News & Reviews
March 3, 2023 | Wine of the Week
Ken Wright Cellars 2021 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir
Now more than three decades since it was first planted, the Shea vineyard is as iconic in Oregon as any site can claim to be. Dozens of wineries seek these grapes, and it’s a pleasure to see what a veteran such as Ken Wright can do with them. He keeps the alcohol low, yielding a bright, savory, spicy wine anchored in brambly berries and tannins reminiscent of herbal tea. Complex and a bit unyielding, this is a wine to aerate aggressively if you are planning to drink it any time soon. Tasted on the second day it was slowly gaining volume. This has a long life ahead. 1432 cases; 12.8%; $65 (Yamhill-Carlton)
BY STACY BRISCOE | Wine Enthusiast
“Liquor is worth fightin’ for, but water is worth dyin’ for.” Such is an old adage Ken Wright, owner and winemaker of Ken Wright Cellars in Carlton, Oregon, remembers from when he first came to the West Coast in the 1970s. “Water was already an issue,” he says. “When the population of an area cannot be supported by the natural annual rainfall, things get serious very quickly.”
As the climate continues to change, drought conditions throughout the U.S. West Coast continue to get worse and, as a result, growers look for ways to decrease their water use—with some switching off the irrigation hose altogether and turning to dry farming.
What Is Dry Farming?
“Dry farming means that we do not use irrigation and rely on the residual moisture in the soil received during the wet season to supply the vines with water,” explains Dan Warnshuis, proprietor of Utopia Vineyard in Newburg, Oregon. This means that any kind of stored water—even pond water or captured roof-structure water—cannot be used to water crops, whether by hand or through an irrigation system. “Dry farming is particularly important in areas that have a paucity of aquifers.”
To be clear, it’s very uncommon for any vineyard planted to young vines (three years or less) to be dry farmed. “If you did, the plants would die,” notes Wright. “[But] in almost all cases, two years of root development both in spread and depth (average is a foot of depth annually) will allow a grower to then farm without any ‘applied’ water.”
The Role of Soil (and Soil Series)
Whether or not soil is an important component in determining if a vineyard is suitable for dry-farming is almost impossible to evaluate “without knowing the full picture,” says Wright. “The reality is that soil is only the upper horizon of what we are farming. Of equal—and eventually greater—importance is the parent material or ‘mother rock,’ which is completely different than soil,” he emphasizes.
That “upper horizon” of topsoil is where what is referred to as “water holding capacity” is determined by that topsoil’s specific structure. Large-particle soil (like sand) is loose in structure, thus has limited water-holding capacity; small-grain soil (like clay) is densely packed and thus there’s very little space between particles for water to run through—it has a high water-holding capacity.
But, once vines establish their roots, they’re reaching past this top layer. “Vines at maturity (in our area of the Willamette) are 25 to 30 feet deep with soil being as much as 10 feet of that to as little as two feet,” explains Wright.
Only once vines are “engaging” with the parent material do they begin to take in trace elements—magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, iron, potassium—that is then broken down and transported to the plant. “It is only when the root system is past topsoil and engaging [or mining] parent material that we begin to see incredible detail in our wine.”
David Lattin, winemaker of Emeritus Vineyards in Sebastopol, California, illustrates this concept by describing his vineyard’s unique soil series, which he says is ideal for dry farming. “The Goldridge soil at Emeritus has a very permeable sandy layer sitting on top of absorbent clay loam,” he describes. “Rain during the winter and spring percolates through the top layer and is trapped within the clay of the loamy second layer. As the clay loam dries out during the season, the roots follow the water downward.”
As roots penetrate deeper and deeper into the soil series, they’re able to take up more of those trace minerals. “The trace minerals are what make a specific site unique,” adds Lattin. “These minerals have direct and indirect effects on the basic chemistry of the fruit and increase the likelihood of making a more complex wine.”
Effects on the Vine and Wine
Compared to dry-farmed vines, vines dependent on drip irrigation have a high concentration of roots in the less complex topsoil.
“Dry-farmed vines have roots that are more broadly distributed, allowing the vine roots to seek out the nutrients they need using the full area of the vineyard,” explains Ames Morrison, founding partner of Medlock Ames in Healdsburg, California.
By creating a root system that is forced to dig deep for water, the vines become less dependent on a regular water source and thus are less impacted by day-to-day temperature fluctuations and suffer less during extreme heat. Further, less water limits excessive shoot growth, meaning the vine focuses its energy on ripening, rather than producing green material. “Which is important for wine quality,” notes Morrison, adding that less water for green material also results in slightly tougher leaf tissue, making the leaves less prone to insect and disease damage.
Having healthy vineyards that can focus their growing energy on fruit ripening means that dry-farmed vines tend to ripen earlier in the season and at lower Brix, resulting in wines with naturally high acidity and lower total alcohol.
Dry-Farming Is Not for All Soils or Sites
“Dry farming, while common and even mandated in much of the Old World, can be hard, if not impossible, to achieve in climates like California’s,” says Emeritus Vineyards President Mari Jones. Further, the subsoil, the parent material, must be able to hold enough moisture for the vines to grow in the summer when there is no rainfall.
And even if a specific soil series may seem idyllic on paper, a vineyard’s suitability to dry farming is impacted by a whole host of other environmental factors that affect soil absorption and rate of drainage—among them, slope, aspect, temperature and winds.
“Evaluating suitability based solely on the composition of the [soil series] profile, be it volcanic, calcareous or marine sediment is impossible without knowing all of the environmental factors in play,” says Wright. “Any of those compositions could produce world-class or dismally inferior wine depending on the sum of the environmental influences.”
Of course, creating a quality product is always front and center for vintners, and while limiting water intake may strengthen the vine and increase the complexity of resulting wines, as Lattin points out, dehydration events during the growing season can actually do more harm than good to the fruit. “Flavors are created, and real sugar accumulates when leaves are hydrated and healthy,” he says. Therefore, where dry farming is not possible, irrigation is in fact needed to produce healthy grapes and quality wine.
When irrigation is employed conscientiously, in a way that mimics a normal rainfall pattern and does not provide a constant, oversupply of water, the effects can be just as successful as dry farming.
“People often state that they believe irrigation promotes surface rooting that develops at the expense of a deeper root system. This is not my experience,” comments Wright. “We have had the opportunity to see vine profiles that reveal root depth of irrigated vineyards that have proven in every case to be as deep as dry farmed.”
So, in the end, do dry-farmed vines make better wines? Each grower and vintner has his or her own opinion on the topic. But, in the end, as Wright so succinctly puts it: “It’s situational.”
Published on February 10, 2023
Mother Nature never ceases to amaze.
When one’s business is farming, you are by necessity acutely aware of and impacted by every subtle change in the weather. You feel the shifts in wind direction. You notice changes in humidity. With every step on your property you subconsciously sense the tilth of the soil profile below you.
This year… Mother Nature wasn’t so subtle.
April brought the first significant event. Beginning with the “Ides of April” our temperatures dropped precipitously. From the 13th through the 17th the recorded lows at most of our sites were below freezing. This was far more than a typical frost event. It isn’t uncommon for us to see damage to vines planted in low-lying areas at or just above 200 feet during Spring. This was a cold front from the Pacific that affected vineyards as high as 600 feet in elevation.
The timing of that freeze caused extensive damage. It coincided with the point in time that we have “bud break”, which is the first appearance of green tissue from the dormant buds. Each dormant bud is in fact three buds that coexist within the same bud case. The primary is the first to develop and without damage will generally produce two clusters in a growing season. If the primary is damaged the secondary bud develops. A secondary bud would be expected to develop one smaller than normal cluster during the growing season. If both the primary and secondary are completely destroyed by freeze then there is a third or tertiary bud that will likely produce a somewhat underfed shoot with leaves but generally no clusters.
The cold of mid-April caused losses of primary buds in our sites that varied from 40% to 80%. It was the worst damage our industry has ever seen due to Spring freeze damage. We looked at the experience of other regions that are prone to freeze damage to understand what we could expect in crop level. It wasn’t pretty. If we had a typical year going forward we would likely have 1 to 1.5 tons per acre. At those levels it is virtually impossible to cover your farming expenses…..much less have any profitability. The prospects were grim.
The freeze damage essentially caused a restart of the season. During May we finally began to get development but as a rule, we were 3 weeks late and remained so through the rest of the season.
Each berry begins life as a flower. Our flowers have both male and female parts so we are self-fertilizing. No bees necessary. We are, however, dependent on good weather during flowering to achieve good levels of fertility. Cold and wet weather would result in poor fertility with perhaps 40% to 60% of the flowers becoming berries. Warm temperatures and clear skies would likely bring 65% to 80% fertility. Due to everything happening later in the calendar our period of flowering took place in early July rather than June. The weather was stunningly perfect.
Testing for fertility is done 10 to 14 days following full flower. It’s a simple concept. You simply cup the cluster in one hand and gently brush the cluster with the other. The berries that have fertilized remain on the stem (rachis) while those that did not fall off into your palm. A percentage level of fertility is easily calculated knowing the counts of each.
When we walked and checked our sites, virtually nothing was falling off into our palms. The perfect weather of last July had provided the highest level of fertility that I have seen in my 45 vintages. Probably 90% to 95%. So…though we had fewer clusters the clusters we had were twice the weight typical of Pinot noir.
That was Miracle Number One.
Miracle Number One gave us hope that we could still succeed in the 2022 vintage. But we continued to be weeks behind and the expected rain events and cooling of mid-October were looming. We would need an amazing fall to pull this rabbit out of the hat.
September was dry as dust and exceptionally warm. We had a total of less than 1/2 inch of rain for the month. 17 of Septembers’ 30 days had temperatures well above the normal range for our region. Then the vines were clearly accelerating ripeness now and the 3 week delay we had been seeing during the season was shrinking quickly. Now onto October and we are knocking on wood.
October blew our minds. We had zero rain until October 21st and by then we were in the barn and out of harm’s way. Of those first 20 days of October fully 18 days were above the normal range of high temperatures. Nine of those days were in the 80’s! To say we finished with a flourish doesn’t begin to describe how fantastic October was for us.
That was Miracle Number Two.
We are close to our grape-growing brethren all over the world and none can recall such an incredible recovery as we saw this year in the northern Willamette Valley. It defied all prior recorded experience. When you are working hand in hand with Mother Nature the lessons just keep coming.
We are very excited to show the results of this dramatic vintage to you at our upcoming Open House. The detail, complexity and balance of the vintage are classic World Class Willamette Valley Pinot noir. Please join us on November 19 or 20 from 10am- 4pm, at the winery, you can RSVP by visiting our website.
Ken Wright Cellars 2021 Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, $38
The Wright family creates this Chardonnay from two of their estate sites — Haakon Lenai Vineyard, a Dundee Hills site owned by Cody and Marque Wright, with Savoya Vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton owned by founder Ken Wright and his soccer-coaching wife, Karen. Both vineyards are certified organic, and clone 548, which has found a home at each site, forms the foundation of this 50/50 blend of vineyards. That Djion clone, known at KWC as the “Cruz Clone,” has a reputation for low yields and high aromatics, the latter quality helps explain the remarkably tropical nose that hints at guava, mango, pineapple and jasmine. And yet, the eight months in neutral French oak adds a very light note of butter. On the palate, it’s deliciously brisk with its citrusy theme. There’s lemon oil, then a return of guava ahead of a food-friendly finish of lemon pith and jasmine. Such complexity and remarkable mouthfeel, in part from eight months on the lees, makes it a fun yet serious example of Chardonnay from the Willamette Valley. And as part of the Oregon Promise® movement, it is guaranteed to be 100% from the American Viticultural Area listed on the bottle.
Rating: Outstanding! — 94 points
Production: 135 cases