“It is important to understand that each vintage is different, interesting, and worth thinking about. There is no reason to avoid a vintage. It is important to embrace the vintage and understand why a glass of wine can be interesting in each particular year.” – David Millman
Fifth Annual Auction Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir will be taking center stage this April for Willamette Valley’s Fifth Annual Pinot Noir Auction, held at The Allison Inn, Newberg, Oregon. This exciting event will host top wine trade and media on April 3rd & 4th with Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the 2018 vintage. 2018 is considered to be a stellar vintage that was textbook perfect, a vintage that is worthy of all the hype.
The Pinot Noir Auction is hosted by wineries from the Willamette Valley, some who are the founding fathers of the region, as well as many new, up and coming wineries. It will be a celebratory event with the top wine trade and media participating over two days of seminars, dinners, auction and gala events. The wines made for the auction are extremely rare and not available anywhere else in the world. In the small Willamette Valley, there is a range of expressions of Pinot Noir and this auction will highlight the many variations and styles.
The auction will feature over 90 lots of wine produced exclusively for this event. All the wines are from the 2018 vintage, which is considered to be the “goldilocks” vintage. 2018 had an early bud break, a comfortably warm spring, and cool summer evenings. The stellar vintage was heightened by a “cool” final ripening. There will be 87 lots of Pinot Noir and 7 unique lots of Chardonnay made by past and present auction chairs, in collaboration with winemakers from the region. The Pinot Noir Auction will be an event that is unique and exceptional. It’s an opportunity to celebrate Willamette Valley and its world-class Pinot Noirs.
This year Domaine Drouhin Oregon’s Managing Director, David Millman is the Auction Chair. David has played an integral role in promoting Willamette Valley wines throughout the world. Before joining the wine world, David spent 20 years in the music industry, with his PR firm. “This is an incredibly exciting moment for Willamette Pinot Noir,” said Millman. “Interest has never been higher, and this Auction is a dream opportunity to come, meet the producers, understand the 2018 vintage and see the very best Willamette has to offer.”
Willamette Valley Auction Seminar & Tasting in NYC
David Millman was in New York City, promoting the Willamette Valley Auction along with André Hueston Mack(sommelier, winemaker, restauranteur, and author). For André winemaking had always been a dream, and it all came to fruition in 2007 with the founding of Maison Noir Wines in Willamette Valley. In addition to being a winemaker, André is a restauranteur, having recently opened an American charcuterie bar, & Sons in Brooklyn with only 20 seats. & Sons is a wine bar, with all American charcuterie, all American cheese, and all American wine, with a focus on wines from the 70s, ’80s, and ’90s. 90% of the list is old American wines.
Both David & Andre’s mission was to showcase the best of Willamette Valley. We had a deep and thorough tasting of 16 wines, from vintages that were rainy and challenging (1997, 2007, 2013) alongside vintages that were bright, sunny and ideal(2014, 2016, 2017). The premise being rain or shine, each vintage has its unique differences, and with time each vintage has shown that Willamette wines are highly age-worthy. David says, “It is important to understand that each vintage is different, interesting, and worth thinking about. There is no reason to avoid a vintage, but to embrace the vintage and understand why a glass of wine can be interesting in each particular year.”
What made the tasting especially interesting, were the memories and stories recollected by David and André. There is a sense of place and time with each vintage and with each bottle produced.
1997 – The Last of the Three Rainy Vintages
The first wine we tasted was the 1997 Eyrie Estate Pinot Gris. While we sipped this incredibly special wine, David told us the story of how the 1997 vintage lured Jason Lett back to Williamette Valley. 1997 was a momentous vintage for Jason, as it was the year that he decided to come back to the Oregon Wine Industry. David’s father was short-handed that year and Jason had a break in his funding at the University of New Mexico. Jason decided to take a month off from sunny New Mexico and come up to Oregon to run the vineyard site during harvest, while his dad handled winemaking. He recalls that 1997 started fairly warm and August was even warmer. September brought a couple of inches of rain, which he recalls was typical for Beaune, but was unexpected for Oregon, October brought more rain, nearly three inches early in the month. Jason recalls how challenging this was as he spent lots of time in the mud to keep the fruits dry and clean. Their equipment was old, making harvest difficult. Jason remembers hauling every box without breaking anything. He looks back and reflects, and realizes that he enjoyed every minute of it, so he asked his dad to come back as a full-time vineyard manager. He and his wife then moved back to Oregon.
Eyrie Vineyards was found in 1965 by Jason’s father, David Lett. David was one of the pioneering founders of the Willamette Valley which earned him the nickname “Papa Pinot”. The 1997 Pinot Gris we tasted was from the first plantings of Pinot Gris in the United States. The 1997 Eyrie Estate Pinot Gris was exceptional. Many don’t think of Pinot Gris as super long-lived, but this Pinot Gris is a pristine example of how there are always exceptions to the rule. It is a wine with wonderful viscosity and texture with notes of almond and honey. Josh Reynolds has said in the past, “Eyrie wines get younger in the bottle”.
Challenging Vintages – 2007 and 2013
We started with three wines from 2007, which according to David Millman, “was a vintage that stands out, not just for the wines, but also for the stories around the wines”. 2007 was a challenging year for Oregon. A series of rain progressed across the vineyards, delaying harvest. When André Hueston Mack arrived in Willamette Valley in 2007, it was his first vintage. He assumed that it was a normal vintage, and this is how it is, but he realized that it got easier as time went on. David recalls that 2007 is historically an interesting vintage not just for the climate, but it was the year that the Evening Land Project started, where big-name sommeliers and winemakers came out to Willamette Valley to produce wine(Raj Parr, Shashi Moorman, Ben DiCristina).
At the beginning of the 2007 harvest, there was rain. No one in Burgundy or Oregon is scared of rain, but news reports about rain and Willamette’s harvest were overblown. Many in the media were saying, that it was time to build an arc. Melodramatic media reports made the vintage a very tough year to sell. Initial reports hinted that 2007 was going to be a disastrous vintage.
David recalls it wasn’t a fun vintage, but winemakers were happy with the quality of the wine. The rain just seemed part of the course, part of what they do. The media had exaggerated the effects of the rain. David recalls that many of his friends in California were sympathetic about the weather in Willamette that year, but he recalls that it wasn’t as bad of a vintage. When 2007 came out, it took a lot of effort to sell the wines. Three years later when people started drinking the wines, they loved them and wanted more. The reputation had flipped, and now it is a vintage to hunt for. The wines were from a cool climate vintage, resulting in lower alcohol, which had freshness and energy. A few years later, the 2007 wines evolved beautifully in the bottle.
The first wine we tried, The Bethel Heights Southeast Block Pinot Noir 2007 had nice freshness with lots of black fruit. It had notes of wild sage, herbs and bright cherries. The second wine, the 2007 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Laurène Pinot Noir is named after Véronique Drouhin’s elder daughter, Laurène. It is Domaine Drouhin Oregon’s flagship wine. It was fresh and elegant with a wonderful purity of fruit. The 2007 Mouton Noir ‘Faux Originale’ Pinot Noir was earthy and complex. The vines are grown on volcanic soils, and so the Pinot Noir exhibited nice minerality. The three wines triumphantly exhibited the age-ability of Willamette Pinot Noir, despite challenging conditions.
2013 another rainy vintage, which followed the hallmark vintage of 2012. Some say 2012 produced some of the most beautiful fruits that Oregon has ever seen. It was an easy vintage, and it seemed 2013 was starting similarly with a fairly warm August. Winemakers had thoughts of picking early, but that did not happen. Massive storms and rains hit, bringing up to 5 inches of rain which were remnants from a typhoon that had hit Japan.
There was nothing winemakers could do, but simply wait it out. It was a year, where you had to be highly selective. Grapes underwent stringent picking and only half as much wine was made. Despite the heavy rains, the three wines we tasted(Bethel Heights, Langhe Reserve, and Domaine Drouhin) were light and fresh with nice acidity and brightness.
2013 made for another year of interesting stories as several new wineries started in Oregon. Many winemakers in Burgundy were interested in Oregon. Due to the devastating hailstorms in Burgundy, several promienent producers(Maison Louis Jadot, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, to name just a few) came to Oregon to make wines. It was a year of many cross-currents between Oregon and Burgundy.
Bright Sunny Vintages – 2014 and 2016
2014 was a vintage everyone was excited about. It was a warm sunny vintage and winemakers loved the quality of the fruit. André says this vintage was his opportunity to shine and make great wine. He had a very specific style of wine he wanted to produce, so he picked early. It was a year that surprised many winemakers as harvest came much earlier. At Drouhin, David saw much bigger yields. The vintage had beautiful abundant fruit. The Drouhin’s were going through three vintages of hail, so they were excited by the abundance of the vintage.
The three 2016s we tasted were all past Willamette Valley Auction Wines. 2016 was an excellent classic vintage that was fruit-forward. André noted that in 2007 his label was Mouton Noir, but he had been in a legal battle with Mouton Rothchild for many years over the name. In 2016, he changed the name of his winery to Maison Noir. He named this particular Cuvee “Lamb of God”, as a proverbial middle finger to all the nonsense he had encountered in his legal battles. Forcibly he changed the name from Mouton Noir to Maison Noir, as was evident on the 2016 bottle.
With the Pinot Noir Auction, André submits 20 cases. They are one of the rare larger lots. This has always been a fun project for André. His wines are not single vineyards, but rather a blend of a few great vineyard sites. As we tasted the 2016, it was more perfumed and more fruit-forward than the prior vintages we tasted. The aromas popped out of the glass, which is representative of the vintage, not overripe but balanced. The 2016 Drouhin Oregon Roserock Cuvée DG Pinot Noir Auction Lot was denser than 2014 and will age gracefully for years to come. The 2016 Sokol Blosser Winery Founder Cuvée Pinot Noir Auction Lot has power and structure, exhibiting nice berry notes and bright acidity,
This year, for the Fifth Annual Pinot Noir Auction, David will be collaborating with Jason Lett from Eyrie Estate to make a Chardonnay lot specifically for the auction. David explains that Oregon Chardonnay is a nice companion to Oregon Pinot Noir. For the Drouhin’s, Chardonnay is just as important as Pinot Noir and has always been a part of their success story. André made his first Chardonnay in 2010 for Maison Noir from one single vineyard that was planted back in 1985. He makes only four barrels and is still a small production project.
Willamette Valley Chardonnay’s are the ones to watch out for. During last year’s auction, some of the Chardonnay lots commanded higher prices than the Pinot Noir. This could simply be because the Chardonnays were offered in smaller quantities by prestigious and reputable winemakers, but there is shift occurring in Oregon. Winemakers have traditionally focused on Pinot Noir, but the tides are changing and there is a newfound focus on Chardonnay by some of the most talented winemakers in Willamette Valley. Across the United States there has been a shift from rich, oaky Chardonnays to leaner, brighter, and fresher styles like those of the Willamette Valley. For a multitude of factors, demand for Willamette Valley Chardonnay is on the rise.