September 20, 2008

Visiting Zenith Vineyard

A few weeks back I visited Tim Ramey down at the Zenith Vineyard in the Eola-Amity AVA. Zenith is the home of Tim’s Zenith wines, which are made by his partner Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Wines, also housed in the big, gleaming winery at the center of the property.

Zenith is the renamed O’Connor vineyard, bottled for many years by St. Innocent through the 1998 vintage. That wine and the 1994 St. Innocent O’Connor were favorites of mine before I moved to Oregon, so it was a pleasure to make my first visit this site.

Driving onto the site, I saw that the vineyard is a fairly large planting in a bowl near the valley floor with mostly south and some east exposures. The elevation here is low as vineyards in this area go. As such, the soil is mostly alluvial, typically not something wine geeks prize because it’s so fertile. Grapevines produce best in poor soils that keep down vigor and crop yields. However, the results here suggest that we shouldn’t be so dogmatic about soil. Zenith is a terrific vineyard

Tim and his family bought the property several years ago and have been gradually replanting the site. From the parking lot outside the winery there’s an old chardonnay block, apparently rife with phylloxera (root lice) that is next to be torn out and replanted. Above the parking lot to the west are acres of newly planted vines, soon to come into production again. Behind the winery up the hill are numerous blocks of mostly pinot noir, with a few other things like auxerrois and tempranillo scattered throughout. See a vineyard map here.

A tall, lumbering figure, Tim met me in the large tasting room and showed me around the crush and fermentation area, the underground barrel room, and cold storage room. Then we went up to the the main hall over the barrel room, site of one or two weddings every weekend. Zenith is a rare facility making extremely serious and high quality wine, and hosting weddings. Usually the two don’t go together. We ended up in the large kitchen, well stocked for putting on weddings of course, but probably other great dinners and who knows what.

Back in the tasting room, Tim and I sampled through the Zenith label wines. The lightly sweet 2007 Pinot Gris was fine, and the 2006 Estate Pinot Noir rich and chunky, showing the warmth of the vintage. I preferred the 2006 Select Pinot Noir, with more perfume and depth. We also tried the 2006 Tempranillo, fragrant and medium bodied more like a pinot noir but finishing with some gripping tannin. Tim calls it ok for a first try. I like it a bit more than that. 2006 was the first year of Zenith labeled wine, and they’re doing a nice job already.

Then we tried a couple of St. Innocent Pinot Noir from 2006. First the St. Innocent Zenith Vineyard, which showed lots fruit and not the tannic structure I usually associate with St. Innocent pinot noir. This seemed more elegant than the Zenith Zenith. Then the St. Innocent Justice Vineyard, a nearby planting. Tim said he thought this was the best St. Innocent red he’s ever had. It’s so primary and lush, I can’t agree or disagree. It’s clearly very nice wine with the ripeness of 2006 but still great finesse and perfume. This should last a while despite its forward nature.

Tim then had to go deal with wedding issues. He was amazingly amiable (and willing to spend time with a stranger like me) despite the large production event soon to begin. Maybe he just has the temperament for holding weddings on his site.

I love this part of the Willamette Valley. With Zenith and St. Innocent here now, along with Bethel Heights, Cristom and Witness Tree, among others, you really ought to come down to the heart of the Eola Hills. Getting there from Portland can take a while though. Tim’s adamant that the Eola Hills are no further from where I live than most other northern Willamette Valley wine areas. As a bird flies, maybe. You can get here by way of Salem, or by taking 99W through Newberg and Dundee, then continuing maybe 20 more minutes south from there.

My choice, which can be quicker if you time it right, is to take the pastoral Wheatland Ferry west of Woodburn. Exit I-5 at mile 271 and head southwest to the Willamette River. The car ferry is an old school way to cross the river, allowing you to slow down for a few minutes and enjoy the water. Once on the other side, you’re very close to Zenith and its neighbors. You’ll be happier for the journey too.


J@VLG said...

Great write up. Thanks. I am looking forward to tasting the SI Zenith and the Justice. I really like the Justice vineyard.

Anonymous said...

Very nice piece. Tim, his family and Mark, have done a terrific job on the property. I am quite fond of the SI and Zenith labels. The 2006s are big, wonderful wines. If you are in the area I strongly suggest stopping by for a tasting.

Michael Purpura