November 20, 2010

A field trip to the Eola-Amity Hills

This week, I spent a nice afternoon in the Eola Hills with my friend John Grochau, visiting Mark Bjornson of the Bjornson vineyard and Erin Nuccio, the new owner of Evesham Wood. We were checking with Mark about grapes for the future and took the opportunity to check out Erin in his new digs.

I'm happy to announce that, starting with the next harvest, Vincent Wine Company will source grapes from Bjornson. I can't wait. John has already produced two promising vintages of wine from Bjornson, and Erin started sourcing there in 2010 and will continue. Not bad company for me to be in, I think.

We first ran a few errands in Dundee and McMinnville, making our way down a wet and windy 99W and crossing the Eola Hills on Zena Road. Passed the Zenith vineyard, another Vincent Wine Company site, the vines a mix of yellow leaves and bare branches like all vineyards in the area this time of year. Around and up the hill, we arrived at Bjornson vineyard.

Mark and wife Pattie Bjornson are Minnesotans who first planted this site in 2006. The initial Pinot noir vines came into production with the 2009 vintage, with more blocks like the one pictured coming on line in 2012. The site is just south from the famed Seven Springs vineyard, which is visible from the Bjornson's kitchen through the trees and across the ravine. Not a bad neighborhood.

Bjornson vineyard looks ideal. It has a mix of south, southwest and east exposures, with volcanic Nekia and Jory soils. The pictured block looks due south to Salem and is particularly rocky. Elevation is in the 500' range. The site is LIVE certified and there's even a wind turbine just out of view that provides electricity for vineyard operations. But how does that translate into wine? Based on what I've tasted from barrels at Grochau Cellars, this site produces powerful wines that retain great elegance. Not unlike Seven Springs. This is a different site, but the resemblance is promising.

We tried a few things at Mark's, including brand new Gamay noir made in their barn as well as official 2009 Bjornson Pinot Noir, made by Aaron Hess of Daedalus. The gamay is fresh and should be good home wine. I hope to get some Bjornson gamay grapes in the future. The '09 Bjornson shows nice restraint for the hot vintage, though Mark thinks it's just a bit closed still.

Then down to Evesham Wood close to Salem. Erin was delayed so we walked the estate Les Puits Sec vineyard, here in an old white block looking up to the Tudor style house, with winery in the basement. Very old world feel here. Looking the other way, we would see a great view of Mt. Hood and the Willamette Valley, though the elevation here is lower, only in the 300' to 400' range. The wines from this vineyard prove that elevation isn't everything.

Before Erin arrives, we hang out on the crush pad checking out what's changed from five years ago when I worked the '05 harvest here. Yes, a shot of a younger and thinner me working with Russ. Pushing a drained fermenter into place by the old press, getting ready to empty it out the old fashioned way - with buckets. Even then, cellarmaster Miguel and brother Isaro were talking about a bin dumper. Waiting for Erin, we catch up a bit and the topic of the bin dumper surfaces. It's apparently going to happen.

When Erin arrives, we head into the cellar, seeing Miguel moving a stack of barrels with the funky old stand up forklift that reminds me of the droid/monster Box from the '70s era sci-fi classic Logan's Run. Maybe you had to be an impressionable kid with questionable taste to get see that one.

So we walk back into the barrel cave and start sampling various '09s still resting before bottling in winter or spring. A cask of Les Puit Sec is typically broader and full but with, again, nice restraint for the hot vintage. The lower elevation here mean this site comes in early, a boon in cool years, sometimes tougher in hot years but not this time. Very nice. Then Temperance Hill, '800 above Zenith and Bethel Heights, very ashy Pommard clone character with taut cherry and cranberry flavors. Love the finesse here. A sample of Eola Springs, from the western side of the Eola Hills, shows typical light and bright flavors. Good nerve here.

The Illahe we tried will go in a single vineyard bottling, though most barrels still make up the base of the Willamette Valley cuvee already bottled and released. This sample is floral and perfumed, without too much weight. Then a final taste, from the Bryn Mawr vineyard across the road from Bethel Heights. Not unlike Temperance, which is just up the road. Ashy, cherry, bright. This vineyard has been sold and perhaps Bjornson replaced it in 2010 going forward. Alas, no samples of Bjornson. The 2010s are too new to try, but Erin is excited as is every winemaker I've talked to. Here we see him with wine thief in hand, bathed in backlight and the fuzz of a crap iPhone camera. If you can see his smile, that's Erin. A big smile, and if I were the new owner of Evesham Wood with wines in cask like we just sampled, I would be smiling big too.

A postscript on the transition at Evesham Wood. Erin detailed what we've heard more generally elsewhere. Russ and Mary weren't looking to sell the winery as much as find the right place to hand it down. Apparently they offered it to Erin a while back but it took him a while to say yes. There's a weight to taking on what Russ and Mary built, and just as they wouldn't give it to anyone, Erin's smart enough to know he should make sure he felt up to it. Needless to say, he does, and he's very sensitive to not wanting much change in the approach. I thought pricing might go up, but no, there will be no increases beyond anything ordinary. There will be a bin dumper and already I saw two new presses. But the "Box" fork lift is staying. The farming. The winemaking approach, pretty much everything. Without saying any specifically, Erin mentioned that he and Russ don't agree on everything, which stands to reason. But that only underscores how much they do agree. Haden Fig, Erin's other label, will continue and provide more ground for experimentation. So Evesham Wood fans should be very excited for the future. I know I am.

We bid goodbyes with talk of comparing Bjornson barrels in the spring. That should be good.

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