Category Archives: Josh
I was honored to participate in the 2014 Oregon Chardonnay Symposium which was held at the Stoller Vineyards on Saturday March 8th 2014. I spoke on a distinguished panel alongside: Dominique Lafon (Domaine des Comtes Lafon and Evening Lands), Veronique Drouhin (Maison Joseph Drouhin and Domaine Drouhin Oregon), David Adelsheim (Adelsheim Vineyards), Robert Brittain (Brittain Vineyards), Doug Tunnell (Brick House Vineyards), Wynn Peterson-Nedry (Chehalem), Melissa Burr (Stoller) and Jesse Lange (Lange.) The panel was moderated by Cole Danehower.
The following is the speech that I delivered on our Sigrid Chardonnay and the future of Oregon Chardonnay:
Oregon Chardonnay is definitely the buzz these days but I would like to start off by saying that I feel it would be unjust not to thank the men and women from Oregon who have been working hard to craft great Chardonnays for the past 20-50 years. Some of you are on this panel and some of you are in the audience and some of you are departed, but you are the ones who helped pave the way for us to sit here today. Let’s face it, Oregon Chardonnay is not a new thing, but it is going through a fantastic renaissance.
I have been a winemaker in Oregon for almost 18 years and during that time I have always made Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But for much of my career I also made Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc. When we first started out, Oregon’s white wine scene was very confusing, and I would venture to say that it still is. When it comes to Red wines, we are all in agreement that Pinot Noir is the most successful, most viable varietal for the Northern Willamette Valley. But when it comes to white wines, we celebrate diversity.
In the early days my first Chardonnays were without intent or guidance or a feeling of knowing who I wanted to be when I grew up. My early Pinot Noirs were large scaled and known for extraction and concentration and so the finesse of Chardonnay was lost on me even though elegant white Burgundies were my favorite wines to drink. One year I would try to emulate the California style… and fail. The next year I would try to emulate the Dominique Lafon style…. And fail. And finally in 2003, I reached my pinnacle of disappointment and made the most disgusting Chardonnay I have ever made. It was a big oily ripe banana cream pie wine weighing in at over 15% alcohol. I dumped all 8 of those barrels down the drain and decided to re-create my white wine program.
When I looked at the Press, Burgundy and California were dominant in world Chardonnay production and appreciation. But when I looked at the Oregon paradigm I realized very quickly that, beyond the 5 or so focused high end white wine producers in the state who were intentionally making white wines of purpose, white wines in Oregon were generally loss leaders and took the back seat to Pinot Noir both in winemaking and in marketing. The best known wineries in Oregon at the time focused primarily on Pinot Noir. Our white wines were expected by the consumer and press to be: cheap, quaffable, not too serious but of good quality. When a wine distributor told me “Hey, you’re from Oregon, don’t take yourself too seriously” I decided to change the paradigm…. And then I decided to change distributors.
There are two distinct moments in my career that I can remember which had a profound effect on how I think about, grow and make Chardonnay in Oregon and which have shaped the Chardonnay from Bergstrom Wines sitting in front of you today.
The first one was when I met David Lett and was fortunate enough to be able to purchase Chardonnay fruit and make wine from the Eyrie Vineyard. Like many of you, David let me taste through his extensive library and purchase bottles for my studies and inspiration. This was the first time I had ever tasted salinity and sea-shell like minerality in Oregon Chardonnay… something I had believed only came from the old world. Needless to say I was inspired and one day I told David that I wanted to make a world class chardonnay that was driven by vibrant acidity and a mineral freshness and he just looked at me as if to say “hey dummy, what do you think I have been trying to do for 40 years?” But he didn’t say that, he just encouraged me onward. It was those three years working with David that inspired my Sigrid Chardonnay program which we first launched in 2006 and that was when I decided to phase out the aromatic white varietals that I had also been making and just focus on Chardonnay as my one and only white wine.
So, I decided to plant chardonnay and farm it to the same quality standards as my Pinot Noirs: On the best slopes, labor intensive, Biodynamic, lower yields. I experimented with different picking dates, different fermentation strategies and I decided to let the wine age at its own pace and I would only release it when it was ready. But most importantly rather than pricing it first and working backwards, I put in the work first and then priced it accordingly. All of that essentially to say that my goal was, and still is, to make the greatest white wine in America, not just something I could serve at winemaker dinners for the appetizer hour.
I learned that the problem with a white wine program that doesn’t take risks to push the boundaries of quality is that it will be confined to a price and a category that competes with the world’s sea of mediocre wines as well as add to the historical market malaises around Oregon Chardonnay. To make a mediocre wine fruit would have to be purchased not planted to save money, Yields would have to be raised to save money, small batches would have to be abandoned to save money, the wine would have to be bottled and released early to save money and in the end all you have done is saved money….. Not made a world class wine. Not inspired anybody. Not fulfilled a higher purpose.
Those of you who travel extensively to sell your Oregon Pinot Noirs know all too well that it is far easier and more gratifying to sell our place and our purpose rather than compete on price or brand with the rest of the world. Place is paramount and we just happen to have one of the greatest places on earth for making world class Chardonnay.
The second moment that changed my thinking on Chardonnay was in 2011, when I went back to Burgundy, and worked harvest with three different Chardonnay producers on the Cote d’Or: Etienne Sauzet in Puligny, Bernard Moreau in Chassagne and Jean Marc Roulot in Meursault. Oregon was having one of our latest vintages in history and Burgundy was having one of its earliest, so it was a perfect opportunity to try and fit two harvests into one year and potentially learn from some of my Chardonnay heroes.
I went to Burgundy hoping to glean some top-secret information that maybe they knew and we didn’t but what I learned there was almost embarrassingly humbling and that is this:
I believe that Burgundy tastes like Burgundy because their intention is to make Burgundy.
That may sound like an overstatement of the obvious but think about it: The farming is straight forward and the winemaking is straight forward, there aren’t a lot of secrets… but their vision and their tradition is to make Burgundy. They pick their fruit when it is at its peak of aromatic and flavor intensity when the grapes are vibrantly acidic, low in sugars and showcasing flavors of lime, lemon and granny smith apples. (flavors that I had long associated with under ripeness.) They pick for integrity of fruit knowing that the transformative process of Chardonnay in the barrel and in the bottle will create a wine that will be defined as Burgundy. And as I was walking down this row of grapevines in the Batard Montrachet vineyard on a beautiful sunny day with a forecast of 2 more weeks of sunshine and there was no more fruit on the vine I thought to myself “Wow they must have horrifically botched this potentially great vintage by picking so early… The forecast was beautiful, where are the grapes?”
And that was when I realized this simple truth that while I was still trying to figure out who I was going to be when I grew up…. Burgundy was already a grown up. They picked their fruit when it was ready to make the Burgundy style. If they had waited through the two more weeks of sunshine they would have made something else, not Burgundy.
The humbling part about this A-HA moment for me was not so much the simplicity of it all but the fact that the Burgundundian style wasn’t decided upon at some late night winemaker’s drinking party at the Clos Vougeot, or at a seminar such as this one….. this style came out of generations of work and most importantly evolved alongside their food and cultural traditions and then was eventually enforced by the AOC to protect it and keep it from mutating……Because several villages and hundreds of families have all evolved together farming this way and making wine this way and celebrating that it is this way, it is Burgundian. So the question remained for me as I flew home: what is Oregonian?
Wines are consistently coming out of our state that rival some of the greatest wines made anywhere but the greatest wines are still a minority. The bar needs to be pushed even higher in our pursuit for consistency of quality. Just because Oregon makes Chardonnay doesn’t mean it is a slam dunk. We still need to prove ourselves as being of consistently high quality over time and worth the consumer’s investment.
As well it is absolutely critical for Oregon Chardonnay’s future that we continue to invest in our infrastructure and plant vineyards with the intention of making world class wines. We need to look at that perfect slope and decide to plant Chardonnay, not just Pinot Noir. Shopping around for fruit may temporarily fuel a renaissance but Chardonnay acreage will need to make a comeback for this to become a true movement.
All of this work has already begun as today’s seminar is evidence. Oregon is working as a community rallying behind this noble varietal in pursuit of greatness and the creation of a new version of Chardonnay for the world: Oregonian Chardonnay. A Chardonnay that pairs well with our local abundance of seafood, mushrooms, hazelnuts and heavily tattooed chefs. And when enough high quality Chardonnays are being made on a regular basis that showcase consistency of quality and thoughtful intent, then people will start to talk about Oregonian Chardonnay the same way they do Burgundian or Californian Chardonnays and that is as an independent entity that does not need comparison to another region to be defined.
And on that final note, we need to frequently look back at where we have been because our past is our foundation. And we need to hold that dear but accept that thoughtful change and innovation is what is going to push us forward. We also need to keep looking at Burgundy but not as though we are looking into a mirror or a wishing well. Because, just like our Pinot Noirs, when we stop mimicking or trying to fit into an existing paradigm and we put all of our collective effort into a qualitative movement…. that is when Oregon shines the brightest.
I don’t know if it was the abundance of music that we played this year during harvest or just the feel of the year but the way this vintage unfolded, I can’t help but think of a Paul Simon lyric to best describe the 2013 experience: “And she said ‘Honey take me dancing’ but they ended up by sleeping in a doorway. By the bodegas and the lights on upper Broadway, wearing diamonds on the soles of their shoes.”
Preparing for a sun-soaked harvest which was tracking identically to the warmer years of 2006 and 2009, I don’t think we truly realized what we were in for. But then again, in the Willamette Valley, no two vintages are alike and hoping that a vintage will be similar to another year in the past can only lead to ruin. But 2013 was far from a ruinous vintage. It was just different than anybody thought it would be. And that is why it could end up being very special.
Here is how 2013 unfolded at Bergstrom Wines:
After a long and dry year, one of the driest on record, many said that the degree days and heat units were tracking almost identically with 2006 and 2009, two very warm vintages that were marked by dryness and heat spikes at the end of the year which drove sugars up and drove acidities down. The 2006 and 2009 wines were flattering from the best addresses but most of them were high in alcohol and stewy with jammy flavors and even some green and bitter aspects to the wines due to tannins and other phenolic materials in the grape not ripening at the same pace as the rapidly escalating sugars and free falling acidities. Personally when I heard people say that we were on track with those years, I felt a pang in my heart as the warmer years in the Willamette Valley are not my favorite. Trying to make harmonious wines with balanced acidities and alcohol levels and capturing freshness in the fruit is very difficult to do in warm or hot years.
So we did what we do every year and that was to prepare for the worst and hopefully be pleasantly surprised. This is a technique that I find works especially well in Oregon. If you take yields down to respectable levels regardless if the year is hot or cold, early or late, you can better deal with the outcome. High yields of fruit can only ripen in the longest and/or warmest of years, which we do not get that often. As well, we had to work hard in the early season with shoot positioning, ground work and organic/biodynamic sprays to ensure that we made it through the mildew season clean and ready for whatever Mother Nature would throw our way.
The vines were beginning to stress and leaves were beginning to turn color in the fruit zone in the month of August which was worrisome. A good spout of rain right around Labor Day really helped to get the vines back on track and photosynthesizing again which is exactly what we needed.
On September 13th a forecast came across the wire that called for a large amount of rain on the horizon and potentially weeks of cloudy wet cooler weather. Normally I don’t balk when confronted with these kind of weather reports early in the season. But because of our early spring and flowering, we were already at 100 days past bloom in several vineyard sites which is more than adequate time to ripen Pinot Noir and especially Chardonnay. Brix levels were hovering around 22 degrees, pH’s in the Chardonnays were 3.1-3.15 and with some of the Pinot Noirs 3.3-3.4. In other words, Perfect for what I was looking for. The rain was coming and we had 50 acres of fruit that were ready to come in. So on September 15th we began to harvest our younger vines and warmer sites for Pinot Noir and most of our Chardonnay from almost all of our vineyards. We pushed hard for 5 days and brought all of the fruit in under cloudy but mostly dry skies. We harvested all of the Bergstrom Vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA, we harvested the Winery Block just out front of the winery and tasting room. We harvested half of Le Pre du Col on the Ribbon Ridge and sixty percent of Shea Vineyard in Yamhill Carlton. We harvested all of our Chardonnay except for Temperance Hill, Wren and Gregory Ranch. 112 tons of fruit in all were harvested before the rains fell.
The rain came in like a lion over the weekend of September 27th dropping more than 6 inches of rain in just over 5 days. Some towns and the vineyards around those towns saw less rain, some saw more. Some vineyards handled the rain very well and others did not fare as well. Many Oregon winemakers had picked a large amount or all of their fruit before the rain and yet many more had decided to only pick a small amount if anything before the rains. I know of many very talented winemakers in the Willamette Valley who chose to wait on their entire harvest. We had picked 50% of our grapes before the harvest. And I can honestly tell you that I couldn’t sleep for many nights because I was worried that I might have pulled the trigger too soon.
I have slowly been transitioning my wines and my wine style away from the big Hollywood production and more towards the independent film made by the starving artist. More and more I want to make Oregon Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that walk on the cutting edge. I want to make wines that take time to open and years to develop and only truly showcase their greatness after a decade or more in the bottle. To do this you must have freshness and harmony within the balance between acid, fruit and alcohol. And to achieve all of this, I have found that I need to pick slightly earlier than I have been in the past as only natural acids and lower pH’s can keep wines vibrant and youthful. And if you balance your farming and yields and winemaking techniques correctly, you can still have wines of opulence and flesh that are enthralling to drink young, but now you can bring in the other dimension of succulence and vibrancy and youthful structure that will reward the patient wine drinker with time in the cellar.
So anyway, I picked earlier than I ever had before from some very important vineyards and my head was full of worry and self-doubt about this decision. I knew deep down that I was doing the right thing. I checked and double checked my notes and it all looked right on paper. And then I tasted the first few wines as we pressed out the first tanks and they were exhilarating. And then another and another wine went to barrel and I had a big smile on my face and I slept very soundly after that. The early showing from 2013 was everything that I had hoped they would be.
The rain passed and with its passing came one of the most beautiful fall seasons that I can remember in Oregon. weeks upon weeks of sunshine, warm temperatures and leaves on vines and trees bursting into vivid reds, oranges, pinks and yellows. For about a month it was paradise on earth in the Willamette Valley and during this window we harvested the rest of our fruit. The fruit that came in during the second pick was all across the board as far as its appearance, but the quality and flavors and phenolic ripeness was quite good. This fruit after all had sat on the vines for more than 120 days past bloom. That is as long of a season as 2011 or 2012. And with Pinot Noir, we know now that it isn’t so much about sunshine and warmth as it is about hang time on the vine.
The interesting thing about this second round of harvesting is that it was now almost three weeks after we first started picking. All of the fermentation tanks that we had filled up with the first round of fruit had already finished fermenting and we had taken those wines to barrel. It was as if we were starting our second harvest of the year.
Today is November 9th and we have only one tank left to press out in the winery. All of our Pinot Noir has been taken to barrel as of yesterday. The Chardonnays are enjoying a long, slow healthy fermentation in their barrels. Those beautiful bright leaves of autumn are long gone, brown and wet on the ground. The clear blue skies are also gone, giving way to wintery gray cloud cover. The birds came and went but they missed the harvest this year by about 2 weeks. Lucky for us. Our hard working team of interns has also left which is always bittersweet. We had a great group of guys this year who all worked very hard.
Now all that is left to do is clean and organize and taste through what we have crafted and wrap our heads around what we did this year. Harvest is always a celebration at Bergstrom Wines and so it is with great prejudice that I say; I feel that this was a wonderful year. We laughed and played and ate and drank and worked so hard and it all felt right. The grapes were beautiful and full of flavor with the right levels of acidity and sugar for my taste. Our vineyards were pristine and stayed free of disease from the start of the year to the finish thanks to the hard work of our vineyard team. We worked from sun up to sun down for more than 50 straight days and it was worth it. We picked at the right time and we balanced the harvest out with a large picking campaign before and after the rains. I stayed true to my goals for the year and implemented a lot of whole cluster fermentations and a more delicate approach to extraction. The cellar is full of wines that are as complex as the year was.
A friend of mine on social media likened the 2013 vintage to a perfect combination of 2011 and 2012. I like this comparison although I try to stay away from comparing vintages too much, especially this early on. In reality, 2013 is unlike any other vintage we have ever seen. The wines are deeply colored, very aromatic and have a wonderful, charming fruit forwardness that will undoubtedly make the vintage very friendly and playful. But certain vineyards have given serious tannic and mineral structure that will keep these wines honest. These are not wines that are thin or washed out as some might assume given the rains that fell in the middle of the vintage. In fact, I don’t think that the rain played much of a role at all other than knocking dust off of the vines and giving the vines’ parched roots a well-deserved drink of water. The wines from the first half of harvest and the second half of harvest will no doubt be quite different from each other. But through blending in the cellar we will arrive at an even greater level of complexity from this “double harvest” phenomenon.
And so the harvest we thought we would have did not turn out to be the harvest we had and the diamonds on the soles of our shoes will quite possibly be Oregon’s best kept secret time and time again: that the challenging vintages often times make the greatest wines. And everybody here knows what I am talking about.
5:00 AM wake up suddenly to grotesque pop song blaring from alarm radio. Both arms are fast asleep making it impossible to turn off radio alarm. Finally manage to swing one dead limb around to strike the radio while also knocking over full glass of water. Stub toe on ironing board on the way to shower.
5:02 AM stand half asleep under hot water in shower mindlessly whistling grotesque pop song that woke me up which now will serve as my ear-worm of the day. Cracked hands sting under falling water.
5:04 AM turn water off and realize that I may not have shampooed or used soap. Can’t remember…. too tired.
5:05 AM stare groggily at soap bar to distinguish if lather on it is from today or yesterday.
5:07 AM turn water back on and use soap and shampoo all the while whistling stupid pop song.
5:20 AM ingest first cup of coffee, feed trustworthy vineyard dog and flick light switch which illuminates pathetic gas fireplace. Spend 5 minutes watching coffee brew and making plans to install real fire place while remembering summers cutting wood with my dad. Look in the mirror and wonder why I am still growing this harvest beard…. I look like a guinea pig.
5:40 AM ingest second cup of coffee and now feeling blood coming back to dead arms. Apply lotion to cracked hands blackened by grape juice and new wine. Swat at fruit flies circling fruit bowl in kitchen, but there are actually more on me than on my fruit bowl. So give up and grab my to go cup of coffee.
5:45 AM smoking hot wife hands me home baked pastry to share with harvest crew on my way out the door. Kiss my sleeping children goodbye. Won’t see them again for 3 days.
5:46 AM sit in cold car that smells like delicious baked goods and curse myself for not having bought gasoline the day before.
5:48 AM coast into local gas station on gas fumes to fill up the winery truck. Check e-mails and call multiple vineyard managers about fruit being picked today.
6:00-6:45 AM commute to work pausing briefly on the top of Bell Road on the Chehalem Mountain to watch the sun rise behind Mt. Hood. Reflect on fun winemaker dinners I have done at Timberline Lodge and Silcox Hut and wonder what my friend Chef Jason is up to way up there on the top of the world.
6:45 AM get to work and open all of the doors of the winery to vent the building of the Carbon Dioxide gas that has built up over night because of the 50 fermenting wine tanks inside. Cough and gag a couple of times and then stand outside in the cold wishing I had another cup of coffee or at least that I was still back in bed near my family. Take one minute to breathe in and relish the smell of fermentation like a Willy Wonka candy that only comes out to the marketplace once a year, or once in a lifetime.
7:30 AM devoted harvest crew shows up and devours smoking hot wife’s home baked pastry like a pack of wolves…. but respectfully. Two large pots of coffee are brewed and punchdowns commence. Good group of guys.
7:45-8:30 AM all Pinot Noir tanks are punched down by hand or pumped over. Destemmer, grape press and sorting table are sanitized and readied for the busy day of receiving Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Get on forklift and make it down to the bottom of the driveway to unload first fruit truck and forklift dies because it is empty. Spend the next 45 seconds cursing in both English and French and potentially another demonic tongue in front of harvest crew. Then walk up hill with empty propane tank wondering why this always happens to me. Is it Monday? What day is it anyways? Go back to winery and taste first new wines and juices of the day and marvel at the potential this vintage has regardless of two large rain events.
8:45 AM spend 30 minutes furiously untangling water hoses, glycol hoses, electrical wires, air compressor hoses and eventually tangle up my brain and feel a stroke coming on from the frustration of this god forsaken act of making wine.
9:15 AM walked through the vineyard and calmed down a bit just in time to begin weighing fruit coming in from the vineyard. Answered phone calls from two other vineyards who are ready for fruit to be picked up. Took a brief moment to realize the beauty of the morning. I really do live in paradise. There is a rainbow over my good friend and neighbor Doug’s vineyard.
9:45 AM loaded first press load of Chardonnay which will take three and a half hours. Didn’t quite think today out and scheduled to pick 9 tons of Chardonnay. That will only take 20 hours of straight pressing. Damn it.
9:46 AM open refrigerator and look at vast array of cold beers that cork and oak sales friends have brought by. Contemplate the pros and cons of a cold frosty alcoholic beverage this early in the morning. What time is it anyway? Isn’t there a football game on today? Close the refrigerator and eat some banana bread instead with another cup of coffee.
10 AM begin to stack barrels onto stainless steel racks and sanitize pumps and hoses to start racking finished wines to the barrels where they will spend one year. rip open two fingers with random nails sticking out of barrels and puncture palm with frayed piece of metal sticking off of another barrel’s metal hoop. Hands will sting each time I sink them in sulfur and citric wash throughout the day. Yay oak barrels!
10:15 AM it is sunny and beautiful outside but I am wearing two fleece jackets and a wool hat because it is 48 degrees in the cellar where I am filling barrels. Each time I walk outside to monitor the fruit coming in I sweat and have to peel off two layers, then freeze when I walk back inside. Spend 2 minutes teasing trustworthy vineyard dog with flashlight. She ecstatically chases the light around the cellar floor like a butterfly.
10:30 AM introduced to distributor and his sales staff who have scheduled a visit for today but I forgot to look at my calendar. Spend next hour and a half talking and tasting and touring and teaching while chaos ensues around us. Fruit trucks are stacked up in the driveway, the garbage man is here to collect our mountain of cardboard from bottling last week and the septic company has decided this would be the ideal day on the lunar calendar to pump out our reservoir in front of 50 tasters on the tasting room patio…. It’s going to be a great day. Grotesque pop song ear-worm pops into my head again and I start to whistle.
Fruit is being picked, fruit is being sorted and fruit is being destemmed, tanks are being filled, barrels are being filled, interns are interning, calculations are being made, laboratory samples are being taken, laboratory analysis is being completed, picking dates are being scheduled, trucking is being coordinated, three different to do lists are being created and items are getting checked off one by one. Chefs are preparing lunch and dinner menus and pots are simmering, tasters are tasting, wine is selling, bees are buzzing and trustworthy vineyard dog is lying on her back in the sunshine with her tail wagging eating them out of the air as they fly by. Life is good when you’re a black lab. Hell, life is good period.
Noon. Harvest team steps off of sorting table. The roar of the machinery comes to a stop and the rock and roll that has been blaring is quieted. Ears are ringing. We walk down the hill for lunch at the house at the bottom of our property. A fruit truck arrives with 30 bins of Pinot Noir wanting to be unloaded. And re-loaded with empty bins. Argh! Like clockwork, every single day. Don’t people eat lunch?
1:00 Lunch at last. Peace and quiet and sitting down and some joking around. Turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and root vegetables. Looks like late summer, feels like Thanksgiving. Puligny Montrachet, Morgon, Chambolle Musigny, Cornas……Harvest meals are the best!
1:45 PM Much more of the same logistical nightmare: create a huge to do list and then start checking off the tasks one by one: Rack juice, keep best lees, throw out the worst lees, now clean the drain that those worst lees clogged, rinse out tank for next press-load, oops; press is full of Pinot Noir, need to sanitize that. Sort fruit, fill tanks, connect tanks to glycol, did that tank get homogenized and labeled? Lab report came back on the 2012 wines in tank, they need a small bump of free SO2, try to do that without fruit flies getting into the wine. Who is on coffee duty? What day is it again? What do you mean there is another fruit truck in the driveway? Time to weigh and label more bins. Are the barrels being washed to take the new wines into? What do you mean the pickers walked off the job because we were sorting too much in the field? random sales person shows up trying to pitch some new line of barrels or oak alternative. The office calls wanting projections for production numbers in 2012. The bank calls wanting projection numbers for 2014. Robert Parker calls wanting a case of the 2016 futures…. just kidding… Mom calls to say she loves me but does not love my harvest beard. Whew….. take one minute to breathe and drink a big glass of water.
6:00 PM Call the crew down from the sorting table, clean up, turn off the press, pump the last bit of Chardonnay into the settling tank, grab two bottles of wine and head down to dinner. Witness a double rainbow and remember a sixth grade Biology lesson on the colors of the rainbow: ROY G. BIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet.) Eat a tremendous meal.
7:00 PM begin sorting agin after another cup of coffee and potentially too much dessert. Move heavy tanks around by pallet jack, untangle more hoses, fill more barrels, unclog drains filled with grapes and seeds and stems again, swat at more fruit flies, double check lab work, turn chilling on some tanks, turn heaters on other tanks, punchdowns, pump overs, clean, clean, clean, taste juice samples from the day. Smile.
10:00 PM finish processing fruit. Begin clean up process. Pressure wash the sorting line, then pressure wash the press. put late-picked fruit into cold room, write tomorrow’s to -do list…. what day is tomorrow? Thank goodness for smart phones, tomorrow is Monday. Damn, missed the football game this weekend. Maybe I’ll see the one tomorrow. Dreamer.
11:00 PM say goodnight to harvest crew, trustworthy vineyard dog jumps into car, fill up large water bottle for long ride home, contemplate one more cup of coffee but decline in the interest of getting some sleep. Turn off lights, turn off heaters, make sure chiller is working, turn on cooling fans, untangle hoses, dump all grape skins, seeds, stems into compost pile in field, double check lids are on all tanks so fruit flies do not have spring break in a tank, turn off lights and get into winery truck. Unwillingly bring along 30+ fruit flies for the ride home Hands, hair, clothes sticky with grape juice. Tired. Very tired.
11:20 PM slap face several times and blast grotesque pop music on radio and turn air conditioning on full blast right around the town of Tigard so that I make it home to Portland awake and in one piece.
11:45 PM arrive home safely. Kiss sleeping children and sleeping beautiful wife goodnight.
12:15 AM pass out stone cold unbathed on the bed and dream restlessly about fruit flies and moving tanks around in endless circles and untangling wine hoses for four short hours and forty five minutes.
Today is Wednesday September 25th and just like that it is halftime. One hundred and twelve tons of fruit have been picked by hand out of 7 different vineyards and carefully carried up Calkins Lane to our winery where we have sorted, destemmed and filled all of our shiny stainless steel fermentation tanks. We have picked all 13 acres of the Bergstrom Vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA, half of the Le Pre du Col Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, half of Silice and all of the Winery Block in the Chehalem Mountains AVA and half of the Shea Vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton. We have also picked our one acre blocks of Chardonnay at Carabella and Anderson Family Vineyards. Eighty tons of fruit still sit on the vine. The forecast is good for this upcoming week and we are currently seeing rain showers and much colder weather. It now definitely feels like fall in the Willamette Valley.
The fruit which came in was ripe and ready to pick after having spent 100+ days on the vine since bloom. Acids were falling fairly quickly although the brix levels this year are not high which makes me very happy. I always worry in dry warm years that the sugar levels will outpace the acidity free-fall and the resulting musts may need to be adjusted to achieve balanced wines. This year we are looking at pH’s at 3.3-3.4 for Pinot Noir and Brix levels of around 22 which is like a dream come true. The flavors are fresh and bright and the fruit smells like candy. We have filled 75 barrels of Chardonnay juice and they the indigenous yeasts from the vineyards are slowly beginning to kick off those fermentations. The quality of Chardonnay looks especially high this year.
We pushed hard for 5 straight days of picking and sorting and now we have taken a small break to let the storms pass through. During this break we also have taken two days to bottle some 2012 wines and prepare for our annual harvest dinner series for our wine club members. We have never put on our annual harvest dinners this deep into the middle of harvest, so it will be very fun and very cozy as we pack 100+ people each night over two nights in our cellars.
As the storms pass through we prepare to pick the last half of Shea and Le Pre du Col, a few acres of Silice, Gregory Ranch, Croft and Temperance Hill as well as nurture along the 40+ fermentations that are bubbling away peacefully under shelter.
Balance….. easier said than done. Finding true balance in our lives is difficult to do, what with all of the distractions and temptations and the noise of everyday life. Life seems to swing more like a pendulum with the moments of balance being short, sweet and fleeting. It is just as difficult to achieve balance when making wine but this simple word has become a revolutionary word in the wine world as of late.
If you are always chasing a fad or a fashion in wine, you will never find balance. If you make wine for glossy magazines and not for yourself, then you will never find balance. When you lean too far in one direction, by definition, you are out of balance. From balance comes consistency and longevity and that is the ultimate goal in wine from my standpoint. With balance you stand solidly for something.
During my last two weeks in France this summer, I found two Domaines who balance their wines very well albeit they come from two totally different ends of the scale.
If you have ever driven past the Mont St. Victoire when the Mediterranean sunrise hits it just right, you know how majestic Provence can be and why so many of the great painters moved there to capture the light. There are colors and hues and shades in the South of France that I have never seen in other parts of the world. Pastel anywhere else just looks so 1980′s. We passed by the Mont. St. Victoire on a beautiful sunny day on our way down to the seaport town of Bandol where I had an appointment to taste and tour Domaine Tempier. The Bandol area is known for the Mourvedre grape although other grape varieties like Syrah and Grenache can also be blended in small quantities here. Domaine Tempier was one of the true pioneers of Bandol and of the Mourvedre grape thanks to the efforts of Lucien Peyraud and his famous wife Lucie “Lulu” Peyraud who inherited Domaine Tempier in 1936. At that time the domaine was a simple farm that had been created in the early 1800′s and handed down through the generations. Lucien is credited with helping to create the Bandol AOC and championing the Mourvedre variety which had been planted in the region long ago but was being systematically replanted to inferior high-yielding varietals.
I first read about the Peyraud family and Domaine Tempier’s glory in the books and cookbooks of Richard Olney and subsequently through Kermit Lynch’s newsletters and his book “Adventures on the Wine Route.” The stories of Olney and Lynch and Alice Waters from “Chez Panisse” hanging out with the Peyraud family as Lulu served course after course of her famous hearth-cooked provencal cuisine seemed almost imaginary to me with a mythical, almost magical feel to them. I too longed to go to Bandol and drink Mourvedre Rose and eat sea-urchins! I wanted to see these gnarled old vines that gave way to inky, earthy wines. So we made a point to go and we drove 5 hours south from Nimes with the children in tow and that’s how I found myself in Le Plan de Castellet walking through the doors of Domaine Tempier for my first ever visit to this famed estate.
Domaine Tempier is a small and humble building tucked away in a valley that is covered with grapevines on a small street lined with beautiful old trees. Instantly you know that this is a family run estate by the feel here. The Peyrauds had 7 children and many of them have been directly involved with the domaine since Lucien passed away in 1996. I was fortunate enough to get a guided tour from one of the Peyraud daughters. We started with the 2012 Rose of (one of my all-time favorites, although there were no sea-urchins in sight) and then we descended into the cellar to taste the reds. Once again I was shocked to see no small French oak barrels but a cellar filled entirely with foudres. These were also varying in size and many were much larger than the ones I found at domaine Clape up in Cornas. Mme Peyraud opened the 2011 Bandol Mourvedre and followed that with samples of the 2011 single vineyard Mourvedres: “La Migoua”, “La Tourtine” and “Cabassaou.” These wines were so full of character, each having its own identity, perfume, textural experience and flavor profile. They were dark as squid ink and wonderfully earth-driven. And they were all in perfect balance. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the back of each bottle to see that the alcohol levels were all 15%. What?! Wines that were balanced and delicious and begged for another sip at such outrageous alcohol levels as this?! How could it be? How was it possible?
The current debate raging in the new world wine scene is that balance was only achievable with lower alcohol levels, or at least that is what one side of the group thinks. The other half believes that balance has nothing to do with alcohol but how the wine is proportioned overall. After all, if you pick a wine too early in a warm climate to avoid high alcohols but your fruit isn’t completely physiologically ripe, do the green herbaceous aromas and high acid levels bring that wine into balance? What about Chateauneuf du Pape or Australian Shiraz…. are these famous wines out of balance simply because of their high alcohol levels? What is balance in wine then? Well, I found it in Bandol, that’s for sure, and I found it at high alcohol levels. But here is the important thing: In Bandol it is hot all year long and Mourvedre takes a long time to ripen and needs a lot of heat to fully mature. The ensuing wines reflect the sun-drenched days and the beautiful light that reflects off of the Mont St. Victoire and the surrounding calcium-rich mountaintops. They speak of sunshine and warmth and Provence. They are beautifully balanced like a gargantuan swath of gossamer. And that is what makes them unique and true and consistently top notch.
So if Bandol is balanced at 15% alcohol, then what about something else, something entirely different. What is the other end of the spectrum? To find the answer to this question, we would have to travel 8 hours north back to Burgundy. So we said au-revoir to Provence with a swim in the Mediterranean Sea and a heaping cone of soft serve ice cream and we hit the road again. Back to the land of mustard and snails and the greatest white wines in the world. (This is where all of you Riesling fanatics turn your computers off in disgust…. but hey, I didn’t have time to drive to Germany!)
Domaine Roulot is one of my favorite producers of white Burgundy wines. It is located in the village of Meursault which is home to some of my favorite wines and producers of Chardonnay in the world. The limestone soils in Meursault are different than those of Puligny Montrachet, Chassage or Chablis and I believe they tend to capture a sweet spot for the grape. Meursault wines, depending on the producer and the vineyard can be showboats of sweet Chardonnay nectar or they can be mineral and stony and sleek reserving their great character to only be shown slowly over years of evolution in the bottle.
Jean Marc Roulot who has taken over his father’s domaine after the latter’s untimely death in the early 1980′s is a master at capturing a perfect balance with Chardonnay. His wines can be firm and mineral in their youth with aromas and flavors that are more saline, or oyster shell and with time reveal layer after layer of sweet, richly textured citrus and stone fruit flavors gaining an unexplainable weight in the bottle. These wines are in a word: striking and are sought out by all lovers of Chardonnay around the world. But laying your hands on an allocation of these wines is easier said than done as the production here is tiny for such a large world’s thirst for greatness. If you thought you liked Chardonnay, welcome to the dirty underbelly of Chardonnay fanaticism.
I was fortunate enough to be received at Domaine Roulot by Jean Marc on my final week in Burgundy which for me was one of the highlights of the year. We tasted through his entire 2011 lineup which I had been fortunate enough to witness as juice during the 2011 harvest. I had tasted all of these juices from barrel directly after harvest as they were just beginning to ferment and so it was thrilling to be able to see the final products in bottle and witness their evolution first hand at the source. We tasted through all of his village wines and his lieux-dit Meursault Village wines as well as the coveted Premier Cru bottlings. What astounds me every time I taste Roulot wines is that he does not own or purchase any Grand Cru fruit (Meursault does not have any Grand Cru Vineyards) but he does not need it. Jean Marc’s village wines are better than most people’s Premier Cru wines and his Premier Cru wines are often times leagues above his neighbors Grand Cru bottlings. In fact as he joked that if somebody came knocking looking to sell him some Corton Charlemagne fruit he would gladly accept it, I thought to myself: “Don’t bother…. you don’t need it.”
Roulot is one of those rare brands that has tremendous strength of story and wine. His geographical focus is the village of Meursault and he does it very well. His stylistic focus is balance with low alcohols and high natural acidities which leave a mouthwatering imprint on the taster. The use of oak is minimum and often times new oak barrels are not even used at all. And what astounded me the most is that Jean-Marc Roulot oftentimes will pick his Chardonnay fruit when it is around 12% alcohol. Something that not too many Chardonnay producers are doing anymore.
There is a reason that many people walked away from Chardonnay in the 80′s and 90′s. Most new world Chardonnays were being made in a sweet, unctuous, syrupy style which showcased the oak cooper more than the vineyard the wines came from. Brands were forged based on residual sugar, butteriness and sweet vanilla aromas and flavors. Oak forests were depleted to create an empire which, like Rome, collapsed in upon itself when many people realized that Chardonnay no longer paired with food and had become almost synonymous with naïveté.
Well guess what. Chardonnay is back and thank God, or thank Jean-Marc Roulot, you choose. New Chardonnays from the old world such as these from Roulot have inspired a legion of young and new winemakers in America and beyond to revisit this great grape and peel away the facade and the makeup that has smothered it for so many years and we are now seeing balance and deliciousness with this grape that is encouraging and fostering a Chardonnay renaissance which I could not be happier to be a part of.
The revolution is not just happening in Chardonnay, it is happening in Pinot Noir and Rhone Varietals and many other wine varieties around the planet. And the revolutionaries’ flags say “Balance!”
After having enjoyed a few weeks in our apartment tucked away in the ancient ramparts of the city of Beaune, we decided to change up the scenery. Our next week in France found us leaving the Burgundy area and driving South down the A-6 autoroute through Lyon and into the Rhone Valley. Our destination was Provence and an exploration into the grape varietals of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre: the holy Rhone triumvirate as far as red wines are concerned. I planned on visiting a specialist of each of these varietals and a few people who blended them together.
I have long been an admirer of the Rhone wines with their aromas of olives and garrigue and blue and black fruits. So different from Pinot Noir and yet, when carefully crafted, so similar in its elegance and perfume and expression. Some people call Grenache the “Pinot of the South.” And I believe that when Pinot Noir is very ripe can display characters not to dissimilar to Syrah. Mourvedre has a distinct wild animal character to it. The three of these separately make fantastic wines all worth seeking out from the best terroirs and the best producers. But together, as a blend (think Chateauneuf du Pape), they can become a mind boggling concoction.
We found our home base for exploring the area in the Costiere des Nimes appellation which is located not far from the ocean and sandwiched between the ancient Roman towns of Nimes and Arles, just south of Avignon and just north of La Camargue where wild horses and pink flamingos mingle in the Mediterranean’s ocean inlets and meadow sanctuaries. Here the cicadas, or “cigalles” sing all day long under the blistering sunshine and the breeze smells of lavendar and olive and rosemary. The soil is hard to see through the large rolled quartz cobblestones, the kind that made Chateauneuf du Pape so famous, and we were just one hour south of there. This area of France is rich with history and although not perfectly situated for the domaines we wanted to visit, was a perfect backdrop to enjoying Provence in general as it is freckled with wine domaines and country houses who are eager to rent rooms or entire chateaux to travelers looking for something outside of the usual hotel experience.
Our first vinous objective took us back up the Autoroute about 2 hours north to Valence and then a hard left over the Rhone river and up the banks through St. Peray to the little town of Cornas. Visiting the Rhone Valley without a stop at Domaine Clape in Cornas would be unthinkable. This is one of my favorite Syrah producers in the world. Domaine Clape is widely known and appreciated as one of the finest producers of Syrah in France. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate has anointed their wines with perfect 100 point scores several times. Their importer Kermit Lynch has this to say about the winegrowing family: “In the world of wine, there are many good winegrowers. However, there are only a very select few who are truly great, and Auguste Clape is among them. Critics and connoisseurs alike all agree that he is one of the greatest pioneers of the Northern Rhône, and his Syrahs from the cru of Cornas are among the most celebrated wines of France.” Simply put, these are stunning wines of tremendous complexity. I go out of my way to find and collect and taste these wines.
I was greeted at the domaine by Olivier Clape, son of Pierre-Marie Clape and grandson of the famous patriarch Auguste Clape. Olivier is about my age, I would guess, and about my size and build, I would figure. There was no sign at the winery, no grandiose entrance or gate, not even the resemblance of a winery really, more like a long white building with many doors and garage doors with very few windows (kind of like an apartment building) and you had to look closely at the small piece of paper next to the doorbell which simply said: “CLAPE.” Inside the door it all started making sense. There were tanks and a bottling machine and equipment spread about the floor and there were pictures of the vineyards which you could not see from town as they lay high above us tucked away and perched on the hillside cliff terraces of the appellation. Olivier grabbed two glasses and about $1000. worth of wine (5 bottles ) and we descended into the cave via old stock elevator.
Once downstairs, I was blown away. The Clape cave is one of the most enchanting places I have ever been as a winemaker. Not because it was built by a Duke or a King or even a monk in some far away century, but because it was the moldiest, fuzziest most perfectly dank cellar I have ever been in and there was not a single small barrel in sight. The Clapes only use foudres for the aging of their Syrahs. Foudres are oval oak casks of varying sizes. Foudres ranging anywhere from 5-barrels in size to 15-barrels in size lined the cellar on both walls.
They were old and gnarly looking, like ancient boats with barnacles you would find in a maritime museum, with distinct character each of them, much like the individual precious cuvees of wine they held inside. We proceeded to taste through the foudres (2012 and 2011 vintages) all the way from their “Cotes du Rhone” wines at the entry-level to their “Renaissance” selection wines and finally through the several components of the mighty “Cornas” appellation wine. Then we dove straight into the finished bottles of the same appellations and names from 2010, 2007, 2002 and even 1989.
The Clape wines are fermented with 100% cluster inclusion (whole cluster) which means that they do not de-stem their fruit prior to maceration and fermentation. This is how wines were made for centuries before the invention of the destemming machine. With this technological advance came more modern styled wines that focused more on fruit and sweetness and less on the savory dimension of wines. I am a big fan of the whole cluster style regardless of producer around the world. Some of my favorite wines in the Pinot and Syrah world include their stems and whole bunches in their fermentation tank: Domaine Dujac and Romanee Conti in Burgundy and Cristom in Oregon come to mind. This style of wine, when young, does offer more savory notes including aromas and flavors such as olive and rosemary or other garden herbs. A lot of times these young whole cluster wines make me crave pizza because of their potential for a perfect mingling of high toned fruit aromas (similar to tomato) and savoriness and sometimes even a salty or saline character. But as the wines age there is a mid-palate sweetness and a perfume that adds a third dimension to wine that I find very beguiling.
What whole cluster does at Clape is it helps to balance out the intensely concentrated dark fruit characters that they can get from these hillside cliff vineyards and small yields. The stems add intrigue to the wines when young as well as structure and mid-palate but with age the stems keep the wines fresh and balanced. It is rare in the wine world to see wines with alcohols in the high 14% (and even low 15% in rare vintages) to maintain freshness and seemingly become more balanced with age. But that is what happens chez Clape and I was thrilled to try some older wines to experience this phenomenon first hand with my own eyes and tastebuds. I was honored to be able to step foot into the Clape’s cave and have two hours of Olivier’s precious time. I emerged out of the dank cave into the bright hot light of that small street in Cornas I got into our rental car where Caroline and the boys had been patiently waiting and as they said: “There is absolutely nothing to do in Cornas….. and…… eeewwww you reek of mold!” I smiled and thought about how many more whole cluster fermentations I am going to do this harvest.
This blog has always been personal and usually about my observations of our business and our business dealings, about agriculture, trends in the wine industry, rare wines and special dinners, mostly enjoyable subjects that I have experienced and want to share. I wanted to take a short pause in the general merriment and blogging about Burgundy to address the fire that many of you have read about on various social media pages and as well on the Wine Spectator website.
On August 27th, our agricultural barn at the Bergstrom Vineyard in Dundee caught fire destroying the barn itself, the tractor and several of the farming implements inside. The Northern half of this barn was used as a private wine storage by my father and mother and myself and unfortunately we believe that most of the 150+ cases of rare wines from around the world as well as library bottles and large formats of Bergstrom Wines from 1999-2009 that we had collected over the years were also destroyed as temperatures inside of the smoldering building reached 300-400 Fahrenheit.
The Dundee and Newberg Fire departments were quickly on the scene with five trucks and fifteen brave firefighters who helped to extinguish the blaze before the entire building could burn down or the fire could spread or even potentially worse; ignite the agricultural diesel and gasoline tanks stored adjacent to the building. It could have been a lot worse. Fortunately no one was injured in the fire and that is the most important thing. The fire was believed to be caused by two Organically listed agricultural spray ingredients: copper hydroxide powder (a common fungicide amongst Organic and Biodynamic growers across the world) and Stylet oil (a mineral oil also widely used to control pests and disease on plants in the early spring) which when mixed can combust. We obviously did not know this and unfortunately learned the hard way. It’s a tough pill to swallow knowing that just because we do not use pesticides or insecticides or herbicides or systemic fungicides in our vineyards that the organic chemicals we do use could have such a bad reaction when put together. These chemicals are never sprayed at the same time but unfortunately were stored on the same shelf together and that is what started the spark that quickly ignited the chemical closet and spread to the barn. It is important that other Organic and Biodynamic farmers understand the dangers that some chemicals pose when combined and it is important to make sure that we all have metal chemical closets to help contain fires if one was to start. Unfortunately, ours was made of wood.
The reasons I write about this fire today are three-fold. First off it is good to discuss it and seek closure on this event so that we can focus on the work at hand which is the bottling of our awesome 2012 wines and preparing for our fifteenth vintage at Bergstrom Wines with this year’s 2013 harvest. Second, we wanted to re-iterate to everybody that the fire did not take place at our winery and our team is safe and and our general stock of wines, both current release and library are safe and sound in a different off-site warehouse. We are open for business as usual. Third and very important is that I want to thank all of the people who have sent hundreds of text messages, phone calls, posts on social media and e-mails all wishing us well and expressing heartfelt condolences. People from the industry and clients have come out of the woodwork to offer help, lend implements and tractors and I have even had winemakers show up to my winery with wines from their personal cellars to help us rebuild our collection. I have never seen such an outpouring of sincere kindness and for that I will forever be grateful.
I personally did not think that this event was news-worthy and when the Wine Spectator was writing an article within 18 hours to post it on their website I was very uncomfortable about it. We do not seek to have our private lives shared with hundreds of thousands of people and dealing with a loss and the work that comes with it makes it harder when so many eyes are also pointed at your problem. But the point was raised that farmers need to know about the potential hazards of chemical storage, even if those are Organic ingredients and I agree. This kind of a fire could happen to anyone and it could be a lot worse if their chemical closet was located in their winery or house or garage. Accidents happen and sometimes they lead to tragedy and create unwanted stress or grief. This unfortunate event will be repaired and we will move on but we will always remember the care and the thoughts that you have sent us. Wine libraries can be re-built as can barns and tractors, but human life cannot and we are so grateful that nobody was hurt in this accident. Thank you.
Flying North through the French countryside on the TGV towards Paris, passing by fields freckled with red poppies and white Charolais cows and thunderstorms overhead, I couldn’t help but reflect on the past month of time that we have spent in Burgundy.
Returning to Burgundy for me feels strangely like going home. I lived and studied here more than fifteen years ago and because Caroline is from here, we return often, though not often enough, to see family and friends and drink once again from what I consider to be a fountain of youth. This is where we fell in love with each other and with wine and started our journey of creating Bergstrom Wines with my parents, who were planting the Bergstrom Vineyard in 1999 as we left the Côte d’Or for Oregon.
We are proud to make Oregon wines and make our living in the Willamette Valley and call Portland home but there is so much of Burgundy that runs through our hearts. Going back to where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been grown for generations is where I learn the most.
It’s hard to decide after a month of travel what exactly to share about our journey. We visited New York and ate at some great restaurants all worthy of mention and description and recommendation. I had the dinner of a lifetime in London with three of the greats on the UK wine scene: Jancis Robinson, Hugh Jonson and Michael Broadbent where we ate and conversed and drank wines that were a lot older than I am, or my father is for that matter. I mean when will I ever taste a
1959 or a 1929 Mouton Rothschild or a 1943 La Mission Haut Brion or a 1945 Cos d’Estournelle again? Not to mention Port from 1893…
We reveled with friends in the old twisted streets of Paris for the festival of Music on the Summer’s solstice. And the food…. oh the great foods. Where would I even start there? I even thought about writing about the
terroir of the “Pain au Chocolat” since we purchased some every day from a different baker and they were all so unique, for better or worse, for their variations on airy, flaky, buttery, chocolatey and just plain delicious. But I decided against that last idea after I had gained my first 10 vacation pounds. We drove through Provence and swam in the Mediterranean. We celebrated Bastille Day with fireworks in Meursault. So many great memories we made and I am sure that many of you have been there and done that. So I thought instead I would share with you some revelations that I had during our trip.
The funny thing about revelations is that often times they are always lying in plain sight right in front of your nose. But when you are at home and working and deep into your daily routine, doing what you think you know how to do best, it is easy to overlook moments of illumination. I find I have to leave my comfort zone to find them. I need to get out of the daily grind for a good long time and just think about things. And that is what I did for this past month.
Now, when we return to Burgundy, I like to visit the cooperages who craft our barrels, I like to walk through famous vineyards and witness first hand how they are farming Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vis-a-vis how I am back in Oregon. We eat and drink and enjoy all of the foods and wines that we cannot find back home and savor the aromas and flavors and textures that make them special. But mostly, I really enjoy meeting with winemakers and talking and tasting. There is much to be learned by visiting professionals outside of your realm. Opening your mind and spirit to what others are doing in your field is essential to personal and professional improvement and I make it a priority when we travel. Too often I lament that if wineries and winemakers really want to become world class, they need to get outside of their state or county and really see the world and understand what that term really means. Who else is making wine out there? What is their approach and what do their wines taste like? How is my product different from theirs and where do those differences come from. And most importantly, what can you hear and learn that then jostles you into a different way of thinking or perceiving how you work. If you ever ask a winemaker what the greatest wine was that they ever tasted…. truly an A-HA moment…and they respond with something like: “Well, I made a pretty awesome wine in 1998″…. Then they are missing the point and it’s time for them to travel and learn something more.
On this trip especially, I was fortunate enough to visit some of the best winemakers in their fields, walk through their vineyards, taste their wines and listen to their words and absorb their perspectives. So I thought I would share some of those experiences and my personal conclusions from those visits. Note that it is best to start all tasting days with a “Pain au Chocolat”, but that again, is a different story.
One fine day in Burgundy when the spring and early summer rains had finally ceased to plague the local winegrowers with worry and the warm sun showed itself, we decided to drive up the Cote de Beaune and into the Cote de Nuits to the village of Gevrey Chambertin. Here we would pay a visit to one of the greatest domaines in Burgundy, “Domaine Armand Rousseau.” We were led through the tasting by Ms. Cyrielle Rousseau, daughter of Eric Rousseau and granddaughter of Charles Rousseau, great granddaughter of Armand Rousseau. The domaine was officially created in 1919 when the founding Rousseau, Armand Rousseau decided to move away from selling wine in bulk to local negotiants and began bottling his prestigious vineyard wines on their own, something that was not very mainstream back then with small growers. But his vision led many other locals to begin doing the same.
Gevrey Chambertin the village is probably one of the most famous winegrowing villages in Burgundy simply because of the sheer number of Grand Cru vineyards. It boasts more Grand Cru vineyards than any other village in Burgundy and the name of it’s crown jewel “Chambertin” is famous around the world and simply whispering the word sends shivers up the spines of most Pinot Noir aficionados. Armand Rousseau has one of the most impressive portfolios of vineyard holdings including: several Village level parcels, Premier Cru vineyards: Les Lavaux St. Jacques and Clos St. Jacques and Grand Cru vineyards: Clos de la Roche, Mazy-Chambertin, Charmes Chambertin, Le Chambertin Clos de Beze and the mighty Le Chambertin. Needless to say, tasting here is the wine pilgrim’s dream.
Cyrielle Rousseau is a young winemaker and represents the new generation of forward thinking Burgundians very well. She works directly under her father and grandfather who are still the principals at the domaine but she is next in line for the duties of taking over the domaine someday and writing the next chapters for this great family domaine. Unlike older generations of Burgundian winegrowers who rarely ventured outside of their village and almost never tasted wines from other winemakers or appellations, deeming them not important, Cyrielle has travelled and worked harvest in other regions of the world including Oregon. She writes French poetry in beautiful cursive on her barrels in chalk and speaks like an old soul who is wise beyond her years.
What struck me the most after tasting through these wines was not so much how beautiful the wines were, I was kind of expecting that. It was how simple the winery was and how simple the winemaking approach is. A lot of times when I enter a winery that I have only read about as being one of the greatest in the world, I expect to see a lot of fancy equipment and high-tech sprawled around in perfect order. Here the winery is so small you could maybe park two cars inside of it. The caves underground for aging are impeccable and old and covered with mold and moss and cobwebs but no top of the line air conditioning unit or humidity dispenser. And that is when it hit me. At Armand Rousseau, the winemaker and the winery are simply caretakers for the vineyards. Simplicity and tradition rule here and thank goodness because the wines are pure and clean yet resonate very strongly with terroir and earth character. Each wine is as unique and as individual as the land it comes from and the winery’s job is not to get in the way of that process nor muddle the clarity of sight.
I found that refreshing and reminded me a lot of our approach at home but what I really appreciated was the approach in the vineyards. As we stepped outside after our tasting Cyrielle pointed across the street to the hillside where the “Clos St. Jacques” lay. The vineyard rows run all the way up the hill to the tree-line and must rise a couple of hundred feet in elevation. She told me that the Clos St. Jacques has 4 different bedrocks almost creating four perfect squares or blocks in the vineyard. So, naturally as an American winemaker who is used to farming clonal blocks of vineyards and harvesting them all separately and fermenting them all separately, I asked if she did the same. She simply said: “Why would we do that? This is the Clos St. Jacques. Inside these vineyard walls is one organism, like a village. One vineyard but made up of thousands of different vines. Some old, some young, some overripe, some underripe, some perfect, but together they make the wine great. They make the wine complex and whole.” And although part of me found that answer to be very French, I could not agree more and I left Gevrey Chambertin that day with a different perspective on farming and winemaking. When hard work is done right and timely on a perfect piece of land, don’t get in the way once it gets to the winery, just guide the process. I can relate to that. And as we bid Cyrielle adieu she told me about how she had enjoyed her trip to Oregon. She had visited Bergstrom Wines but unfortunately I was in Burgundy working harvest (this was in 2011.) I apologized for not having received her in the same fashion that she received us at Domaine Armand Rousseau. She said “not at all, you have a wonderful tasting room team…. and I love Sigrid Chardonnay.” It is a small world.
I’ve been asked the same question a lot lately. ”So, how are the 2012 wines coming along….. are they really as amazing as everyone is saying?” This is a good question. The thing that is weird though is that people have been asking me how great the 2012′s are since the berries first entered the building last September. The wines aren’t even finished yet, some aren’t even through their secondary fermentations and still these wines seem pre-ordained for greatness. I feel as if the first 100 point Oregon vintage score has already been awarded to 2012 and nobody has tasted a single 2012 wine in bottle yet.
Now normally I am one of the first people to jump on the bandwagon of a coming vintage. I love to foreshadow to consumers and critics and sommeliers and random people on the street about how exciting the recent vintage will perform in their glasses and cellars. And I consider all vintages to be exciting, so that is important to remember about me. But I do not consider all vintages to be great and I definitely do not consider all vintages to be equal. and I also believe that from where I see a vintage and how the average consumer sees a vintage are two very different points of view. As well, it is important to say that I can only tell you about a vintage through the Bergstrom Wines lens. When it comes to things as personal as stylistic choices on farming, yields, picking decisions, fermentation techniques etc…. I choose to only comment on what we are responsible for.
For me, a vintage is the culmination of a year’s-worth of hard work in the fields, the sigh of relief that our crop was harvested by hand under inclement or arid conditions and brought to safety under the eaves of our winery building and above all else, a celebration that I no longer have to watch the four weather stations and their forecasts three times a day for at least another 4 months. Hot or cold, long or slow…. vintages are exciting. And the good news for wine lovers is that every year we have something new to be excited about. Another opportunity to rediscover all of our favorite wines that were crafted under new and different conditions. Every year is a renaissance for our love of wine.
2012, my 16th vintage in Oregon, Is indeed a very exciting vintage. But I feel that I need to put it into perspective.
In 2010, we had the latest and coolest vintage that we had ever seen in Oregon to date. We had very low yields of beautiful fruit that had to sit through one of the most miserable springs and summers I have ever seen…. and I grew up in Portland Oregon, so I am used to bad weather. When we finally felt as if the nail biting and hair pulling over the weather had perhaps come to an end and the season might turn out alright, we experienced “the birds”: Hitchcockian flocks of hungry winged beasts from the North descended into our vineyards and decimated our fruit. We yelled at them, we shot at them, we threw rocks at them, we prayed for larger birds to come eat the smaller birds but in the end, they won the fight and we had to harvest even smaller yields in late October. Personally Bergstrom Wines lost 70% of our Chardonnay and 40% of our Pinot Noir to the birds and the weather. But the resulting wines are gorgeous. And I will always remember 2010.
In 2011, we started off the year by saying; “well now that 2010 is over and there is no possible way on earth that a vintage so stressful could ever happen again in this lifetime”…we finished off the year crying in our soup. 2011 was even later than 2010 and Mother Nature added insult to injury by providing a bumper crop for us to have to drop on the ground. After a recession and the birds, I can tell you that dropping that much fruit on the ground was sad and painful, but it was necessary. The spring never came. The summer never came and all of a sudden it was fall and the fruit was not ripe. I even travelled to Burgundy and worked harvest there, came home and waited a whole month before we started picking our fruit. The harvest went deep into the month of November and we worried at every step of the way that the birds would return and the rains would fall like toads from the sky bringing with them the apocalypse and ultimate demise of an industry that had worked so hard for 48 years to get a foothold. But when the fruit came in and the tanks were emptied into barrel, I couldn’t help but smile. The resulting wines are gorgeous. And I will always remember 2011.
Now 2012 arrives after two years where we saw very little sunshine. Two years where the wines smell and taste of the beauty of trial and tribulation and sacrifice. Two years of nearly broken human spirit, but gorgeously intriguing wines that will unfold as slowly as their growing seasons did. And 2012 arrives with the same gloom and doom in the early spring and we all think…..”ok, time to move… Oregon weather officially sucks!” But then, miraculously the sky clears and the rest of the year is sunshine with a capital S. As if Mother Nature showed up at our front door with our fraternity pin as if to say: “congratulations brother, you survived initiation and all of the hazing I could throw at you.” A glorious late spring and a warm, dry summer ensued with very few bumps in the road from July 4th until harvest time in late September. In fact, we saw over 95 straight days of sunshine and no precipitation during the key time of our growing season. We were able to harvest at will, when we wanted to and how we wanted to which is always a welcome blessing. 2012 came with no bumps, no bruises, no sleepless nights, no pondering how to petition the Federal Government for emergency funds on a lost crop…. No, 2012 was dare I say it…. easy. And the resulting wines are gorgeous. But I will probably not always remember 2012 for the same reasons I will remember 2010 and 2011.
As in many vintages, the wines of 2012 taste like the season; soaked in sunshine and happiness. And the wines are indeed delicious. They are monumental in fact. These are big, fruity, purple, extract-rich Pinot Noirs with aromas of ripe blueberry pie, black currant and ripe dark cherry liqueur and they could easily be confused for Northern Rhone Syrah if they didn’t have that outstanding and unmistakeable deft-defying balancing act that hangs on the tip of your tongue which only Pinot Noir can achieve. The 2012′s contrast brooding with bright and They exude opulence and embody hedonism but it is again the balance and mouthwatering acidities that keep these wines real and honest. And yes, you should be excited about this vintage in the same way that 2000 was exciting in Bordeaux and 2001 was exciting in Germany and 2005 was exciting in Burgundy and 2010 was exciting in the Rhone Valley….. get my drift? They are kind of a big deal.
I can’t help thinking about 2010, 2011 and 2012 in a couple of different ways. Especially when people ask me about how the 2012′s taste, I can’t help but think about how, in today’s wine world, everybody wants the next best thing. What is the newest technology? What is the next 100 point vintage? No, forget that, when is the next 103 point vintage? Who is the new garagiste and are they starting a cult I can convert to? What is that rare corsican native wine varietal you can’t pronounce that is only fermented in clay amphoras and can only pair perfectly with a near extinct bird that needs to be roasted alive? There are so many extremes and so much to be excited about these days. The Wine world just gets bigger and bigger and is evolving at the same furious pace that our societies are and sometimes I gaze upon a new and curious bottle of wine with the same look of fear and trepidation that I give to my i-phone. “What is this strange creature?”
Then vintages like 2010 and 2011 come along and remind us of how wine used to taste. And they remind us of how we used to appreciate wines. When you finally come to understand them, they hit you hard, like that random memory of a distant summer when you were young…. and you have a visceral reaction remembering a song that you loved back then or the first motorcycle you ever rode, or your first kiss, and a floral perfume that you caught on the afternoon breeze and memorized and stored away in your brain for some future moment. These are powerful wines and they are important wines. And when I smell them and taste them I remember so much.
These great vintages forged a clear path for 2012 to be enjoyed unencumbered by stories of stress or rain or worry. 2010 and 2011 carried the heavy load on their backs for 2012 like proud parents carrying the burden of child rearing. Like an older generation, the 2010′s and the 2011′s had a work ethic and a struggle that gives them unmistakeable character. The kind of character and personality that you don’t see as much anymore. The kind of character that the press and the average consumer will usually miss or dismiss as “elegant”, or “food friendly.” And, like an older generation, these wines will develop with age into treasures that you wish you had more of and wish you could keep around just a little bit longer to listen to and learn from.
Their successor on the other hand….. that rowdy and boisterous 2012 almost seems entitled. So much decadence and showmanship for such a youngster. As if he didn’t work as hard to get to where he is now but is still enjoying all of the spoils the world has to offer believing he was destined for it all. And he is getting swept up in the revolution of bigger, faster, NOW!!! The stage is calling. Will he ever appreciate all of the praise being showered upon him? Only time will tell how he grows and matures and develops. But he shows such promise. And he comes from good stock. 2012 is a worth seeking out and coveting. But not at the expense of skipping over 2010 and 2011. You can’t understand one without the others.
My second thought about 2012 is a simple and more humble one: “Thank the powers that be above for sweet, sweet sunshine!” After having lived in Oregon all of my 37 years you would think that I and all other Oregonians are immune to the bad weather that gives tourism in our state during 9 months out of the year a bad rap. But I can honestly say that after 2010 and 2011 I worshipped the sun of 2012 like no other year. I spent every waking hour outside, in the vineyards, on my back porch, barbecuing, driving through wine country with the windows down, kissing my freckled and sunbathed wife and children…. I loved it. I soaked it up. The 2012 wines remind me of those blue skied days and so I love these wines. And so should you, if only for the selfish reason of remembering one of the greatest summers we have ever had in this great green State of Oregon.
2010 and 2011 will drink well after 2 years in the bottle but will really start to shine between 5 and 8 years in the bottle and some will continue to evolve and change and get even better for 15 to 20+ years. And the greatest wines of the 2010 and 2011 from Oregon will live for decades and will hopefully come to define a generation of winegrowers who, after 45 years of hard work have finally honed their craft and re-energized the wine world with some very memorable efforts from a very unique corner of the world.
2012 on the other hand is everything that I have said above and more….except for one very important fact: 2012 has yet to be bottled. And so, it is yet to be written into the annals of Oregon wine history. So hey, take it easy out there and cool your jets….. While you wait for the 2012′s to go to bottle and eventually show their true colors, bask in the glory of two vintages that are not to miss. You won’t regret it.