My first wine job was in a winery that specialized in single-vineyard Pinot Noir in an AVA petition written based on its apparent similarity to Burgundy. My most recent job had me working with one of the best Burgundy portfolios in the country. It’s safe to say that when I moved to Oregon in August, I thought I knew Pinot Noir.
When a 100-degrees-plus heatwave descended on the Willamette Valley in August, this New Yorker in her first Oregon harvest wondered if an early scramble was in store to get ripe fruit processed, but reserves from the high rainfall early in the season remained in the soil and kept the vines hydrated despite the unseasonably hot weather. When heavy rains and hail in the middle of harvest didn’t have everyone in a panic, I realized it must be a near-yearly occurrence. Finally, when my boss mentioned how easy it is to extract too much tannin from Pinot, I decided everything I knew must be wrong. It was the first of many lessons I’d learn over my first ten weeks in the Willamette Valley working with Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and, of course, more clones of Pinot Noir that I had ever knew existed.
What did I learn? Cellar work, of course, but also an even more profound respect for the people who make wine in this incredibly exciting region. Here are some of the biggest surprises:
1 – Rain? No big deal, until it is.
Several days of heavy rain in the middle of harvest would be a nightmare for some of the producers I’ve worked for; however, in Oregon, it’s expected, and the question is whether you’ll pick before or after the rains. This choice can be a gamble: do you wait the weather out, risking botrytis or other types of rot that will result in extra labor to sort through the grapes? Or do you scramble to get everything in, when ideally it would hang another week or two? It’s a significant decision in almost any Oregon vintage from what I can tell, but it’s certainly not the only one. In the Willamette Valley, sooner or later you’ll have to deal with rain, and you will need a plan B if it’s sooner than you hoped.
2- Pinot is even weirder than you think.
It’s no secret in this industry that Pinot Noir is a twisted grape––and Oregon is its mad scientist laboratory. With one grape so dominant here, we have the opportunity to isolate variables in tastings and try to get to the heart of what makes Oregon Pinot what it is. First, there’s vineyard site. Several famous vineyards here supply to multiple producers who can sometimes make vastly different wines using the same fruit, and tasting through these is awe-inspiring. Then there are myriad winemaking techniques; from whole cluster fermentation to extended maceration to what kind of yeast you’re using, winemaking itself might be the most significant variable in Oregon––and taming the notoriously tricky Pinot grape requires skill, patience, and a little bit of fatalism.
3- Attack of the clones?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I need an entire encyclopedia on Pinot Noir clones. I’m not at the point yet where I can taste through a flight of single-clone Pinots and guess which is which, but I’m amazed at how many people can. No other grape inspires as much attention to clone selection as Pinot Noir. My guess is that’s partly due to the incredible expressiveness of the grape and partly due to the need to distinguish one’s style in a market so dominated by one type of wine.
4- Oregon loves its local wine.
Speaking of Oregon consumers, perhaps the biggest revelation for me since moving here has been the incredibly strong support for local wines. When I worked in Western New York (admittedly a much smaller and younger wine region), trying to get restaurants and consumers to taste their local wines often felt like trying to dig out a tank one-handed. By comparison, the other day I needed a nice Italian wine for a dish I was making and found myself asking more than one store employee, “Do you have anything not local?” Oregon wine dominates every store shelf I’ve seen throughout the valley, and while Portland wine shops certainly have a wide variety of offerings from around the world, the owners and staff are deeply knowledgeable about their local industry and excited about its future. It’s contagious: after three months here, I’m convinced Oregon is making some of the most compelling wine in the world.
Julia Burke is a wine educator, wine industry professional, and WSET Diploma student currently based in Chicago. Links to her work can be found on her website, Stellenbauchery.com. Headshot by Amy Davis Roth.