Sunday, November 13, 2011

Now Living in the Willamette Valley

I have been away for far too long. Now, I am back to tell you my wine stories.

After eight years in Chicago*, I have moved to Oregon's Willamette Valley. Specifically, I live in Corvallis, which is about 50 miles south of this state's most storied vineyards. If appellations such as the Dundee Hills are quite accessible, my new site-uation gives me the ability to visit more isolated vineyards, some of which are quite small and tucked into folds of the Coast Range foothills, quite removed from the state's primary media center.

Up close, it's good to ask questions such as, What does it mean to be a grape planted at 45 degrees north in this part of the world? If Jory soils are less common than in the northern valley, what does that mean to the winemakers, and what is their conception of terroir? Why is the regional identity what it is? Who are the iconoclasts who are questioning the way things are done?

As I travel up and down the valley, I find that baseline quality is high. It's tough to find confected, fat-fruited wine; it's rare to find an overoaked wine of either color. If I pull over and visit a small producer whom I've never heard of, I'm practically assured of finding a pinot noir that was raised according to the "recipe" of reasonable brix and roughly 25% new barrels. If producers were focused on making big, dark pinots just a few years back, it's my perception that this is less the case – and if my comparison of 2009 to 2006 is accurate, it does seem that producers are dealing better with the hot vintages, with the resulting wines showing more freshness and elegance.

And yet, beyond a happy few, I've yet to find much pinot noir (or pinot gris, etc) that is terroir-expressive. Clone-expressive, yes, but too often not terroir-expressive. I wonder why this is. Is it the relative youth of many of the vines here? How strongly is it related to dry farming? Do most producers inoculate with the same "neutral" packaged yeast? How much is a question of focus? (It's been interesting to ask people about their soils. Too many get a glazed look and say "Jory," which sure makes it seem like they're making it up, or say they just don't know. I find this fascinating.)

Where are the iconoclasts and the mad scientists? A couple of guys are planting tempranillo and syrah in this cool climate. There is the guy who just harvested pinot at 17 degrees brix and who will make an undoubtedly interesting wine from it (I tasted the unfermented grapes and they are bright, alive, delicious, with brown seeds you can crunch through). Beyond these few, and beyond the deep thinkers, I wonder. Winemakers here have learned lot of tough lessons over the years and, as I understand it, the sharing of that knowledge has been invaluable about raising overall quality. But there is a fine line between regional identity and groupthink, and it'll be interesting to find out what ideas hold sway, why they are held, and how they are applied.

I've babbled enough for now. Let me just sum up by saying that it's good to be back.

* Since I no longer live in the Wicker Park neighborhood, does that mean I have to change the blog name?