Tag Archives: History of Pinot Noir in Oregon
Romping Through the 2021 Ken Wright Pinots
Posted on March 23, 2023 in Press, Reviews
The winery tells me that all the 2021 single vineyard wines will be released over the next few months. Carter and Canary Hill may already have sold out. It’s worth a special salute to Ken that his prices have barely budged in years and a further discount (down to $55) is offered to club members. As always with young wines, let ‘em breathe!
Here are my notes and scores:
Ken Wright 2021 Bonnie Jean Vineyard Pinot Noir
Young as it is this wine already has the rich, dense and expressive aromas of a wine with a half decade behind it. The alcohol remains low, which allows more subtlety and elegance across the entire 2021 portfolio. Lightly cooked cherries, baking spices and delicate touches of floral highlights cut across the palate. One fifth of the barrels were new. The youth shows mostly in the edgy tannins, which will smooth out with another couple of years in the bottle or aggressive aeration.
679 cases; 12.8%; $65 (Yamhill-Carlton) 92/100
Ken Wright 2021 Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir
Tart, racy raspberry fruit shines here, backed with juicy acids that mix Meyer lemon and blood orange. Beautifully defined and precise, this wine should cellar quite well indefinitely. Meanwhile, decant it and enjoy it for its ebullient youth.
667 cases; 13.3%; $65 (Eola-Amity Hills) 92/100
Ken Wright 2021 Savoya Vineyard Pinot Noir
This fresh and berry-laden wine bursts forth with a mix of rhubarb, cranberries and raspberries. The acids are softened and smooth, underscoring a palate-prickling hint of jicama. Complex and captivating, this elegant wine continues to expand and add layers as it breathes open.
503 cases; 13.2%; $65 (Yamhill-Carlton) 93/100
Ken Wright 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. My 3/3/23 Wine of the Week.
1432 cases; 12.8%; $65 (Yamhill-Carlton) 94/100
Ken Wright 2021 Canary Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir
Among the oldest vines (planted 1983 in Ken Wright’s single vineyard series, Canary Hill also benefits from its Pommard clones. It’s juicy and fresh, crisply defined with flavors of just-picked wild berries backed with vivid citrus. Aging in 20% new French oak puts a lightly toasty frame around it, nicely balanced against the ripping acids. I would guess its best days are a half decade away.
608 cases; 13.5%; $65 (Eola-Amity Hills) 94/100
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Paul Gregutt- Wine of the Week
Posted on March 9, 2023 in 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)
Do Dry-Farmed Vines Make Better Wine?
Posted on March 2, 2023 in Uncategorized
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
Ken’s 2022 Vintage Harvest Letter
Posted on November 15, 2022 in Announcements, Harvest
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.
Great Northwest Wine of the Week: 2021 Willamette Valley Chardonnay
Posted on September 8, 2022 in Press, Reviews
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
New Scores of 2019 Vintage from Wine Spectator!
Posted on July 20, 2022 in Press, Reviews
The History of Pinot Noir in Oregon: A Ken Wright Interview
Posted on June 23, 2022 in Press
February 22, 2019
Oregon’s Willamette Valley has become one of America’s leading wine-producing regions. With more than 20,000 acres of vineyards and over 400 bonded winemakers, this AVA has come a long way since the first Pinot Noir vines were planted back in 1965 by David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards. Pinot Noir, of course, is the predominant wine produced in Willamette Valley, having found a special place in the challenging, cool climate of Oregon. The mid-1980s were kind to Willamette Valley, and its Pinot Noirs began to receive the recognition they deserved. The world took notice of their quality, and Oregon was soon trailing behind Burgundy.
Kentucky-born Ken Wright found his way to Oregon in 1985, leaving behind his job at Talbott Vineyards. Though his incipient years as a Willamette winemaker were rocky, he would prove to be pivotal in the AVA’s growth and evolution. He would introduce sorting lines to ensure quality in the grapes that entered into the fermentors. He began using dry ice to cool grapes before the onset of fermentation, too. After selling his first winery, Panther Creek, Wright established Ken Wright Cellars in 1995, beginning his focus on single vineyard Pinot Noirs.
Wright soon noticed a pattern. Grapes grown in volcanic soils led to more fruit driven wines, whereas grapes from marine sediments led to greater floral and spice notes.
His obsession with vineyards and the signature they imparted on wines did not just end there. It led him to co-establish an impressive six sub-appellations within northern Willamette Valley. These subregions, Yamhill-Carlton, Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills, McMinnville, and Eola-Amity Hills regularly appear on his wine labels.
Megan Stypulkoska: Can you tell us about your background as a winemaker, how you got started, and what drew you into wine?
Ken Wright: Well, I was actually in the heartland of great wine country, Lexington, Kentucky. And going to school there, I was working my way, working at a restaurant, a great restaurant at the time, called The Fig Tree. The restaurant was terrific, they had a great wine list, but the staff essentially were all kids in college, and none of us had much money, had never had an opportunity to try the wines that were on the list. They were too expensive for us. We had staff meetings and the owner of the restaurant got really upset with us because of the poor sales of the wine list. And we all looked at him and said, “You know, we don’t know what to say. We’ve never had the wines, it’s difficult with our experience to talk to them and speak to them.”
And good on him, he took that to heart and he said, “Fair enough. At these staff meetings going forward, I’m going to pick a region, and we’re going to taste every wine from that region until we work our way through that entire list.” And it was a great list, a really great list. For Kentucky, by far the best list in that region. To give you an example, we had every bottling of the ’71 DRCs on that list. Every one. And it was just terrific wines from around the planet.
And so we did that and I was amazed by the quality and how great wine could be. I had no idea. And I got very interested, learned everything I could, tried everything that I could get my hands on. Of course, there was no real wine industry back then in Kentucky. There really still shouldn’t be, but there is.
I ended up starting some wine appreciation classes while I was in school, with a friend of mine who was a roommate. And he was a graduate horticulture student. So he and I did that for two years. Actually, his masters thesis was on the cold-hardiness of vines native to Kentucky, which made him our resident expert, though no one cared then and they still don’t. But the university was curious about whether or not there would be any vines, any wine varieties that might work in Kentucky. So we actually planted vineyards for them, for the university. It was a horrible failure. The diseases in Kentucky, because of the humidity, are crazy.
The humidity drives black rot and many others, and the chemistry you would have to use to combat those disease is even worse. It’s really a non-starter, honestly. It was a good lesson. You know, failure’s good. Then I was making wine there in Kentucky from purchased grapes that was just god-awful. Undrinkable.
But anyway, it became clear to me that I loved everything about it. I loved having the vineyard, designing it, tying it, nurturing it, as physical as it was. The whole process of fermentation was fascinating to me. So I decided, you know, I was in political science pre-law sort of curriculum and I decided to just forget about that and sold everything I had and drove out west in a VW van with my then girlfriend to Davis. UC Davis. So I enrolled there. We had just enough money to make that happen. And then I took all the viticulture courses, all the winemaking courses at Davis. And then ended up getting into the industry in ’78, there in California.
And I was very, very fortunate, my first job was making wines for two companies, Ventana and Chalone, and I don’t know how old you are, but-
Well, then you could not possibly know what Chalone meant. Well, Chalone was by miles, by miles, the most advanced winery in the United States, by miles. And they’re making the best wines, at that time, period. At that time it was under the direction of Dick Graff, who was an amazing individual, a great mentor. And he was pushing the edge of understanding of fine wine, big time. I was was very fortunate to land in that spot as a young person. And he started a group called the Small Winery Technical Society.
Because I was making wines for them, I was invited to be part of that and it was an amazing group of people. We met at Mount Eden every month and the group included Rick Foreman from Napa, Steve Kissler from Sonoma, Josh Jensen and, of course, Steve Doerner. That’s when I first met Steve. Josh Jensen and Steve Doerner from Calera. We had Rick Sandford and Berno Delfanza in Santa Barbara. Mary Brooks from Acacia, which was quite the producer at the time. And all of the Chalone properties, of course, were involved in those meetings and the research that we conducted both in the winery and the vineyard. And we got two French producers in Burgundy mimicking our work and trying to replicate what we were doing to see if the results there were the results we were getting. So essentially when we started that grid, that was when the fax was first invented. So because I was the youngest in the group and the least experienced, I was elected to be the recorder of the meetings and then the one who would then communicate through the fax.
We did quite a bit of work there. It was a great opportunity for me to be around people who were very successful at the highest levels of our business and just to be a sponge, you know? So I was in the California industry there in ’78 til ’86. So after doing the time with Chalone, in 1982, I was offered an opportunity in the Carmel Valley by a family that had a lot of property there, to develop vineyards and winery for the family. And that was Robert Talbott. And so I was hired by the mom and dad to work with their son, Rob, in developing that business. And a little over four years later, we had gotten to the point where he was ready to take over and I was ready to start my own thing in Oregon, which I did.
(Photo: Ken Wright’s vineyards in Willamette Valley, Oregon)
I moved up to Oregon in ’86 with 10 barrels until I, actually, in ’85, Martin Ray had.. do you know who Martin Ray was? Martin Ray was a figure. A figure of importance in California, let me tell you. He really was the one who brought the industry to it’s knees and embarrassed the industry regarding the fact that at the time the law was that you only had to be 51% varietal. So you could make Cabernet Sauvignon, you could make Pinot Noir, and it only had to be 51%. You didn’t have to tell anybody what the rest of it was. And it embarrassed him that the standards were so low, but also, at that time the industry in California, California was the black eye of the world, because they were using labels, like Chablis, like Burgundy, and more, with champagne to sell wine on the backs of others. The rest of the world saw California as a substandard place as a result. Martin Ray was the one who really called people on the carpet, the whole industry, and said, “This is not okay. If we don’t believe in ourselves more than this, we’re never going to be a region of note.” Funny how, he was important, and for some reason, people don’t seem to remember that.
He’s amazing. So, yes Martin has passed and his wife, Eleanor, I’d known her for years because they’re situated right next to Mount Eden, right next to where we were holding our meetings. She contacted me to say she had this fruit, this beautiful, old vineyard on their property that she didn’t have a home for.
So in 1985 I took that fruit, which was a combination of Cabernet and Merlot. Very small, but very beautiful, small vineyard. It only produced 10 barrels of wine, essentially. And that was the wine that I brought to Oregon with me in ’86 when I started my business up here. It was a bit weird to bring a Bordeaux blend to the heart of the Willamette Valley, but I did. It was a very, very good wine, eventually.
I was going to say, when I brought it up, I was so naive about the laws regarding alcohol, generally, that I brought that up in the truck that had all my belongings. And the barrels were just trapped in the case of a trailer and I set up shop in McMinnville, Oregon. At that time, there wasn’t the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, the BHES, which still ruled us at that point, before 9/11, the BHES, they would send agents out, and you don’t see that happening anymore. But they would actually send an agent out to inspect you, to make sure that you were real. And they would meet with you and interview you. The agent that came out for me, his name was Ron Fitzgerald, he came out and he was sitting in my crummy little office. I rented this space for $250 a month, and he was sitting there with me, and just kept going through the checklist. He goes, “I can see you have a stemmer, I see you have some tanks, you have your pumps, and I can see you’ve got some barrels in the back there.”
And I said to him, “Yeah, that’s amazing wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains that I brought up with me when I moved up here.” And he said, “What?”, and I said, “Yeah! It’s terrific, terrific fruit from Santa Cruz Mountains.” And he said, “You’re not licensed to produce yet. You can’t have that wine, yet.” And I said to him, “If I can’t sell that wine, I’m out of business before I start.” And he realized that I was just incredibly naïve and that I wasn’t trying to circumvent any laws. And he took pity on me and he found a way, writing letters to people throughout the chain of command, he found a way for me to able to sell that wine. Which was huge. At the time it was just absolutely huge. So I thanked him, will always thank him for that, for working on my behalf.
So that was the first wine we had. And of course the focus was Pinot Noir. The reason I came to Oregon was Pinot Noir. What brought me here was, I had been visiting the area for years, that same fellow that I was roommates with back in Lexington, came to Oregon State to get his doctorate. And he became the vineyard manager for what was then called Knudsen Erath. I’d visit him quite a bit and over all the years when he would visit Buckley I would visit him here. I became familiar with Pinot Noir from that area, and enamored with it. Just absolutely loved the profile of the wine. And I remember at that time, there was a lot of inconsistency for a lot of different reasons, but when they were on the mark, they were absolutely beautiful. That’s what drew me up here.
(Photo: Pinot Noir grapes on the vine)
Do you want to tell us about your philosophy of viticulture and winemaking, now that you’re an established and successful winemaker?
In the end really great success is when you have the right variety in the right location, where it inherently wants to be magical. For me, it applies to all things, all plants around the world. If you think of the great things that we have in terms in food, particularly, it’s always about environment.
If you love tomatoes and, you know, San Marzano tomatoes are absolutely the ultimate experience in Italy. And it’s not because someone in Italy is a genius, it’s because that plant loves that place, absolutely loves that place. All the environment factors there, everything, all of the influences are exactly the right thing for that plant.
I go to Japan every year. Every April, late April, I go to Japan, have for a dozen years, and I don’t go there at that time for the Cherry Blossom Festival, although the cherry blossoms are out, it’s really more for the bamboo shoot in Kyoto. Bamboo shoot, generally, at least when I grew up in the Midwest, bamboo shoot was something that came in a can and tasted like sawdust, but in Kyoto, it’s absolutely a religious experience. It’s the most amazing, amazing plant and when prepared correctly, it’s insanely delicious. And so, I’ve been everywhere around Japan, nowhere else in Japan is it that good. People make a sabbatical to Kyoto from all over that country to have the bamboo shoot at that perfect time in late April. And that’s because all the conditions are right. It’s exactly where that plant wants to be amazing.
And that’s what we have here in Oregon. The Willamette Valley is a very, very broad, it’s a massive area. The reality is 95% of it is not suitable for quality fruit, but the the sub-AVAs that I was involved with in creating here years ago I wrote one of them, I was the author of one, the sub-AVAs are really there to identify those areas in the valley that are absolutely world class.
And to create essentially, a roadmap for those coming to our region about where they should plant, where they would be likely to have the greatest success. Because we didn’t need people coming to the region planting in inferior areas and making poor wine. That doesn’t help anybody, certainly doesn’t help us. We need everybody working at the highest possible level. As a small region, it’s all about quality. It’s all about that. So we had to identify those small areas.
So these areas are places where this plant, or Pinot Noir, wants to be spectacular. It inherently wants to be amazing. It’s been on us over these last 50 years. So we learn how to farm, in a way, how do you farm in a way that supports this plant at the highest levels? It can realize all of the potential it has. And that takes time. Farming is hard, and it takes years to understand your individual properties and what you need to do to support that plant in an ideal way. And in the end, it’s always about nutritional balance.
Do you think your winemaking has evolved over that period of time working with your vineyards?
Yeah, I mean, we were the first sorting in Oregon. We were the first to create a sorting line, the first to use dry ice. Back in the day, one of the issues we had here in Oregon was that the way business was done, and this is California as well, the way business was done, you were buying fruit by the ton, okay? You didn’t necessarily have your own blocks to work with. You would simply work with a grower, they would do their best to accommodate your order for fruit from wherever they could in their vineyard. That’s the way it was. At that time, there was no mechanism between a purchaser and a grower, there was no mechanism to do thinning. If you’re paying the grower by the ton, you can’t go to them and say, “Hey, would you mind dropping off the crop so we can make something more concentrated here.”
So years where you had all the accumulated heat you needed to ripen before the weather broke down, everything worked out. But there were too many years where it didn’t, where you had a cooler season, there wasn’t enough accumulated heat to get the fruit in the barn dry before the rains would come.
And essentially, in Oregon, the way it works is you have, while we’re getting into harvest, we’re also looking north to the jet stream, which starts up in Canada and it begins to slowly fall down south, coming through Washington State and eventually, normally right at mid-October, it begins bringing in, from the Pacific, one storm after another. If you’re not done, if you’re not in the house with all of your fruit before that begins, you’re going to struggle. You’re going to have pollution from rainfall, you’re going to have disease. Disease begins almost instantly. You’re going to struggle.
(Photo: Harvesting grapes at Ken Wright Cellars)
So that is the key. In a quiet year, the way in which you can alter the dynamic is to remove crop, it’s serious sacrifice, but you can remove crop to lessen the workload of the plant. The engine of the plant is the same, the leaf surface is your engine, so that’s your photosynthetic engine. It remains the same, year in, year out, essentially. You’re working with the same canopy, the same leaf surface. But the weight of what you’re asking that engine to push through a season, the weight can vary dramatically, very dramatically, from year to year.
In a cold year, the way that you can get home before the fall rain begins, is to lessen that work load, which we did. Which is what we do now. We began that in ’87 by changing the dynamic. We looked at our growers and said, “You know, given the conditions here, we can’t be good in most years. We have to be competitive and producing the wines that are compelling every year. We’re not going to get there with this current arrangement of buying by the ton. We have to change the dynamic.”
So we were the first to do that. In 1987, we went to our growers and said, “We want to buy by the acre. We want to do acreage contract where we are paying you a set fee for an acre. And those vines are now our vines. Those blocks are our blocks. And if we determine during the year that we need to drop crop at any level, you need to be contractually obligated to do it for us to be successful because you’re collecting the same check.”
The grower doesn’t care anymore, right? They’re getting paid and that time it is was $5,000 an acre. We said, “Well, you’re getting the same check no matter how much fruit we take, so you’re no longer impacted, but we need a different way of doing business.” And that was a huge thing. That was a big change for us and then eventually for everybody. And that’s the way that business is generally done universally at the highest levels, obviously. So that was a very big deal.
For me, the connection that Pinot Noir creates to us, that connection to place that it provides, I don’t think is matched by anything else we consume. I can’t think of any food, any other beverage that begins to connect us to place in such a complex way. We work for the wine varieties, how they have a varietal makeup that includes traits that can dominate place at some level. For me, Pinot Noir is a completely blank canvas and everything you smell and taste has everything to do with where it’s grown. Everything. So that, when it’s done right and you’re farming correctly, and of course there’s the absolute assumption that you have that variety in exactly the right place, that when you support it correctly through your farming and you get a huge voice coming because of that correct support, it’s amazing.
(Photo: Pinot Noir grapes)
To me, it’s in our correct place as human beings and so many people talk about their winemaking approach and this and that, and to me, that’s all good, but the gift that this plant brings to us, it’s a serious gift. It is beyond us. We need to learn how to support it, but what’s magical is that it’s something beyond. The reality is we’re just learning how to be fake stewards and making the right choices for supporting the gift which is this possibility to do what it does and bring pleasure to us. For me, Pinot Noir is the ultimate. It’s absolutely the ultimate in that ability.
What are your thoughts on organic viticulture?
Organic is, what we do, we meet the standard in our approach, but you have to understand, minor organic or biodynamic requires testing to show nutritional balance, okay? I applaud anybody that wants to farm in a sensitive way, but in the end, what really matters is that you have to go beyond that. Organic is really just a list of chemicals you can’t use, that’s all it is. It’s of a list of chemistry you cannot use, but there’s no requirement by that farming method to investigate your site, to actually investigate your property, to do the testing that tells you in real language and hard facts what’s really going on.
It means, are you deficient in manganese? Are you excessive in phosphorus? Are you in perfect shape with copper, iron, zinc? You don’t know. The problem is, for me, if you don’t know that stuff further, if you don’t go the step further to really understand what’s going on in your place, then you’re farming in a blind fashion. It’s just a recipe. And you know, the same recipe doesn’t work at 5,000 feet as it does at sea level. And if you’re not addressing the actual nutritional needs of your site, if you’re not actually down there at next level, then you’re just guessing. You’re just hoping that you hit the mark. And you might. You might do just fine, but it won’t be through knowledge, it’ll just be through a recipe, thinking that it will work.
So for us, this started, oh let’s see, it’s really based on Japanese farming, beginning about 25 years ago. It was funny because in serious farming, I mean when you talked about serious farming operations, not grapes, but anything, those folks who do serious farming, they understand exactly what’s going on in the properties to the square inch. To the square inch, they know what the nutritional needs of their properties are.
And in our own business, it’s so funny, we end up with these romanticized kinds of approaches that have no, necessarily, basis and fact of any kind. I find it, I mean, I like to know what’s going on. I want to know, I don’t want to guess that I might be doing the right thing. I want to know what. I think that if you do that, I know that when you do that, you can see, it’s amazing to see the change that happens in the vineyard.
(Photo: Checking seed development)
For us, it’s more about, in the end, when you talk about winemaking style, I try not to think I have a winemaking style. I’d like to think that we have learned how to farm in a way that we are getting a wonderful volume to aroma and flavor to the right kind of nutritional support where the plant is really just humming. Then learning how to be invisible. Honestly, if what we’re trying to do is showcase place, which is what we, we’ve been doing this longer than anybody in Oregon, big, single vineyard wines, by far, we’re the only ones for years. And that’s because we love that. We love the ability to get connected to place. We think it’s a magical thing the plant provides. In order to do that, to really showcase place, you need to become invisible. It’s much harder to be invisible than it sounds. It’s easy to be manipulative. It’s really hard to protect and enhance the fruit. That’s hard. It’s really hard. It starts, always, with farming. Always. No one in the world is that good where they could take average fruit and make it extremely wonderful. That doesn’t happen.
Do you want to talk a little bit more on the terroir of your estate and your different vineyards? I know you’ve touched before on climate and soil.
So, to understand the valley, it’s pretty simple in the Willamette Valley, fortunately. Our region was created by plate activity years ago from the scrapings. Where we exist, here, this was all Pacific Ocean. I mean 200 million years ago the state of Washington did not exist. Nor did half of Oregon. At that time, the Pacific coastline was way further east and over this couple hundred million years, we’ve had the Juan de Fuca plate, which is our nearby marine plate, plunging under our coastline. As it plunges, the soft sediments that are on the top of that plate get scraped off as it rubs against our coastline, then plunges downward and under the crust. All of Washington and half of Oregon were created in this manner, so all of the base material for where I am now, and in Washington, all of Washington State is made of sediments. It’s all sand. All of it. So that’s how it was initially created.
Just 15 million years ago, just like yesterday, 15 million years ago there was a set of volcanoes on the other side of our state near Idaho, on the eastern side of our state. They’re called the Blue Mountains now, but back in the day, 15 million years ago, they were the most violent chain of volcanoes on the planet. Over a very long period of time, they issued so much lava that it’s called the Columbia River Basalt flow. It’s the largest flow of basalt in the world. Any geologist could tell you that.
(Photo: Columbia River Basalt flow)
It issued so much lava that it came all the way west across the entire state, including where we are here in the valley. It created a veneer, or a laminate, over the valley, over those marine sediments that were here first from the plate activity. So it’s a veneer, you know, a couple hundred to three or four hundred feet over the marine sediments.
That’s 15 million years ago. Since then, it’s been pretty quiet, geologically. So that veneer, that covering over the marine sediments has been eroding and weathering and going away. So now, as of today, there are islands that are left of that topical basalt, of that volcanic flow. Those are places you may know, like the Dundee Hills. The Dundee Hills is a remnant, a vestige, of that flow that came from the other side of the state 15 million years ago.
The Eola Hills, same thing. It’s a remnant of a flood. These are volcanic areas. They’re not volcanic from activity underneath, there never has been, ever. Ever. It’s just what’s left of this incredible flood that came so many millions of years ago. Around them, the marine sediments are now re-exposed, the really old stuff now has been re-exposed. What we see is that the new plant, Pinot Noir, in the volcanics, in the young stuff, planting in the volcanics, the wines will tend to be fruit driven.
So, Dundee tends to be more of a red profile, you get cherry, strawberry, raspberry. Eola tends to be much darker in its profile. You’re seeing blueberry, black cherry, cassis. The McMinnville area is also volcanic, it’s similar blue, black in profile. While the type of fruit might vary from place to place, the seam remains the same. The seam is that the volcanics tend to be more fruit driven wine.
When you plant Pinot Noir in the marine sediments, the old stuff, it’s totally different. It’s a different creature altogether. It becomes very savory. You’re going to see chocolate, cedar, tobacco, clove, root beer. All of these elements that are not fruit driven. And it’s just because that’s what it’s about, the mother rock. It’s not about soil, never about soil, it’s always about the mother rock. It’s the mineral make-up of that mother rock that is driving that profile.
People talk about soil so much, it just blows my mind. I don’t get it, because when you plant vines, you know, in those early years when your root system is fairly shallow, it’s only exploring soil, you have very little character. Really, the wines are part muddled. They lack clarity, they lack specificity, they’re just whatever, muddled. It isn’t until your vines are old enough that the root system is beyond soil and engaging your mother rock. And, assuming that you’re farming correctly and that you have the microbiology present to break it down, to break that mother rock down, that’s when the change happens.
That’s when all of the sudden, the site goes from being okay to being incredibly detailed. All of a sudden you see all these qualities that weren’t there before, once your root system is in that parent material. And that’s what you wait for. As a grower and as a winemaker, you’re waiting for that important time where the vineyard is at an age where that begins to happen, because all of a sudden you have a whole new set of characteristics that make that wine so interesting.
To understand the region is to know. Anybody drinking Oregon wine, their first question should be, every time, at least the Willamette Valley, the first question should be, “Is this volcanic or is this sedimentary?” Because if you do that, if you begin caring about that, you will begin to see a pattern. And you may not describe it like I do, people are different in the way they do things, but you will see a pattern, I promise you that. You will begin to notice the characteristics of the volcanics are definitely, completely different than the sedimentary sites. And it’s all eye of the beholder. There’s no right or wrong. It’s whatever pleases you, in the end. There’s a lot of people who much prefer the marine sediments, they like those savory qualities. Tons of other people do not. They prefer the more laser-like fruit. There is no right or wrong, it’s just what it is and in the end, it’s this wonderful ability to be connected, again, to place, by this plant.
So, how would you say Oregon has evolved over time as winemaking region?
Well, a lot over the years. We had the benefit of having a region that innately, this plant, wants to be great here. It really does. And again, all success comes from that.
But over the years we’ve learned about, inherently, the trellising methods that work and don’t work here, cloning material. We were so lucky, honestly, we were so lucky that David Lett brought Wädenswil. It was ’66, not ’65, like the books say, it was ’66. David Lett brought Wädenswil in ’66, Dick Erath brought Pommard in ’68. Those two clones really provided the basis for some amazing early success that happened from this area.
(Photo: Vineyard at Ken Wright Cellars)
And that’s because those two clones were so well matched to this region. One is, the Pommard is the basso. It’s more tannic, darker colored, more muscular. Whereas the Wädenswil is the soprano, big time. It’s all high notes. It’s not necessarily darkly colored, it’s not tannic, but it is absolutely beautiful and ethereal and complex. Together, those plants were super well matched, because they provided such stretch to the aromatic and flavor profile. Beautifully matched.
Many plants came and went over the years, but some kind of worked, some didn’t work at all. Eventually the design material came from Raymond Bernard in the ’80s from the University of Dijon. Oregon was the first area outside of France to get the Dijon material, because Raymond loved Oregon so much. Those had become clones as well. So cloning material can make a difference.
Having the acreage contracts that I mentioned, changing our way of doing business so we could control crop level is key, really key.
And then things like, we have, when it comes to thinning, used to be that lore, when I was in California and when I first came up here, there was this lore and assumption, our world was full of it, that you should never thin before color. That if you did, if you thinned before color change in the fruit, that the fruit would size up. You’d have a very large berry size. Which would mean less skin to juice, meaning less color, less flavor, less all that. And that was the lore. I’ve been working with a group, we call ourselves the Cellar Crawl, we’ve been working together for 23 years now, doing experimental work here in Oregon.
One of the things we took on was this lore and assumption about thinning. So we did a trial for many years, that everybody participated in. There were six of us, six brands. We proved that it does not exist here. There is no sizing. What it meant is this: if you wait ’til color to remove fruit, for thinning, you’re only six weeks from harvest. Essentially, you really haven’t done anything to help yourself. We found that we could thin as soon as right after flowering in June. So we could be thinning by mid-June, which means you’re taking away, to really make a difference in that plant’s ability to ripen that fruit sooner in a cold year, by thinning that early, you’ve removed all that weight. All that weight from the plant months before you thought it was okay, traditionally. And it makes a magnificent difference. And it is huge in terms of granting the plant lightness when needed. With that thinning, that changed everything. People now understand they can thin much earlier.
We have tighter spacing than we used to have, which I think can be helpful. In the end, older vines, you really treasure older vines and even widely-spaced older vines can make unbelievably great wine, but there are advantages to tighter spacing, especially in a cooler year because you have more leaf surface in a given acre of ground. Your engine is just bigger. It’s a bigger engine and so you can help yourself in that case. It’s more expensive to be more closely spaced. It’s more expensive over the year, ’cause your farming costs go way up, but it can be an advantage in a challenging year, to have more leaf surface, for sure.
We started dry ice use, came in about 1994, which made a difference.
I think we’ve done a lot of work, these studies and so on and so forth that have changed, it really changed things over the years. People’s approaches.
We were the first to do salting of barrels. Back in the ’70s and the ’80s, barrels were pretty consistent and they were essentially as advertised when you purchased barrels and you asked for a certain amount of AOs of aging of the wood, seasoning, and source based on forest, etc, etc. The pressure on wood supply, because of the growth worldwide, it’s insane.
(Photo: Barrel room at Ken Wright Cellars)
When I left California, there was not a vine, Sonoma Coast didn’t exist. There was one winery in Santa Barbara. It was a very different world. And it’s amazing worldwide the change that’s happened. Look at South America. South America wasn’t in the game back then, quality-wise. The growth in Australia and the rise and quality of line from Italy, I mean, back in the day, you had Gaja making some good wine, but my god, there was a lot of bad wine coming out of Italy.
That has all changed. That has all changed here in the last 30 years. It’s amazing, worldwide, how the quality of wine worldwide is amazing and the use of oak is part of that. So the demand on oak is crazy, in fact, I was sitting here, I had a visit from André Porcheret and Denis Mortet, when he was still alive, they were visiting with me here in Carlton.
André Porcheret was the winemaker at the Hospices de Beaune for 35 years. And of course Denis has his own label in Burgundy. We sat there, were sitting in ’94, I think it was, and we just noticed that the barrels supplied by French coopers were becoming almost inconsistent. There was a lot of green wood. A lot of cheating going on, frankly. A lot of cheating because of demand.
And I was using this steaming method trying to get rid of the harshest resins and so forth, and I asked them, “Have you noticed this trend that barrels are becoming so inconsistent?” And they said, “Oh yeah, absolutely” And I ask them what they were doing, and André, next to me, he was having a lot of success with this salting technique of using cane-dried salt to extract the harsh resins from green wood. Anyhow, we started doing that. So we were the first to do that in the U.S. back at that time, but yeah that’s become kind of standard operating procedure for most to do this practice to eliminate this issue. But that’s a detail.
I think in the end, we’ve all gotten, as an industry, we’ve gotten more and more focused on the farming side of things and understand how critical that is. Increasing the quality of the fruit you receive so that you have the best chance of making something beautiful. We’ve become better and better at protecting the wines through the process of winemaking. It’s really, it’s been so interesting.
I remember I was in China a couple years ago and traveling there for the first time and I was absolutely shocked at the awareness of the Chinese wine industry, one with people involved there, in the restaurant industry especially. I was amazed of the awareness of the Willamette Valley. I mean, I thought I would go there having to teach, point to a map and say this is where Oregon is and this is where we are. It was not like that at all. It was actually stunning how well, not only did they know the Willamette Valley, they knew how to say it, and then they would give me two thumbs up and say, “Pinot Noir.” And that really hit home for me during that trip what a wonderful and significant asset we have, that we have this association of Willamette Valley and Pinot Noir. Not every region has that.
I mean I would suggest only Napa Valley Cabernet and Willamette Valley Pinots have that in the U.S. And so, it just struck me that we now really have a worldwide, truly a worldwide asset that took the work of a lot of great people. A lot of great people through this history here, 50 plus years, have done so much to create what we have. And it’s really because we were so fortunate that people who came to this area were so passionate and were driven, truly driven, by making the very best wine they could possibly make. That has been the trend. There were enough folks that came first in filing, had tended to be incredible collegial and sharing people. Somebody needed a cup of sugar, they all got a cup of sugar.
It’s been an incredibly sharing industry and an industry that cares about each other and each other’s successes. We all know that we’re small fish in this pond and in the end, as I said, it’s all about quality. Making some amazing wine that’s going to be on the world’s stage, ’cause we’re certainly not ever going to be it by volume. That’s for sure.
Obviously Pinot Noir and Oregon go hand in hand, but are they any other grapes that you’re excited about growing in Willamette Valley or want to experiment with?
Chardonnay is increasing now. In the beginning, most of the Chardonnay that was in the Willamette Valley was the UCB 108 and it was a perfect tone for Chardonnay. It did well. It did well in a number of areas in California, but it did not do well here. For me, it is something that still hasn’t, not producing wine so much, but for me, I found it difficult.
(Photo: Ken Wright’s Savoya Chardonnay)
It wasn’t until in the ’80s and actually pushing into the late ’80s that we were able to receive the new cloning material from Raymond Bernard. So we got four clones at that time that have all done pretty well, but again, they were young and we just got them, most of it came in the late ’80s. Those vines got planted, but you’re not going to see, as I mentioned, you’re not going to see, until the vines are deeply rooted, you’re going to begin to see the real, the true complexity of what they can do, for years. It’s years and so now, I think in the last, especially the last I’d say eight years or so, a lot of those vineyards that were planted are now at an age where they’re really producing some really good wine. Really good wine.
There are lot of people producing some Chardonnays that are absolutely beautiful. And really detailed, really pretty wines. So that’s great to see. We weren’t as lucky with Chardonnay as we were with Pinot Noir in terms of what was brought first, so that took a generation to turn the other direction. I’m tasting some delicious Chardonnays from around the region now that I think are really compelling, really beautiful wines. We make a very small amount ourselves, you know, from the 548 clone which is a clone we brought in 2001 that we think is making some terrific wine.
There are other varieties I think that can do pretty well. There are some Pinot Blancs from the region that are quite pretty. I think when it comes to part of our world, there are realities of having to make ends meet. Every acre that we dedicate to something other than Pinot Noir is generally going to be a less profitable acre of ground. It’s just a fact. So the other varieties tend to become, just because of economics, they tend to become hobbies. You do it because you love it, but you don’t do so much that it becomes difficult.
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A Master Class in Oregon Pinot Noir with Ken Wright
Posted on June 17, 2022 in Videos
There are some people in the wine business that bring a level of knowledge to the craft of winemaking that goes far beyond what anyone has a right to expect. Ken Wright (Ken Wright Cellars) is one of those men. He has an understanding of the Willamette Valley in Oregon and how the history and geology shape the flavors of wine. This is especially true in his chosen metier – Pinot Noir.
In the Summer of 2021, I had the privilege of being able to sit down with Ken and absorb some of his knowledge. Even better, he was willing to let me record it on video and they trim down the best parts to share with you.
The result is a 13 minute video that amounts to a master class in Pinot Noir and the terroir of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Ken Wright starts with the inherent characteristics of Pinot Noir and the importance of place to the profile of Pinot Noir.
Wright then discusses the parent material and the Columbia River Basalt Flow and the islands that make up the Northern Willamette Valley.
From there, the winemaker highlights the way that parent rock manifests in the taste profile of Pinot Noir.
In conclusion, Ken Wright emphasizes the importance of farming and the various tests that are required to farm professionally.
Check out the 13 minute video below or read the Transcript underneath the video.
Note: Transcript was created by a third party service and I’ve endeavored to clean up the spelling of ‘wine words.’ Any persistent errors are mine alone and not Ken Wright’s. Or, watch the video. It is awesome.
I’m Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars and we are in the beautiful small town of Carlton, Oregon, home to 2000 souls. We are on beautiful early August day here in Oregon. The summers are delightful. They’re incredibly beautiful. There’s 85, no humidity. Incredibly beautiful, beautiful weather for growing Pinot Noir especially in this region. Our nighttime temperatures dip pretty significantly. We go down to the low 50s.
The diurnal shift is pretty extreme, which is good for grapes.
Cold nights produce what we call fixed color. So, in chemistry, something that’s fixed is stable. And so, it stabilizes color when you have cold nights. Hot nights tend to make color less stable. And it can, in fact, waiver in its intensity over the years in wine. So, we like these cold nights. It’s good for the health of the vineyard as well.
So, I’d love also to talk about the geology of this region and why does Pinot noir excel here?
All greatness that we recognize in food and in agriculture comes from the perfect marriage of plant and place. Human beings are really not a part of that picture.
When a plant finds its perfect environment, where all of the all the influences, whether heat summation, elevation, exposure, the soil, parent material below soil, when everything is right, when everything is perfect for a specific plant, it wants to be amazing. It inherently wants to be incredibly special.
And over many, many, many years, many generations, those who farm there have learned how to support that plant’s mission. But they’re just stewards. They’re just there to ensure that their farming approach is guiding that plant, helping that plant achieve what it wants to achieve.
To be successful with Pinot Noir you have to put it in an environment where you put the brakes on the plant.
The environment has to hold it back. If you plant it next to Syrah, next to Roussanne, Mourvedre, or anything, you can plant it with Chardonnay, you plant it next to any of the variety pinot noir will get to high sugars before any plant next to it. The problem with that is that if you plant pinot noir in a warm place, in a very warm climate, it races. It races to high sugar levels. It forces you, as a grower or as a winemaker, to harvest sooner than you’d like in a shorter season than you’d like, because you have to. The sugars are so elevated and you know you’ll end up with crazy alcohol. And you’ll end up with something that rather than being complex and nuanced it will end up being a hammer, not enjoyable.
Pinot noir, like no other variety, has the ability to connect us to place with tremendous detail. Other varieties tend to have an inherent varietal character, it’s part of the DNA of that variety, that overrides place. And has a big impact on the profile of the wine. Pinot noir is the opposite.
Pinot noir is like a blank canvas. Where it’s grown is everything about what it is.
Its expression is completely driven by where it is planted, completely.
In 1990, we began focusing on single vineyard production. Producing pinot noir from one location on the planet, one tiny spot. Character in the wine is driven by mother rock, by what is below soil. ‘Cause we never see detail in our wines until our root system is past soil, and we are engaging the mother rock. And, at that point, that’s when the handshake begins with that parent material. And then the roots go much further. We normally would see rooting at maturity of 25 to 30 feet depth. Vines, they’re amazing, they’re tenacious.
Average rate of development is about a foot of depth a year. Our soils are between three feet in the marine sediment areas up to 12 feet in the Dundee area, volcanic, in a volcanic area. And so, it’s just a matter of time for those roots, if they’re getting a foot of depth a year, eventually they get to their parent material, they begin that handshake with it. And then, eventually, they go right through it and they go deeply into it. It’s the parent material that has incredible amounts of trace elements: phosphorus, potassium, calcium, sodium, zinc, copper, iron, it’s all there. That’s where you have that cache of mineral that ends up creating profile. And so the vine, as it begins rooting through past soil that now it’s rooting into that parent material with the aid of microbiology, which breaks down those trace elements into an ionic form that the plant can take up that’s the key. You have to have the microbiology to do that for the plant. The plant itself cannot breakdown raw ore. All plants worldwide need microbiology to do that for them, they need a partner and those are our partners.
And they’re delivering all these trace elements that, in the end, create the aromatic and flavor profile of the wine. And, again, the beauty of pinot noir is that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about that place. And it’s all about the uptake of those elements, and not having a varietal character that overwhelms them, but rather you get totally connected to that place, and what it’s about, and the mineral of that place, which I find incredibly special. It makes having wine from a single site when properly farmed. And when you have that uptake, when you get that complexity, it makes the experience of having that wine far deeper than just whether it happens to go well with your fish, or your meat, or whatever. You’re connected. You’re connected to a place on this planet. I find that incredibly special.
Just go. It is the largest flow of lava on the planet. It’s called the Columbia River Basalt Flow, crazy stuff. Geologists love to talk about it. And, originally, there was sand that was laid down here. This area, used to be Pacific Ocean and that’s the base of our area. The volcanic floods came 15 million years ago and created a veneer over the sand.
So 15 million years forward. Most of that veneer, most of that covering of basalt has eroded, and weathered, and gone away. And we’re left with islands. And those islands are the areas I just mentioned. So, the Dundee Hills is an island left over of basalt that came in a volcanic flood from the other side of the state. Eola-Amity, same thing. Chehalem Mountains, same thing. Around them, you see the marine sediments, the old stuff from the ocean bed.
When you plant Pinot Noir in volcanic material, Pinot Noir will have a fruit driven profile. In Dundee, it’s more of a red profile. You see a lot of cherry, and strawberry, and raspberry. Eola, it’s much darker. You’re gonna see cassis, plum, black cherry, blueberry, much darker profile. But, in all cases, anytime you plant pinot noir in the volcanic material, the fruit will be the driving force in its profile, whether it’s red, blue, or black fruit, it will be what’s most noticeable. It’ll be the theme of the wine.
The moment you get away from the volcanics and begin and plant in the marine sediments in the old ocean bed, much older, the wine’s totally different. It becomes very rustic, very savory. You start to see things like tobacco, cedar, chocolate, anise, clove, fresh turned earth, mushroom. Totally different profile because the mineral is totally different in that marine sediment versus the volcanic, totally different. In the volcanic, you have a lot of manganese, you have a lot of iron. In the marine sediment you’re going to have a lot of potassium, a lot of calcium, sodium, totally different, really different elements. And, again, it’s that uptake of those elements below soil, not soil below soil, from that mother rock. It’s that uptake, again, that’s driving profile.
We celebrate that ability of the plant to connect us like that by having single vineyard production from all over this valley, from what we feel are the very, very best locations. And, fortunately for us, we’ve been here since what? ’86. And so, over many years, we’ve carefully chosen what places we work with, and who we work with. Both are important. Both are incredibly important. So, these single vineyards, they connect you. As you taste them, you’re going to find that each is different. Two thirds of our production is marine sediment driven, but each site is a little different. No two sites are exactly alike, even though they may share that they are marine sediments still, the mineral makeup is never quite the same. And so they will always be a little different one from another.
Farming is everything. It’s everything. You can only be as good as the quality of the fruit you receive.
No one, no winemaker is good enough to take average fruit and make it amazing. Nobody’s that good. In the top of our industry with the very best production of wine on the planet, anywhere in this world, things that you consider world class, again, it’s never been about people. It’s because that variety, or clones of that variety even have found their perfect spot on this planet.
And then, people have learned how to farm correctly, how to support the plant’s mission, which is really difficult. Farming is really hard because it’s slow to learn the lessons of nutrition. We take that fruit, and then we have to transform that into something that brings you amazing pleasure. That’s what we do. And so, it’s far different than growing a crop that needs to look pretty. So, number one, you have to start by understanding the nutritional status of your place, and fine tuning your farming approach to support that plant in that place exactly.
It’s critical that you do three kinds of testing: nutritional testing of the plant, nutritional testing of the soil, and then deep core sampling to the parent material, deep core sampling for microbiology.
Those three tests are the report card that any professional farmer needs to understand their place, and to understand what is the true nutritional status of the plant in that place. And it takes years to know a place. I mean, it doesn’t come easily. It takes years to understand ’cause you only have a season at a time. You can only see the response of the vineyard to whatever approach you use that year. You get to see that for that year. And then, you get to test and say, “Okay, I have the eyeball test and how the plant looks. Does it look healthier? Does it perform better?” You have all of the nutrition testing that’ll let you know whether or not the plant is in better condition, is this healthier. But you only get that one year.
And so, it takes years to truly dial in a personalized farming plan that supports that location that brings it to nutritional balance year in, year out. That’s hard.
Farming is really hard, but that’s the key.
FTC Compliance: I currently work for Cutting Edge Selections which represents Ken Wright Cellars in Ohio and Kentucky, but this blog and podcast are completely separate from that business relationship.
A Conversation With Ken Wright & a Look at His 2019 Pinots
Posted on April 18, 2022 in Press, Reviews
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.
Ken Wright 2019 Yamhill-Carlton AVA Pinot Noir
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
Ken Wright 2019 Eola-Amity Hills AVA Pinot Noir
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
Ken Wright 2019 Bonnie Jean Vineyard Pinot Noir
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
Ken Wright 2019 Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir
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
Ken Wright 2019 Guadalupe Vineyard Pinot Noir
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’)
Ken Wright 2019 Latchkey Vineyard Pinot Noir
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.
Ken Wright 2019 Savoya Vineyard Pinot Noir
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
Ken Wright 2019 Canary Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir
(See ‘Wine of the Week’)
Posted on February 17, 2022 in Press, Videos
A conversation with winemakers Ken Wright & Cathy Corison, moderated by Jordan Mackay.
Click Here to Watch Virtual Tasting
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!
To shop the wine Ken is tasting in the video, our 2019 Savoya Vineyard Pinot Noir, click here!