Oregon Pinot Gris gets Mentored into Stardom
As I started my drive out to Oak Knoll Winery in Hillsboro, Oregon to attend the second annual Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium, the sights and scenes seemed strangely out of place from what should have been a very familiar route. Maybe it was the nostalgia creeping in because I used to drive the exact same route for a couple of years when I worked for a winery out in Forest Grove. It’s been a couple of years since I made that drive, but as I was headed to the Pinot Gris Symposium my thoughts turned toward my own Oregon Pinot Gris experience and what little knowledge I may have gained from pouring Pinot Gris to hundreds of guests on a daily basis for a couple of years. Prior to that job, I sold retail wine at one of the nation’s largest specialty grocery chains where we had four to five hundred different wine choices on the shelves. We carried a broad selection of Italian and California Pinot Grigio, as well as Oregon and Washington Pinot Gris, so educating consumers about this varietal as a wine professional is something I have been doing for almost a decade now.
I was introduced to Pinot Grigio in 1972 while working for an Italian family in Memphis when I was gaining my initial culinary training so my first exposure to this varietal began over forty years ago. Italian Pinot Grigio in the seventies was not very memorable unless you count the lessons learned from swilling it down too fast after a busy shift at sauté slinging pastas on many a hot summer night in Memphis. After those experiences, my consumption of this varietal was very limited until the mid-eighties when I returned to the stove after a ten year hiatus. It was around this time when my experience at wine tasting grew exponentially. I was trying Alsatian, Argentinean, Australian, Chilean, and Greek wines. It was during this period I drank my first Oregon Pinot noir and my first bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. Back in those days, you had to take the good with the bad in search of enophile nirvana.
In 1989, I was part of the opening crew for the first Papa Razzi restaurant in Back Bay Boston. Santa Margherita was the most popular white wine we sold. We were moving ten cases on a good night minimum. The popularity of Italian Pinot Grigio, especially on the east coast has been a factor in the wine industry for quite a while. The quality or lack thereof to me has always been a consideration that has had me and many other wine sales professionals scratching their heads for just as long.
When we were invited to the first annual Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium, I was excited to be included in the list of media that was invited. I thought now this is an idea that makes a lot of sense. Many Oregon Pinot Gris producers struggle with depleting their inventory of this varietal. In the marketplace, a clear identity of what Oregon Pinot Gris should taste like has not been established. If you combine that aspect with a relatively short shelf life by comparison, most dry white wines do not have mass appeal when they are aged and Pinot Gris is definitely one of them. It is apparent why this event is timely and very relevant, not to mention the Pinot Grigio<>Pinot Gris debacle. Italians call it Pinot Grigio, Alsatians call it Pinot Gris. For some reason California and Washington State can’t seem to figure out they need to pick one and stick with it, but hey they need to do that with Shiraz<>Syrah too. Stuck in-between the two and making a superior product, Oregon plans to send a clear message that Oregon Pinot Gris is our signature white wine. This is a message that resounded with all the producers in attendance for the symposium.
In the national market Oregon Pinot noir has become a highly sought product whose demand out paces production, but getting distributors to commit to consistently maintaining inventory levels of Oregon Pinot Gris has been difficult. Developing a forum where winemakers and producers can share their success stories and their challenges has proven to be desirable and rewarding in venues on a larger scale such as the Oregon Wine Symposium.
The Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium is identifying and progressing towards eliminating distribution and marketing issues while combining all of the individual producer’s skills to improve communication in their message and a unified identity in flavor profiles.
Greg Lint, president of Oak Knoll Winery who is no stranger to developing new marketing concepts was keen to pull everyone together to share the knowledge. Greg’s decision to seek the help of Jo Diaz of Diaz Communications was a wise move. Jo started the hugely successful “P.S. I Love You” campaign in California to bring more attention to Petite Sirah. Her efforts in that campaign have clearly been successful. Have you purchased a bottle of good quality California Petite Sirah lately? They are getting pricy.
Now in its second year this Oregon event is on track to move forward on the progression of ideas and participation in mobilizing the marketing efforts to promote Oregon Pinot Gris. That mission’s success was clearly evident in the attendance and level of participation for this year’s program. With forty Oregon Pinot Gris producers in attendance, it was a packed house as we sat conference style at tables in the production area at Oak Knoll Winery.
The symposium was kicked off by Greg Lint introducing the keynote speaker. Paul Gregutt, wine writer for the Seattle Times and northwest correspondent for Wine Enthusiast Magazine returned this year as the keynote speaker and this year his message was concise and succinct. Paul has championed the unique attributes of Oregon wines for a quarter century now and is one of the most respected authorities writing about and reporting on wine in the Northwest. His message for the symposium this year was focused on the typicty of Oregon Pinot Gris regarding its terroir and the need for Oregon producers to come together and constantly hammer home a transparent message when marketing their wines. Illuminating the originality in their particular style of Pinot Gris should be the message that is repeated. Paul also mentioned the need for a #PinotGris day for social media to utilize those channels of marketing. I am excited about that and will help to promote it, and to all producers, please do not forget about Enobytes.com when you are sending your samples to media for #PinotGris day.
There seems to be a disconnect between the interaction of consumers who try our Oregon Pinot Gris when they are visiting our wineries and how distributors interpret the consumers Pinot Gris experience in their specific market. During my tenure as a hospitality director at a 50K annual case production Oregon winery, we offered five tastes daily in our tasting room for five dollars and our list included two Pinot Gris (one stainless and one barrel fermented), three Rieslings, two Gewürztraminers a couple of white blends, a Muller -Thurgau and four estate Pinot noirs. Less than 10% of our guests left the tasting room without trying the Pinot Gris even if they ordered only red wine they would usually try a sip of Pinot Gris from someone else’s glass. Pinot Gris was our number one selling wine in the tasting room. Whenever I fielded an email or phone call for a request about where they could find out wine, most often it was for our Pinot Gris. It also proved to be the most frustrating varietal to request distributors to locate within a specific zip code on a consistent basis. There is nothing worse for a wineries reputation than to have a customer who searched for your wine, wanted to buy your wine and the distributor sends them on a goose hunt. This was another area of distribution management that the symposium brought to light and plans to work towards eliminating.
Our next presenter was the enigmatic and legendary winemaker, entrepreneur and all around super cool dude Joe Dobbes. Joe’s reputation is larger than life and it still does not do justice to how much this man has contributed to the Oregon wine industry. Joe chose to speak about the awesome quality of Oregon Pinot Gris grapes that are available and veered into a discussion about the difference between adjusting the flavor of the fruit or waiting and trying to adjust the flavor of the wine. Probably the most interesting topic of the day except for the reason our wines should not be called vegan (but that is a whole different post). Anytime Joe can speak to an audience candidly about winemaking his input is extremely educational. A lot of inside industry information was discussed and the free exchange of controversial ideas was encouraging. These were important moments to be reflected upon at another time and be glad you were there.
Enology continued to be discussed when Jesse Lange of Lang Estate took over the microphone. I still remember the first time I met Jesse and I was impressed then by his ability to speak eloquently about enology. I never took into consideration his father was a musical performer with quite a following who probably instilled an ease of expression in his son that accounts for Jesse’s ability to communicate so well. Balanced acidity, a feature that Oregon Pinot Gris fans often express as their favorite quality in this variety was the message Jesse brought across loud and clear.
King Estate sent Jeff Kandarian (and rightly so) as the representative for the Oregon winery who makes the most Pinot Gris in the state. I have been a fan of this man’s work for quite some time. His efforts at Eberle and Justin wineries in Paso Robles produced products that I was very fond of and his work at King Estate has showcased all he has learned along the way. It was interesting to watch the reactions from some of the small producers as someone who has to “get er done” expounded quite openly about the operational procedures they use. Jeff’s methods obviously work well as his Pinot Gris wines have always scored high when reviewed by this publication. Oh yeah, King Estate not only makes the most Oregon Pinot Gris they also sell the most Oregon Pinot Gris.
Our next two presenters engaged the audience with marketing observations and solutions from their perspective and how important technology has become in the relationship a winery has with their distributors and the direct customers. Greg Lint discussed the challenges of trying to get distributors to embrace our Pinot Gris the same way they buy our Pinot noir. Next Ellen Brittan presented an educational and in-depth survey of distributor information that if studied and applied, will increase the communication level between producers and distributors. This information is designed to improve the distributor relationship and hopefully increase sales.
The tasting was an interesting part of this event. I like to keep my opinions to myself when doing a public tasting (unless I am on a judging panel) so I usually like to dive in, plow through it and get my taste evaluation on, then bail out of whatever venue as graciously as possible. The quality of the samples presented was pretty even across the board and of course there were a few standouts and remarkably enough a couple of wines that were clearly flawed. This is another reason these events have so much value. It gives all the producers the opportunity to taste what the other wineries are producing and experience the many style variations Oregon Pinot Gris has to offer. Just because yours tastes different does not mean it is bad, however when it does not express the variety in a manner that is pleasant or recognizable you might want to reconsider your strategy.
A to Z Wineworks, Apolloni Vineyards, Brittan Vineyards, Carabella Vineyard, Cooper Mountain Vineyards, Joe Dobbes (Jovino), King Estate Winery, Lange Estate Winery, Left Coast Cellars, Methven Family Vineyards, Montinore Estate, R. Stuart & Co, and Spindrift Cellars were memorable wines and although these stood out from the others it was not by much. That has been my experience with Oregon Pinot Gris–consistent quality across the board most of the time. Close attention should be paid to the handling conditions and aging of these wines as they need to be kept cool and consumed young.
I look forward to reporting on the continuation of the Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium’s progress and tasting as many of the wines I can get my hands on.
Photo credit: Jo Diaz Communications