It is morning in the winery. The hills surrounding are six Cristom vineyards, all named after relatives of owner Paul Gerrie. This fall they will bear pinot noir, pinot gris and syrah – the first estate-grown of its kind in the Willamette Valley. For now the vines are pruned and bare, waiting for the warmth of spring.
We are about to tour Cristom Vineyards with Paul’s son Tom as our guide. And it is here in the winery where we learn the family traditions of turning grapes into wine. We learn about what winemaker Steve Doerner considers to be the key in creating some of the best-known pinot noir in the valley: slow fermentation. Everything here at Cristom is hands on. From picking the grapes to punch downs.
Steve is humble. His winemaking approach combines scientific skill with a strong intuition. Cristom uses one-ton individual fermenters because he feels the size is perfect to allow a long and slow fermentation. In anything from outsourcing fruit to every step of the process along the way, Steve takes a very hands-on, but trusting approach. He allows the vineyard managers to make their own decisions in producing the highest quality fruit possible. All the way down to the microbial actions taking place, he emphasizes faith in the process. His background in biochemistry gives him the confidence to allow the yeast and bacteria to do their work and bring depth and character to the wine. He has little use for lab analysis and data tracking, instead relying on taste.
We descend into the cellar for a bit of barrel tasting. It is cold but it smells familiar – a bit romantic and mysterious. We taste the 2007 Eileen out of two barrels from different coopers. Next we drink a sample of the Louise, followed by some Marjory. We compare depth and flavor differences. Tasting straight from the barrels in the cellar you get a real sense of the magic created here at Cristom. A magic based on skill, intuition and family tradition.
The gates are open for us today. We drive up the long gravel driveway surrounded by the Cameron Estate Vineyard. We find John Paul working hard at grafting vines. I can’t help but see him as an ex-hippy meets mad scientist meets grape grower, and I laugh to myself at how wonderful it is to be here. The first thing he shows us is how to take cut vines and graft them together, dipping the scions in wax to hold them in place. He then carefully placing them in perlite bins so they will stay moist. Next they'll live in a greenhouse under a shade cloth until ready for planting. This process has come a long way for him. When he began, his success rate was around 1%. Now he figures that 75–90% of his grafts take.
We move from there into the vineyard. While John Paul speaks about going biodynamic, his four-legged family follows close behind, running circles around us and receiving plenty of love and affection from the group. John Paul says he wants his vineyard to be a self-contained entity. Toward that cause, he will be adding chickens to his vineyard in the next year. The idea is to use what is called a “chicken tractor,” which is basically a mobile coop moved down the rows of vines. The chickens will eat the low shrubbery and allow the grape vines to thrive.
John Paul firmly believes in dry farming. He started Deep Roots Organization, which now includes other Oregon wineries, such as Beaux Freres, Brick House, J. Christopher, Eyrie and Westrey. In John Paul's opinion that the best vineyards are dry farmed. You can make a good wine using irrigation, but it will lack the character of its terroir.
We continue on into his cellar for our eagerly awaited barrel tasting (loving this class!). Using his wine thief, he pulls out a sample of a 2006 pinot noir blend. This one has a great heaviness to it, not too tannic and well balanced. The second, from his Abbey Ridge vineyard, is a bit more floral, but dense and meaty.
We finish the cellar tour and resume tasting upstairs. We try some 2006 Chardonnay, recently bottled. His Juliano, a blend of seven Italian white grapes, was a group favorite. We find it to be complex and crisp. There is just a kiss of moscato (muscat) amid the blend, giving it a touch of something floral. This wine will be great with seafood and summer.
At the end of the tour, I leave with a smile. I think about how beautiful Oregon wines really are. When I bring the juice to my lips, it is sweet and rugged. It is the balance of nature and intuition. I smell earth and the feel the love and sense the passion for the grape. And I want more.
After visiting Cristom and Cameron earlier in the day, the WSET Advance Certificate students headed to Stoller Vineyards. Stoller Vineyards is a 373-acre parcel located on the southern slopes of the Dundee Hills AVA in Yamhill County, Oregon. A turkey farm from the 1940s through the 1980s, the first 10 acres of Chardonnay and 10 acres of Pinot Noir were planted in 1995. The vineyard now has 176 acres under vine, the majority of which is planted to Pinot Noir.
Stoller Vineyards produces varietal Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made exclusively from the estate vineyard.
I currently work as Tasting Room Supervisor for Stoller and was excited to offer classmates a tour of the winery building, which is the first Gold LEED Certified winery in the United States. The winery integrates gravity-flow winemaking techniques, energy-efficient heating and cooling, and waste-water reclamation to reduce negative environmental impact. The array of 224 solar panels on the roof of the building offsets about 50% of the winery’s electrical needs.
The class then met with Stoller winemaker Melissa Burr in the cellar for some barrel tasting. Melissa led the class through a comparison of different yeast strains being used on the same lot of fruit, using the same barrels, to get a sense of how yeasts affect the flavor and texture of the wine. Next, the class also sampled wine from the same Pinot Noir clones from vines of differing ages, to see how age adds complexity to the fruit. Finally, Melissa showed the class how new oak barrels and neutral oak barrels impart varying degrees of influence on wine.
Finally, I led the class through a tasting of Stoller’s currently released wines, which are crafted in two distinct styles:
The JV (or Junior Vines) wines are made using fruit from younger vines on the property and are made in an accessible style. The class sampled a 2007 Rose, 2007 stainless-steel fermented Chardonnay and 2006 Pinot Noir made in this style.
The SV (for Stoller Vineyards) flagship wines are made using fruit from the oldest vines on the property, and showcase the fruit, earth, and complexity of the Stoller vineyards. The class tasted the 2006 SV Chardonnay, which is made by barrel fermenting and aging the wine for 10½ months prior to bottling, and the 2005 SV Pinot Noir, which is crafted to cellar well and is released after about 18 months of bottle aging.