The New Oregon Trail

New Oregon Trail.jpg

We here at Bacco's believe in the late bloomers, the eccentrics, people and places that are dedicated to making great wine no matter what the conventional ideas might be. Oregon may have gotten a late start in the wine making world, but its more than made up for it with their quality. Since surviving an 80s outbreak of phylloxera, the world is a buzz with Oregon Pinot Noir, especially out of the Willamette Valley. This week, we bring you a taste of some of the latest trailblazers in the Oregon wine movement.  The New Oregon Trail, it's our Featured Wine Sale of the Week. This sale runs through 5/20/18.

In years past, wine in the United States meant one state, California, and yes, California makes some damn good Cabernet Sauvignon (and Zinfandel, and Carignan....and Pinot Noir...and Chardonnay) but it turns out, it's not just a California thing, it's a West Coast Thing. Past the reaches of Marin County and Mendocino, there's another state producing high quality wine, Oregon.

Image courtesy of Wine Folly

Image courtesy of Wine Folly

Now, there are t-shirts emblazoned with "It's Willamette, Damn It", and Oregon Pinot Noir festivals, even Portlandia. The big grape here is Pinot Noir, and not because it is done in a "big" style, but rather the opposite. 

Most of Oregon's land is capable of producing Pinot Noir, but the 150 mile stretch of the Willamette Valley that stretches from just above Portland to the outreaches of Eugene. Here though, the main story is the soil, what local winemakers will call Jory- mainly well weathered ancient basalt interwoven with rich red colluvial sediment and clay.  This soil, and the wet climate make Oregon Pinot Noir unique. In the rest of the world, granite is considered the standard bearer of good Pinot Noir, but the quality of Oregon wine is making a challenge to that old adage.

Step into many wine stores and you'll often hear the word "Burgundian" thrown with aplomb when talking about Oregon Pinot Noir. This is more of a short-cut than anything else. Oregon Pinot Noir does have more of an old world approach than the California Pinot Noirs that have become ubiquitous and famous. The most simple difference is that California Pinot Noir that the wine-drinking populace has come to know is often changed by the intervention of wood. Oak, and particularly new oak, brings a more rich flavor to the wine. Yes, even wine can fall victim to the idea of bigger is better.

Opportunity comes out of necessity, and enterprising winemakers who simply didn't have the capital to buy land in California sought out land to the north in Oregon. The first proper winery was established in 1933 after the repeal of Prohibition and by 1985, Oregon was producing wines that stood up to Burgundy in international competitions. Making that possible in the span of 50 years is certainly no small feat. 

Just a little over 26 miles southwest of Portland is the town of Newberg, where the Ayres winery is located.  Founded by Brad and Kathleen McElroy in 2000, the 38 acre homestead and vineyard started as a pipe dream, as Brad had owned a wine shop in Kansas City, but returned from a trip to the Oregon International Pinot Noir festival in 1997 with a gleam in his eyes.  The gleam became a packed Subaru Outback, and the McElroys found themselves in Oregon without a proper home.  But the 38 acre property presented itself in 2000, and the McElroys and Kathleen's parents split the purchase- laying the foundation for a winery dedicated to their favorite grape.

The Ayres Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is a cuvee- blended between estate grown grapes from their own Ribbon Ridge vineyard's southeastern slope and as well as fruit from their Yamhill-Carlton vineyard. With notes of blackberries and bright summer cherries, this remarkable little cuvee is the perfect Pinot Noir for those looking for a good introduction to what Oregon, especially Willamette, has to offer.

Newberg, Oregon.

Newberg, Oregon.


Drive a 7 mile stretch eastward to the other side of town, and you'll find yourself at Swick Wines. The small operation is led by Oregon native Joe Swick, whose wine career has brought him to Australia, New Zealand, France, and Italy before settling back in his home state.  Swick is, by any estimate, an eccentric winemaker.  Over the course of his international travels he became entranced by the natural wine movement.  Though the movement is more and more common among the new vanguard of winemakers on the West Coast, Swick takes on the role with aplomb, growing anything and everything between Counoise and Touriga Nacional.  In part, its a reflection of Oregon's agricultural promise, as Iberian varietals have grown exceptionally well here.  To Swick, it's not just a challenge, but a mantra. He wants the vintage variation to show honestly, he only works organic vineyards with no added irrigation and no yeasts, malo, acid correction, or temperature control is added to the wine.  Minerality and acidity seems to be Swick's trademark.

And let's talk about Riesling for a moment. The noble white wine of Mosel is often met with a shudder of "Riesling? But that's too sweet," and yes, it can be sweet, but the beauty of Riesling is in its balance. Acidity is important for quality Riesling, and some are integrated so well that you wouldn't truly notice that there is more residual sugar in it than your typical white.  Most importantly, good Riesling is not cloying. We often intermingle the idea of sweet with the idea of being cloying, and that, more than anything else, has been the reason why Riesling doesn't fly off the shelves.  

As it turns out, Oregon makes some pretty great Riesling, even though it doesn't have the same soils as the granite dominated Mosel.  Joe Swick found a block of Riesling vines that were planted in 1976, right when Oregon was starting to take off in the international wine world, and those vines produce the wine in Swick's 1976 Block Riesling--and if this beautiful bottle doesn't change your mind about the ability of this grape, then I figure nothing will. Fresh, with just the right hit of ripe fruit, this Riesling is what the wine world would consider crushable.

I had the luck of going out west recently, and compared to the close clusters of suburban neighborhoods where I grew up, it's easy to feel the power of nature in the land out there.  Open fields stretch for miles, and towns are more rough indicators of where you might find people than centers of life.  That's certainly evident with Big Table Farm.

The nearest town is Gaston, Oregon, but that's still 5 miles away from the small farm and vineyard that's run by Brian Marcy and Clare Carver.  Marcy didn't originally plan on being a winemaker. He graduated UC Davis with a political science degree before deciding that he wanted to learn how to make beer.  He returned to Davis to study brewing and became a brewmaster for the short-lived Sonoma Mountain Brewery.  A change of heart led him from hops to vines, and Marcy worked in Napa for Turley Wine Cellars, Neyers, and later Marcassin before meeting Clare. The two packed up in 2004 and moved out to Willamette Valley, where they found their 78 acre farm and have been producing wine ever since.

Clare is an artist, and her sketches adorn the Big Table Farm labels, culled from scenes around their farm. The Big Table Farm Pinot Noir is adorned with two of the farm's pigs, Kirby and Pickle, and is considered an exemplary form of WIllamette Valley Estate Pinot Noir.

There's a lot of talk about Oregon's wine growing versatility, but Chardonnay doesn't receive nearly the same amount of press as Pinot Noir.  This is in part due to Oregon's cooler climate, which makes the process of ripening grapes more difficult (a point in Oregon's favor for those that feel the struggle of a vine increases the quality of its grapes), and also the fact that it was planted widely but not wisely throughout Oregon until the 1990s, when Dijon clones (clones of Chardonnay grape vines found in Dijon, France) were brought in and flourished.  Chardonnay is just the latest vine up Oregon's sleeve, and Big Table Farm makes a Chardonnay that is every bit as structured and nuanced of those in Burgundy.

With ample fertile land, cooler climate, and driven vitners, Oregon is on a new trail, not just for Pinot Noir greatness, but for all wines that the new vanguard dares to make. 

The Fine Print:

Big Table Farm Chardonnay -  ̶$̶4̶9̶.̶9̶9̶ $45

Big Table Farm Pinot Noir -  ̶$̶4̶9̶.̶9̶9̶ $45

Ayres Willamette Valley Pinot Noir -  ̶$̶2̶9̶.̶9̶9̶ $26.99

Swick Wines Riesling 1976 Block -  ̶$̶2̶4̶.̶9̶9̶  $22.49

Further Reading:

Ayres Vineyard

Big Table Farm

Swick Wines (Distributor Website)

NY Times Feature on Big Table Farm

Kansas City Star Feature on Ayres Vineyard