Oregon's wine pioneers earn their praise
Wine columnist Paul Gregutt says a look at the recent accomplishments of those who founded the Northwest industry is in many ways more valuable than tracking the newcomers.
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the week
Ponzi 2010 Pinot Gris; $15
Bright with scents and flavors of apples and pears, this fresh, spicy young wine is bone dry, moderately low in alcohol and utterly delicious. It couldn't be more refreshing. (Distributed by Young's-Columbia)
DURING THE past couple of decades, the unprecedented growth of the Northwest wine industry has made it easy to keep this column's focus on who is new to the business and what exciting developments are taking place in the vineyards. But a look at the recent accomplishments of those who founded the industry is in many ways more valuable than tracking the newcomers.
In Oregon, Eyrie, Ponzi and Adelsheim are three (though not the only) wine pioneers. All are still going strong (many of the wineries from the 1970s and '80s are not) and still family-owned. They have succeeded not because they avoided mistakes, but because they adapted and learned from them. They also did a lot of things right, right from the start.
That was borne out by a once-in-a-lifetime tasting at The Eyrie Vineyards on the eve of this past summer's International Pinot Noir Festival. Jason Lett, son of founders David and Diana Lett, orchestrated a presentation of 29 vintages of the legendary South Block Vineyard bottlings. "The fruition of two generations of work," as he introduced it, the massive tasting showcased wines from a primo section of vineyard planted in 1968. All but two of the wines had never before been released.
From the 1975 debut right on through the 2007 — David Lett's final cuvée — only four vintages (1977, '78, '79 and '84) were skipped, and only one (1981) was damaged (bad corks affected the entire bottling). The rest of the wines, even the oldest, were fascinating, each unique and fully expressive of the style and substance of Lett's founding vision for Oregon pinot noir. Among many delights, my favorites (in order) were 1975, '83, '80, '98, '02, '93 and '03. I had 19 of the 29 wines rated 90 points or higher for you scorekeepers. That is astonishing.
The Eyrie style has always favored wines that express lightness, elegance and ageworthy structure rather than the more immediate pleasures of big fruit, dark color and high alcohol. Jason Lett is walking the difficult path of putting his own stamp on the new wines while honoring the unique legacy of the brand.
Another second-generation winemaker, Luisa Ponzi, took part in an afternoon seminar entitled "The Mysteries of Wine Aging." Two Oregon and two French wineries each offered two older vintages of their pinot noirs. The Ponzi wines were in fine shape, but it is the confident assurance of her more recent winemaking that distinguishes Luisa Ponzi as one of the brightest stars among the new generation in Oregon.
From her utterly delicious 2010 Pinot Gris and uniquely refreshing 2010 Arneis to her complex and fascinating pinot noirs, recent Ponzi offerings are consistently balanced and expressive of each particular site and vintage. Among my current favorites are a stunning pair of reserves from the 2008 vintage. Both the pinot noir and the chardonnay well deserve their reserve status, and at a list price of $30 the chardonnay could be considered a relative bargain. Look to the more limited Ponzi rieslings and pinot blancs (both about $15) for excellent value wines.
Adelsheim makes a wide range of wines, but the highlights are the numerous, small-lot, single-vineyard bottlings for sale at the winery tasting room and online. These are expensive wines, but for those who want to taste some of the best that Oregon has to offer, they are well worth searching out. Among the more widely available Adelsheim offerings, look for the Willamette Valley bottlings of pinot gris, chardonnay and pinot noir, as well as the rare Auxerrois.
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.