A Conversation With Ken Wright & a Look at His 2019 Pinots
By Paul Gregutt
Click to view on PaulG on Wine
I have known and admired Ken Wright since we first met almost 35 years ago. His winemaking skills are only matched (and maybe even exceeded) by his deep knowledge of the terroirs of the Willamette Valley. He was instrumental in helping to define and develop the initial sub-divisions of the AVA – perhaps the first person to dive so deeply into the nuances of the region from a vintner’s perspective.
He has worked through all manner of vintage conditions, from ideal to dismal, and found ways to make great wines in all of them. His community support for the town of Carlton is unparalleled. So it was with great anticipation that I asked Ken to partner with me in the first Zoom tasting and discussion I’ve hosted for this new website.
We tasted four of the 2019 Pinots together, but the discussion quickly became far more wide-ranging. Of particular interest were Ken’s remarks on the geologic history of the region. We also talked about changes in wine styles and consumer preferences; the trend to using less and less new oak; the difficulties of assessing young wines; my go-to glass for Pinot Noirs and much more. Here is a link to the entire one hour discussion. I’ve noted touchpoints for key topics.
Overview of 2019 vintage (at 8:40)
Geologic history of Willamette Valley (at 10:30)
Volcanic wines and mother rock basalt (at 15:40)
Thoughts on oak (at 19:40)
Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir (at 25:00)
High-scoring wines (at 29:35)
Old vines (at 30:25)
Dundee Hills vs. Eola-Amity AVAs (at 38:30)
Bonnie Jean Pinot Noir and Yamhill-Carlton AVA (at 39:40)
Importance of good stemware (at 44:20)
Low alcohol in wine (at 47:58)
Palate evolution (at 50:20)
Freedom Hill Pinot Noir and Mount Pisgah AVA (at 56:50)
Over the course of several days I tasted through nine different Ken Wright Pinots from 2019. A few things about the entire lineup stood out. Overall case quantities were lower than previously, and finished alcohol (abv) on most wines came in below 13%. Yet the wines are anything but lean. They are intensely aromatic, fresh and fruit-driven. They are balanced and compact. They are generous as long as you give them a chance to breathe and then give them your full attention. Many, if not most, are ageworthy. All are recommended.
Here are Ken’s comments on some of the challenges of the 2019 vintage, with my reviews following:
“Yes, 2019 was down in production. Down 30% from 2017, 15% from 2018 and 20% from 2020. We decided to produce less of everything proportionately. 2019 was a cooler year overall, especially late season, which resulted in lower sugars and higher acids when ripeness was achieved. It was the first year that we produced the two AVA-designated bottlings, Eola-Amity and Yamhill Carlton. We expect to produce them every year going forward.
“Part of the explanation for the small volumes of 2019 was fragility of the berries during harvest. We had endured two significant rain events. After drying out we harvested and the first thing we noticed was how easily berries were popping off of the rachis (cluster frame, stem). The connection between the berry and the cluster is that very small stem which is called a pedicel. When ripening fruit experiences a rain event the berry enlarges and strains that connection. The connection can become quite fragile resulting in berries easily falling off of the stem during picking.
“Once on the truck these loose berries are more prone to juicing. In 2019 we saw juice cascading at times off of the delivery truck. It was literally like watching profits flow down the drain. Once on the sorting line we did our best to capture and retain the excessive juicing but you can only do so much. It was essentially an unwanted bleeding off of juice or saignée. The positive is that it increased our skin to juice ratio which meant greater intensity of color, aroma and flavor… but at a dear cost.”
In conclusion Ken and I both found our Zoom conversation quite interesting and enjoyable. I am deeply grateful to him for joining me. I will announce the next Zoom tasting and chatfest in the near future. Now on to the reviews of the 2019 Ken Wright Pinot Noirs.
In 2019 Ken Wright introduced a pair of AVA-specific Pinots for the first time. Although his pricing on all his wines have long held the line and represent exceptional value, the AVA designates are roughly half as expensive and are a very fine introduction to all the rest. This wine is particularly significant as Ken was the man behind the application for the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. The flavors bring together blueberry fruit, clove spices, moderating acids and a textural mouthfeel with refreshing wet rock minerality.
581 cases; 12.8%; $35
Every dark cloud has a silver lining; in the instance the stresses of fires and Covid on the Oregon wine industry has led many star wineries to blend more and offer lower-priced cuvées. Ken Wright’s AVA series is one such. Rippled with tart black cherry fruit, hints of tanned leather, a dash of cinnamon spice and supple tannins, this is a substantial wine with at least a half decade of prime drinking ahead.
610 cases; 13.2%; $35
The Yamhill-Carlton wines get the special bottles. Again note the lower abv, not sour but showing accents of sweet tomato and mixed citrus along with tart pie cherry fruit. Might the acids overtake it at some point? On the second and third days it seems better, still tart but more concentration to the fruit.
189 cases; 12.6%; $65
Tart as abv indicates, bright flavors of raspberry and citrus, blood orange and a hint of chocolate. Like chocolate orange peel. Crisp and clear as a bell. A touch of wintergreen in the aromas. Complex, compact and tart. Supremely ageable. That minty note persists but it’s a feature.
396 cases; 12.8%; $65
Brambly red berry fruit packs a tangy punch. There’s a touch of Dr. Pepper and plenty of citrus flesh and rind. Overall it’s balanced and tight; though it leans toward a high-acid profile. As with most of the 2019s from Ken Wright it should be aerated aggressively.
362 cases; 12.8%; $65
Ken Wright 2019 Freedom Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir
(See ‘For the Cellar’)
Here are inviting aromas of red plum and crushed raspberries, a lick of spice, and a palate-pleasing wine of medium concentration and good overall balance. It satisfied from front to finish. Dig in and find hints of peat moss in a compact wine with plenty of detail. This wine unlocks itself carefully so aerate aggressively and give it your full attention. I found it still drinking beautifully when down to the bottle’s last glass on the third day it had been open. As with the Freedom Hill this is one for your cellar and could last for decades.
This Yamhill-Carlton vineyard makes a Pinot with the deep colors and juicy flavors of boysenberry, accented with hints of truffle. It’s complex and compelling, muscular and powerfully built throughout. The tannins are drying but proportionate and framed with phenolic accents. Perhaps the most distinctive wine in the lineup, with unique aromatics.
182 cases; 12.8%; $65
Ken Wright 2019 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir
I don’t know that I’ve seen another Shea with such low finished alcohol, but the exceptional quality of Shea fruit is still much in evidence. The wine’s tart berry mix runs from strawberry to raspberry, showing medium body, juicy acids and good overall balance. The tannins are slightly chewy and carry a touch of herb and stem through the finish. It’s not a standard Shea but nonetheless compelling, finishing with nuanced notes of menthol.
262 cases; 12.2%; $65
(See ‘Wine of the Week’)
A conversation with winemakers Ken Wright & Cathy Corison, moderated by Jordan Mackay.
Join Ken Wright and Cathy Corison, of Corison Winery, for a conversation about their 40+ years of winemaking experience, fun stories about the start to their careers, and insight about their respective wine regions. This conversation between Ken and Cathy is moderated by James-Beard-award-winning writer, Jordan Mackay, a specialist in wine, spirits, and food. Jordan’s work has appeared in Food & Wine, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Wine and Spirits and many others.
As you may have read, both Cathy Corison and Ken Wright were featured winemakers in October’s Decanter article, by Jordan Mackay— North American Trendsetters: five modern-day pioneers. Which inspired this collaborative virtual event, offered first exclusively to Ken Wright Cellars and Corison Club members with additional shared club benefits.
With Ken’s 44th vintage under his belt, we think it’s pretty awesome to still be considered a trendsetter in our industry. The environment at Ken Wright Cellars really is one of constant research, innovation and drive to do better at our craft.
Cathy Corison, owner and winemaker of Corison winery, and a fellow University of California alumna, has carved her own self-made path in California. Her secrets to success— beyond winemaking skill— are focus and integrity. Since her first inclinations toward wine as an undergraduate in college, she’s taken her own road, and now countless others are following the trail she blazed.
A special thank you to the team at Corison Winery and to Jordan Mackay for this fun collaboration!
Page 29 | October 2021 Issue | Decanter
Download PDF of Article
Wright’s story is prototypically American: in spite of a lack of pedigree and finances, he achieved his success in wine through talent, hard work, common sense, courage and access to lands with unrealized potential. What makes him a vital trendsetter in Oregon and in American Pinot Noir is that his triumphs have not only benefited his own cause, but have had a powerful impact on a nation of burgeoning winemakers and wine lovers.
Arriving in Oregon’s restless climate in 1986, he found an economy here growers sold grapes by the tonne, making it near-impossible to get them to drop fruit. So he used his significant powers of persuasion to convince growers to both charge by the acre and follow his farming protocols.
Such shifts may seem trivial today, but Wright’s actions helped spark the major leaps in quality and consistency that catapulted Oregon to its status as a top Pinot region. Likewise, he was among the first to bring sorting tables and dry ice into the winery in Oregon.
Just as crucially, Wright has also been a leader in promoting and mapping Oregon’s terroir. Decades before every vintner seemingly began hiring geologists to map their properties, Wright was professorially lecturing and scrawling on chalkboards to explain how subduction, volcanism and ancient flooding created the distinct flavours of Oregon Pinot Noir. Connecting these flavours to the underlying geology became his passion (while popularizing the mantra ‘mother rock’), leading him to pave the way for American single-vineyard Pinot Noir – of which he released as many as a dozen separate wines in a vintage.
His unrelenting belief in terroir resulted in what will likely be his most durable legacy; the create in 2005 of six sub-appellations in the northern Willamette Valley. Wright’s energy and enthusiasm overcame the skepticism of fellow wine-growers (who thought the demarcation premature). But today no one questions the wisdom of the act because, as Wright has repeatedly shown, shaping the way one thinks about vineyards and earth shapes the wines themselves in a way that benefits everyone.
Ken Wright, Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA 2019- 90
US$23-$34 Raspberry and cherry lead the way, joined by hints of vanilla and subtle aromatic spice notes. There’s lovely weight in the mouth, accompanied by finely honed tannins. Drink 2021-2026. Alc 13.5%
By Erin James | Sip Magazine
The origin story of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA in Oregon’s Northern Willamette Valley is more intricate and involved than just its 2004 establishment. It’s more than the low ridges that surround the two towns of Yamhill and Carlton in the shape of a horseshoe, more than the North Yamhill River that courses through the rich agricultural land, the forestry encasing it, the Coast Range’s rain shadow coverage or even the ancient marine soils.
This story is about the right plant in the right place. The tale begins in 1995 when the burgeoning collection of Northern Willamette Valley winemakers, grape growers and community members came together to create six sub-appellations of their own.
“Any time you’re trying to create anything of this magnitude, there is endless strife to do it and the fact that we pulled it off is amazing,” says Ken Wright, proprietor and winemaker of acclaimed Ken Wright Cellars, who was instrumental in writing the FDA proposal for the six regions to receive individual designation. “We came together to identify the world-class parts of the Northern Willamette Valley as we were seeing different qualities coming from the different regions.”
In their experience of farming and producing wines in these neighboring areas, the community of vintners concluded that each region’s distinctly different soil material resulted in producing distinctly different wines. Volcanic soil material, such as that found in the Dundee Hills, would produce Pinot Noir that had a red fruit–focused profile, with strawberry, cherry and raspberry. In Eola-Amity Hills, which is also volcanic in its soil, they found darker fruits like cassis, blackberry, blueberry and black cherry. In the old ocean bed with marine sediment of Yamhill-Carlton, Wright says a divergent, savory profile emerged with anise, clove, tobacco, cedar and fresh-turned earth.
Wright explains that the source of these regional differences isn’t the soil, per se, but the soil series — the entire profile that encompasses the soil, the root system and the parent material, or “mother rock.” In Yamhill-Carlton, that ancient marine mother rock — created 200 million years ago with the evolving coastline — is the base material that contributes to what Wright calls a “treasure trove of trace elements,” such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron and copper that contribute to its identity of place.
“Those trace elements provide health to the plant, but in our world what’s equally important is whatever trace elements below the soil will end up being the influence that creates the profile of that wine and that place,” Wright details. “As farmers, we hope to be that deep into the mother rock. You have to be farming in that way to have the right populations of microbiology to deliver trace elements. We need those aerobic, microbial populations to be successful, we need them to create wines that truly connect us to place.”
Wright likens Northern Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to San Marzano tomatoes, the famed plum tomato variety originally from the small Italian town of San Marzano sul Samo, grown in volcanic soil in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. “San Marzano tomatoes are amazing because that plant found its perfect home,” Wright says. “We have that here, this very small area of the Northern Willamette Valley that covers all of these AVAs, this part of the world was just waiting for Pinot Noir to be planted here.”
For Pinot Noir, and other varieties grown in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, marine sediment makes up the soil series and builds the character of the wine. Wright says that coarse, granular, well-drained mother rock loses moisture as a result of its composition, therefore influencing the vine to ripen earlier than a region with volcanic material — a bonus for growers and winemakers as this can mean avoiding a lot of fruit-destroying weather issues, like rain. That, among a few other reasons, is why seven of the 13 single-vineyard Ken Wright wines hail from this region.
“I love all the regions but I love this profile,” the winemaker says of the AVA. “When we are perfectly ripe, we tend to have a little bit less acidity than the volcanic [sediment areas] so the wines here tend to be lush and enjoyable right out of the gate. We tend to have both blue and red fruit, a beautiful, seamless marriage of the two. Underneath that, there’s cocoa, tobacco, cedar, baking spices and a fresh earthiness; lots of floral qualities, but not herbaceous — it’s more like violet and rose. The wines tend to be quite complex and texturally very enjoyable.”
Dig into the ancient marine soil series of Yamhill-Carlton by way of these seven wines — each of which found their place in this unique Northern Willamette Valley AVA.
Ken Wright Cellars 2017 Savoya Vineyard Chardonnay
Ken Wright, a bona fide Master of Pinot Noir, colors outside that varietal box just a few times to showcase what also grows beautifully in Yamhill-Carlton: Chardonnay clone Dijon 548 planted on half an acre at Savoya Vineyard. Fermented and aged in French oak barrels, the wine is brilliant, clean and vibrant. A lovely glycerin quality peaks out with beeswax on the nose and a mouth-filling texture on the palate, while honeycomb, white flower, guava and mineral rest on bright acid. | $55 Click Here to Purchase
Ken Wright Cellars 2017 Savoya Vineyard Pinot Noir
Tasting Ken Wright’s wines back-to-back draws a parallel of sophistication between them, a consistency that exudes supple texture, savory qualities and a freshness that allows the wines to be enjoyed now, or later. Spice and floral notes bloom in front of the red fruit in this wine, but make way for smoked cedar, mineral, cola, blackberry and more of that red fruit. Complex, smooth and with brilliant clarity. | $62.50 Click Here to Purchase
Because of Burgundy’s storied pedigree, Pinot Noir is almost as noble as grapes come. And Pinot Noir in the States is gaining a foothold. Even Burgundian denizens praise Oregon’s Willamette Valley for its great terroir for Pinot production.
The region’s Mecca is often considered to be Shea Vineyard, a 290-acre property in Yamhill County renowned for its sedimentary sandstone soil. Shea dedicates 149 acres to Pinot Noir and six acres to Chardonnay.
Proprietor Dick Shea supplies grand cru-quality grapes to some of the most vaunted and well- known Oregon and California wineries.
Notable Producers: Bergström, Ken Wright Cellars, Shea Wine Cellars, Winderlea