Unless you live in Oregon, or visit the Willamette Valley, getting a handle on the region’s best wines and producers is akin to controlling rabbits. They’re small, elusive and tend to proliferate rapidly. But there’s a shortcut to many of the top bottles: Know the vineyards from which they’re sourced.
Not many parcels have the production capacity and quality to attract winemakers who seek the best grapes. Their names pop up repeatedly as vineyard designates. When highly rated producers designate a vineyard frequently, it’s a blinking signpost for quality.
Of course, many outstanding vineyards are estate-owned, but here, the focus is on those that are significant sellers of grapes, even if they also provide fruit to an estate winery.
The five vineyards profiled here are a good starting point. They’re geographically diverse, well established and, in many respects, still pioneers. Maybe, like Momtazi, they are expanding the reaches of biodynamic farming. Or, perhaps they’ve given rise to substantial plantings in a previously unexplored subregion, like Freedom Hill. Shea has focused almost exclusively on Pinot Noir, while Temperance Hill and Zenith are growing a range of varieties, expanding beyond the Pinot trilogy. All exemplify the top tier in Oregon viticulture.
AVA: Eola-Amity Hills
Elevation: 280–330 feet
Planted: 83 acres
Grapes: 79% Pinot Noir, 8% Pinot Gris, 4% Auxerrois, 4% Chardonnay, 4% Tempranillo, 1% Pinot Blanc
Flavors: These are pretty, ageworthy, finessed wines with great natural acidity
Principal Clients: Adelsheim, Broadley, Domaine Nicolas-Jay, Grochau, Ponzi, Soter, St. Innocent
Ecology: “We are pragmatic organic. We try to be organic in most vineyard practices. For example, we don’t use herbicides. Rather, we use in-row cultivation.” —Tim Ramey
Weddings and wine grapes are the calling cards at Zenith, whose business model is derived from the backgrounds and interests of owners Tim and Kari Ramey. Originally planted in the early 1980s, it was known as the O’Connor vineyard until the Rameys purchased it in 2002. Replanting of the phylloxera-struck vines began the following year.
Tim Ramey was (and still is) a financial analyst following the food and beverage sector. When the Mondavi winery went public, he began providing coverage on wine stocks. His background may not have helped him purchase the right tractor, he jokes, but it provided insights in entering a field notorious for chewing up funding.
“It informed my view of where the industry was, and where it was going,” he says. It didn’t hurt, he adds, that wineries often give visiting analysts the red-carpet treatment.
In early 2006, the Rameys partnered with St. Innocent’s Mark Vlossak to create Zenith Vineyard LLC. Vlossak had no estate vineyards, and he needed a reliable fruit source. With a background in commercial property management, interior design and catering, Kari Ramey wanted to set up an events business along with the vineyard, and she needed a winery partner.
“I knew I was not going to be a winemaker,” says Tim. “Managing a vineyard is process-oriented. Making wine is art—not a skill set I felt I had. I could do the vineyard management part. Mark wanted fruit forever. So he could choose his block, and [he could] plant and manage it any way he wished.”
The mantra at Zenith is quality at all costs. Tim credits Pedro Martinez, who has worked the property since he was 16, as his “built-in knowledge base for the vineyard. If I’m telling him what I want him to do, I’m just distracting him from what he knows he’s going to do. There isn’t anything we won’t do to preserve quality. We often hear that Zenith is the cleanest fruit our winemakers get.”
As with all the vineyards profiled here, that client list is exceptional. “I love wine,” says Tim. “So who’s going to make interesting stuff from my vineyard? I’m interested in their story, the paint box that they bring to the wine. That makes for great long-term relationships.”
Elevation: 192–783 feet
Planted: 260 acres
Grapes: 86% Pinot Noir, 8% Pinot Gris, 4% Pinot Blanc, 2% Riesling
Flavors: Dark-fruited, somewhat earthy, with roasted spices
Principal Clients: Brick House, Chapter 24, Fullerton, Jasper Sisco, Joe Dobbes, Kelley Fox, St. Innocent, Willamette Valley Vineyards
Ecology: “We practice holistic farming, employing practices from biodynamic agriculture. We believe that healthy soil and healthy vines will produce superior grapes, without the need for man-made chemicals and poisons.” —Moe Momtazi
Opinions differ on the value of biodynamic viticulture, but not the hard work it requires. Riding with Moe Momtazi around his steeply sloped 532-acre property, it’s easy to see some parcels with missing or damaged vines. It’s a lack of compost, he says, pointing out massive mounds of it still cooking in a large shed. Pointing at a parched patch of nutrient-starved vines, he promises by next year, they’ll flourish.
There’s little reason to doubt him, as the bulk of his 260 planted acres are thriving. When Momtazi purchased the abandoned wheat farm in 1997, it had sat idle for seven years. The early work went into building roads, fences and infrastructure. In 1998, he planted the first 13 acres of vines.
“Initially, we started organic farming, but I soon realized it didn’t satisfy me, with all the big companies watering down the rules and regulations for organic,” he says. “So we very quickly switched to biodynamic.”
Momtazi bristles a bit when questioned about the validity of biodynamics, but warms when talk shifts to his grandfather, whom he describes as “a purist who didn’t like anything grown artificially.”
The family lived in the Iranian city of Shiraz, and made wine from the red Shahani grape. “One thing we had in the old country was natural farming,” says Momtazi. “You put back into nature what you take out of it, in a natural way, using things that nature provides.”
During the vineyard’s early development, some consultants were convinced that ripening fruit would be difficult or impossible at the higher elevations. Dijon clones, which ripen earlier, proved the solution.
Even today, the landscape around the vines is wild, littered with old groves and diverse insect life, including rare species of butterflies. A variety of herbs and flowers like chamomile, dandelion, yarrow, valerian, horsetail and stinging nettle are made into homeopathic “teas” that are sprayed on the foliage or injected through the irrigation line to the root system.
Over the years, Momtazi says, “the soil color and fluffiness have changed drastically. We do not import any kind of fertilizer. Everything comes from within our own farm.”
Some clients purchase grapes for these reasons; others simply like the fruit. Either way, says Momtazi, “my goal is to prove to other people that there are really good ways to farm without contaminating our air and soil and water.”
Elevation: 375–620 feet
Planted: 140 acres
Grapes: 97.5% Pinot Noir, 2.5% Chardonnay
Flavors: Spicy and floral, with full-bodied blue and black fruits
Principal Clients: Antica Terra, Archery Summit, Bergström, Boedecker, Broadley, Chapter 24, Elk Cove, Ken Wright, Penner-Ash, Purple Hands, Raptor Ridge, Rex Hill, Stevenson-Barrie, St. Innocent, Winderlea
Ecology: “For 10 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Security Program [has] rated participating farms as to environmental good practices. Of those having good practices, about 5% were rated as having best practices. We were rated in the best practices group every year.” —Dick Shea
Not only does an all-star lineup of winemakers purchase Shea vineyard fruit, but many have also plied their trade for the Shea winery: Ken Wright in 1999 and 2000, Patty Green in 2001, Sam Tannahill (now at Rex Hill) from 2002–04, Chris Mazepink (now at Archery Summit) from 2004–07 and Drew Voight from 2008–11. New Zealander Blair Trathen has done so since 2012.
Dick Shea spent 25 years on Wall Street, mostly on the trading floor for Dillon Read, owned by the Dillon family of Château Haut-Brion fame. It was those years that served as his introduction to fine wine, which led to a love affair with Oregon Pinot Noir.
So when he set out to establish his own vineyard, it was well-grounded from a business standpoint. In fact, Zenith’s Tim Ramey gives Shea full credit for building “an interesting business model.”“We stole liberally from him, staying focused on quality and seeking out quality winemakers,” says Ramey.
Planting at Shea began almost immediately in what had been fallow pastureland, and was finished in just two years. The first grapes were harvested in 1989, and the winery, which now takes about one-quarter of the yield, debuted in 1996. As elsewhere, phylloxera turned up in 1995, when an additional 40 acres were purchased. Subsequent replanting eliminated all but two small blocks of Chardonnay. The rest is Pinot Noir, a mix of Pommard, Wädenswil and Dijon clones 114, 115 and 777.
“We’re not trying to make the same wine every year, but rather, to bring out the best that each vintage allows,” says Shea. He was speaking of his own winery, though the same thoughts would likely apply to his customer list. “Essentially, we are trying to turn great fruit into great wine.”
In November 2015, Dick and Deirdre Shea hosted a retrospective wine tasting that included Shea winery and Shea-designate wines from as far back as 2003. Tasting through 18 wines, from eight vintages and nine wineries, it becomes clear that, no matter the producer or how challenging the vintage (2010 and 2011 were no picnics), the quality is consistently high. The majority of the wines are built to age for a decade or more.
“We did not plan on this being a new career, but that is what it became,” says Shea. With his son, Peter, now part of the team, 85 additional acres adjacent to the existing property have recently been acquired. Planting will begin next spring. Customers are already lining up.
AVA: Eola-Amity Hills
Elevation: 650–890 feet
Planted: 97 acres
Grapes: 89% Pinot Noir, 4% Pinot Gris, 4% Gewürztraminer, 3% Chardonnay
Flavors: Assertive spices and exotic aromatics
Principal Clients: Adelsheim, Antica Terra, Bergström, Brooks, Chapter 24, Division, Elizabeth Chambers, Elk Cove, Evesham Wood, J.K. Carriere, Lange, Lavinea, Lumos, Nicolas-Jay, Portland Wine Company, Public Road, Raptor Ridge, Sparkman, St. Innocent, Union Wine Company, Walter Scott
Ecology: “Temperance Hill Vineyard is a certified organic site set in and around the caldera of an ancient volcano. It is farmed in accordance with Oregon Tilth organic standards, and Food Alliance and Salmon Safe certified.” —Dai Crisp
Mark Vlossak’s St. Innocent winery purchases grapes and designates wines from all five of the vineyards profiled here.
“Temperance Hill is our coolest, and therefore, latest-ripening vineyard,” Vlossak says. “Managed by Dai Crisp, one of Oregon’s great grape growers, it’s farmed organically. It is the highest vineyard producing fruit in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA.”
Crisp is as respected as any grower in the state. An unassuming man with an obvious love for his work, he farms for an all-star client list, 80 percent of which makes vineyard designates from Temperance Hill grapes. He also has his own Lumos Wine Company, producing small-lot wines from Temperance Hill and two other sites.
Originally bound for a career in theater, he began to miss the farm where he’d been raised. He found that he no longer wanted to move to a big city to look for acting jobs.
“So in 1986, I helped plant vineyards in the South Willamette Valley, and learned every job,” he says. “I was hired to run Croft [from 1989–97], then WillaKenzie for a year. Then in 1999, I started here at Temperance.”
Viticultural practices at Temperance Hill emphasize a natural approach. Its vines carpet a stunningly beautiful site, with eagle’s nest views and multiple aspects. The oldest vines date to the early 1980s, though phylloxera is slowly taking them out. Crisp coddles them. He believes that the roots of older vines host mycorrhizal (symbiotic) fungi that can bring in nutrients via enzymatic processes that a plant cannot on its own.
“For example, it helps plants get phosphorous, along with a multitude of nutrition,” says Crisp. “It takes years to get a substantial root system and to become fully populated with fungi.“I think that’s a big component of vine age, and contributes to the diversity of flavor from mature vines. Young vines are fruit-forward without much complexity. Old vines give more depth, flavor and complexity.”
Bordered on two sides by Bethel Heights and Cristom, the vineyard’s elevation and varied slopes provide great diversity for its clients.
“Each block is unique and every winemaker’s style is different,” he says. What’s evident is that for each of these winemakers, Temperance Hill grapes occupy the highest rung of the quality ladder.
AVA: Willamette Valley
Elevation: 350–600 feet
Planted: 88 acres
Grapes: 76% Pinot Noir, 16% Chardonnay, 7% Pinot Blanc, 1% Tempranillo
Flavors: Dark, muscular, somewhat tannic
Principal Clients: The main clients are Lange, Ken Wright, Patty Green and St. Innocent; others are Cana’s Feast, D’Anu, Devona, Evesham Wood, King Estate, Purple Hands, Stevenson-Barrie and Walter Scott.
Ecology: “We practice integrated pest management as a farming philosophy that limits inputs in response to pests, while coming as close as we can to guaranteeing the wineries clean and solid fruit and predictable tonnage.” —Dan Dusschee
Freedom Hill is set in the foothills of the Oregon coast range, five miles northwest of Monmouth. Its three parcels were pieced together between 1981–84. At the time, Dan and Helen Dusschee (pronounced doo-SHAY) lived in Salem. The two worked in the court system, and sought to try their hand at grape growing.
“This [property] was way far out in the hinterlands,” Dan says. “The whole valley was in prunes. We researched elevation, exposure, drainage, all the usual things.”
The Dusschees jumped in headfirst. They planted the initial 13 acres of Pinot Noir immediately, and picked the first grapes in 1985. Sixty cases of that fruit were vinified up the road at Bethel Heights Vineyard’s winery.
The 1985 vintage was one of the decade’s best. Using those sample bottles as a marketing tool, they found buyers immediately: Ken Wright (then at Panther Creek), Amity, Arterberry and Erath.
“We knew nothing about farming,” says Dan, with modesty. “We didn’t know how to make a straight line in a row. How do you drive a tractor? How big a tractor do you need? We were fortunate that there were a lot of people like us, who also didn’t know anything. We all banded together, held weekly meetings, started tasting groups. The entire industry could meet in one room.”
That’s the romantic side of the story. Reality was a bit more challenging.
“It was not the good ol’ days,” says Dan. “It was a challenge. We’re on a well. We’re from the city. The well runs dry if you don’t manage your usage. So we ran out of water. You learn from experience, and from other people’s experiences.”
In 1995, phylloxera was confirmed in the vineyard. Dustin Dusschee, the son of Dan and Helen who now runs Freedom Hill, was a child at the time.
“[My parents] built it up for 10 years, and then it all went away,” he says simply. “There were some lean years in the early 2000s. Very stressful, but it came out better.”
The next decade was devoted to replanting and expanding, until the last self-rooted vines were replaced in 2007.
“We changed everything—spacing, trellising, row orientation,” says Dustin. Today, their once-remote neighborhood hosts Amalie Robert Estate, Illahe Vineyards and the Croft, Firesteed and Fern Creek Vineyards. Transitioning to the next generation (Dustin and his sister, McKenzie, who does the books and social media), Dan and Helen are in what they call their “legacy phase.”
“We are almost all planted out,” says Dustin. “This isn’t broken. It doesn’t need fixing, just maintaining.”
“We’re stewards,” says Dan. “This land will produce the kinds of wines that it does, and we don’t want to mess it up.”