Taking a Retour

Sep 23, 2008

For those of us who appreciate a good Oregon Pinot Noir, it's frustrating that so many of the better ones are made in such small quantities. Not only are they hard to find in a wine shop, you also just can't expect to see them on any normal restaurant wine list. It takes a specialist, and even then, the usual allotment of a single case (or less) can disappear from a restaurant in weeks, requiring the sommelier to keep updating the list with something else.

Those of us who are serious about Pinot Noir know this and make allowances. If our first, second or third choices are not available, we'll take No. 4 or 5. But nothing pleases a restaurant wine buyer, or a regular customer, quite so much as knowing that there will be enough to keep a wine on the list until the next vintage. Even better would be enough to stash some away to build a nice little vertical.

But that is hard to do if each winery divides its best grapes among a half dozen single-vineyard bottlings, each about 100 or 200 cases, hardly enough to go around, especially when most of the production never leaves Oregon, or sells almost entirely through a mailing list. The grapes that don't make the single-vineyard bottlings often get blended in a larger-quantity wine. Often the blend is better than the small-lot wines, a point not lost on Lindsay Woodard and Michael Richards when they decided to start Retour, their new winery.

They decided to put all their grapes into one basket, so to speak, make just one wine in enough quantity to spread it around the country, and export most of it out of Oregon.

Their first vintage, 2006, jumped out at me in my blind tastings as one of the more elegant and fresh-tasting wines of a vintage prone to big, rich flavors and textures. I liked it a lot, and made a point to visit them when I was in Oregon recently. They make their wines at the Carlton Winemakers Studio, but Woodard called the day before to say that the winery would be a madhouse with everyone bottling before the harvest, and could we meet at her parents' house near McMinnville? That worked out fine, but it turns out that Richards lives in the Bay Area and we just as easily could have met there, where I live.

Richards, who works in mergers and acquisitions, and Woodard, an independent wine marketer, met in 2003 at a wine-tasting group in Walnut Creek, a suburb of San Francisco where Richards lives with his wife and two children. Actually, the first time they met, Richards was in elementary school in McMinnville and Woodard was his student teacher. Hence the winery's name, French for "return."

In the intervening years they had both fallen for wine. Richards made some home Zinfandel and started developing a nice little wine collection. Woodard got the bug as a first-year mass communications student at Linfield College in McMinnville, helping out as a volunteer at the International Pinot Noir Celebration held there. She got a job setting up the Ponzi wine bar in Dundee, and later represented Riedel glass in Napa Valley. As a marketing consultant for small and medium-sized wineries, she became acutely aware of how easily a winery can fall off the radar if the supply runs out after three months.

"It's great to sell it all fast," she said, "but you get forgotten about."

They used their McMinnville roots to meet growers and get enough grapes to get started. Although the first vintage numbers only 600 cases, they plan to increase production to a target of 2,000 by 2010, mostly by developing good enough relationships with the growers to get more from each one instead of having to add new vineyards every year.

The core vineyard is Hyland, in McMinnville. "That provides the structure," said Richards. The vines were planted in 1972, which makes them among Oregon's oldest. "Then we wanted the lush licorice thing that you get from Eola Hills." That comes from Vitae Springs vineyard. They also get grapes from Durant in Dundee Hills, Johnson (one of Lemelson's vineyards) and Wahle, both in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA.

After interviewing several winemakers, they settled on Eric Hamacher, who has a similar philosophy of blending wines from different areas to get a more complex, complete wine. He also aims for elegance over power, something Richards and Woodard wanted too. Hamacher runs the Carlton Winemakers Studio, where he makes his own wines, so the combination suited them all.

For the 2007 vintage, which will be released next spring, the two put in long hours out in the vineyards when the rains came in late September and early October. "We spent three weeks pulling leaves, creating air flow so the grapes would dry out if they could," Woodard sighed. "It worked. We hardly had any split or moldy grapes. And the seeds got brown," an indication of ripeness that few vineyards achieved in '07. Alcohol levels averaged 13 to 13.5 percent, less than in '06.

The 2007, bottled about one month, shows a harmony and completeness that is rare in '07, and impeccable balance in a vintage where acidity can stick out.

Retour is not the only Oregon winery that makes sufficient quantities of outstanding Pinot Noir to get a significant portion into year-round national distribution. Although these wineries also makes single-vineyard and special reserve bottlings that are higher priced, Domaine Serene's Evenstad Reserve, Argyle's Reserve, Bergström's Cumberland Reserve, Domaine Drouhin's Willamette Valley bottlings and, these days, Erath's Dundee Hills Estate Selection are consistently outstanding wines made in quantities of 5,000 cases or more.

Sometimes I wonder whether such wines might be better if the single-vineyard stuff went into their blends, especially when the single-vineyard wines are good but not especially distinctive. If Retour sticks to its plan and puts it all into one wine, they might set an example that will make Pinot Noir just a little less precious. And more available.

United States Oregon Red Wines Pinot Noir
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