Clones and Suitcases: Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley

Pinot clonesToday’s offer on rare “Heritage Pinots” from Patricia Green Cellars includes two made from Pinot Noir’s Wadensvil and Coury Clones, clones that arrived early in the Willamette Valley’s history. So, you might ask, what’s all the fuss about Pinot Noir “clones”? So glad you asked!

A Primer on Grape Vine Propagation
Grape vines intentionally produce seeds that are genetically different from their parent plant. It’s a defense mechanism – when a bird or bear eats a grape, wanders around, and then “deposits” the undigested seed with plenty of fertilizer so it can start a new plant, the new plant will have different characteristics than its parent. Which means it can thrive in different soils and climates and not be susceptible to the same diseases.

But it also means the grapes taste different and make different wine. So, for centuries, grape growers have planted new vineyards not by seed, but instead by taking cuttings from vines and vineyards that already produce good wine. Over the centuries, some “flavors” of each varietal – e.g. Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. – were identified as being especially good for wine growing. So those flavors of vine – or “clones” – were preferred for taking cuttings and planting new vineyards.

Whether it’s because Pinot Noir is more susceptible to genetic mutation than other grape varietals or because it’s older than almost grape varietals, there are more identified clones of Pinot Noir in production around the world than almost any other grape. And, since the 1960s, these clones have been identified, given numbers and names, and offered for sale by nurseries to folks who want to plant a vineyard.

However, a vine from a “good” clone is not necessarily a great scion from which to plant a vineyard. Individual grape vines can catch viruses that impact vigor, yield, and ripening. If you use a virused grape vine as the source of your cuttings for planting your vineyard, then you’re going to have virus in all the vines.

David-Lett-with-cuttings-from-UC-Davis-2x

David Lett

From Burgundy to Willamette
When David Lett decided to plant the first modern Pinot Noir vineyard in the Willamette Valley back in 1965, he turned to the nursery at California’s UC Davis. At the time, Davis had the one and only stock of non-virused Pinot Noir available for propagation in the entire USA. It was a Burgundian Pinot Noir clone that had been isolated and cleared of virus at nursery in W├Ądenswil, Switzerland. They called it UCD 1A, but it soon became commonly known as the Wadensvil clone.

Lett loaded up his car with Wadensvil, drove south, and planted what would become Eyrie Vineyards. A few years later, Dick Erath and Charles Coury acquired the newly de-virused UCD 4 clone at Davis, a selection of Pinot Noir that originated in Burgundy’s Pommard vineyards. Erath, Lett, and others soon found that Wadensvil and Pommard were highly complementary, with Wadensvil giving floral aromatics and bright red fruit to match Pommard’s dark, earthy, character and higher levels of tannins.

So, through the 1980s, the vast majority of new Willamette Valley vineyards were planted to mixtures of Wadensvil and Pommard.

Charles Coury

Charles Coury

Coury Clone: A “Suitcase Selection?”
At the same time, growers were also planting what came to be known as “Coury Clone.” Charles Coury liked to claim that planting Pinot in the Willamette Valley was his idea. It wasn’t, but he did come to the Valley with Dick Erath in the late 1960s after completing his Masters at UC Davis and spending a year at the Colmar Research Station in Alsace, France.

First with Erath and then on his own, he ran a nursery that sold vines to many early Oregon grape farmers. One batch of vines he sold produced uncommonly dark, powerful Pinot Noir. Coury refused to say where he’d gotten the clone, and over the years, growers began to refer to it as Coury Clone.

For years, the assumption was the Coury Clone was a so-called “suitcase selection” that Coury had carried back from Alsace. As the only non-virused Pinot Noir clone in Colmar at the time was Clone 538, most assumed that it was the real Coury Clone. But Coury was a terrible record-keeper, and he frequently sold growers a wild mix of vines including various Pommard clones, Wadensvil, and more. So some plantings of “Coury Clone” in the early days were really mixes.

Dijon … and a Wadensvil Renaissance
When a new assortment of virus-free Pinot Noir clones arrived in Oregon from Burgundy’s Dijon Research Station in the mid-1980s, growers rushed to use them to add variety and character to their vines. And, while Pommard remained popular, the new Dijon Clones began crowding out Wadensvil Clone in vineyards both new and old.

Today, more and more growers have returned to appreciating Wadensvil’s perfume and elegance, especially when it’s grown on marine sedimentary soils as are found in Ribbon Ridge (where Patricia Green Wine Cellars’ estate vineyard sits). And now Coury clone is seeing a slight renaissance as well. The two most important plantings of Coury Clone are at Hyland Vineyard – where the current own-rooted vines were planted in 1989 – and at Freedom Hill – which used cuttings from Hyland to start its own Coury plot.

For the most part, Willamette Valley winegrowers continue to make their best wines from a mixture of clones – Pommard, Wadensvil, the Dijon clones, etc. – but occasionally a single-clonal plot is so interesting and compelling that it’s worth bottling on its own. Which is what we think you’ll find in these wines here.

Get to Know Walter Scott Willamette Pinot

walter-scott-ken-and-erica.pngA good friend and customer introduced us to Walter Scott wines last year, long before they became available on the East Coast. She proclaimed them her very favorite wines in the Willamette Valley – high praise from a discerning taster. That led us to see what others were saying.

Here’s what Wine Advocate said after tasting Walter Scott’s 2012 releases:

“When I am asked if there were any “great discoveries” in Oregon, I would mention “Walter Scott Wines” without hesitation. This is a small bijou operation run by Ken Pahlow and Erica Landon and their story is one of essentially risking everything to pursue their dream. If their wines are of this quality, then their sacrifices have been worthwhile.” Neal Martin, Wine Advocate, March 2015

Two years later, after visiting with Ken and Erica again and trying their 2014s, Martin was even more impressed:

“And bloody good they are as well. I just like how Ken and Erica roll – nothing fancy, no blockbuster or pretentiousness – just killer Pinot Noir with purity, intensity and personality…That leaves me to say if you have not tried these wines yet, do yourself a favor.” Neal Martin, Wine Advocate, June 2016

A Labor of Love
Walter Scott is a labor of love from the husband/wife team of Ken Pahlow and Erica Landon. Ken caught the Oregon wine bug in the early 1990s and soon began just showing up at Mark Vlossak’s St Innocent winery in the Eola Hills offering to do anything that needed doing. Eventually, in 1995, he wore Mark down and started helping out at harvest and in the winery on a regular basis, ultimately taking on sales responsibilities there too.

During his 14 years working at St. Innocent, Ken took a second job handling sales for a leading Oregon-based importer. In 2002, he first met Sommelier Erica Landon. Erica had started in the wine business in Portland and at a Mount Hood resort before becoming the sommelier and GM for the Ponzi family’s Dundee Bistro (that’s where Ken first met her in 2002). She went on to earn a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence at Ten 01 back in Portland (while beginning to date Ken in 2007) before becoming Wine Director for a Portland restaurant group and becoming a wine instructor for the trade.

Ken and Erica married and decided to give winemaking a try, emptying their retirement accounts to make 165 cases of wine in the great 2008 harvest. In 2009, Ken traded labor for enough space at Patricia Green Cellars to make 650 cases. In 2010, Ken took a new job heading up sales at Evening Land Vineyards in the Eola Hills that allowed him to make his next two vintages there.

Evening Land was a great place for Ken and Erica to take the next step. The Evening Land story is complex, but the key points are that an investor group acquired one of Oregon’s greatest vineyards, Seven Springs, in 2007 and brought in Burgundy’s Dominique Lafon to consult. Ken was able to soak up Lafon’s expertise and also get to know current owner/managers Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman.

A Converted Cider House
In 2012, Ken and Erica signed up long-time fans Andy and Sue Steinman as partners and, with their help, leased and converted a cider house on the edge of Justice Vineyard in the Eola Hills. Then, in 2014, the biggest step yet – they welcomed a new partner (daughter Lucy) to the venture and left their day jobs to focus on Walter Scott full time.

As Neal Martin reported in The Wine Advocate, “their story is one of essentially risking everything to pursue their dream. If their wines are of this quality, then their sacrifices have been worthwhile.” With influences ranging from Mark Vlossak, Dominique Lafon, the Ponzi family, Sashi Moorman and more, it’s hardly surprising that their Walter Scott wines are good. It’s the way they’re good that’s so delightful.

First, there’s a strong focus on great vineyards here, mainly in the southerly Willamette Valley appellation of the Eola Amity Hills and including one of America’s greatest Pinot Noir sites, Seven Springs. Their vineyards are all dry-farmed and feature predominantly marine sedimentary soils. This kind of dirt brings out the minerality and elegance of Pinot Noir paired with ripe cherry/raspberry/strawberry fruit – what I’d argue is the essence of great Oregon Pinot Noir.

Ken and Erica work with their farming partners to ensure that yields are appropriate to the vintage – lower in cool harvests like 2010 and 2011, higher as needed in warmer years like 2014 and 2015 – and that the fruit is allowed to ripen slowly, without excess sugar and with vibrant acids.

A Great 2016
And in a more “classic” and balanced year like 2016? Once again, Ken and Erica’s wines are fully ripe and bursting with fresh (not cooked or dried) fruit flavors, deliver vibrant acids, and went into bottle at remarkably moderate alcohols ranging from 12.5 to 13.9% (vs 14% and higher at many fine estates).

If minerality, freshness and precision are themes that cut across all of the Walter Scott wines, those attributes are always presented in terms of each vineyard’s unique character. Freedom Hill is dark, smoky and powerful. And Seven Springs is at once velvety and weightless, generous and full of tension.

The 2016 Walter Scott releases have yet to be presented to the critics. If big scores matter to you, then buy these now and then brag how you scored some of the top wines of a great vintage while you still could. Because in 2016, I think most critics will echo Neal Martin’s summation of Walter Scott’s 2012s:

“Here were wines with great precision and poise, wines that embraced the opulence of the 2012 vintage but hammered any excesses down with a prudent approach in the winery. The modest acidification ensured that these wines feel natural and refined, the kind of wines that I would take home to drink following a hard day’s tasting. With two partners coming on board, and presumably steadying what can be a financially precarious venture when starting out, things look bright for Walter Scott Wines. Pick up the phone and try them yourself.”

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.”