“Terroirist” Ken Wright and the 2016 Vintage

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Ken pioneered single-vineyard Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley

Ken Wright is one of the most impressive – even formidable – winemakers I’ve ever met, and every time I talk with him, I come away astonished at how much he knows about Oregon vineyards and Pinot Noir. There’s a reason Wine Spectator put him the cover and called him “A Master of Pinot Noir in Oregon” last year.

Ken is one of the “old hands” of Oregon Pinot Noir. He founded Panther Creek winery in 1986 and made the wines there until selling the estate. He opened Ken Wright Cellars in 1993 in a converted glove factory in Carlton, Oregon, making the first two vintages of Domaine Serene’s wines in 1993 and 1994 while starting his own production. Within just a few years, Ken’s wines were the most sought-after in Oregon.

The Distinctive Characteristics of Site
Ken is quick to explain that, in his view, the whole purpose of Pinot Noir is to express the distinctive characteristics of each site it occupies. He was the first to start the push for creating distinct Willamette Valley AVAs and today makes a dozen different vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs. As Ken says, “Ken Wright Cellars is devoted to showcasing the inherent quality of selected vineyard sites. With a clarity and breadth that is unequaled by other varieties, we believe Pinot noir best expresses the character of these sites. Rather than stamping wine with a varietal trademark, we see Pinot noir as a vehicle for conveying the aroma, flavor and texture of the location in which it is grown.”

While showcasing “terroir” is important, the wines have to taste good, too. Again and again, Ken has demonstrated his ability to make highly rated Willamette Valley Pinot Noir even in the most difficult conditions. Writing about Ken’s work in the hot 2006 vintage, Wine Spectator said,

“In any Oregon vintage, you can count on Ken Wright making some of the most elegant and refined Pinot Noirs. His wines, all single-vineyard bottlings, always have finesse and tremendous polish, even in an extraripe vintage like 2006. Where others made big, heady wines, Wright managed to keep most of his cuvées bright and juicy.”

Talking about Ken’s wines from the challenging 2004 vintage, Robert Parker said,

“There are not many Pinot Noir winemakers who can make six separate cuvees, and have five of them nearly outstanding. In fact, this exceptional success rate puts Ken Wright in the company of such Burgundy luminaries as Laurent Ponsot, Lalou Bize-Leroy, Hubert Lignier, J. J. Confuron, and Claude Dugat.”
 
So, when Ken gets his hands on material like he had in 2016, watch out!

Vintage 2016: Abnormally Almost Normal
ken-wright-winesIn the past decade, Oregon’s Willamette Valley has seen only two “normal” vintages – which opens the question of what “normal” is for a region with this much season-to-season variability! The “normal” years were 2008 and 2012, generally regarded as the best Pinot Noir vintages in the Valley ever. I think 2016 will join those ranks.

With two exceptions, 2016 was a normal year. First, the growing season started unusually early, creating a significant risk of damage from late spring frost that, thankfully, never materialized. Second, temperatures spiked a bit while the vines were flowering. No damage done to quality, but it did lead to the smallest fruit set since 2013 and much smaller berries than were seen in 2014 or 2015.

After that the growing season was pure silk. None of the cold weather than challenged 2010 and 2011 or any of the severe heat and drought that made 2009, 2014 and 2015 such unusual adventures. And with late August and early September dry, sunny, and clement, growers had no reason to rush harvest ahead of big storms (2013) or worry about dehydration, excessive sugars or deficient acids (2014 and 2015). Everyone got to pick when they were ready, with all the grapes getting the 100 days of hang time so important to Pinot flavor development and some coming in healthy and fresh after up to 110 days.

What is Ken’s evaluation of vintage 2016? From his harvest letter:

“Small berries give us greater intensity of color, aroma and texture. It is a magnificent vintage that combines density with balance and immediate appeal. We are in love.”

If you think Pinot Noir “that combines density with balance and immediate appeal” and that clearly speaks to each individual Willamette Valley vineyard sounds appealing, then Ken’s 2016s are for you.

Our pre-arrival offer is good until October 10, 2017.

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Old School Oregon

Jim Maresh in vineyardA great story here. As Jim Maresh explains, when his grandparents, Loie and Jim Maresh Sr., moved to the Willamette Valley in 1956 all they wanted was “A view lot in the country.” They quickly found a lovely 27-acre hilltop farm perched in the hills above Dundee, Oregon, and made an offer to buy a few acres. The owner refused to sell them just “a view lot,” so Loie and Jim courageously bought the whole farm.

Jim Sr. kept his day job at Dunn & Bradstreet while he and Loie started farming cherries, hazelnuts and prune plums, eventually expanding the farm to 140 acres. In 1966, they undoubtedly heard that David Lett had planted Pinot Noir in the Dundee Hills at what became Eyrie Vineyards. In 1969, Dick Erath – then in the process of planting his vineyard – told Jim that his land had pretty great grape potential. So in 1970, Jim and Loi began planting what would become Maresh Vineyard.

Fine Wines in the 1980s
A few years later, as Pinot Noir began taking off in Oregon, Jim Sr’s son-in-law Fred Arterberry got a winemaking degree from UC Davis and starting making wine from Maresh grapes. Arterberry Maresh was considered one of the Valley’s best wines in the early 1980s – Wine Advocate rated the 1985 a huge 98 points when tasting it in 2013!
Unfortunately, Fred passed away young, the Arterberry Maresh label was retired, and Jim Maresh Sr. sold his grapes to some of Oregon’s best winemakers. Until Fred’s son, Jim Arterberry Maresh, graduated from school and began making wine from his grandfather’s grapes again.

Today, Jim is still in his early 30s but his 10+ years of Willamette Valley winemaking make him one of the Valley’s most experienced – and certainly one of the most respected!

Benchmark Dundee Hills
Jim MareshArterberry Maresh wines start with the Dundee Hills’ unique Jory soils. Rich in iron, low in nutrients, and with a just-right ability to hold water, these decomposed volcanic soils give clearly different wine from sedimentary sites in nearby Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton. Fruit flavors run a bit more to the red end of the spectrum, but also pick up a uniquely savory, almost smoky, dark note from the ancient lava.

Both of this week’s featured wines come from Jim Maresh Sr.’s vines, including many planted in the 1970s and early 1980s. Both Jim’s have little use for the “modern” Dijon clones that arrived in Oregon in the mid-1980s. As Jim explained to Wine Advocate a few years ago:

“I don’t source one single Dijon clone and I wouldn’t buy one of ’em. If you’ve got Pommard or Wadenswil planted in the ’70s or ’80s – of some other old selections like the stuff Jon Paul [Cameron] has down the road at Cameron, where I used to work, you’re making the best wine. With my old vines in the Maresh home vineyard planted in 1970 and 1974, there’s bound to have been a lot of mutation over the years, and by now, probably what you have is Maresh selection.”

‘You Can’t Make Them This Good without Caring’
Arterberry Maresh bottlesWith a great site and great vines, Jim tries to do as little as possible to nurture ripe fruit from the vineyard to bottle. The crushed fruit starts fermentation when it’s ready to with the yeast that lives in the winery and came in from the vineyard. Today, it’s all destemmed to avoid adding too much structure or spice. It’s punched down twice daily during fermentation to extract color and the racked vigorously into barrel – Jim believes giving the wine some oxygen young makes it more resistant to air later.

And the barrels? While all are very good French oak, essentially none are new. In part that’s because Jim is trying to preserve purity and fruit flavors and his ripe fruit brings enough structure on its own. But, just as importantly – Jim hates wood tannins and wants to be sure they stay out of his wine!

It’s easy to come up with critical praise for Jim Maresh and his work, but I think this comment from Wine Advocate last year sums it up nicely:

“During my stay in Oregon I was explaining to a couple of people about winemakers with “the knack.” They just get it. They know how to make great Pinot Noir seemingly effortlessly, and practice small things that make a big difference. And Jim Maresh has the knack, because despite his laidback attitude towards life, I reckon he’s not that way at all when it comes to his wines. You can’t make them this good without caring.”