‘Bloody Good:’ Introducing Willamette Valley’s Walter Scott Wines

Willamette Valley newcomer Walter Scott has wowed the critics, and the 2015s wowed us when we tasted them in Oregon in February. On sale now; on tasting this weekend.

Walter Scott WinesA 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.

The critics agree with her. Wine Advocate’s Neal Martin called Walter Scott a “great discovery” in the 2012 vintage, and called the 2014’s “just killer Pinot Noir with purity, intensity and personality … if you have not tried these wines yet, do yourself a favor.”

And then we got to visit and sample the 2015s – most not rated yet, but even better than 2014! And while these  would be great wines no matter what, great people and a great story adds to the delight!

A Labor of Love

Walter Scott Ken and Erica

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 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 a wine instructor for the trade.

Learning at Patricia Green, Evening Land
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.

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.

The Essence of Great Oregon Pinot Noir
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.

In the very warm 2015 vintage, that means Walter Scott’s Pinot Noirs 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).

walter-scotte-pinot-noir-freedom-hill.pngMinerality, Freshness, Precision … and Character
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.

Most of these 2015 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 2015, 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.”   

News from Willamette Valley: New Pinot and … Chardonnay

Meg and I are just back from a quick trip to Oregon and meetings with some of our favorite Willamette Valley winemakers. We’re lining up new shipments of some of your favorites from vintages 2014 and 2015, including some real stunners from John Grochau, Patricia Green Cellars, and Belle Pente. And watch for small quantities of some new Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs from the culty, hard-to-find Walter Scott.

A New Focus: Chardonnay. But the real story in the Willamette Valley right now is that – after 40 years of ups and downs – Chardonnay has finally arrived! At pretty much every stop, we found Chardonnay that showcases some of the energy, minerality and complexity you’d expect from top Meursault or Chassagne-Montrachet married to the juicy, ripe, fruit flavors found in the best of California’s cool Sonoma Coast sites.

During my very first visit to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the spring of 2009, Chardonnay was on the wane. More than one winemaker told me they’d not figured out Pinot Noir’s natural white grape partner and that they either had or were considering grafting over their Chardonnay vines to Pinot Gris or Noir.

Returning in the summer of 2013, I heard folks say that Chardonnay really should work in the Willamette Valley, but that the original plantings were in the wrong places or of the wrong clones. “We really ought to figure this out,” was a common comment. Coming back in mid-summer of 2015, we heard, “You know, maybe we can figure this out!” although compelling wines in bottle were few and far between.

Last week, Chardonnay was a focus of conversation and tasting everywhere we went. Patricia Green has made their first Chardonnay in years, John Grochau’s Chards were zesty and rich, and newcomer Walter Scott has committed to making Chardonnay a full 50% of their production. No question, Chardonnay is on its way back in the Willamette Valley!

oregon-chardonnaysA Trio of Tempting Willamette Valley Chardonnays. Chardonnays from Grochau and Walter Scott are definitely on our “buy” list for later this year, and Chardonnay has clearly “arrived” at Belle Pente’s Yamhill-Carleton estate vineyard and in the old-vines Dundee Hills vineyards of Arterberry Maresh and Oregon Pioneer Eyrie.

Not much of any of these is made and less still is available. But all are well worth checking out to get a feel for why Willamette Valley Chardonnay is the “next big thing” for the world’s most popular white wine grape! Stop by this weekend for a taste!

Oregon 2012 – A (Limited) Vintage of a Lifetime

Evesham Wood vineyard

Evesham Wood in Willamette Valley

No major US wine growing region sees more variable vintage conditions than Oregon’s Willamette Valley. We think almost every Oregon vintage has its own unique charms, even if some, like 2007, are slow to reveal them. But fans of lush vintages like 2006 or 2009 are often surprised by the light, supple, elegant wines from years like 2010 or 2004.

The 2012 harvest joins 2008 as the rare vintage that will satisfy fans of almost every style of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Problems with flowering kept the crop small, but the weather remained wonderfully moderate throughout the growing season. Dry, sunny, days and cool, crisp nights in September and October let ripening complete while retaining vibrant acids and allowed winegrowers to harvest at whatever point and rate they preferred.

Weighing in on 2012. So – how good is the vintage? I’ve now heard a dozen or so winemakers echo Willamette Valley legend Ken Wright’s take on the harvest:

“After thirty-five years of winemaking experience in Oregon and California, I can count the truly great years on three fingers. 1979 in California’s Monterey County, 1990 in the Willamette Valley and, yes, 2012 in the Willamette Valley as well. … [T]here are years when we simply sit in awe as Mother Nature hands us remarkable fruit that only requires that we respect the gift we have received. 2012 is such a year. The intensity of color, aroma and flavor is inspiring…I may be dragged out of the winery by my Red Wing boots at eighty without seeing another year like this.”

Notably absent from Ken’s recitation of “truly great years” is the benchmark 2008 harvest. The farther we get from 2008, the more it’s clear that this year’s greatness is taking its own sweet time to emerge. More than a few critics have joined David Schildknecht in his Wine Advocate assessment:

“The obvious point of comparison for growers has been 2008. But having tasted many of the young [2008s] in barrel, I’m not entirely surprised that they have – thus far, at least – remained rather simply fruity; whereas the young 2012s – while lusciously ripe – display more energy, vivacity and interest than the 2008s did at a comparable juncture. The sole drawback looks likely to be 2012’s relatively small crop, conditioned not only by reticent flowering but by the vine’s natural reaction to the abundant set of 2011.”

When I first started encountering 2012 Pinots from Oregon, I was a bit on the fence. The nervy, high-acid 2011s really sung for me and the early-release 2012s seemed a bit too ripe and even heavy next to the tangy 2011s. But the more ‘12s I taste, the more impressed I get. And, the more impressed I get, the more frustrated I become.

Lower Yields, Higher Prices. With yields down 20-40 percent in 2012, there was always going to be a bit of competition for the top wines. But, strong demand for 2012s, lagging sell-through of 2011s, and a challenging set of 2013s waiting in the wings have all led wineries to both limit access to the 2012s and drive price a bit. In virtually every case, “front line” prices are up 5-15 percent over 2010/2011. And the multi-case deals that help us bring you big value bargains by buying in quantity are few and far between.

So, it’s a great vintage that every Oregon Pinot Noir lover is going to want to own and drink, but one that will require you to move quickly and be prepared to spend a bit more than in the past. We’re working hard to find you more opportunities like Evesham Wood Pinot Noir La Grive Bleue 2012, and we’re optimistic that at least a few fine deals will emerge this fall. When you see them, don’t delay!

If you’re a collector or fan who wants to be sure you don’t miss your favorites, just ask to be added to our Oregon 2012 Collectors List. You’ll learn about the best 2012 Pinots as they arrive – and before they’re all gone! To join, call 703.356.6500, email us at wineteam@chainbridgecellars.com, or stop by the store.

A Beautiful Evening with Beaux Freres

It’s easy to dismiss wines that are hyped, expensive, and/or have a cult following, and Oregon Pinot Noir producer Beaux Freres definitely falls into several of those categories.  A partnership between winemaker Mike Etzel and his brother in law, superstar critic Robert Parker, Beaux Freres (which means brother in law in French) has always gotten a lot of attention for their premium Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  This past Thursday director of sales for the winery Kurt Johnson treated us to a vertical that spanned every vintage from 2006 to 2011, and it was pretty clear that no one in the room had trouble understanding what all the fuss was about.

3.11.13 009

We started with the 2011 Willamette Valley, made from a blend of vineyard sites that reads like a who’s who of famous Oregon Pinot Noir vineyards.  The only wine Beaux Freres makes that isn’t made from all estate fruit, it is ready to drink right out of the gate, and shows the transparency and prettiness too often missing in New World Pinot.

Then we moved on to the 2010 vintage, and got to compare the Upper Terrace vineyard with the Beaux Freres vineyard.  Both were delicious, and Kurt took the opportunity to explain why decanting is recommended for young vintages of Beaux Freres Pinot.  Rather than use a lot of sulfur, Beaux Freres handles the wine as little as possible and lets CO2, a natural byproduct of the winemaking process, protect it instead.  This means that there can be a little foaming action in the wine, which goes away after the wine is exposed to air.  So while these bubbles look a little alarming, rest assured that it’s not secondary fermentation – it’s protecting the wine!

3.11.13 006

Once we got to the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages of Beaux Freres vineyard, the spirited debate was flowing.  The 2008 was all elegance and sophistication, while the 2006 was full of fruit and vibrancy.  The 2007, a maligned vintage on release, also showed beautifully, and had a few passionate fans.

3.11.13 012

We tasted the wines in flights of two, and after every one asked for a show of hands to find out which was the favorite.  Doing this is one of the best parts of having these classes and tastings for us, because it reminds us that almost every wine we show at a tasting will be someone’s favorite, and it gives us feedback from our most important source: you!

Special thanks to Kurt Johnson of Beaux Freres winery, and Kirk Evans of Roanoke Valley Wine Company for all their support in making this such a wonderful evening.

3.11.13 007

What We’re Tasting: A Great Find in the Chardonnay Wasteland

This semi-regular feature showcases wines we’ve tasted that made an impression on us during our sometimes-marathon staff tastings. They won’t necessarily be in the store (yet) for purchase, but if what we’re tasting sounds good to you, let us know in the comments!

When I was a teenager, the owner of the local “artsy” movie theater used to stand in the front during previews and ask for feedback at the end of each one. We would clap or boo or just yell out our thoughts into the crowd. It was great fun, and it really made it feel like it was our theater.

We want Chain Bridge Cellars to be your local wine shop, and “What We’re Tasting Now” is meant to give you wine “previews” from the hours we spend tasting and deciding what to bring into the store. So, if one of the previews sounds intriguing to you, let us know! Feel free to clap or boo, too.

We taste a lot of wine trying to decide what to bring into the store. So much so that we all know each others’ tasting quirks, sensitivities, likes and dislikes the way you know that your best friend can’t even look at Miracle Whip.

And, if you talk to us in the shop, you know that good New World Chardonnay is one of the hardest things for us to find. We’ve tasted a lot of bad Chardonnay, friends, so much that our vendors have started referring to our tasting table as the Chardonnay Vortex of Doom.

So when we saw a slope-shouldered bottle of J Christopher Chardonnay 2010 come out of an insulated wine bag last week, those of us not familiar with this rising star winemaker in the Willamette Valley braced ourselves. Maybe grimaced. Did some jumping jacks. OK, we’re ready. Do your worst, Chardonnay!

We needn’t have worried, because what jumped out of the glass was the kind of fresh, pithy, lemony aroma we all love. No flab and drab here, the J Christopher Chardonnay is like a laser beam of freshness. Zingy acidity, bright flavors, clean, snappy finish. Perfect for seafood, or a big salad featuring the last of the season’s tomatoes.

The fun didn’t stop there, because it was immediately followed by the Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2009. It’s definitely of the ‘blood and iron’ school of Pinot Noir. Classic aromas of mushroomy forest floor and minerality layer over high-toned red fruit. Mouthwatering acidity, and a restrained ABV of 13.5%. I suggested grabbing the bottle and closing the shop to go across the street to Bistro Vivant for duck.

What are your favorite food pairings for crisp Chardonnay and earthy Pinot?