Those who read The Pour Fool regularly already know about my deep and abiding ambivalence towards Pinot Noir. I like Pinot – sometimes and from certain producers – and it’s happened that I prefer Pinot from California to Burgundy and, least of all, from Oregon.
Why? Here’s the Deal…
Oregon has been heavily – and almost exclusively in red wines – in the Pinot Noir biz for fifty years. Nature dictated that the main growing area in the Duckhead State lies within certain identified areas of the Willamette River Valley, where the growing season is too short, too cool, and too rainy to grow the more user-friendly Bordeaux and Rhone varietals like Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and Grenache. Nature, however, compensated the Willamette by gifting it with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of little tucked-away micro-climates that give Pinot grapes nearly endless flavor possibilities. So…Pinot it is, and the Oregon vineyard owners and winemakers clutched this finicky grape to their bosom in a virtual death grip, resulting in a state that pumps the Pinot Noir like a gigantic fire hose, every release season.
Nothing wrong with any of that.
But, until very recently and still, for many winemakers, Oregon Pinot Noir has been made according to some warped notion that “Burgundian” is ideal. The fact that Oregon is not France has perennially eluded most Oregon Pinot houses and many still see this as their only desirable aim. The code word that many of these producers use to describe their house style is “feminine“, which, by some truly eccentric logic, they see as being a HUGE positive. I saw it that way, too. “Feminine” has been a great time-saver, for me. Every time a sales rep walked into my office and pulled a cork of yet another in the ENDLESS stream of Pinot I have to taste in a year and said the word “feminine“, I scratched that wine off the list of everything I might consider buying because what “feminine” really means, run through the Secret Decoder Ring, is “wimpy“.
Pinot is all breadth and no depth. It’s complex but complex in a way that has nothing to do with body or heft. It can assume a truly mind-boggling range of flavors…but only rarely does. The main variations are Stank – barnyardy, pungent, often-unpleasant flavors like wet hay and horse blankets and the infamous “sweaty saddle” – and minerals galore: groundwater, limestone, shale, igneous rocks, saline, crushed seashells (from when Oregon was an ocean bed), and sandstone. The actual range of core flavors, about 90% of the time, is fairly small: raspberries, strawberries, dried cranberries, anise, sweet herbs, and red currants. And it’s acidic – acidic as heck and proud of it. Those who got a wave of enthusiasm for Pinot after watching “Sideways” often came away really disappointed because this mystical elixir that Virginia Madsen made sound like a bottle of illicit sex, often tasted like a very fruity vinegar. It was a huge conundrum, for a long time and – as so often happens with entrenched “wisdom” in the wine world – the perception that Pinot is the Holy Grail stubbornly lingers, even in the face of the fact that the varietal, worldwide, is the tenth most used in wine production, behind every grape you think is more popular, as well as Tempranillo (Number Four), Airen(!!) (Number Three), Grenache (Number Seven), and Trebbiano(!) (Number Nine).
All that said, I’ve engaged my own stubborn streak, doggedly not refusing to taste the unending stream of Pinot that sales reps have insisted I ‘have to try, man” for the past twenty years. For whatever reason (possibly just my heavily-tainted karma) I get a LOT more Pinot to taste than any other varietal; so many, in fact, that I now actively cringe when a PR firm emails me and says, “We’re sending you a couple of PInots!!!”, complete with those exclamation points, never knowing that they’re actually sending me a painful ordeal. Many of my veteran wine brethren have assured me that, one magical day, I’ll drink a Pinot and see stars, dead relatives, unicorns, Vishnu, Sandra Day O’Connor in a bunny suit, and the unfolded mysteries of the Illuminati. It’s been well over 20 years and waaaay over 5,000 Pinots….and I haven’t even gotten close. But I have found Pinots that I really like; a few that I might even say, in a weak moment and after a lot of cough syrup, that I…uh…love. And just this past week, Durant Vineyards of Dayton, Oregon, sent me two that go straight into the “Uh..Love” category.
Durant Vineyards and its nursery/gift store/event space, Red Ridge Farms, traces its roots back to 1973, when the Durant family first planted Bishop Vineyard, along with an olive grove(!), which now produces a sublime EVO that rivals anything to come out of California. Under the direction of son Paul Durant and matriarch Peggy Durant, Durant Vineyards was originally a supplier of grapes, with a client list composed of most of Oregon’s Pinot Royalty: Domaine Drouhin, Sokol Blosser, Lange Estate, Bergstrom, Ponzi Vineyards, Hamacher, ADEA, Cottonwood, White Rose and Owen Roe…those are the original core group of wineries using Durant fruit. But grape growing often leads to winemaking and the impulse was no different at Durant. It was the follow-through that sets Durant apart.
Each of their annual selections is made by arrangement with neighbors and clients. The bottle of Durant Vineyards Olivia Grace Vineyard Block Pinot 2012 that I received was crafted by Chad Stock, owner of Minumus Wines and newly-appointed winemaker for Omera Cellars, whose colorful experiences working for Two Hands Vineyards in Australia, Antica Terra in Oregon, and Rudd Winery in Napa. Stock came to the challenge of this vineyard, planted inn 2006, with a broader aesthetic base than many of the Oregon vintners whose experience is mostly in PInot. This is a bewitching bottle of wine; a masterful tapestry of soft, complex, quirky flavors and textures seldom found in the faux-Burguindian sameness of Oregon Pinot. Stock deftly avoids the bounty of clichés of the culture and gives this expressive Pommard Clone room to breathe, ripen, and reveal its “Oregon-ness”, an approach that a lot of the state’s younger, more adventurous winemakers are embracing as Oregon’s wine community comes to the realization that “Oregon” is every bit as worthy a goal for their wines as “Burgundy”. The core of this magical wine is a soft, fruity, almost jammy stratum of raspberries, dried cranberries, mint, spruce, rhubarb, and something reminiscent of teaberry gum that fades prettily into a layer of sweet spices on the finish. IT’s still quite adequately acidic; certainly enough to make it just as good a food pairing as other Willamette reds, but not so aggressively, tartly biting. No rationalizing is necessary with this wine; no telling yourself, “Well, it’ll be really nice with food.” Yes,l it will…but it’s also really nice to just sit and sip, too, a statement that cannot be made for a lot of its cousins. Chad Stock seems to have grasped a truism that other young Oregon winemakers are starting to develop: There is more in the grapes of Oregon than just Burgundy Wannabes.
From a eight year-old vineyard, we leap top one that’s just over forty years old; a hillside covered with properly gnarled, lovingly-tended vines that went into the soil in ’73 and have only gotten better as the years passed. Durant Vineyards Bishop Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 shows all of the virtues of its baby brother, minus only the teaberry patina, and adds a graceful, evolved character that is ONLY achieved by Time and the patience required to coax a truly world-class vineyard into being. Bishop’s core is hallmark Willamette Valley: stewed raspberries, anise, hints of blackberry, tart strawberries, black cherries, spruce tips, mild spices, rhubarb, thyme, and a liqueur-ish note of figs. The truly spectacular thing about Bishop is the texture, which is positively sinful for a grape that’s frequently like drinking a Brillo pad. Surpassed only, in my experience, by wines from Ken Wright, Patricia Green’s Estate edition, Brickhouse’s wonderful use of the Pommard clones similar to what’s ion both bottles of Durant, and one or two from Beaux Freres, these two lovely single-vineyards from Durant and their intrepid neighbors – like Chad Stock and Marcus Goodfellow of Matello Wines, who crafted this Bishop release – are helping to wean one of the nation’s most significant wine regions off an unhealthy obsession that has persisted for far too long and into the realization that Oregon, taken purely on its own merits and given free rein to express itself…tastes pretty damned great.
Olivia Grace: 95 Points
Bishop: 95 Points