Organic, sustainable, biodynamic… these are some of the trendiest yet most confusing terms in the wine industry. There is a place, though, where one can see the proud growers and winemakers who are putting these terms into real practice, crafting quality wines, and restoring the health of the land. This place is Oregon.
Every tasting visit has a takeaway, and on my recent Washington-Oregon-California tasting trip, my big takeaway was that Oregon is ground zero for ‘green’ viticulture and winemaking. It was on visits to the amazing producers of Montinore Estate, Sokol Blosser, Holloran Vineyard Wines and Chehalem that made it clear Oregon is truly the greenest of them all!
Given Oregon is a fairly young state wine-wise, this superlative is impressive. Wine has only been a significant industry in the state since the 1960s. In a short time they’ve achieved global recognition for being on the leading edge of green practices. Of Oregon’s 13,000 vineyard acres, nearly half are sustainable or organic (compare this to California’s 450,000 acres, of which one percent qualify.) Certification can be very stringent and expensive, yet a quarter of the state’s vineyards hold some certification. Combine this with numerous eco-wine tours and green getaway packages, and you have one of the most environmentally minded wine regions on the globe!
These terms and their techniques and certifications can be confusing. What do they mean?
Organic: Wines and vineyards that avoid synthetic chemicals, like pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, are considered organic. To be certified organic, a producer has to be approved by the USDA or a recognized third party certifier.
Biodynamic: Biodynamic is similar to organic grape growing but views the vineyard as an entire ecosystem, considering influences like astrological and lunar cycles, and nurturing vineyard vitality. Certification is stringent and achieved through the Demeter Association.
Sustainable: Sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically and socially responsible. Sustainable is not a regulated term and there is no formal certification, but there are several associations that producers can join to acknowledge themselves as sustainable.
As I walked the vineyards of Montinore Estate, Sokol Blosser, Holloran Family Wines and Chehalem, these terms came to life.
Rudy Marchesi greeted us after we pulled off a bucolic road in northern Willamette Valley onto his 210-acre Demeter Certified Biodynamic and Stellar Certified Organic estate: Montinore. I had sold more bottles of Montinore Borealis than I could count, an aromatic blend of Gewürztraminer, Muller-Thurgau, Riesling, Pinot Gris… I was thrilled to finally meet the winemaker. Rudy started us down the dirt road towards the vineyards and discussed how he first arrived to this beautiful estate, via New Jersey!
The Marchesi story of wine starts long before Rudy, when Rudy’s Italian grandparents arrived from a tiny village in Italy to New York City and promptly planted grapevines in their backyard. Years later, Rudy would take after his grandparents and plant his own grapevines with his first commercial vineyard… in New Jersey. It was trial by fire, because everything that can go wrong in viticulture does go wrong on the Eastern seaboard. A more hospitable region was waiting for him when he first arrived to Oregon, initially on a visit to his daughter in college in Portland in 1992. He discovered Montinore and started a long journey with them, first as wholesale distributor, then wine grower, winemaker, and in 2005 became owner of this world class property.
As we walked the vineyard, Rudy passionately and expertly discussed Biodynamic practices at work at Montinore Estate. Montinore’s vineyards enjoy great health due to biodynamic preparations, sprays that heal and protect the immune system of the vineyard. These preparations are actually standardized, and came about after World War I. After recognizing that war chemicals and aggressive fertilizers were wreaking havoc on soil and livestock, a group of farmers sought help from intellectual Rudolf Steiner. He developed and codified Biodynamic agriculture.
Today, there are nine biodynamic preparations, all referred to by number, some of which are used successfully by Rudy at Montinore. Rudy makes his own preps… for prep 501, he buries a quartz power packed cow horn, then later digs it up, adds the quartz to water and sprays the ‘dynamized’ water over the full estate.
The proof is in the pudding, and the health of Montinore’s vineyards and the quality of their wines cannot be argued. Their plots of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Teroldego and Lagrein make an amazing repertoire. The 2014 Pinot Noir, in particular, is ripe with cherries and pomegranate, bright tannins, and with the Hungarian and French oak regimen leads to soft tannins. Try at Vintology: Montinore Estate Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2014, $21.
Holloran Vineyard Wines
I think we are here, we are in a vineyard on a hilltop.
OK stay there, I’ll come get you.
This probably wasn’t the meeting place… grapevines were all I could see. A few minutes later Bill Holloran’s pick-up truck came climbing up the hill to fetch me and I apologized for my bad GPS coordination, but soon realized the great fortune of my mistake. We were standing in the middle of Le Pavillon vineyard, the oldest vineyard of Holloran Vineyard Wines in the heart of Dundee Hills. Bill said, ‘we might as well walk around’, and I followed.
Bill Holloran’s story starts with a long career as a technology executive, after which he moved to Oregon in 1999 to ‘dabble’ in wine. Dabbling did not last… his original case production of 500 has turned into about 5,000 cases per year. In Oregon, Holloran is synonymous with high quality wines.
Le Pavillon Vineyard was planted long before Bill came along in the early 1970s. Today, Le Pavillon can thank biodynamic practices for its life. Bill walked me through the vineyard’s vigorous rows, showing healthy grape development and canopy, but told of several years ago when Le Pavillon was unhealthy and struggling. Bill had been farming it organically since 1999, but organic was not enough. Only after Bill brought in a biodynamic expert in 2005 did the vineyard return to the quality that first made it famous. Unlike organic agriculture, which simply aims to avoid synthetic products, biodynamic agriculture works to actively heal, to make the soil even healthier than it was when you began. Today, Le Pavillon nurtures high quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
All of Bill’s vineyard blend to make the Holloran Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2012. We tasted this bottle and more in the under construction future winery in Dundee. When it’s complete, it will offer enormous opportunity for growth, more cellarage, and a view of the south facing Le Pavillon slope. Bill popped open several Pinot Noir, all barrel aged in French oak, Chardonnay and a surprising Tempranillo! I might have made a wrong turn that day, but Bill Holloran is making all the right turns with viticulture that has both restored his land and made for outstanding wines. Try at Vintology: Holloran Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2012, $29.
Chehalem, pronounced Chuh-hay-lum, is a Calapooia Indian word for “gentle land” or “valley of flowers”, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Chehalem is a model for environmental conservation. Thomas Sichta, Sales Manager, greeted me as I arrived at the winery and vineyards in Newberg. Thomas, an Atlanta transplant, had been working the Portland region wine industry for a decade before joining Chehalem, and was the perfect person to convey how significant Chehalem is to the area.
Chehalem was founded by Harry Peterson-Nedry in 1990. Harry, with his degrees in Chemistry and English, initially indulged in winemaking simply as a hobby. When he planted the 55-acre Ridgecrest Vineyard in 1982, the hobby shifted gears into a passion and a real business. Ridgecrest was also the first site planted in the eventual Ribbon Ridge AVA! Over the years, Harry acquired more sites and developed Chehalem into a premier producer of cool climate varieties.
This was not the first time I’d heard Harry Peterson-Nedry’s name. Previous to the trip, I’d been reading Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley by Stephan Faris. Harry is sought out to discuss how Oregon’s Willamette Valley is becoming warmer and more dry due to climate change, saying expertly, “Is there a change? Duh.” Earlier and earlier grape harvests are occurring, one warm vintage on record is beat out by next year’s even warmer vintage. Harry thoughtfully opines in the book that although there are short term gains in greater ease of growing, the industry should come together to adopt strategies and principles for managing these changes in the long term.
As Thomas walked me through the vineyards, he discussed the improvements to viticulture and environmental conservation taking place at Chehalem. All vineyard sites using farming practices that are organic in nature, and all are LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) Certified. This entails a holistic approach to sustainability, coupled with many other measures: Salmon Safe practices, dry farming to reduce the stress on water sources, and native diverse cover crops to encourage biodiversity and soil health. A large percentage of the property is also left untouched as eco-zones, which was clear to me as we walked through wild brambles and popped ripe hanging fruit into our mouths.
The wild fruit was a primer for the awesome tasting waiting back in the winery. As we tasted out of barrel and bottle, I realized the breadth of Chehalem’s portfolio. One of my favorites was the 2013 Ridgecrest Vineyards Gamay Noir, a very interesting grape from the first vineyard. I just go nuts over Beaujolais Cru… Chehalem’s version is sourced from some of the oldest Gamay vines in the US, is spicy, and yet rich with plum, baking and Indian spices and refreshing acidity. Later in the day we finished the bottle off at Nick’s Italian Cafe in McMinville, and I thought of the bright future that producers like Chehalem are leading the wine industry towards. Try at Vintology: Chehalem Three Vineyard Willamette Valley 2012, $35.
Sokol Blosser Winery
Ooooh, what is that scent? We’d just walked into the stylish and airy tasting room at Sokol Blosser Winery in Dundee and a fresh invigorating scent was inescapable. We’d soon learn from John Erickson of the winery to thank the cedar covering the exterior and interiors walls of the building for this sensory delight.
More sensory delights were waiting as we ventured through this beautiful estate, founded in the earliest days of the Oregon wine industry. In 1970, newlyweds Susan Sokol Blosser and Bill Blosser pulled into an abandoned prune orchard in their ’68 VW Camper. Planting a first vineyard, they became pioneers in an infant wine industry, and before it was en vogue, were aware of their impact on the environment.
John led us through the organic vineyards to an underground cellar, reminding me of hobbit home in Lord of the Rings. The underground barrel cellar is the first winery building in the country to earn the prestigious LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
Stewardship of the 85-acre estate has now passed to the second generation, brother and sister Alison and Alex, who’ve led Sokol Blosser through the stringent process of becoming a Certified B Corporation. B-Corps are companies that hold high standards of social and environmental performance, who define success through the 3 ‘P’s: people, profit and planet.
When I close my eyes and think of Sokol Blosser, I will forever remember sitting on the tasting room deck. The tasting room building is a uniquely beautiful indoor-outdoor facility, with striated walls of Tight Knot Cedar, Douglas Fir and Hickory. The natural materials and skylights promote a melding with the outdoors feel… no surprise Sokol Blosser is the first winery to pursue a Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification for this building. LBC is an internationally-recognized green building standard for buildings that operate in harmony with the environment. This was the perfect place to enjoy a Sokol Blosser vertical tasting.
John poured the Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2011, 2012 and 2013… a great opportunity to taste both Pinot Noir’s vintage sensitivity and Sokol Blosser’s hands off winemaking. The 2011, a notoriously cold vintage, was a favorite, with tart fruits, cassis and restraint. This Pinot Noir, like every detail of Sokol Blosser, works with, not against, nature. Try: Sokol Blosser Evolution White, $16.
Paying lip service to environmental considerate winemaking is not Oregon’s style. In a fairly young region, with producers like Montinore Estate, Holloran Vineyard Wines, Sokol Blosser and Chehalem, Oregon is leading the global wine industry toward the future. People, profits, planet… and Pinot!
A very big thank you to Montinore Estate, Holloran Vineyard Wines, Sokol Blosser and Chehalem for an amazing Oregon experience.
These wines and more are available at Vintology Wine & Spirits at www.vintology.com.
Questions and feedback welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org
*Reposted with permission from Girl Meets Vine. http://elizabethmillerwine.com/girlmeetsvine