Hello friends. Today marks another step in Full Pull’s evolution and suddenly renders all my business cards with the “Washington Wines. Exclusively.” tag obsolete.
Friends, we’re going to Oregon.
This has always seemed like a natural first expansion to me, and to many of you as well, judging by the number who have e-mailed me or asked me in person, almost from the beginning, “when are you going to offer Oregon wines?”
For years now, I have been drinking and loving wines from the Willamette Valley, and I’m itching to write about this area and its fabulous bottles. Despite the fact that the Willamette Valley is about 30 minutes closer to Seattle than the Walla Walla Valley, I think to many Seattleites, it’s psychologically farther (different state and all) and a bit lesser known.
And on a national level, Oregon wineries face many of the same challenges as their Washington brethren. They are mostly boutique-sized wineries, with little distribution, and with wines whose quality far outstrips their marketing budgets. In other words, they are ripe for the Full Pull model.
Change always terrifies to some extent, and the risk averse part of my brain tells me that this falls squarely under the “if it ain’t broke” theory of business. But that risk averse part of my brain never has any fun, and the reality is, not that much is actually changing here.
What will NOT change:
1. The overall frequency of offerings. I expect to remain at about four per week.
2. The style of offerings. I expect to treat Oregon exactly as I have treated Washington, which means that 90%+ of offerings will come from wineries that I have personally visited. To that end, I made a research/buying trip to the Willamette Valley a few weeks ago, and this first slate of Oregon offerings will all come from wineries visited during that trip.
3. The quality of the offerings. Like in Washington, I will be choosing Oregon wines that represent the finest quality available at their respective price points.
What will change: well, you’re going to see a lot more Pinot Noir, that’s for certain. One of the great things about moving into Oregon is that their wines don’t overlap very much with their northern neighbors. Washington grows very little Pinot Noir, and what we do grow is, ahem, shall we say, inconsistent in quality. Oregon’s Pinot Noir is transcendent. And similarly, I wouldn’t expect to see much (any?) Willamette Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, because in my experience, Washington’s Cabs are far superior.
The truth is: I have the scaffolding of a plan (to offer 3-4 Oregon wines per month), but the house is far from built, and much of its construction will depend on your response. If you’re unhappy with this direction, let me hear it. If you’re happy, let me hear it. We’ll just figure it out as we go, and we’ll drink a lot of fine northwest wine along the way.
Now, let’s dive into today’s offering.
Much like Full Pull’s first offering (2004 Mountain Dome Brut), I have known from the beginning what the first Oregon offering would be. For those of you who know your Oregon wine history, it could be nothing but The Eyrie Vineyards:
2009 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate
A trip through Europe in the early ’60s convinced David Lett of the singular beauty of Pinot Noir and that the grape could only reach its highest expression in difficult environments. After graduating from UC-Davis in 1963, he blazed a trail north to Oregon, where he was convinced he could find just such a clime. His day job, as a salesman for college textbooks (which he kept until 1974), had him crisscrossing the state, and he never passed up an opportunity to examine potential future vineyard sites.
In 1966, he settled on a site in the Dundee Hills (see location here, on our new Oregon vineyard map; this will develop over time just as our Washington map did), and he named it after the hawk’s nests that dotted the area. Banks wouldn’t loan David money to build a winery onsite in the vineyards, mostly because every notable wine expert at the time believed fervently that the Willamette Valley was too cold and too wet for grape-growing. So David and his wife Diana (whom he met at a book convention) instead chose for a winery an old turkey processing building in McMinnville (the cleaning of that building is one of the wonderful, legendary creation stories that you can hear on a visit to Eyrie, which I highly recommend to anyone in the area).
By 1970, The Eyrie Vineyards was producing wine, but it wasn’t until 1980 that the landscape shifted seismically. That was the year that Robert Drouhin included the 1975 Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve Pinot Noir in a blind tasting against many of Maison Joseph Drouhin’s finest Burgundies. Finishing in first place: one of Drouhin’s 1959 Pinots; and in second, two-tenths of a point behind, was The Eyrie Vineyards. That event set in motion the eventual move by Drouhin to establish an Oregonian outpost, which they did with the establishment of Domaine Drouhin Oregon in 1987.
In the years that followed, the wine industry in Oregon grew and flourished, although not always in directions that David Lett approved of. He was passionate about Pinot, and his vision for the grape was uncompromising. Here are some quotes, to give you a sense of the man (Note: Both quotes are from an extensive interview with Paul Gregutt at Paul’s home in 2004, and it’s important to note that this is NOT a comment on the current state of Oregon pinot. In fact, in a recent blog post, PaulG noted that David Lett “would have been thrilled” with many of the current crop of Oregon Pinots.)
“Look at the vintages that get highly touted by the critics; they’re the big vintages. We go back to the theme: big, dark, high alcohol, and then you oak it up to taste the vanilla, which is what your mom put into everything she baked when you were a kid so it tasted really good and what have you got? Coca-Cola! It’s vanilla, the international flavor. I was pouring wine next to a table of pinot noir from a warmer region, and that wine was 15.6 percent alcohol! If you want to get a kick from alcohol, go drink a martini. Pinot noir is a lighter colored wine by nature; it’s missing four of the nine pigments in all other grapes. It’s never going to be as deeply colored as any other vinifera when it’s picked at the right time. If you let it get overripe you can get dark colored wines, because you are able to extract more color. But by the time you’ve reached that point you have lost the flavor; and the only reason to grow pinot in a climate as capricious as the Willamette Valley is for the flavor. I make wines for flavor, not scores – for pleasure, not power.”
“I embrace vintage variation because I love it. It makes life exciting. I could grow pinot noir in a warmer climate; what’s the use? Every year you get the same product, you know exactly how much you’re going to get, when you are going to pick, how ripe it’s going to be… and ho hum – where’s the fun in that? There’s a movement afoot, again this application of technology, so that Oregon can be standardized and homogenized just like everything else on the bloody planet. To take out the variable of vintage. There are things I like to call terroir machines that produce a wine that’s the same every year. There are people who firmly believe that that’s a good thing to do. I’m a grape grower; I like to see what nature does.”
I mean, my goodness, you can practically feel the passion oozing off the page, can’t you? It’s to my great regret that I never had the chance to meet the man before his death in 2008, a passing that occasioned obituaries by notables such as Eric Asimov and Jancis Robinson.
While the shifting sands of fashion may have temporarily abandoned Eyrie’s style, the luminaries of the wine world clearly never did. And that was probably enough succor for David Lett, who never seemed to have much use for fashion anyhow. To wit: Eyrie never had a tasting room until four years ago. They never had a promotional brochure until this year. They are still making wine in the same turkey processing plant that they were in the 1970s. And their timeless label, first established in 1970 (although not the 1970 Pinot Noir, which sported a different, Spring Wine label), has barely changed since.
In 2005, David passed the winemaking baton to his son Jason, who has a firm grasp of the house style and has continued to produce some of the most elegant, transparent, honest Pinot Noirs in the Willamette Valley. One change, I was told, is that Jason favors “a bit more new oak.” What that means, because this is Eyrie, is that the percentage of new oak has increased from 3% all the way up to 4%. Yes, I’m serious. This is a winery that would rather refurbish old barrels than buy new ones (“it costs about the same,” I was told).
This Estate Pinot Noir comes from all four estate vineyards: the original 1966 site plus the three “youngest” vineyards in the portfolio (youth, like many things with Eyrie, is relative, as these vineyards were planted in 1976, 1987, and 1988.) It’s fresh as can be, with pomegranate, raspberry, and even some red apple aromatics framed by mineral and spice. As usual with Eyrie, it’s not the fruit that’s the star on the palate. Instead, this has a core of crushed rock, surrounded by high-toned, mountain fruit. Well-structured, with plenty of juicy acid and citrus-tea tannins, this has the stuffing to age for years.
Eyrie is one of those wineries where reviews tend to come out after the wines are sold out. No reviews of the 2009 vintage yet, but the 2008 received 93pts from Josh Raynolds in Tanzer’s IWC and 92pts from Jay Miller in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
2009 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris Estate
Pinot Gris is the other mainstay at Eyrie, and in fact represents half of their total production. David Lett was the first producer in the United States to release a Pinot Gris (in 1970), and it is natural all the way. The Gris (which comes from all four estate vineyards) goes through spontaneous malolactic conversion (the right bacteria are literally growing in the walls of the winery) and sits on its lees for six to ten months before bottling.
It is comparable to the finest Alsatian versions in every measure except price (this costs a fraction of a Grand Cru from Alsace). Dry, full, and ageworthy on a par with Eyrie’s Pinot Noir, this brings flavors of fresh pear and a truly viscous, palate-coating texture. The aromatics have a lovely, minty topnote above the traditional apply Gris notes. It’s salmon season in the Pacific Northwest, and this is about as fine a pairing as I can think of.
Again, a quick run-through of reviews from the previous (2007) vintage: 91pts Paul Gregutt in Wine Enthusiast, 90pts Raynolds, 90pts Miller.
First come first served up to 18 bottles of Gris and 12 bottles of Noir, and these should arrive in about a week, at which point they will be available for pickup or shipping during the autumn shipping window.