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Oregon Pinot Producers Who Paved the Way

Near the end of Willamette Valley’s harvest of 2009, I stood in the tasting room at Montinore Estate predicting it would be a year to rival 2002. To date, no one has chimed in to support that prediction. Seems a lot of publications are doubling back on their 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir reviews. Now I must add they made those predictions mostly on barrel samples. Who is to say the barrels they tasted ever finished malolactic much less were ready to present to some wine writers but these things happen.  As usual, I will run my mouth off when I feel convicted about a series of events that I may testify to.  I endorse the word testify as a stronger representation to say “talking about or reporting on.”  To me it means an evangelical stance of biblical equivocations regarding how things happened in your personal and immediate observation.

The first Oregon wine I ever drank was a bottle of Ponzi in New York in ’86. I bought it at Dean and Delucas Market at the corner of Broadway and Prince in Soho if my memory serves me correctly. It was probably an ‘84 or ‘85.  During the days I was still impressed with Pommards from my flush days in Miami. I enjoyed it but just did not get it.  I recognized it as a wine that was good, but I really was not in tune with Pinot Noir to a degree to realize I had just tasted a game changer.

In 1990 I tasted a Broadley Vineyards Pinot Noir ‘87 Willamette Valley that finally made me realize Oregon had exactly what “Jeremiah the Bullfrog” had described in Three Dogs’ Night song Joy to the World.  “He had some really, really fine wine, so I helped him drink his wine.” In 1994 I met Chris Choate and what I did not know about Burgundy, Oregon and cult California Pinot Noir was revealed at the resurrection and oh too soon demise of the restaurant Abiquiu in San Francisco.

My tasting skills with Pinot Noir have progressed a little since then and so have the amount of offerings nationally from so many different regions and styles including the manipulation of cloned varieties. The experimentation with alternative methods of departing oak flavors, how many wineries own a concentrator (a fact that will surprise many), who uses bladder press method vs. other extraction methods and the adherence to ridged punch down schedules.  All of these techniques and their effect on the outcome of the finished product have also developed my tasting skills. I know when I visit wineries most folks do not think I am paying attention and that’s OK.  It is usually because my attention is focused on something I noticed as I was looking around.

We were fortunate enough to have received a bottle of 2009 Tavola Pinot Noir from Ponzi Vineyards for review. As it turns out, I was right if this wine is any example of what other wineries were able to make. A broad expression of fruit aromas emanate from the glass immediately after pouring.  A wine I could drink everyday—yes it has mass appeal and no it will not be mistaken for a so-called wine of distinction (to my dismay) which these days if it comes from Oregon, means a less than 1K case production and more like 200-500. What is it that I am actually saying? Am I playing right into the hands of the pundits that chastise you if you happen to write about a wine that has mass appeal?  Well let me fly in the face of convention or more appropriately non-convention.  I will gladly receive this wine on my dinner table, unless I am serving a dish with spice such as Curry or Cajun.  And despite so many Oregon wineries serving smoked pork with their Pinot Noir, I do not recommend it. Tavola will meet most culinary challenges and cleanse your palate with a finish that beckons one back for more. It also makes a very good stand-alone sipper.

Smoked pork done right whether it be dry rub or sop vinegar moistened will overpower all but the most powerful wines and Pinot Noir does not belong in that group.  So stop smoking meat (unless it is cold smoking fish). It does not  pair well with Pinot Noir.  There are a few examples from the Central Coast and Russian River that can pull off that pairing.  In fact, some Carneros wines can stand up to Carnitas at a San Francisco Mission District taco joint such as Robert Sinskey’s Carneros Pinot Noir.  That wine is an exception to the rule. I should say used to be because I have not tasted a recent vintage of that particular wine. And that style of Pinot Noir sort of negates what makes this awesome grape so special.

To make this article a well balanced piece I went to Trader Joe’s and bought a redcap ‘09 Pinot Noir from Montinore Estate and a Vintj’s Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. After drinking the Vintj’s I decided if it was to be a balanced piece, I should go to Dundee and get a bottle of Dobbes Family Estate 2009 Grand Assemblage Pinot Noir.  Many people do not know this but in addition to his annual production of Dobbes Family Estate, Wine by Joe and Jovino labels the total wine produced at his facility around 120k cases annually with only 20% of wines bearing the Dobbes signature. The rest is for his clients.  I’ve always said he was a very smart guy and lately I have gained even more respect for him and his operation.

Here are a few facts about Joe Dobbes that squarely plants him in the title of this article.  After apprenticing in Germany and Burgundy with some of the master winemakers in those regions, Joe headed to the northwest with his newfound knowledge and put it to good use at several of Oregon’s premier wineries before opening his own place in 2002.  Joe’s contributions when he was with Elk Cove Vineyards, Eola-Hills Winery, Hinman/Sylvan Ridge, Paschal Winery and Willamette Valley Vineyards (the only publicly traded winery in Oregon) steadily improved the expectations and realizations for Oregon wine consumers everywhere.

Joe is like the director in an epic movie.  Despite being behind the scenes, he is still a star. Making wines that solidly helped build the reputation of Oregon wines wherever he was lending his talents all testify to his status as a pioneer.  While the pioneer status is relegated to these other folks for different reasons regarding the marketing of Oregon Pinot Noir and the reason I am about to triumph their efforts is due to their diligence in getting Oregon Pinot Noir into the faces of buyers on the east coast. While back on the ranch (at Oregon Vineyards) Joe was here improving the quality and expectation of quality everywhere he could. For that alone, he is a hero and pioneer of Oregon Wine history.

Stories have been circulating about the real founders of Pinot Noir in Oregon.  Forest Grove, Oregon is trying to re-brand their image as the birthplace of Oregon Pinot Noir.  I was not personally around here in Oregon in the mid sixties, but for years because of Eyrie Vineyards and its founder’s insistence he was the first to plant Pinot Noir in Oregon—that was the story most folks believed.  Investigating further, I found out Richard Sommer who started Hillcrest Vineyards bought Pinot Noir grapes from Ann McCallum. She grew Pinot Noir in her Roseburg vineyard, and she sold all of her grapes to Sommer in 1961, the same year he planted his vineyard in Roseburg, Oregon.  Any information you might read to the contrary is incorrect. I only touch on that subject because four of the five wines I am reviewing in this article were made by folks who may not have been first to make Pinot Noir in Oregon but they all had a huge influence in getting  people to taste a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir for the first time.

The Ponzi family has always been considered one of the pioneers of the wine industry here.  In fact, the first brand of Oregon wine I ever noticed on the shelves was Ponzi.  I had a bottle in New York and then again in Boston.  It was probably in the mid to late eighties when I was cooking in Boston.

Once buyers on the east coast tried Montinore they bought it and brought it in. It usually sold so well it produced an avenue for buyers to give other Oregon Pinot Noirs a chance. Savvy sommeliers and wine buyers quickly started adding other Willamette Valley Pinot Noir labels to their shelves and wine lists hoping they would produce the same results.  None of that would be possible without the hard work Jeff Lamy had put in developing Montinore from its inception.

Rudy Marchesi who many call the new owner at Montinore (which he is) was the torchbearer for Oregon wines in the New York and Boston areas.  Most folks do not know he was one of the first east coast distributors for Montinore and without his efforts, many Oregon wines would not have been given a second look from restaurant and retail wine buyers.  Rudy owned Alba Vineyards in New Jersey back then and outside of New Jersey, it’s pretty hard to sell wine from there, so he decided to add Oregon wines because everyone else was selling California wines and the Oregon style wines did not compete with the style of wines he made in New Jersey.  Just to qualify for all those who are scratching their heads right now, southern Jersey shares a border with the Quaker and Amish farmland of Pennsylvania.  I dare anyone to renounce the quality of produce that comes from this fertile river basin including the few vitis vinifera produced from that area.

Some deep respect and a loud shout out goes to these four unsung heroes and heroines of the Willamette Valley wine scene!  Without their strides in the marketplace, Ponzi and Montinore would not have been the go to trusted label for an alternative to labels from Burgundy. Oregon Pinot Noir filled a void.  It just seemed like out of nowhere these wines were offered at an affordable price to those who could not afford Burgundy prices but still wanted to grasp that level of quality. These wines may not have ever made it onto wine lists and store shelves in those days without the effort of the Pioneers previously mentioned. To put the 2009 wines from Oregon into perspective I have included the review of an entry level Burgundy from a respected producer from a well-heralded vintage.

2009 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Ponzi Tavola 13.8% | $25 | 90pts

Truly a classic Willamette Valley Pinot Noir flavor profile for such a young wine to exude the level of sophistication this wine brings is astounding. This Ponzi entry-level designation and the name befits it well.  It will always be a welcome addition on my dinner table (Tavola).  As I have already exclaimed the boldness of aromas for this wine the juiciness can almost be picked up on the nose. I also detected aromas of ripe cherry, crushed white pepper with a hint of cardamom in the background and vanilla bean freshly scraped from its hull. The flavors on the palate carry the same full spectrum and the texture is alluring. Big open flavors that are consistent with the flavor profile hold well through the finish.

2009 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Montinore Estate 13.2% | $19 | 89pts

This entry-level cuvee of biodynamic fruit brings a lot to the table and has a distinctive Montinore flavor too.  It is easily identifiable as a relative to the reserve and single vineyard designates. When we first tasted the wine I realized while reviewing it, I was there when it was being made. I actually have some firsthand knowledge—I watched these grapes through the entire cycle. I also realized I never tasted the final blend.  Big aromas up front are somewhat muddled but intensify with just a little time in the glass. Red fruit dominates with a little dark fruit coming through and the vanilla is a bit more pronounced than the exotic spice from previous vintages just slightly. On the palate, this wine will be a crowd-pleaser.  It has all the bells and whistles that pinotphiles are looking for.  It is a culinary gem working with an abundance of different cuisines and it too is a good stand-alone sipper.  Smooth delivery and a pleasant finish not to mention the Organic and Biodynamic certifications that come with this wine. By all definitions what we have here is a complete package; healthy, tasty and versatile. This should be everybody’s Pinot Noir for their wine by the glass programs. They made a pretty good amount of this compared to other vintages but I predict this one will disappear rather quickly.

2009 Pinot Noir Dobbes Family Estate Grand Assemblage Willamette Valley 13.5% | $28 |  91pts

Almost immediately after opening this wine, I was assured of my prediction that 2009 will be a year to remember for Willamette Valley wines.  Grand Assemblage is certainly an accurate description for this cuvee.  I do not usually mention color because even though it may tell you a little about how the wine might taste, the color can be deceiving.

Although I usually eschew the color theory, this wines color firmly plants it in the sensory perceptions to be recorded department (that means when you see wines with this color, remember it). The deep garnet color was so clear it was shining. I think you get the picture so enough of that and on to the aromas. Now we are going to get all wack up in here like that because the flavor profile was like a mad scientist from the 1800’s throwing his favorite things in a blender.

Red fruit and fresh chopped lobster mushrooms mingled with Ludens Children’s’ cough drops circa 1962 (they must have been sent back in time) and a hint of real licorice. Sounds weird but combined in a sniff from a swirled glass of wine they become very appealing. Another example of a wine that will compliment a wide variety of foods and yet sipping this as a cocktail would certainly whet my appetite.  It seems to be a continued theme among the wines from this young 2009 vintage of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.  Big open bold wines that become better than the sum of their parts, yes a Grand Assemblage indeed. The flavors reflect the same cherry flavor in a combined experience of fresh and processed (concentrated) spice with the nuttiness of baked flour and butter pie crust. I put this wine to task pairing it with smoked artichoke and roasted Piquillo peppers in béchamel sauce lasagna sauced before serving with a roasted garlic and smoked tomato confit. Smoking the artichoke hearts took away the metallic so many chefs fear when trying to pair them with wine. Unlike smoking pork for 18 hours over hickory this subtle smoke flavor melds with the garlic jam, cheeses and the artichokes spend only 30 minutes in the smoker and apple or pecan wood seems to work best. It also worked well with a homemade peanut butter ice cream with butterfinger chunks.

2009 Pinot Noir VinTJ’s Willamette Valley 13% | $9 | 85pts

This wine is produced and bottled by Joe Dobbes (a.k.a. Wine by Joe) at his custom crush facility in Dundee and despite the score (most likely due to high yield, not so concentrated fruit) it is in this review because of Joe’s ability to think outside of the box.  Just another reason to include his efforts and unchampioned career as one of the most influential people of the Oregon wine industry, it was just the little or, not so little things he did that shaped Oregon’s wine industry in ways most have ever contemplated. You get the Willamette Valley Pinot experience, but from the aromas through the mouthfeel and taste, this wine will light up all the way though the finish. If you like a light Pinot this will be a great wine for you.  It also serves as a good starter wine for those who have just started drinking red wine.

2006 Pinot Noir Bouchard Pere & Fils Bourgogne Burgundy France 12.5% | $22 | 84

This wine was included in this article due to its relevance compared to the other four wines. 2006 is heralded as one of burgundies best vintages on record. Compared to the Oregon wines as they were all entry-level wines just like this Bourgogne. It was almost as light as the Trader Joe’s wine—also thin and watery with a distinct dirtiness in the flavors. I found it a bit distracting from the sparse fruit that came through.  It also lacked finesse from start to finish.

All of these wines are designed to drink when they are young though some have aging potential. The Bouchard Pere & Fils Bourgogne probably would have fared better had I opened it last year or earlier.  If you want to lay down some 2009 Willamette Valley Pinot for aging, you should dig deeper into your pockets and buy the top of the line wines (think single vineyard bottlings) from these same producers. Well, except for the Trader Joe’s wine. That wine reminds me of my answer to a question I was often asked as a chef, “How fresh is the fish for today’s special?” I always answered that one with a Yogism style statement, “Well folks, that fish will never be as fresh as it is today.” Enjoy!

This post was written by:

- who has written 364 posts on Enobytes Wine Online.

Marc has over twenty years experience in the food & wine industry and is committed to celebrating hospitality with pride. He is a wine blogger contributor to OregonLive.com (Wine Bytes) and has also appeared on Portland's "Vine Time" on News Radio 750 KXL and on California's Central Coast "From the Growing of the Grape to the Glass" on KUHL-AM 1410. He is also the author of A History of Pacific Northwest Cuisine: Mastodons to Molecular Gastronomy. Follow Marc on twitter @macdaddy_m

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7 Responses to “Oregon Pinot Producers Who Paved the Way”

  1. Lisa says:

    The only thing wrong with writing about wines with mass market appeal is when the only wines that seem eligible are those made by corporate conglomerates or those in the making. Wines of every distinction are being made by real people for real people and they should not be ignored. Those with a voice to reach the masses should look beyond the usual and customary and take people on the wine ride of a lifetime. Otherwise…what’s the point?

  2. Lisa,
    Thanks for your comment and your insight is well taken. I often hear from small wineries who are looking for a new/different distributor because they either have one who is not moving their product or they can’t seem to find one who will take them on. This happens in a lot of major markets our current three tier system and HR5034 does not seem to be doing anything but reinforce the already prohibitive systems states have in place. Are you familiar with the American Wine Consumer Coalition(http://tinyurl.com/4se94to)? I have many times contacted local wine distributors with an offer to promote wines they feel are worthy of praise and to date have had no participation at the distributor level. Here at Enobytes we write about a lot of wines that are not from large corporations, these wines usually only make it to our tasting panel if the winery is savvy to Social Marketing channels. My next article will be about some small producers from the Umpqua Valley. As for the wine ride of a lifetime, I personally happen to be still searching for that and I have been at it for 40 years. If you know of some real people who make wines for real people that would like someone with a voice to reach masses write about their wines have them send us a bottle we will be thrilled to write about them. We have never failed to write about any wine that has graced our dinner table, including the good, the bad and the ugly. Otherwise… what’s the point?

  3. Carl says:

    I see a few favorites on the list as well as a few I haven’t tried. Thanks for the recommendations.

  4. Carl,
    Thanks for taking the time to read the article and not freak out because these happen to be wines you will not have to search too far to find. For many Americans wine choices are very different in the interior of our country than they are on the west and to a lesser degree the east coast. But the east coast will always have more European selections than most West Coast locations.

  5. H Bruce Smith says:

    The lesson here is don’t always believe what people tell you. The folks in Forest Grove are hoping that you don’t think twice about their claim to being the birthplace of Oregon pinot noir. Unfortunately, they are wrong. They are trying to rewrite Oregon wine history to suit their marketing goals. Let us always remember Richard Sommer for being the first brave soul to believe in Oregon wine and put that belief into action. Shame on FG for relegating Richard to the back of the Oregon wine bus!

    On a lighter note: You want great wine from regular folks? Head for Umpqua Valley AVA, and Becker Vineyard. Charley and Peggy Becker are the entire crew and make some great juice. 600 cases total! So when you get tired of paying $25 tasting fees for “enhanced” wine, we’ll be waiting for you here.

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