Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Riesling Guru and a Killer Guitarist cum Cult Winemaker: Ernst Loosen and Jay Somers and their J. Christopher Winery in Newberg, Oregon

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with Jay Somers in Portland, OR, and Ernst Loosen in Washington DC

The J. Christopher Winery is located in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, a beautiful growing region of more than 100 square miles in Oregon, located just 19 miles from Portland and 45 miles from the coast. It is a new joint venture of Germany’s Riesling Guru Ernst Loosen and the Oregon cult winemaker Jay Somers. J. Christopher Wines specializes in Pinot Noir made in the traditional style of Burgundy; the winery also produces Sauvignon Blanc modeled after the great wines of Sancerre.

My visit in June 2011 consisted of 2 parts: I had a couple of drinks with Jay Somers at the White Eagle Saloon in Portland; Jay Somers is the lead guitarist of Poncho Luxurio, a rock, jazz, funk band and Poncho Luxurio performed that night there. When I went to the new winery a few days later, Jay was travelling and Tim Malone, Jay’s collaborator, showed me around and tasted the wines with me.

The Wines of Oregon

J. Christopher Winery is located 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.

Picture: Oregon's Wine Regions

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.

The Killer Guitarist Jay Somers and Poncho Luxurio

Jay Somers wanted to be a rock star. Instead, he has become a famous winemaker, but still plays lead guitar for the Portland band Poncho Luxurio. He also has quite a collection of guitars, he told me. I was fortunate enough that Poncho Luxurio performed at the White Eagle Saloon in Portland, Oregon, while I was in the area. Poncho Luxurio lays down funky, bluesy, and jazzy jams, bringing to mind masters like The Meters, Galactic, Grey Boy All-Stars, Nina Simone, Rufus, and Stevie Wonder. Formed in 2005, Poncho Luxurio plays at Portland's top clubs like the White Eagle Saloon.

Pictures: Jay Somer's Poncho Luxurio at Portland's White Eagle Saloon

I knew that Jay Somers was a winemaker extraordinaire. But now I also know that he is a killer guitarist, too.

The Cult Winemaker Jay Somers and J. Christopher Wines: The Early Years

Jay has a degree in philosophy and initially made beer. But Jay developed a passion for wine and got out of the beer business. In the years leading up to the launch of his own winery, Jay had the fortune to work with Don Kautzner at Adelsheim Vineyard in Oregon, Neil McCallum at Dry Creek Vineyard in New Zealand, and John Paul at Cameron Winery in Oregon. From Don, he learned that it was possible to make Burgundian-style Pinots in Oregon. Through Neil, he gained a passion for white wines. In his five years at Cameron, Jay adopted an Old World style of vineyard management and winemaking — a style that resulted in wines that tasted more like the Burgundies he loved to drink. With John’s encouragement, he bottled his first J. Christopher vintage in 1996, using the Cameron facility and fruit purchased from the neighboring Charlie’s vineyard. His first vintage, like many to follow, sold out in less than a week.

After Jay’s third vintage of J. Christopher, Jay spent the next 11 years making J. Christopher alongside Holloran Vineyard Wines at the Holloran facility in the Willamette Valley. Here, he continued to develop his Burgundian winemaking style: “Don’t force the vineyard, don’t irrigate the crap out of it, don’t spray a bunch of chemicals on it, and do all the hand labor right.”

Riesling Guru Ernst Loosen

Ernst Loosen is the owner of Weingut Dr. Loosen, located just outside Bernkastel in the Mosel wine region, which is with a 130,000 annual bottle production one of the larger producers in the Mosel region. It is particularly known for the quality of the Rieslings and won the "Riesling of the Year" of the German wine magazine Der Feinschmecker in 1989. In 2001, the Gault Millau Weinguide named Ernst Loosen as the German winemaker of the year.

Ernst is not only a star in Germany, but also in the US. Only two German wines made it last year to the Top 100 wines of the Wine Spectator. One of them was Dr. Loosen’s Dr. L, a wine that is a big success in the US. In Germany, Ernst Loosen is also the owner of Weingut J.L.Wolf in the Pfalz region, where he makes, inter alia, Pinot Noir.

The joint venture with Jay Somers is not his first project in the US. He has been making wine now for many years in Washington State: Eroica, a Riesling, also a joint venture (with the Washington State giant with Chateau Ste. Michelle).

Assistant Winemaker Tim Malone

Tim has worked in the wine industry for 10 years, and has been part of the J. Christopher team since 2006. An artist through and through, he oversees the production of the wine, from grape to bottle. Asked what he loves most about his work, Tim said, “What’s not to love?” He genuinely enjoys the entire process. Outside of the winery, Tim indulges several other artistic pursuits. Like Jay he is a talented musician. A graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Tim teaches and plays bass guitar with numerous people around Portland.

J. Christopher Winery

Jay Somers and Ernst Loosen met years ago, and quickly realized that they shared a similar taste and passion for Pinot Noir. Their friendship led to a partnership (Loosen Christopher Wines LLC) and in 2010, they began building a winery and vineyard. As winemaker for the joint venture, Jay is in charge of all winery operations. Ernst, based in Germany, sees his role as that of an investor who both supports the growth of the brand and broadens the winery’s exposure to Old World ideas and techniques.

Pictures: The J. Christopher Winery under Construction

Loosen Christopher Wines LLC produces wines under the J. Christopher brand. The venture purchased a 40-acre property for a new vineyard and J. Christopher Winery on Hillside Drive in Newberg, Oregon. Planting of the first block of Pinot Noir began last year. The first phase of the winery construction, the barrel cellar construction, occurred before the 2010 harvest. When I visited the winery with Tim Malone, the Phase II construction had just begun. At full build-out, the winery will have a production capacity of 8000 cases of Pinot Noir and 2000 cases of Sauvignon Blanc and other white wines.

The new winery has a lot of interesting features: Underground caves built using insulated concrete arches set into a north-facing slope help maintain natural cool temperatures and great humidity, allowing the wine to be held in barrels with very little evaporation loss and eliminating the energy use of artificial heating, cooling and humidification. “The caves naturally maintain a constant temperature between 52 and 60 degrees all year without any artificial heating or cooling,” said Tim Malone. “If they were above-ground, we’d be running heat and humidifiers constantly all winter and AC in the summer.”

Picture: Assistant Winemaker Tim Malone in the Underground Caves

Solar panels on the roof of the barrel cellar have generated power credits (meaning that the winery is making more energy than it’s using) since they were installed. Use of fluorescent bulbs throughout the winery add to the energy savings.

Picture: The J. Christopher Winery under Construction

The winery’s adjoining Appassionata Vineyard will be dry farmed (no irrigation). Dry farming techniques establish the vines early and then give them as little water as possible so they grow deep roots to find the water they need. “The complexity of terroir is in the deep soil,” said Jay. “Dry farming makes the vines express the full depth of that terroir and it absolutely shows up in the wine. By contrast, irrigated vineyards produce the wine equivalent of hydroponic tomatoes.” Tim said that using biodynamic principles, the vines are cared for without the use of pesticides or herbicides. Natural compounds such as sulfur are used to control mildew, compost teas promote beneficial microbes and earthworms, and weed control is all manual with native flowers encouraged to grow between the rows.

Most vineyards typically use endposts for the rows that are made of metal or chemically treated wood. Appassionata Vineyard’s endposts are made from recycled juniper, an invasive non-native plant that conservation efforts are working to eradicate from Eastern Oregon. Naturally resistant to rot, the recycled juniper endposts require no chemicals or preservatives.

Waste from the winemaking process is all recycled. Spent grapes are composted and a process wastewater disposal system metabolizes the water and drips it into the soil at a low rate so it doesn’t get into the aquifer.

In designing and building the winery, every possible care is being taken to preserve wildlife and natural plants. The property has many old oak trees, some over 100 years old that have been carefully preserved. One five-acre piece with a pond has been left untouched as a protected wildlife corridor. Perhaps the most interesting J. Christopher “save” is an old dead tree that had to make way for the new vineyard. Home to a large, long-established honey bee colony, the dead tree was carefully moved to the wildlife area and is being overseen by a professional beekeeper. “The bees are doing great,” Jay said.

What Tim Poured

We tasted a couple of wines.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller and Tim Malone Tasting

2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Croft Vineyard: An intense, single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc sourced from an excellent, organically farmed site in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Cases: 130. Retail: $20.

2009 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley: A classic Oregon Pinot, blended from excellent vineyards in the Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains and Eola Hills AVAs. Cases: 1,500. Retail: $25.

2009 Pinot Noir, “Nuages”: A very engaging, fine, focused, full-impact blend from two excellent vineyards in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. Cases: 170. Retail: $35.

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1 comment:

  1. That's a pretty cool winery! And a great report! Cheers