast or bacteria, so the wine ferments with indigenous organisms resting on its lees for 11 months. It is not fined and receives a light filtration before bottling.
The vast majority of wines a very straightforward. The story of their flavors and aromas is immediately obvious. It may be cherry or cassis, cedar or smoke, but what you taste in your first sip is the same thing you taste in the last glass.
One of the traits of great Pinot noir is the ability to change. Your first sip finds a range of flavors and aromas. Ten minutes later, you are surprised that the wine smells and tastes quite differently. This evolution continues as you enjoy the wine. Shea produces particularly complex wines are considered of the great vineyards of Oregon.
I have made Shea Vineyard Pinot noir for 22 years. My first vintage, in 1994, captured Robert Parker’s attention and was awarded Oregon’s first 94 point score. Dick Shea sells fruit to twenty different winemakers, each making a Shea Vineyard designated wine under their individual brands. Each winemaker sources specific blocks that are specifically farmed under the direction of that winemaker. Both the grapes and wines flourish under that level of attention. Shea is an early ripening site and can be made in a flamboyant, fruit-centric style. I am looking for complexity and depth. I aim for moderate crop and pick as the fruit develops richness but before it becomes jammy. This way I capture the dimensions of flavor, aroma as well as Shea’s dark floral signature. Texturally, it has a level of density and richness from the rich and layered tannins.
Justice Vineyard is a small vineyard and the grapes exclusively go to Bethel Heights Vineyard and St. Innocent Winery. It is 23 acres and we get 2.33 acres, usually enough to make 16-20 barrels. Justice is in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. Each AVA has signature characteristics. In the Eola-Amity Hills, it has aromas and flavors of sweet ground spice. This spice quality is at the core of Pinot noirs from Justice. Additionally Justice has a uniquely sensual flavor that expands after the wine leaves your mouth. Rather than fading away, it softly expands a sense of dark fruit and spice into your head. This is a rare attribute, sometimes found in great Burgundy.
Wines vary widely in their structure. While the amount of tannin creates the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon, both tannin and acidity are important in Pinot noir. Pinot noir is a cool climate grape and does not retain as much tannin in the wine as other red grapes. Cooler nights at the end of the growing season retain more acidity in the grapes and that acidity along with grape tannin produces the structure of Willamette Valley Pinot noir. “Big” wines can be the result of grapes grown in sites that create large amounts of tannin. They can also be created in the winery by heavy extraction and using lots of new barrels to add wood tannin to the wine.
Two of our vineyard sites grow grapes that create our most structured wines: Momtazi and Freedom Hill. The location of each of these sites creates the wine’s personality, not the intentions of our winemaker.
Momtazi and Freedom Hill are located far west in the Willamette Valley, further west than 95% of other vineyards. They are quite warm in the day and have long hours of exposure to the sun. The grape skin’s response to light and heat is to make more color and tannin, essentially to protect the grape from the sun. At night, cool winds blow into the valley from the Pacific Ocean. The further west the vines are, the quicker the temperatures drop and the less acid is lost in the evening hours. More sun builds more skin tannin and cooler nights give more acidity. The result is natural structure.
In the winery, we ferment Pinot noir from these sites a bit cooler, punch them down less often, press them more gently and use only a small amount of new oak for aging. They have such rich tannin and acid structure that our job is create balance, not more power.
Comparing the sites, Momtazi is higher in altitude, has steeper slopes, poor soil, and has more wind exposure. This creates a more ‘exotic” profile with blue-black fruit, roasted spice, and often nuances of mocha and sweet tar.
Freedom Hill is lower in elevation, more gently sloped, more generous soil, and is mostly protected from evening winds. It has a bigger fruit profile and a lovely undercurrent of a clay-like minerality.
Both have ample tannin and acid creating greater structure naturally.
Freedom Hill Vineyard produces Pinot noirs with structure, depth, and richness as well as a strong sense of minerality. Learn More »
Some wines are just easy to drink; their flavors and aromas are broadly appealing. With balanced tannins and a supple mouth feel, they are wonderful matches with a broad variety of foods.
Zenith Vineyard is one of these wines. With a lovely balance of red and dark fruits, spice and floral nuances, polished tannins and fresh acidity, it is great with everything from fish to burgers. Our nine distinct blocks at Zenith Vineyard are planted with four different clones of Pinot noir on different rootstocks. We vary the vine density and rootstock to match the variations in soil structure and fertility. Various blocks face south, southeast and southwest in our bowl-shaped site. These blocks produce a wide spectrum of flavors in the wine. Relatively low in elevation, Zenith is in an east-facing valley that captures sunlight, but protects the vines from excess heat in the afternoon. This sun exposure creates a “brightness” in the fruits, spices, and floral elements which you can smell and taste in the wine. Together, they produce an attractive, nuanced Pinot noir.
We grow Pinot blanc only at Freedom Hill Vineyard. Pinot blanc is the last grape to ripen in the WV. The relative warmth of Freedom Hill’s site allows it to ripen completely showing a broad range of fruit aromas and flavors: apples, pear and white peach. The very old ocean floor soil produces a minerality that underlies the fruit, almost like a touch of salinity. It is fermented in tank and barrel in order to both capture the lovely fruit aromas and flavors and allow those flavors to persist across your tongue. Very flexible and broadly appealing (no oak and no butter), it is a great way to begin a meal.
The pride of our estate, Zenith Vineyard produces a gorgeous wine with bright aromas and flavors. Learn More »