How do you make 92,000 cases of very good Pinot Noir in Oregon? For Erath winemaker Gary Hoerner, the formula involves finding vineyards that produce decent flavors at relatively high yields, then babying the grapes into drinkable wines. And oh, by the way, blend in those barrels that don’t make it into the high-priced cuvées to flesh out the final wine.
In a state that averages less than 3 tons per acre for Pinot Noir, getting enough production to drive the price per bottle below $20 is a challenge. That explains why I have reviewed favorably only four Pinots made in quantities of 5,000 cases or more and priced at less that $20 (and none below $10) in the past year.
California, with its vast tracts in warmer climates, can hit those lower price points more effectively, but if you want Oregon’s light, fragile structure, the minimum retail price seems to be $18. In all, I reviewed only 10 Oregon Pinots under $20 in the past year. Erath and Willamette Valley Vineyards manage to hit that 86- to 88-point range at that price and level of availability. O’Reilly’s comes close on volume. At $20, A to Z just misses on price, as do Next and Acrobat (King Estate’s low-end brands). But that’s about it.
On a recent visit to Erath, after tasting through a range of single-vineyard wines with Hoerner, I asked him what he does to make 92,000 cases of the Oregon blend good enough to rate 88 points with me, and sell it for $18 a bottle.
“Some of the grapes come from Umpqua Valley, some from southern Oregon,” he noted, for starters. “We work with the growers to cut the wings off the bunches [the less-ripe grapes on them would dilute the flavor and perhaps introduce green character], [and to] drop the green fruit at veraison. They have to crop higher in Umpqua, so we work with them on shoot positioning to get as much ripe flavor as possible.”
The core of the blend is the 100-acre Melrose Vineyard in Umpqua Valley, south of Willamette Valley. It’s all on Scott Henry, a vine-training system commonly used in southern Oregon that sends fruiting canes both upward and downward, doubling the vine’s yield. Hoerner said, “He can crop to 4.25 tons per acre, but he is willing to go through the vineyard and do the same things that we do in our own vineyards” (cropped at 2 to 2.5 tons). To avoid hand-sorting, it’s important to get everything right in the vineyard.
Melrose Vineyard’s grapes come in at lower pH and higher acidity than other lots, Hoerner added, which gives the wines natural freshness and zing. Flavors veer toward raspberry and other red fruits. “And, it’s machine-harvested,” Hoerner added. Then the Melrose lots are blended with odds and ends from elsewhere, including barrels selected out of the Willamette Valley wines.
I wondered how much better the Melrose might be if the goal were lower yields and the grapes were hand-harvested. “Not as good,” Hoerner responded, definitively. “It needs the higher crop level to keep the vegetative growth under control.”
Buoyed by the success of vineyards like Melrose, Erath is investing in a 500-acre tract near Battle Creek, just south of Salem (and in the Willamette Valley AVA). “For the Oregon tier [of wines], that’s golden,” Hoerner noted. “In a hot year I think we can push it to 5 tons per acre.”
To Pinot purists, that's blasphemy. To value seekers, it looks like the answer.
Mark Kuspira — Calgary, Alberta, Canada — October 6, 2009 3:28pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — October 6, 2009 3:52pm ET
Mark Nickerson — Vallejo, CA — October 6, 2009 8:46pm ET
Aaron Meeker — Kansas City, KS — October 7, 2009 12:09am ET
Garet Tanaka — Maui, Hawaii — October 7, 2009 12:23am ET
Alex Glick — Denver, CO — October 7, 2009 11:47am ET
Jason Carey — willow, ny usa — October 7, 2009 12:03pm ET
Josh Bergstrom — Portland, Oregon — October 7, 2009 11:02pm ET
Ray Juskiewicz — Dallas — October 8, 2009 5:12pm ET
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