Breaking Down Borders in Pacific Northwest Wine

A number of Oregon and Washington wineries are heading across state lines to find the best grapes, proving borders don't matter when it comes to good wine.
Columbia River Gorge, view from Women's Forum Park to Crown Point / Photo by Greg Vaughn, Alamy

No single place grows every grape variety equally well. Moreover, grapes know nothing about imaginary lines like state borders. In the Pacific Northwest, enterprising winemakers reach into neighboring states to tap great vineyard sources and craft compelling wines.

South to Oregon

For half a century, Washington’s winegrowers have been an irresistible force, consistently proving the experts wrong. Since the state began its long march toward recognition as a world-class wine region, vintners there have expanded the range of viable grapes. First, it was Riesling, then other cool-climate whites, followed by more southern reds and whites from France, Italy and Spain.

One grape, however, has proven to be an immovable object here: Pinot Noir.

One grape has proven to be an immovable object: Pinot Noir.

Decades ago, Oregon claimed Pinot Noir as its signature variety. But in Washington, it has proved vexing. With few exceptions—mostly sparkling wines or the occasional rosé—Pinot Noir has been a bust in the Columbia Valley. Nor has it thrived in western Washington, despite some 40 years of trying.

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? No fewer than a dozen Washington winemakers have taken on that challenge. Each tackles Pinot Noir in small-lot, experimental projects. The catch? They purchase and, in some instances, plant grapes in Oregon.

The importance of these projects can’t be denied. There are several top-tier winemakers behind them, and a few have even bigger plans.

John Abbott left Abeja Winery in Walla Walla to ultimately build Devona, a winery in Oregon. Chris Figgins has released several vintages of his Toil Oregon project while he continued to make Washington-based Leonetti Cellar and Figgins Family wines. He recently purchased land and planted a vineyard in the Chehalem Mountain American Viticultural Area (AVA). Mark McNeilly (Mark Ryan Winery) has debuted four wines under the brand name Megan Anne.

Five Great Oregon Vineyards Worth Knowing

David O’Reilly, who founded Oregon’s Owen Roe winery but also made Washington wines, has moved to Yakima Valley, but continues to produce a stellar lineup of Oregon Pinots. Jon Meuret (Maison Bleue), Chris Sparkman (Sparkman Cellars), Chris Dowsett (Buty) and Rob Newsom (Boudreaux) all have Oregon Pinots queued up.

For Newsom, Dowsett, Figgins and Abbott, hauling the grapes back to their facilities in Washington State can be a seven-hour drive that must be done in a single day, after the grapes are picked. For some, it is a labor of love.

“Pinot Noir was my first wine love, and it’s like seeing an old, old friend,” says Abbott. “I love its expressiveness, combined with its ability to reach flavor maturity at lower sugar levels. I also love the challenge of making it the best it can be in the toughest of vintages.”

For Figgins, the answer is a long-standing love of Oregon Pinot, going back some 15 years.

“I made small practice lots in 2010 and 2011. I started casually, and then seriously, kicking dirt and dreaming about planting a vineyard there,” he says.

That vineyard is now reality, with the first six acres planted last year. An onsite winery is also planned.

Meuret, who built a reputation focused on Rhône varieties, is also onto Pinot. He says that the transition wasn’t that difficult.

“My style of winemaking has always had a Burgundian approach to it,” he says. “In some ways, I was already producing Pinot Noir [stylistically], but in fact, I was using Grenache or Syrah.”

For Dowsett, it’s a return to his winemaking roots when he worked on the family vineyard on the old Charles Coury property (now David Hill winery). Now, with grapes from his sister’s vineyard on Pete’s Mountain, he has a rosé in limited release and a full-on Pinot Noir in the bottle for spring.

Along with the distance involved, another challenge: Federal labeling regulations do not allow Washington winemakers to use anything but Oregon as an appellation on any wines vinified in Washington.

O’Reilly, of Owen Roe, avoids that problem, as he makes his Pinots in Oregon. He says that his move into Washington has had a positive impact.

“It actually changes the mindset slightly,” he says. “If there’s any take-home message looking at producing Pinot Noir from a Washington perspective, it’s that this grape is so much more delicate than Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. We are fixated on processing cooler fruit than before, that will retain more whole berries in fermentation in order to have texture and perfume.”

Despite the challenges, these producers make excellent wines, and they put a bit of a Washington spin on Oregon grapes. The immovable object, though not entirely displaced, has at least budged. —Paul Gregutt

Selection of Oregon wines

Recommended Oregon Wines

Domaine J. Meuret 2014 Phelps Creek Vineyard Les Chênes Pinot Noir (Oregon); $45, 94 points. The second release of this Oregon Pinot project from Walla Walla’s Jon Meuret (Maison Bleue) is irresistible. From a top Columbia Gorge vineyard, it’s explosively aromatic, with a strong whiff of pipe tobacco that Meuret believes is a vineyard marker. Those powerful aromatics push into a dense core of strawberry and cherry fruit, enhanced with 16 months in 50% new 228-liter French oak. Drink now through 2028. Cellar Selection.

Megan Anne 2014 Black Love Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $70, 93 points. This reserve-level, best-barrel blend spends 16 months in 40% new oak. It’s composed of fruit from the Nysa and Lachini vineyards. The oak shows strongly at the moment, with baking spices galore that suggest ginger bread cookies, dried cherries and brown sugar. The tannins could use a bit more bottle age to soften up, but it’s built to last. Drink 2020–2030. Cellar Selection.

Owen Roe 2014 Merriman Vineyard Clandeboye Pinot Noir (Yamhill-Carlton); $85, 93 points. Though not labeled as such, this is a reserve-level effort, as noted by the special label and its overall concentration. Dense black fruits are strongly accented with flavors of espresso and baking spices. It’s a powerful wine that’s already drinking well, and should be consumed by the mid-2020s.

Toil Oregon 2015 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $50, 93 points. Young Pinot Noir can sometimes dazzle you with juicy, expressive, downright sensational fruit, and this one does. Though tasted prior to its official release, the wine drinks beautifully. It offers a big hit of citrus flesh and rind along with lovely raspberry and blueberry fruit. It’s forward, fresh, balanced tightly against its lush acidity.

Devona 2012 Freedom Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir (Oregon); $50, 92 points. The new Oregon project from John Abbott (formerly of Abeja) kicks off with this vineyard selection from a five-star vintage. A blend of fifth-leaf Pommard and 30-year-old Wädenswil clones, it’s lush and aromatic, as it sports bold scents and flavors of ripe raspberry and cherry fruit, with a spine of iron. Toasty new barrel accents punch through, with a clean, crisply defined finish.

Dowsett Family 2015 Becklin Vineyards Georgia Rose Pinot Noir (Oregon); $17, 90 points. This full-bodied rosé uses the 777 clone from a vineyard on the eastern edge of the Willamette Valley. The Dowsett family originally owned the Charles Coury property and started Laurel Ridge. This offers a lush symphony of fruits: orange, grapefruit, pineapple and peach. It’s tart, tangy, tasty and made to handle aging for an extra year or two. Editors’ Choice.

Domaine J. Meuret 2014 Phelps Creek Vineyard Les Chênes Pinot Noir (Oregon) and Pamplin 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley)
Domaine J. Meuret 2014 Phelps Creek Vineyard Les Chênes Pinot Noir (Oregon) and Pamplin 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley)

North to Washington

As numerous Oregon producers are interested in exploring Washington, so have winemakers in that state become increasingly interested to try their hand at Oregon Pinot Noir. In many respects, the two— particularly Oregon’s Willamette Valley—are complementary. While the Willamette Valley is heavily focused on Pinot Noir (though other varieties are planted), eastern Washington grows more than 40 grape varieties successfully. In fact, just about everything grows well in Washington, with the notable exception of Pinot Noir.

Sineann’s Peter Rosback makes wines from the both the Washington and Oregon sides of the Columbia Valley and Columbia Gorge, as well as Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.

At Angel Vine in Portland, Ed Fus sources fruit exclusively from Washington, with his focus largely on Zinfandel. James Frey of Trisaetum and 18401 Cellars makes Pinot Noir and Riesling from the Willamette Valley, but he also makes Cabernet and a Bordeaux-style blend from the Walla Walla Valley.

Who the hell wouldn’t want to make a Washington Cabernet? It’s sensational. —Peter Rosback

At Script Cellars, Bradford Cowin makes Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties exclusively from Washington fruit. Meanwhile, Steven Thompson from Analemma sources fruit from both the Washington side and the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge.

Why do they live in Oregon, but make wine from Washington?

“I’m trying to make wines I love from varietals I love, from where they do well,” says Rosback. “So I make Pinot Noir from Oregon and Cabernet from Washington. I think Washington is doing some of the best Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc on the face of the planet … Who the hell wouldn’t want to make Washington Cabernet? It’s sensational.”

Sound business and a love of Zinfandel inspired Fus to make wine from Washington fruit.

“I didn’t want to be just another small Pinot Noir producer,” he says.

Once Fus decided to focus on Zinfandel, Washington was a logical choice. “Oregon has some Zinfandel, but where it really does well is the hot strip between the Horse Heaven Hills and the Wahluke Slope in Washington.”

For Frey, a friendship with Chris Figgins, president of Figgins Family Wine Estates in Walla Walla, was the draw.

“We agreed to trade fruit where I send him Pinot Noir from my vineyard at Ribbon Ridge and he sends me an equal amount of fruit from his vineyards in Walla Walla,” says Frey. “Even though Pinot Noir is my first love, I thought it would be exciting and interesting to make wine from something that is completely different.”

At Script Cellars, Cowin was inspired by a love of Bordeaux-style wines. 
“I love Oregon and always wanted to make wine here,” he says. “But my first love was really Bordeaux, and those varieties are best suited to Washington. So the idea for me was always to use Washington fruit to make Cabernet, but make it here in Oregon where I wanted to make my home.”

The allure of the Columbia Gorge, an appellation that crosses state lines, spoke to Analemma’s Thompson.

“We had the opportunity to lease a compelling vineyard, Atavus, which is in Washington—that was the horse,” he says. “Then the cart was putting the winery in Mosier [Oregon], because we enjoy living in Mosier. We weren’t necessarily so state-focused as we were trying to find an exciting parcel of land in the Columbia Gorge.”

To live in Oregon and work with Washington fruit is not without its challenges. “I did 3,000 miles in a 26-foot Penske truck last harvest,” says Fus.

That isn’t as unusual as it may seem, as many Washington wineries are far removed from their vineyards.

“We are really no farther away from our vineyard sources than some Washington wineries located in Woodinville, Snohomish or Vashon,” says Art North at Pamplin Family Winery, which sources its fruit exclusively from Washington.

So, does living in the heart of Oregon Pinot Noir country affect the style of Washington wines that they make? Some of these wines seem to exhibit a different sensibility. They show a sense of restraint and also a very judicious use of oak.

Most of these winemakers say they don’t believe there’s an Oregon influence on their wines. Frey was an exception.

“18401 Cellars is a Bordeaux-style wine with an Oregon soul,” says Frey. That interstate connection goes both ways, he says. “I think making Cabernet has made me a better Pinot Noir winemaker.” —Sean P. Sullivan

Selection of Washington wines

Recommended Washington Wines

Pamplin 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $50, 93 points. Though not labeled as such, this 100% varietal hails from Red Mountain, with the fruit coming from Klipsun (64%), Scooteney Flats and Tapteil vineyards. The aromas are brooding and locked up at present, with notes of mineral, black currant, spice, pencil lead and blackberry. The fruit flavors are black as night, supported by firm but exceptionally well-integrated tannins. It will be at its best from 2023–31, but should last well beyond that. Cellar Selection.

18401 Cellars 2013 Proprietary Red (Walla Walla Valley); $75, 92 points. This is the inaugural release from this Oregon-based winery, with the fruit coming from Loess and Seven Hills vineyards. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (54%), Merlot (38%) and Petit Verdot, it offers aromas of pencil box, high-toned flowers, bittersweet chocolate, herbs and barrel spices. The flavors show depth and intensity as well as exquisite balance and length. Editors’ Choice.

Angel Vine 2012 Alder Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel (Columbia Valley); $24, 91 points. Coming from the Horse Heaven Hills region, this wine offers appealing aromas of cranberry, raspberry fruit leather, red currant and spice, all displaying a fine sense of purity. The tart fruit flavors are broad and generous, but stay in balance. Editors’ Choice.

Script 2012 Stage Right Cabernet Franc (Columbia Valley); $45, 91 points. Hailing principally from Two Blondes Vineyard, the aromas of cocoa, savory herbs, pencil shavings, anise and spice are followed by fruit flavors so soft and plush you just want to sink into them. The finish lingers. It explores the variety’s more savory side.

Wondrous 2013 Red I.Q. (Columbia Valley); $14, 91 points. This blend features Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot primarily, and comes from some top-quality vineyards that seldom see at a wine at this price, including Seven Hills, Canoe Ridge, Wallula, Tapteil and Champoux. Aromas of herb, berry, cherry and toasty spices give way to high-quality fruit that has seen a lot of love and care. It’s a big-time winner at this price. Best Buy.

Analemma 2012 Blanc de Noir Sparkling Wine Atavus Vineyard Pinot Noir (Columbia Gorge); $59, 90 points. Tantalizing aromas of toast, yeast, raspberry and freshly sliced green apple give way to fresh and tart lemony flavors. It brings a real sense of freshness and vibrancy that runs from head to tail, with smoky notes on the finish.

Published on March 22, 2017
Topics: New World Wine


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