Oregon Land Grab

“You can ask whoever you want: attorneys or realtors or winemakers like myself. No one has ever seen this level of activity here before,” says Tony Rynders, proprietor of Tendril Wine Cellars, speaking about the wave of vineyard acquisitions in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 2013. Rynders now also manages Zena Crown Vineyard in the Eola–Amity Hills, one of several properties that Jackson Family Wines purchased last year.

It’s not like winegrowing in the Willamette Valley has been a provincial enterprise until now. Maison Joseph Drouhin, for example, made a splash when they bought 225 acres in the Dundee Hills in 1987, becoming the first Burgundy firm to start a project in Oregon. (They recently doubled down on Oregon themselves, purchasing the 279-acre Roserock Vineyard in the Eola–Amity Hills.)

But things reached a fever pitch in 2013. In addition to the Jackson Family and Drouhin expansions, Larry Stone, MS, purchased land for his own estate vineyard on the cusp of that new year, and Mark Tarlov, formerly of Evening Land, solidified his own Oregon project. But what really made headlines was a relatively small acquisition: Maison Louis Jadot purchased 20 acres in the Yamhill-Carlton District.

Part of the attraction to Oregon, Rynders points out, is simple economics: “In Napa right now you can’t find cabernet sauvignon for less than $7,500 a ton, which translates to $80 a bottle minimum. Our average here [for pinot noir], on the high end, is between $3,200 and $3,500 a ton.”

But what else is driving this sudden interest in Oregon? We asked Patrick J. Comiskey and Michael Apstein to check in with some of the major players involved in the recent acquisitions, to scope out the potential these new arrivals see in the Willamette Valley.

Larry Stone’s Cabbage Patch
For two decades Larry Stone has been a fixture on the California wine scene, first as an influential sommelier at Rubicon, then as a producer (of Sirita Wines) and executive (with Rubicon Estate, Evening Land and, most recently, with Huneeus Vintners). Stone had scouted out land on the far Sonoma Coast and was close to leasing a property on Washington’s Red Mountain, but it didn’t come through. Born and raised in Seattle, he has long ties to the Pacific Northwest, not only to the wine community but to the agricultural community, a connection that proved invaluable in sealing the deal for land to plant his own vineyard. –Patrick J. Comiskey

“It’s on the corner of Lone Star Road and Hopewell Road in the Eola–Amity Hills, just across from Seven Springs and down the way from Jerusalem Hill, where Domaine Serene gets fruit for their single vineyard wine.”

“The land was owned by Bob and Betty Janzen, an old Mennonite family. Bob turned 80 recently, and he wanted to slow down—well, not slow down, really, because he still had some projects he wanted to do for the church.”

“They had Christmas trees, and a plum and cherry orchard. They’d planted or grafted every tree on the property, but it hadn’t ever been developed for grapes. They didn’t really embrace the wine industry; they didn’t think that wine grapes were
a beneficial thing to grow. All kinds of people have tried to convince them to sell the property. I heard that Craig Williams [late of Joseph Phelps] was up here asking, and I know Tony Soter talked to them, but they really weren’t willing to consider selling it to strangers.”

“When I was with Evening Land [which leases the neighboring Seven Springs Vineyard], I went over there a couple of times and we talked. Turns out they used to sell a lot of their produce to Pike Place Market. Well, I grew up in Seattle, and my dad was a produce buyer and seller at the market. He knew the whole community, and they knew a lot of people in common. So after about two years of courting, they said yes.”

“I feel so lucky; I’ve looked for twenty years for a place to farm. I’ve had a couple places slip through my fingers, but not this one. I feel like Henri Jayer, who looked at a cabbage patch in Vosne that everyone throughout history had overlooked and thought, “Hey, that might be a good spot.” And that’s now Cros Parantoux! Well, this is my cabbage patch.”

A new challenge for Gagey and Lardière

Maison Louis Jadot controls over 350 acres throughout Burgundy, and sources additional fruit from vineyards stretching from the grands crus of the Côte d’Or to Beaujolais, but until last year the firm had not ventured outside of the region. This past August, Jadot purchased the 20-acre Resonance Vineyard in Oregon’s Yamhill-Carlton District (previous owner Kevin Chambers had made wine from the vineyard and also sold grapes to Big Table Farm and Sineann, among others). The vineyard sits on the eastern edge of the Coast Range. It’s 90 percent pinot noir, dry- and organically farmed, half of it own-rooted Pommard clone planted in 1981. Pierre Henry Gagey, Jadot’s president, and Jacques Lardière, the firm’s former head winemaker, now in charge of the Oregon project, commented on plans for their new property. –Michael Apstein

“The timing was perfect because Jacques had just retired after doing 42 vintages for us [at Jadot] and was ready to accept a new challenge,” Gagey says, mentioning that his son, Thibault Gagey, had worked the harvest at Domaine Drouhin Oregon the previous year.”

“Gagey and Lardière visited the property a few times to get the “lay of the land” and tasted wines going back more than a decade before signing on. For the 2013 vintage, Lardière vinified each vineyard parcel separately to begin to record the site’s exposures, soils and drainage. “The variables are enormous,” Lardière admits. ‘It will take a decade, at least, to understand the various plots in the vineyard.'”

“Lardière’s impression so far? “You have to accept that there will be more power in pinot noir from Oregon than from Burgundy,” he says—and one of his challenges will be to restrain that power. To better understand how Oregon pinot noir ripens, Lardière performed two harvests, a week or two apart—and both considered early by Oregon standards—as an experiment aimed at capturing the elegance of pinot noir. “There’s no reason to have overripe grapes,” he says.”

“The Oregon wines, Gagey explains, will be named after the vineyard and will not carry the Jadot label. If a particular vineyard block turns out to produce an exceptional and distinctive wine, they may opt to bottle it as a separate block

“Gagey says that they do not plan to build a winery until they are convinced of the quality of the wines. For now, they’re leasing space from James Frey at nearby Trisaetum Winery.”

“Jadot intends to focus on pinot noir and will graft over the property’s small amount of gewürztraminer to pinot. “Maybe chardonnay in the future,” Gagey adds. ‘Anything is possible.'”

Jackson Family Looks North

Last year, Jackson Family Wines took a dramatic leap into Oregon wine country with the purchase of four vineyard parcels: Gran Moraine Vineyard and the former Solena estate in the Yamhill-Carlton District, Zena Crown in the Eola–Amity Hills, and Maple Grove, a large property southwest of Eola-Amity. The Solena acquisition included Laurent and Danielle Montalieu’s former winery, where Jackson Family will vinify wines for a new label they’re establishing, called Gran Moraine. There are also plans in the works to establish a Zena Crown brand, and to build a winery on that newly acquired property. Most immediately, this expansion means that their La Crema label will debut a Willamette Valley pinot noir bottling later this year. Barbara Banke, proprietor and chairman of Jackson Family Wines, discussed their investment in Oregon. –P.J.C.

“Jess [Jackson] didn’t have much of an interest in Oregon, but we had a number of friends who had wineries up here, so we kept an eye. Of course as a company we do love pinot noir, and Oregon is making some of the best in the country. The wines
speak for themselves, but we kept noticing them in the marketplace. In New York and in other important markets, they’re very prominent. And many sommeliers, including those who work for us, kept telling us how Oregon was coming on strong.”

“Around two or two-and-a-half years ago we learned of an excellent package for sale [from CalPERS, the California Public Employees Retirement System, a pension fund], a deal that included California and Oregon vineyards. The vineyards they were selling in Oregon were some of the best they had, all in that eight- or ten-year stage of development, starting to produce really high-quality grapes. The viticulture was spectacular; they were very well cared for. In all it’s about 900 potential vineyard acres; Zena Crown in the Eola–Amity Hills, and Gran Moraine, in the Yamhill-Carlton District, are the most prominent. I believe we’ve become the largest family winery owning property in the valley. Our plan is to sell our first Willamette Valley wine through La Crema, which we’ll do with the 2012 vintage.”

Mark Tarlov’s Next Act

With several partners and lots of expert advisors (Larry Stone, among others) Mark Tarlov established Evening Land Vineyards in 2005, a multi-regional winery concept with Seven Springs Vineyard in the Eola–Amity Hills as its centerpiece. He locked in a long-term lease and convinced Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon to consult on the wines there. Tarlov left Evening Land in early 2012, but his interest in the region and in involving Burgundy producers led him to found Chapter 24 Vineyards, an Oregon winery with Vosne producer Comte Louis-Michel Liger-Belair making the wines. His strategy is based more on leasing vineyards rather than buying. –P.J.C.

“We’ve just signed a lease on our first vineyard, called Stardance, about 10 acres in the Coast Range west of Yamhill and Carlton, near the edge of the AVA boundary. It’s pretty high in elevation, with transitional soils from quite shallow volcanic to mixed soil types, east facing, about ten or twelve years old. [The planting is] much denser than Seven Springs but obviously not as dense as Burgundy.”

“It’s interesting: despite the notional connection between Oregon and Burgundy, this acquisition spree seems more like Bordeaux. The Burgundian sensibility to have small plots of land farmed to show unique character has been overtaken by the notion of ‘Let’s just have one big estate vineyard.’

“We’re looking to lease five to 12 acre pieces that we can farm and control as monopoles, to put together a collection of bijoux rather than one big Hope Diamond.”

“We’re going to be leasing about ten acres of Larry Stone’s new vineyard, and we’re about to sign a lease on a parcel called Saikkonen, also a monopole, also small, seven acres, on the north side of Ribbon Ridge. And there are a few others we’re looking into. These properties won’t be on people’s list of well-known vineyards. But we’re finding that certain outside areas are performing better than traditional places. We’re striving for a particular texture in the wine as well as a flavor, and for that we need a certain thickness of skin—intact berries are important to us;so we need a place maybe that’s cooler, where the winds are fresher, where the berries stay intact more, and a place that maybe hosts a unique yeast population. We’re finding that in places that are smaller, out of the way.”

This article first appeared in Wine & Spirits April 2014.

May 27, 2014