Article by Michael Alberty | For The Oregonian/OregonLive
In 2008, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her family journeyed to Carlton, Oregon, to render a verdict on Willamette Valley pinot noir. It was a unanimous decision: delightful as charged.
In the wake of Ginsburg’s death last Friday, mourners celebrated her life and a legal career spent championing equal rights. Close friends also found time to remember Ginsburg’s more private pursuits. Opera singer and friend Joseph Calleja posted on Instagram: “Her love of food and wine only confirms that she was a perfect being.”
In September 2008, Ginsburg traveled to the Willamette University College of Law in Salem for the Oregon Civic Justice Center’s dedication ceremony. Despite a busy schedule of activities, Ginsburg found time for a secret mission: a visit to Ken Wright Cellars in Carlton.
News that Ginsburg wanted to meet with him was a bolt from the blue for winemaker Ken Wright.
“We only heard about it a week in advance. Then her security team called two days before she arrived to nail down every little detail, including the route we’d be taking to visit McCrone Vineyard,” Wright said.
The arrival of Ginsburg, her family, and Secret Service agents in black vehicles with tinted windows was not an everyday occurrence in the sleepy little wine town of Carlton.
“It was pretty funny with all those suits in sunglasses running around. It was also quite a scene when everyone packed into my winery office,” Wright said.
Ginsburg’s visit was exploratory in nature. According to Wright, “She was just getting into pinot noir, and she wanted to know why the Willamette Valley was so special. She wanted to know why this grape worked so well here.”
To tell the Willamette Valley’s story, Wright packed Ginsburg, her husband Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, and her daughter Jane C. Ginsburg off to McCrone Vineyard. The vineyard, owned by Don and Carole McCrone, is located just north of Carlton, in the Yamhill-Carlton American Viticultural Area.
“The vineyard sits on a ridgeline with a view that allows you to see everything from the Coastal Mountains to the Eola-Amity Hills. It’s a nice spot to explain things,” Wright said.
Wright’s family joined the group along with the McCrones and Mr. and Mrs. Michael Bennett from Willamette University. It was a warm day, so a tent was constructed, and as much water was poured as wine.
Wright remembers the Ginsburg family being knowledgeable about wine, with a wine vocabulary to describe what they liked and didn’t like.
“The words freshness, texture and purity came up a lot as they talked about Willamette Valley pinot noir. Especially purity,” Wright said. Oregon’s signature grape had a new set of fans.
The Ginsburg family left just as much of an impression on Wright.
“It was a super enjoyable two hours. Justice Ginsburg was an amazing, open person. We didn’t talk a lot about politics. We discussed wine and other mutual interests we enjoyed. She was definitely a thoughtful, critical thinker,” Wright said.
When the vineyard session concluded, the convoy traveled back to the winery, where Wright set up Justice Ginsburg with an assortment of wines based on their vineyard discussions. “Then ‘poof,’ she was gone,” Wright said. Wright returned to harvest preparation.
A few days later, Wright received another bolt from the blue: an envelope from Washington, D.C.
“It was just the most beautiful ‘thank-you’ note from Justice Ginsburg. Her family loved wine for all the right reasons,” Wright said.
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Photos of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Visit to Ken Wright Cellars & McCrone Vineyard
Just checking in with everyone to let you know that our families and our teams are safe both regarding COVID-19 and the fires in Oregon. We are extremely grateful to have been spared from fires and smoke damage. Our hearts go out to so many in the west coast wine communities that are still battling.
Our team is not unfamiliar with battling fires and emergencies across Oregon. Ken has been serving as the board treasurer for the new Carlton Fire District for 15 years. Mark Gould, our lead vineyard manager, has been serving as a Carlton volunteer fire fighter for years. In fact, Aaron, our Winery Ambassador Ivory’s husband, is still in Southern Oregon near the California border battling the Slater fire. Our thoughts are with the firefighters and first responders who continue to serve and protect.
The recent fires have spurred industry concern over smoke taint. With rumors swirling in the Willamette Valley, literally like smoke, it is very important to get the facts out. Smoke taint occurs in grapes when a vineyard is in near proximity to a fire or directly downwind from an active fire. The volatiles that create issues are ephemeral, over a fairly short period of time they break down. Which is why we are not concerned about “old smoke”.
It is a common occurrence in Oregon in the fall for there to be an east wind. Which is the opposite of the onshore flow that we normally experience throughout the year. When there are fires in the dry high desert of eastern Oregon, those east winds can bring smoke to the Willamette Valley. We have experienced this numerous times before. In a number of years, we have had smoke cover in the Valley for as long as 10 days. In none of these occasions have we had a wine that had an issue with smoke taint. We credit the lack of affectation to the fact that this is “old smoke” from quite a distance away.
As of today, we have tasted all of the fruit from every site that we farm or source from in the valley, 13 in total. We have yet to see affectation to this point of any kind. It is true that we have had a couple of regional fires, one near Hagg Lake in Washington County and one on the north side of the Chehalem Mountains. These fires were contained very quickly. A vineyard neighboring these fires would have a realistic cause for concern. Vineyards that are miles away should not be concerned.
Over the last week, emotions seem to be driving decisions more than science regarding smoke taint with some of our industry members. They are reacting in fear instead of with critical judgement. Perhaps with the combination of the pandemic and the smoke, it is causing knee-jerk reactions. Scientific testing of smoke taint in a laboratory looks for free guaiacols (smoke markers). There are no laboratory tests that have been done that show we have an issue regionally.
Critics agree that 2017 produced a lush and remarkable vintage from the Willamette Valley. In that year, we experienced 10 straight days of smoke from the eastern and northern fires, much longer than we have experienced this year.
Do not be faint of heart, we are going to make great wine this year.
Photos of Ken Wright & Seth Miller Sampling at Hirschy Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA
BY PAUL GREGUTT
Thin-skinned, petulant Pinot Noir is difficult to ripen and demands a gentle hand in the winery. Worse still, too many of its simple expressions fail to deliver on the promise of a grape whose impact has been described as the iron fist in a velvet glove.
When grown in the right place, under the right circumstances, however, the variety really delivers on its reputation for elegance, complexity and subtlety. The best examples are aromatic with notes of roses, berries and cherries, and offer balanced flavors of fruit, earth, herb and barrel, with ample natural acidity.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is widely acknowledged as the next best place after Burgundy, where Pinot has thrived for centuries, to explore its vast potential. First planted there by Eyrie Vineyards founder David Lett in the mid-1960s, the area is now the foundation for the state’s growing reputation.
After decades of experimentation, the valley today includes seven sub-AVAs. Each produces a distinct style of Pinot, based on differences in soil, elevation, aspect, farming and winemaker choices.
Good Burgundy is notoriously expensive, and in comparison, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir may be considered a bargain. That said, wines priced under $20, as well as those labeled plainly as Oregon Pinot Noir, rarely provide a thrill. Selections from specific appellations or subappellations priced under $40 would be a good starting point for exploration.
Six to Sip
Drouhin Oregon Roserock Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills; $35, 92 points. Anchored in a fast-rising AVA known to put an earthy subtext to ripe purple and black fruits, this has plenty of polish and power. Editor’s choice.
Ken Wright Pinot Noir Willamette Valley; $22, 91 points. This complex, layered wine is a fantastic bargain, aromatic and beautifully structured with raspberry and spicy plum fruit. Editor’s choice.
Lenné Estate LeNez Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton; $35, 90 points. Estate-grown fruit was gently aged in 10% new French oak, yielding near-term drinkability and medium ageability. Editor’s choice.
Pike Road Xander Taryn Vineyard Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains; $35, 89 points. Fresh blackberry fruit meets wet rock minerality in this single-vineyard offering.
Stoller Pinot Noir Dundee Hills; $35, 89 points. From the heart of Pinot country, this wraps red and black berries with peppery herbs in a light, earthy finish.
Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster Pinot Noir Willamette Valley; $24, 91 points. Young, bright and delicious, this fruit-driven wine mixes fresh plum and cherry with just a hint of milk chocolate. Editor’s choice.
We are thrilled to share some new reviews from Vinous, founded by wine critic, Antonio Galloni, in 2013. Antonio has crafted a site that brings together professional wine reviewers, thematic stories, videos, photos and reader opinion in a dynamic, interactive setting. Vinous’ ultimate goal is to create a wine lovers community. We hope you enjoy Vinous editor, Josh Raynolds, tasting notes and scores on several of our single vineyard Pinot noirs from the 2017 vintage!
From Josh’s recent article— Oregon Pinot Noir: The Winning Streak Continues, Josh describes the 2017 vintage as follows:
“2017 – Classic Style, Solid Frame
Two thousand-seventeen has shaped up to be a truly remarkable vintage for the sheer number of bright, more classically styled Pinot Noirs it produced. And that’s in spite of an August that was the hottest ever recorded here. The outstanding wines – and there are a staggering number of them –showcase lively but well-concentrated red fruit, floral and spice character, along with freshness and well-integrated tannins that make them, in most cases, highly enjoyable to drink already. The wines’ balance will allow them to age gracefully for some time. I suspect that many of my drinking windows could look overly conservative down the road. Even better news is that harvest was abundant and there’s plenty of wine to go around.
A rainy spring was followed by a normal budbreak. Moderate conditions prevailed through the end of June, helping to produce a large fruit set. The ongoing clement weather kept the fruit ripening at a favorable, even slightly slow pace, much to the delight of growers and winemakers. By the end of July, hopes were high that the grapes, which had seen no heat spikes, were set up to produce wines of distinct freshness, with good acidity and low alcohol levels. Stem and skin lignifications were very good and a number of producers were able to work with more whole clusters in their fermentations than usual. Then the weather turned hot – really hot – and stayed that way until the end of August, pushing sugar levels higher, although acidity levels stayed healthy. There was zero mildew pressure on the vines, which is always a concern when conditions are hot and damp. Cooler conditions extended through September, setting the stage for most producers to begin harvest at the very end of the month, bringing in plenty of ripe but fresh, clean and perfectly healthy fruit.” Click here to read the full article
2017 Ken Wright Cellars Reviews
Vinous Score: 93 points
Tasting Notes: Limpid ruby-red. Highly perfumed aromas of red fruit liqueur, cherry cola, candied flowers and exotic spices, along with a smoky mineral overtone. Nicely concentrated yet energetic on the palate, offering appealingly sweet, spice-accented raspberry, cherry liqueur and rose pastille flavors that deepen slowly with air. Conveys a suave blend of power and vivacity and finishes with well-knit tannins and superb, floral-driven persistence. 23% new oak.— Josh Raynolds
Vinous Score: 92 points
Tasting Notes: Glistening ruby-red. Highly perfumed red fruit preserve, cherry cola, floral and baking spice scents, along with a smoky mineral overtone. Nicely concentrated yet lively on the palate, offering sweet, spice-accented raspberry, cherry liqueur, rose pastille and spicecake flavors that spread out slowly through the midpalate. Smoothly blends power and finesse and finishes with sneaky tannins and strong, floral-driven persistence. 23% new oak. — Josh Raynolds
Vinous Score: 93 points
Tasting Notes: Saturated magenta. Potent, spice-tinged red and blue fruit preserve and floral qualities on the nose, along with hints of vanilla and cola. Sappy and penetrating in the mouth, offering appealingly sweet black raspberry and mulberry flavors underscored by a vein of juicy acidity. Lush yet energetic as well, showing excellent clarity and spicy lift on the persistent finish, which is framed by supple, polished tannins. — Josh Raynolds
Vinous Score: 94 points
Tasting Notes: Brilliant ruby. A highly expressive bouquet evokes fresh red berries, candied rose and baking spices, and a smoky element builds in the glass. Oak-spiced raspberry and cherry cola flavors are underscored and energized by a core of juicy acidity. In an energetic style, delivering firm closing bite and smooth tannins that lend shape and subtle grip to the strikingly long, penetrating finish. 23% new oak. — Josh Raynolds
Vinous Score: 92 points
Tasting Notes: Vivid ruby-red. Powerful, spice-tinged cherry and floral pastille scents are complemented by suggestions of licorice and succulent flowers. Rich and chewy on the palate, offering mineral-accented black raspberry and cherry cola flavors that coat the palate. Finishes very long and subtly smoky, with well-knit tannins building steadily and adding gentle grip to lingering cherry and mocha notes. Raised in 23% new oak. — Josh Raynolds
Vinous Score: 93 points
Tasting Notes: Bright ruby. Ripe red and blue fruits, pungent flowers, licorice, mocha and a hint of smoky minerals on the deeply perfumed nose. Juicy and supple on the palate, offering intense boysenberry and cherry preserve flavors that are lifted and sharpened by an undercurrent of zesty acidity. The spice and floral notes repeat strongly on an impressively long, cherry-driven finish, where rounded tannins come in late. — Josh Raynolds
Vinous Score: 93 points
Tasting Notes: Deep magenta. Highly perfumed aromas of red fruit liqueur, cherry cola, musky flowers and exotic spices carry a smoky mineral overtone. Smooth and supple in texture, offering sweet, mineral-laced boysenberry, cherry, candied rose and spice cake flavors that spread out steadily with air. Delivers a suave blend of depth and energy and finishes very long and spicy, displaying harmonious tannins and fine clarity. 23% new oak. — Josh Raynolds
Vinous Score: 94 points
Tasting Notes: Deep, glistening ruby-red. Deeply perfumed scents of red berry liqueur, cherry cola and baking spices, and a floral overtone that emerges with air. Sweet and seamless on the palate, offering juicy black raspberry, cherry-vanilla and rose pastille flavors plus a smoky top note. The spice and floral notes repeat on a long, smooth finish framed by sneaky, harmonious tannins. 23% new oak. — Josh Raynolds
Vinous Score: 93 points
Tasting Notes: Glistening ruby-red. Assertively perfumed, mineral-accented red berry and cherry aromas are complemented by suggestions of five-spice powder and potpourri. Silky and appealingly sweet, offering incisive raspberry, cherry and floral pastille flavors that are complemented by a smoky mineral quality. Shows fine clarity and spicy lift on the long, energetic finish, which is framed by gentle, even tannins. — Josh Raynolds