Thursday, April 8, 2010

Winetasting: The Excellent Wines of Ken Wright Cellars, Oregon, US

Picture: Ken Wright and Christian G.E. Schiller

Ken Wright from Oregon came to the Washington DC area to show us his wines. I attended a tasting at Cecile’s in McLean, Virginia.


Ken Wright is in the Willamette Valley, were about two-thirds of Oregon’s wineries and vineyards are. Buffered from Pacific storms on the west by the Coast Range, the valley follows the Willamette River north to south for more than a hundred miles from the Columbia River near Portland to just south of Eugene. But Oregon is not only about Willamette Valley. Oregon’s vineyards span the whole State, rising up and falling over the rolling hills and gentle valleys of more than 12,000 acres (4,858 hectares) of wine grapes. Oregon’s major wine regions are the Willamette Valley, Rogue Valley, Umpqua Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. Some regions straddle the border between Oregon and the States of Washington and Idaho.

Wine was made in Oregon in the 19th century already, when Italian and Swiss immigrants planted wine grapes and started bottling wine. Oregon's wine industry was suppressed during Prohibition. It wasn’t until1961, when Richard Sommer set up shop in southern Oregon and planted Riesling, that the modern Oregon wine industry was borne. Other pioneers include David Adelsheim, Dick Ponzi and Bill Sokol-Blosser. Then the French also came with Domaine Drouhin bringing European sophistication to Oregon. In the past 40 years, Oregon has become one of the country’s top three wine States, with 350 wineries producing an average of 5,000 cases each a year. Most of it is Pinot Noir, but there’s also Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and modest amounts of Riesling and Merlot.

Oregon produces wine on a much smaller scale than its southern neighbor California. Oregon's biggest producer ships only 125,000 cases per year and most produce under 35,000 cases. The State features many small wineries which produce less than 5,000 cases per year. In contrast, E & J Gallo Winery, the US’ largest winery, produces about 70 million cases annually. The majority of wineries in Oregon operate their own vineyards, although some purchase grapes on the market.

Like New Zealand, Oregon rode the Sideways Pinot Noir boom for several years, expanding vineyard plantings repeatedly. Now the financial crisis has hit the wine industry. Malbec from Argentina and Camenere from Chile are hot and prices are tumbling. As if weak demand and strong competitors weren't enough, the 2009 crop was a big one -- up 23% from 2008. Combined with the unsold inventory from 2008, the State faces its first significant surplus of wine in many years.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir in the US has become synonymous with the relative cool climate grape growing regions of Oregon. The reputation that gets Pinot Noir so much attention, however, is owed to the wines of the Bourgogne in France, where it has probably been cultivated since at least the 4th century. It's responsible for the great red wines from the Bourgogne, which includes Chambertin, Pommard, and Romanee-Conti, to name a few. In the Champagne region, Pinot Noir is one of the three grape varieties (along with Chardonnay and Meunier) allowed in the sparkling wine. Pinot Noir is also an important red grape in Germany. In northern Italy, Pinot Noir is known as Blauburgunder in some areas and Pinot Nero in others. Some of California's better Pinot Noir wines come from the State's cooler regions such as Carneros, the Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara.

Regardless of where it’s grown, Pinot Noir is not typically a value wine. That is so because Pinot Noir is such a delicate grape that it is difficult and expensive to grow. It is a fickle grape that demands optimum growing conditions with warm days supported by cool evenings. As the German name – Spaetburgunder - implies, it ripens late (spät). Compared with those from California, in general, the Oregon Pinot Noirs are lighter in color, fruitier in the nose and cleaner on the palate.

Ken Wright Cellars

Ken Wright Cellars was founded in 1993 and its first vintage was produced in 1994. Prior to creating Ken Wright Cellars, Ken founded Panther Creek Winery in 1986 and made wines there from 1986 through 1994. In 1993, Panther Creek was purchased by Ron and Linda Kaplan, the current owners. Current production levels are at 7500 cases of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc.

Ken Wright’s Philosophy of Winemaking

Ken really knows his stuff and he talked a lot about various aspects of wine producing while we were tasting his wines. He has been credited with leading the way in a number of areas.

Single vineyard designations: Ken is often credited with the single-vineyard movement in Oregon. Of course, a key aspect of that approach is paying attention to the soil and its characteristics. What's below ground is terribly important, Ken said at the tasting.

Fruit and leave thinning. Pinot Noir is a late ripening grape. In Germany, it is called Spaetburgunder, and “spaet” means “late. At the same time, the Jet Stream often brings detrimental rains in the fall in Oregon. Ken has therefore tried to do whatever is necessary to achieve full ripeness as early as possible. How? Dropping fruit and leave management are important.

Traditionally, excessive fruit has been cut from the vine at the point in the growing season when color changes. But Ken has been experimenting with dropping fruit earlier, so the vine doesn't put any extra energy into growing fruit that ultimately would be cut away. Removal of leaves around the fruit zone also contributes to earlier ripening of the fruit. It's a huge amount of work which is extremely expensive, Ken said, but it really pays off; you may gain 4 or 5 days of ripening.

Picture: Ken Wrigth at Cecile's

Accrage contracts: Removing so much fruit has required a major shift in thinking about purchasing grapes. To gain control over the crop yield and how the vines were managed, Ken introduced in 1988 a new business concept: acreage contracts, i.e. paying growers not by weight but by acre. The introduction of acreage contracts, believes Ken, helped start a process of elevating the quality of Oregon's wine.

Handsorting of fruit: Ken was one of the first to make hand sorting of fruit standard practice. He said he employs an almost maniacal, berry-by-berry, sorting regime.

Cold soaking of the fruit: Another innovation that Ken pioneered was cold soaking the fruit before fermentation to extract character. It used to be that winemakers, if they did any maceration at all, did it after fermentation, when alcohol was present.

The Evaporator: This is a highly controversial issue, I believe. Ken was the first Oregon vintner to use the machine to reduce the water content of the must.The evaporator works on the principle that when liquid is placed in a vacuum, the boiling point is depressed. The water begins to boil at room temperature, or around 68 degrees Farenheit. The evaporator performs only one function, removing water, Ken emphasized, it won't give you quality. That has to come from the field. And it's only useful if there is an unseasonable rain. It's a mistake to remove water from already balanced fruit, Ken said. The result is coarse, tannic, unfriendly wine.

What Ken poured and Notes from Ken

Pinot Blanc Freedom Hill 2008, Coastal Range $30

Pinot Blanc is a lighter-colored natural mutation of Pinot Gris. The source for this fruit is a one acre block of Freedom Hill Vineyard. After pressing the juice, it is fermented in one year old French barrels. The new wine remains in barrel with the original yeast and is not racked until bottling. The wine has a floral/mineral focus. 200 cases are produced.

Chardonnay Calilo 2008, Washington State, $40

This is a unique vineyard situated on a 1,000' bluff overlooking the Columbia River in the Columbia River Gorge. It lies on the south face of Mount Underwood, which is currently an inactive volcano. The soil is pulverized basalt, extremely porous and loose, which promotes deep rooting. The vineyard was planted in 1983. Unlike the Chardonnay grown in the hot eastern desert of Washington, this is a much cooler site. As a result, the fruit retains more acidity and the wine displays a clean mineral character with an expansive texture. 385 cases produced.

Pinot Noir Nysa Vineyard, 2008, Dundee Hills, $60

Vineyards planted in the Dundee Hills of the northern Willamette Valley provided the start for the modern wine industry of Oregon. These initial plantings took place in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The most common soil type of the area is described as Jory. These soils are volcanic in origin with basalt as the mother rock. They are unusually deep for hillsides, often 6 to 8 feet to bedrock. There is also a high percentage of clay in the soil which, combined with the soil depth, tends to hold moisture later into the season than other soils we work with. The wine from this region typically displays aromas of red fruits, strawberry, cherry and raspberry. The mouth feel is often rich and emollient.

The Nysa vineyard was planted in 1990 to own-rooted Pommard and Wadenswil. Located in the heart of the Dundee Hills between Domaine Drouhin and Archery Summit with a southeast to northeast inclination. Jory soil. The nose exhibits a mix of red and black fruits. The wines are forward, textural and elegant. Approximately 350 cases are produced. The vineyard is owned and managed by Michael Mega.

Pinot Noir Carter Vineyard, 2008, Ecola Hills $ 60

Located just 1 mile from Canary Hill in the Ecola Hills, Carter Vineyard is lower on the hillside yet has a leaner and less fertile soil. It is mainly Nekia soil, which is formed from weathered basic rock. It lies at an elevation of 325' and was planted in 1983. This bottling is comprised of the Wadenswil, Dijon 777, Dijon 667, Dijon 115, and Pommard clones. The wine is firmer than Canary Hill in its youth but evolves beautifully after a few years in bottle to show black fruits and fresh, healthy earth scents. Approximately 650 cases are produced. The vineyard is owned by Jack and Kathleen Carter, and managed by Mark Gould.

Pinot Noir, Meredith Mitchell Vineyard, 2008, Coastal Range $60

We source fruit from two vineyards located in the foothills of the coastal range. Both tend to be late to ripen due to the cooling influence of maritime air flowing into the valley from the Van Duzer Corridor. These sites also tend to have higher levels of tannin which make them great candidates for extending cellaring but they are unlikely to be as immediately pleasurable as many of our other sites.

The Meredith Mitchell Vineyard was planted in 1988 to own-rooted Pommard clone. The site is southwest of McMinnville in the coastal foothills. Spacing is 12’ x 6’ with an average elevation of 300’. Soils are shallow with basaltic mother rock only 20 to 30 inches below the soil surface. Consistently producing small clusters and berries this vineyard renders wine which is intense and structured, requiring a bit more aging than may of our sites. Approximately 310 cases are produced. The vineyard is owned and operated by Susan Meredith and Frank Mitchell.

Pinot Noir McCrone Vineyard, 2008, Yamhill-Carleton, $60

The vineyards of the Yamhill-Carlton District were planted mostly in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The primary soil of this area is called Willakenzie, named after the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. It is a sedimentary soil with a sandstone base rock. The sand content is quite high and the soil therefore very well drained. The sites are generally on the lower slopes of a volcanic ridge. Wines of the area possess aromas of red and black fruits, with added elements of cocoa, leather and fresh-turned earth. Acidity levels are generally lower than other regions, prompting these wines to be lush and agreeable in their youth.

Located in the Yamhill-Carlton District, the McCrone vineyard is a densely planted vineyard (1 meter x 2 meters). The sedimentary soil, know as Wellsdale, is extremely well drained and promotes early ripening. Elevation is 400' with a south-southwest inclination. Slopes are 5 to 15 degrees. Half of the vineyard was planted in 1992 to the Dijon 115 clone grafted on 3309. The second half was originally planted to Dijon Chardonnay clones but was grafted in 2000 to the Dijon 777 clone of Pinot noir. The wine from this site is powerful, dense and deeply colored focusing mainly on black fruits. Approximately 700 cases are produced. Don and Carole McCrone are the vineyard owners. Mark Gould is the vineyard manager.

To conclude, here is a nice Youtube video with Ken.

Ken Wright Cellars, Oregon, US

Cecile's Wine Cellar, Virginia, US

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  1. Just met Ken for the first time at his winery in Carlton. Highly recommend a visit and the guy has a cool 1940 1.5 ton Chevy truck

  2. Thanks for sharing the review of the new wine. As i have not tasted it. But quite interested in it.