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Ken Wright and Angela

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 4, 2007 2:03pm ET

Pinot Noir producers wrestle with the idea of terroir, that French-inspired notion that place makes the wine, and none more so than those who run into confounding evidence that maybe it's not always the end-all and be-all of wine.

I have long believed that single vineyards make the most distinctive wines, wines with the most personality, but not necessarily the best wines. Very often a blend of two or more excellent sites can fill in the pieces missing in one or the other, and the result can be better than either one alone. In other words, single vineyards make great wines only in those rare sites that produce complete, balanced wines.

When the stars align, magic happens. When they don't, is it better to let the vineyard express itself, warts and all, or try to make the best wine you can?

Ken Wright is the classic terroir-iste. He championed the new series of sub-appellations in the northern Willamette Valley of Oregon. Although most vignerons make a regional blend, even in Burgundy, the nexus of terroir culture, Wright does not. His Pinot Noirs carry the specific vineyard name where the grapes grow to make the wine. He long ago dropped the idea of a Willamette Valley blend, and every single Ken Wright Pinot Noir carries a vineyard designation. Until Angela.

In 2005, a crunch in the winery forced his cellar crew to put grapes from two different vineyards into the same vat. The result was a wine that everyone liked, but left Wright with a problem. Should he compromise his principles and bottle it? In the end, he did, and I tasted it blind when I reviewed Wright's other 2005s. Darned if it didn't tie for my highest rating.

I had never seen "Angela" on a Ken Wright wine before. I suspected that it was a new vineyard for him. The back label said nothing about the source, so I couldn't wait to ask him about it when I visited his winery last week. When I told him I liked the wine, he grimaced. "I was afraid of that," he sighed. "It was a logistical problem. Our intention is not to do it again."

Although Wright buys from independent growers in several of the sub-appellations he championed, the grapes for Angela came from two of Wright's own vineyards—Savoya, which is next to his house, and Abbott Claim, on a hill he shares with Tony Soter's Mineral Springs Vineyard. Savoya and Abbott Claim are the only vineyards the Wrights own. They're both in the Yamhill-Carlton District.

In my blind tasting notes, Wright's 2005 Savoya bottling is light and pretty, with fairly firm tannins. His Abbott Claim is a more seductive wine, plush in texture, but not at all heavy, redolent of black fruits and spices. Angela seems to have the best of both, with Savoya's lightness and open texture and Abbott Claim's expressiveness. Together, they make a more persistent finish.

It doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes the elements of one vineyard's wine fight with those of another, and the result is a lesser wine. But in this case, with these vineyards, in this vintage, the sum is greater than the parts.

"I really like the wine, too," Wright admits, but he adds, "I need that connection to a place. I can't compromise that."

Do I think Wright should discard his principles and start making blends? Absolutely not. By making wines from the same vineyards year after year, as he has done, he understands their strengths and weaknesses better with every vintage. His 2005s are, in my estimation, his best yet.

But Angela throws a spanner into the works, as they say in England. Would it be consistently as good in succeeding vintages? I have no idea. But I for one will want to taste it alongside Savoya and Abbott Claim over five or 10 years to see what wins in the end.

Maybe, just maybe, the best of all worlds would keep only those vineyards separate that make great wine on their own. The rest could go into a reserve-wine blend that just might be the best wine of them all, or at the very least, better than the vineyards that fall short on their own.

Michael Kaufmann
Portland, OR —  October 4, 2007 5:28pm ET
Hi Harvey,I agree the wine is awesome. I'm wondering who "Angela" is? Whom is this wine named for?Thanks.
Louis Haggis
Parsippany, NJ —  October 5, 2007 9:15am ET
Hi Harvey, I agree wholeheartedly with your premise on single vineyards. One question, will you be releasing ratings on the 2005 Ken Wright pinots before they're all gone from the store shelves? Thanks.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 5, 2007 11:18am ET
Keep an eye on the WS Insider for review of Ken Wright's wines. I can't tell you the specific ratings until then, but overall I underline my belief that this is his best vintage yet.
Kevin Lewis
Baltimore,MD —  October 5, 2007 4:16pm ET
Harvey-I have not had a chance to taste any of Ken Wright's wines however as much as I have enjoyed other single vineyard wines I think in the world of food and drink it is all about mastering the perfect Blend. Cheers!
David A Zajac
October 8, 2007 1:47pm ET
Count me in the blending camp. Its not that I don't like the single vineyard wines, I do, but I still think a blend will not only allow more people to taste the wines and not fight over the 100 cases of vineyard X available, but produce a better wine overall. I know a lot of people today only want to bottle single vineyard wines, but I just don't think its a good idea. Recently on vacation I had a bottle of a Siduri single vineyard wine from Oregon, I love Siduri's wines and figured it was a no brainer like they normally are, it was a vineyard I had never had or even heard of from Oregon so I bot it and it was a major disappointment, I was surprised it made it into bottle actually and was disappointed it wasn't used as a blend because it didn't deserve single vineyard status or price, when I see that, it really bothers me that so many small lots are being made and there is no way to stay on top of it all, not even for the publications.
Robert Hess
October 31, 2007 6:32pm ET
Hey Harvey! The Insider discussing Oregon Pinots just came out this afternoon. I was very interested in your reviews of the 2005 Ken Wright wines which, as you mentioned in your October 5 comment above, rank as his best ever, apparently topping his 2004 scores which were replete with great wines, the bulk of which ranged from 91-94 points! I quickly checked this week's Insider, having taken your warning to "keep an eye on the WS Insider for review of Ken Wright's wines" to heart. Where are the promised reviews of the Ken Wright wines? I looked forward with interest to reading your review of his unusual "Angela", a wine which you stated in your original post was tied for his highest rating in his best ever vintage, 2005. In view of the above, I was anxious to read about a Ken Wright blend (blasphemy) scored at approximately 95 points! What can you tell me?
Eric Otness
Houston, TX —  November 1, 2007 12:54am ET
Harvey -- I echo Robert's comments. Was surprised to see the Oregon pinot-themed Insider today with no mention of Ken Wright given your foreshadowing in the above post. As a longtime fan, I think the 2005s are outstanding (especially Shea & McCrone) and was interested to read your take. When and where will we see this?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 1, 2007 11:08am ET
For sure, you will see the Ken Wright reviews in the Oregon Tasting Report in the Dec 31 issue.
Robert Hess
November 1, 2007 10:28pm ET
Thank you, Harvey. As you know, you are the best. And you are the best at building suspense, not a bad thing in the wine world. So you were off a little bit on the timing and the venue of the reviews, but I trust you will not be off from your original views of the magnificence of these wines.

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