April 08, 2007

Visit to Owen Roe

On the way to my first winemaking class ever down in Salem, OR (more on that soon), I took the opportunity for a brief visit to the Owen Roe winery near Newberg.

Owen Roe is the operation of David O’Reilly, originally a business partner of Peter Rosback in Sineann and possibly still. I’m simply can’t keep track. And the Owen Roe web site shows that Peter is somehow affiiliated here. The details there aren’t the point, rather these guys have for about the past decade truly changed the face of Oregon wine, and Washington wine for that matter.

You see, Owen Roe is one of these Oregon labels that are setting a new trend by being mostly about Washington wine. They have bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah among other things from appellations like Walla Walla and Yakima in Washington, and the Columbia Valley stradling the Oregon and Washington border.

Owen Roe isn’t the first in this regard. There’s Andrew Rich in Carlton who makes lots of wine from Oregon and Washington. Cuneo also in Carlton making most of its wine from Washington grapes. And many others, including Sineann.

Where O’Reilly's (and Rosback's) wines have most set themselves apart is packaging. Now this could sound like faint praise – mention wineries and laud them for packaging? Are the wines bad? Not at all, assuming you like hefty, fairly well-oaked reds with more in common with California than anything I’ve tasted locally in a while.

It’s just that the labels at Owen Roe take good wine and set it in another league. Ask local retailers which local Syrahs fly off the shelves, and you’ll likely hear about The Sinister Hand Ex-Umbris that both come from this producer. Both have distinct labels and, while they’re good enough wine, the packaging seems to be what seals the deal with most drinkers.

So as I pull into the farm-like Owen Roe on the flatlands just south of Champoeg State Park and the Willamette River, I can’t help but reflect on how this operation looks like other producers if even the business is pretty different.

Unfortunately, this same day sees the visit of a key vineyard owner for Owen Roe, so my time will be short as the staff scrambles to pull things together for a special tasting and lunch.

Still, I have a chance to taste some barrels of new wine that will mostly go into the lower end O’Reilly’s label. Mostly we taste a few samples of Chardonnay that’s round and correct, a good vehicle to see the effects of barrels from different French coopers that give markedly different qualities to the wines they hold. Some with a subtle toast element, others with more pronounced sawdust notes that on their own seem out of whack but after blending will yield another well priced, people-friendly wine.

Then on to some finished wines that allow for more complete reporting. First two from O’Reilly’s, the label David uses for his value wines that are very popular in the marketplace. The ’06 Pinot Gris from Oregon sources is lightly sweet and round, but the ’06 Riesling from Yakima is more to my taste, clean and pure with just a hint of diesel.

Then onto some big boys, all Owen Roe labels, all from Washington grapes, all impressive wines if a big alcoholic for my tastes though, given how they sell, obviously I’m in the minority. And again, the packaging. These wines all have long, bold labels covering the heavy dark bottles like those from an old Chateau in Bordeaux. But instead of a crest and lots of French, these minimalist labels feature stark black and white photos of ancient Irish castles and little text.

First, an ’04 Sangiovese Columbia Valley that’s strapping and tannic with a light herbal note that doesn’t quite suggest the menthol of some Tuscan Sangiovese, but still seems right. Then an ’05 Merlot Dubrul Vineyard in Yakima that’s chocolatey and rich with a pleasant herbal note but a hot and tannic finish.

The ’05 Seven Hills/St Isadora bottling of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon from the Walla Walla area is also ripe, rich, even regal modern Bordeaux-like wine, chewy in the mouth with a touch of bell pepper and an interesting soil note.

Finally, the ’04 Cabernet Franc Slide Mountain Vineyard, a cool site in Yakima that produces a pretty wine with tobacco notes and a fairly tight texture. This is my favorite of the line up; it’s also the most expensive at $72. It’s more Bordeaux than Loire, actually more Napa than either of those. But this delivers the goods in its idiom.

I don’t love these wines, but I do enjoy them. I’m compelled to remember them and want to buy them because the wine is good, but the packaging is amazing. Again, I know that sounds like criticism. But when you consider how tough it is to make and sell good wine of any persuasion, I can’t help but be impressed by this whole operation from what’s in the bottle to the actual bottles themselves. I hope to return here to learn more about this organization, which is apparently growing tremendously.

Check Owen Roe out, they’re the face of new Oregon wine that isn’t bound by political borders or old conventions of what a Willamette Valley winery can produce. Namely, something beyond Pinot Noir.


Marshall Manning said...

If Owen Roe wines are the "new face" of Oregon wine, I'd much rather have the old, wrinkled face of David Lett. He could make excellent wine without having to resort to heavy bottles, SQN/Australian-type names, or other marketing gimmicks.

Vincent Fritzsche said...

To be sure, Owen Roe represents a newer or perhaps simply lesser known face of Oregon wine...that made largely from Washington grapes. Look, these aren't my kind of wines, but that's not the point for me. I don't want to grind on wines that aren't my favorites. I'm looking for the story. The out of state sourcing for its highest profile wines, combined with the packaging, those are the stories at Owen Roe. And they're fascinating to me because in ten years time, like it or not, we'll see more packaging and more grape sourcing like this. The trick for producers will be to get them to think about "Oregon" wine in a different way. You may not like it, but the packaging here will do it. The danger for the Oregon wine business will be the assumption that producers like Owen Roe are Washington wines. It's not like it isn't already happening. And with apparently a new facility going in up Yakima way, perhaps Owen Roe will just become a Washington winery. You might like that.

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