September 15 2010 issue

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PAGES (50-53) September 15 2010

WINERY SPOTLIGHT Ken Wright Cellars, Carlton, Oregon David Vogels, CWP

For Ken Wright, winemaking is a deep relationship with the land.

An interview with Ken Wright quickly turns into a geology lesson, complete with whiteboard drawings and soil samples. In the Willamette Valley, where terroir is a core requirement, Wright is a tenured professor.

This Kentucky native studied enology and viticulture at the University of California-Davis in the ’70s, gaining experience at wineries on California’s Central Coast. But he heard the call of Oregon Pinot Noir, and in 1986, he moved to McMinnville to found Panther Creek Cellars. After an ownership quarrel forced him to sell his interest, he started the Carlton winery that bears his name.

Perhaps as much as any winemaker in America, Wright practices his belief in single-vineyard expression. "I think Pinot Noir is the world’s greatest vehicle for describing place, whether it’s a beverage or food," he says. "That opportunity to get connected to a place is visceral, as opposed to drinking a blended wine."

Wright credits the late David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards, and Charles Coury, both of whom were at UC-Davis in the early 1960s, as the pioneers who discovered that the Willamette Valley would be ideal for growing Pinot. But it was Wright, along with Dick Shea, John Thomas, and Doug Tunnell, who took the next step, winning approval for a subdivision of the wider American Viticultural Area (AVA) into six subzones in 2005 and 2006. Although the differences in terroir among those sub-AVAs may be difficult for the average consumer to comprehend, they can certainly be conveyed to the customer by a knowledgeable sommelier or retailer. As we tasted 2009 barrel samples last winter, the characteristics pointed out by Wright were apparent, even through the bubbling of malolactic conversion.

The soils of the Yamhill-Carlton District AVA surrounding the winery are a marine sediment called Willakenzie, produced by the upheaval of tectonic plates in the western part of the state. Vineyard elevations here range from 200 to 1,000 feet. A sample of the Shea Vineyard showed a spicy, floral nose with intense black fruit and only moderate acidity. The McCrone Vineyard, the mostly densely planted of Wright’s vineyard sources with its 3-by-6-foot spacing, displayed even more intense fruit and a deeper texture. Also in this subregion are two of the three vineyards owned directly by Wright and his wife Karen: Abbott Claim (see the Tasting Panel in this issue) and Savoya. The Guadalupe Vineyard also qualifies by soil type, though it was drawn into the Dundee Hills AVA because it fell on the wrong side of the dividing road.

Squarely in the middle of the Red Hills of Dundee lies the Nysa Vineyard, which is also closely planted. As the name indicates, the soils of this region are a red volcanic basalt left eons ago by the massive Columbia River basalt flow. Dundee wines exhibit more soft, red fruit; indeed, the ’09 Nysa sample was like strawberry jam, fizzy from the malolactic. The Willamette Valley wine industry started in Dundee, with Lett planting the Wadenswil clone in his original Eyrie Vineyard in 1965 and Dick Erath bringing in the Pommard clone three years later. Those two clones are still the basis of the Nysa Vineyard, which was established on its own roots in 1990. In later plantings around the region, Wright has leaned more toward Dijon clones 113, 114, 115, and 667; 777 is a particular favorite.

The Eola-Amity Hills AVA, farther south, is still mainly basalt, with a few areas eroded away to the sedimentary base. The Carter Vineyard, at 325 feet in elevation, receives drying afternoon winds through the Van Duzer Corridor, causing the stomata to shut down and thus promoting intensity. Its barrel sample was fruit-focused, with more natural acidity and tannin than in the other wines. Canary Hill, the third vineyard owned by the Wrights, sits at the southern tip of this appellation.

Rounding out the Ken Wright Pinot Noir sources are two outlying vineyards: Meredith Mitchell, in the southwestern AVA of McMinnville, and Freedom Hill, south of Eola-Amity Hills and closer to the Pacific Coast. Because of the maritime influence, these Pinots tend to have more tannic structure than the others. The two vineyards also produce a small quantity of Pinot Blanc, which is blended by Wright to make about 200 cases a year.

Wright’s single-vineyard philosophy requires a thorough understanding of the needs of each location. Asked about sustainable agriculture, he says, "You can’t just adopt a program, whether it’s organic or biodynamic. Over the years, you start to understand what’s critical. The key is learning what that site’s nutritional balance level is." He calls it a "nutrition-based system," and it’s considerably more expensive than conventional viticulture, involving costs of $6,500-11,000 per acre rather than the usual $4,000-4,500, according to Wright. "We’ll do three or four trenches a year," he says; "we’re taking soil samples and tissue samples for nutrition and core samples for microorganisms. If it’s lacking, we’ll actually spray microbiology. They may also need food and carbon" (supplied with additives such as molasses or Coca-Cola). "It takes four to five years to get everything humming.

"The old adage of vines having to struggle is absolutely ridiculous," Wright insists. "They’re already super-challenged. The real success comes from incredibly focused farming. You have this wonderful opportunity to steward this fruit through that process so that it has a mother lode of expression." Once the fruit gets to the winery, Wright brings out that expression by treating every lot in virtually the same way: "We’ll use different coopers, different yeast strains, but our approach is remarkably consistent—hand-sorting, 15-20% whole-cluster fermentation, and cold soaking with dry ice for five days." Considering the vagaries of the Oregon climate, Wright is not above adding acid or water in hot vintages. "The weather is a challenge," he says. "You’re always learning; it keeps you light on your feet."

The Pinot Noirs are bottled after about a year of barrique aging and released in the second spring after harvest. So much of the annual production sells out immediately that Wright has adopted the unusual Bordeaux-style practice of offering futures a year in advance. Of about 10,500 cases of the 2008 Pinot Noirs, some 90% sold on futures. Restaurants generally account for 30-40% of the winery’s total sales.

Besides the Pinot Blanc, Wright makes one other white wine: a Chardonnay from the cool-climate Celilo Vineyard, which sits atop a 1,000-foot bluff overlooking the Columbia River on Washington’s southern border. And since 2001, he’s had a brand for producing wines from grapes other than Burgundian varieties. The Tyrus Evan label’s first vintage was 2003; at present, it includes two Bordeaux blends (each called Claret), one from the Del Rio Vineyard, near Medford in southern Oregon, and one from the renowned Ciel du Cheval in Washington’s Red Mountain AVA; and two Syrahs, one from Del Rio and one from the Seven Hills Vineyard, on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. A Chardonnay and a Viognier from Del Rio have recently been added to the line.

Tyrus Evan, which derives its name from the middle names of Wright’s sons from his first marriage, was originally conceived as a sort of inheritance. Both sons are currently in the wine industry—Carson is an Oregon representative for Nomacorc (now used by Wright for his closures), and Cody is the assistant winemaker at ROCO Winery, where he works for his mother Corby and stepfather Rollin Soles (founder of Argyle Winery). The new winemaking venture also fit in nicely with Ken and Karen Wright’s ongoing efforts to help improve and develop historic Carlton. They bought the town’s 1921 railroad station, a couple of blocks from the winery, and turned it into the tasting room for both Ken Wright and Tyrus Evan wines. In fact, the Wrights support a wide array of community organizations in addition to their local winery associations. It’s all part of giving the land the nourishment that it needs.

Ken Wright Cellars
236 N. Kutch St.
Carlton, OR 97111
(503) 852-7070
www.kenwrightcellars.com