John Grochau, a lanky, wire-framed guy in his 30s, was busy on a forklift moving barrels around his small winery when I arrived for a visit.
“His winery” meaning the place he makes wine for his label Grochau Cellars. It’s really the site of Aramenta Cellars, here on Lewis Rogers Lane in the heart of the new Ribbon Ridge AVA of Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley
John describes the arrangement as a “collaboration,” where he helps the owners of Aramenta make their wine in exchange for space to do his thing.
I’ve written before about loving John’s 2004 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, so I was excited to learn more about his project. It doesn’t hurt that he’s doing exactly what I’d like to do. If I wanted a model of a low-cost, start-up winery, this is it.
We quickly got to tasting, and I ended up sampling pretty much everything he has from the 2005 vintage. How are the wines? Good to very good, not overwhelmingly great but more than simply competent. John isn’t the self-promotion type, but he’s quietly putting together a very nice mix of classic Willamette Valley wines with a growing share of bottlings from southern Oregon. The biggest lesson – don’t read too much into barrel samples, especially what you see how different (and better or more complete) things can taste once you do some blending.
We started with the soon to be bottled Chardonnay, a blend of Willamette Valley and Columbia River Gorge fruit. The former comes from the Eola Springs vineyard and an unusual clone I’d never heard of – Mendoza – that John says gives a minerally wine. Blended with the riper fruit from above White Salmon, WA (across the Columbia from Hood River, OR), this is nice, somewhat toasty and tropical fruited chardonnay with a green apple finish.
Then a single barrel of Viognier from the Pompadour vineyard 2,200 feet above Ashland in southern Oregon. There were “issues” with this wine, with a stuck fermentation that never really finished until this spring. Nicely floral on the aroma, very true to the variety, but reduced and a little rubbery. Needs some airing.
These were the only whites tasted, but John also makes Sauvignon Blanc that I’ve enjoyed before, aside from a little reduction that I think should resolve itself with time.
With the reds, we began with a variety of Pinot Noir from around the Willamette Valley. The Pommard clone from the Vidon vineyard in the Chehalem Mountin AVA has a fruity aroma but is very toasty and finely tannic from a new barrel. The same wine with slightly different treatment at the crusher showed more complexity on the aroma and a more creamy texture. 777 clone from Vidon from a Gillet barrel was dense and thick as you’d expect from this Dijon clone. John calls it good blending materials.
Then on to a sample from the Monk’s Gate vineyard off Abbey Road near the Dundee Hills but on Willakenzie soils and from the Wadenswil clone. Lighter aroma, peppery with an ashy quality I tend to get from some sedmentary soils. Then to the Dundee Hills proper, with 667 clone from the Anderson family vineyard, lots of toast, bacon, and coffee aromas, pungent with tight flavors from a new barrel. Older oak gives a lighter color, not so rich with a slightly gassy, reduced aroma.
So far, the 2005s from Grochau taste fairly ripe and rich, not showing the cool October that gave lower overall ripeness and challenged winemakers more used to, and more interested in, higher sugar levels in their grapes. Now, we get to vineyards from the cool McMinnville Foothills AVA.
First, Pommard clone from Meredith Mitchell vineyard, picked on October 16th at 22 brix and soaked up overnight to 22.5. Bright aroma, grapefruit and some gassy smells, then light caramel hints. This from a “cool” ferment peaking at 88F, a lighter but pretty and fragrant wine. Same vineyard and clone from a “hot” ferment peaking at 94F gives a slightly bigger flavor, but still the coolness of the harvest shows.
Then Momtazi vineyard, not far from Meredith Mitchell, this 115 clone picked on October 18 at 22.5 brix and soaking up to 23. I found this sample the most complete of the barrels we tried, nicely perfumed with good fruit and spice. In comparison, the “best barrel” of Meredith Mitchell shows nice bright cranberry fruit but not quite the depth of the Momtazi. These are not blockbuster wines, but I really like the lower brix perfume and lack of jamminess so prevalent in the riper fruit people around here seem to love.
John will blend these lots into a Willamette Valley bottling and a Reserve Pinot Noir. A hypothetical “Reserve” blend was outstanding;. John mixed bits of maybe a half dozen barrels, and the result is a lesson in winetasting. Bright like most of the samples, the blend showed richness that the individual wines lacked and a more complete flavor that immediately stands out from the rest. That, and the fact that these are wines are still developing, make me think 2005 will be a nice year for Grochau Cellars Pinot Noir.
So are we done? No. I was fascinated to find out how interested John is in other varieties from southern Oregon. Not simply Syrah and who knows what else from the ubiquitous Del Rio vineyard that everyone here in Oregon seems to make wine from. Rather, Tempranillo and Syrah from the Umpqua Valley and, most interestingly, Syrah from Pompadour above Ashland where John got his Viognier.
The Tempranillo from the young Upper Five vineyard has a nice bitter chocolate aroma with very fine but substantial tannin. From McQuorkadale, another Umpqua vineyard, more floral with leather and fruit aromas and even more tannin. These wines will stay in barrel for nearly another year, so it’s very early here. Same with the Syrah, first a sample from Upper Five that’s a warmer site than Pompadour, showing a little stinky and tight. This wine will be racked soon to give a little air to help resolve the reduction notes.
Finally, impressive Syrah from Pompadour. First, Syrah co-fermented with 2% Viognier, brightly aromatic with floral and coffee notes, chewy in the mouth and impressive. Then a sample with 4% Viognier added at the crusher, truly inky and a little grapey, but bright, full, and rich. Both of these wines show Rhone-like flavors, not simply oakiness that most new world producers rely on for complexity. John describes the Pompadour site as a rocky hillside, like a little Hermitage in southern Oregon. We’ll have to check that out – if there are truly great sites here in Oregon to grow Syrah, that would be exciting.
For now, I wrap up my visit peppering John with questions about how he got started in wine (though Higgins restaurant where he still works part-time), in winemaking (working up the road at Brick House), and most importantly, how much debt he’s in so far (not so much, actually, so there’s a glimmer of hope for me yet). John's also working on long-term lease to plant and farm a nice hayfield just down the road. I’m excited enough to offer to help out at harvest a little, and we’ll see how that plays out. It’s not everyday you get to see someone living your dream, and doing it well. I’ll make a point to stay in touch with Grochau Cellars. You should too.