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Oregon’s Cutting-Edge Winemakers

The current generation of Oregon winemakers is moving the state’s viticulture in splendid new directions. While Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris still account for almost 75% of Oregon’s production, impressive growth is afoot for the state’s other top grapes—Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Interest is also on the rise for other varieties, such as Riesling and Tempranillo.

But this progress stretches beyond mere grape choice. The state’s pioneers had an “anything goes” philosophy, and today’s game-changing winemakers continue to embrace such thinking. They’re shattering any notion that Oregon is a one-trick wine pony, experimenting with diverse clones, sustainable farming and natural fermentation practices.

Leah Jørgensen is exploring the many possibilities of Cabernet Franc. Herb Quady showcases southern Oregon Viognier and Syrah. Isabelle Meunier shines a spotlight on Willamette Valley subregions. John House and Ksenija Kostic House tackle cool-climate whites, while consulting winemaker Drew Voit has a hand in a dozen start-ups.  Each innovator has forged an exciting future of vinous variety for Oregon—and the best is yet to come.

Leah Jørgensen of Leah Jørgensen Cellars
Leah Jørgensen of Leah Jørgensen Cellars / Photo by Ezra Marcos

Leah Jørgensen

Jørgensen didn’t always know she’d become a winemaker. In college, she majored in English literature and creative writing, with minors in chemistry and anthropology.

She also received certification in holistic nutrition from The Wellspring School for Healing Arts in Portland, Oregon.

From there, she relocated to the East Coast, where she tried a variety of jobs before taking one at a wine shop in Washington, D.C. It was this position that would ultimately spark a passion and set the course for her future.

Jørgensen enrolled in wine classes and took jobs at a Virginia winery and a D.C. distributor, which scored her an invitation to attend Oregon Pinot Camp in 2004.

Jørgensen makes layered, complex wines from Southern Oregon grapes, most notably Cabernet Franc.

When seminars wrapped, she moved back to Oregon full-time and started work at iconic Pacific Northwest wineries such as Erath Winery, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Adelsheim Vineyard. She studied enology for two years at the Northwest Viticulture Center in Salem, Oregon, and later earned a degree in enology from Chemeketa Community College. Now she’s based in the Portland area, and her own brand, Leah Jørgensen Cellars, was launched in 2011.

Jørgensen makes layered, complex wines from southern Oregon grapes, most notably Cabernet Franc.

“Brand Oregon should be one that consumers can always count on for exceptional, high-quality standards,” she says.

Newly married and expecting her first child in early 2019, Jørgensen also writes a blog, Pirate Princess Diaries. She uses the outlet to explore her passions and their impact on her winemaking.

“Every winemaker has an a-ha moment,” she wrote. “Mine came about when I saw an unexpected pile of rocks in [Crater View Ranch] in the Rogue Valley. Embedded in several rocks were ancient marine shellfish, fossils and shell imprints that date back…about 250 million years ago. From this discovery, I began researching the dirt and geology of Southern Oregon.”

Not many winemakers say, “I love analyzing the nutrient availability in grape juice, and using exceptional micronutrient and trace mineral sources for my additions to feed the yeasts.” But Jørgensen means it.

“My specialty is nutrient deficiency,” she says. “I have come to understand that most wine grapes come into the winery with some form of nutrient deficiency. While this is not new news in winemaking, it was the first learning curve I had to master that has made me a more competent, confident winemaker.”

Drew Voit of Harper Voit Brand
Drew Voit of Harper Voit brand / Photo by Ezra Marcos

Drew Voit

With a résumé that includes stints at Domaine Serene and Shea Wine Cellars, Voit established a strong pedigree from which to set sail on his own. In 2012, he did just that, leaving his post at Shea to focus on a consulting winemaking business and his own Harper Voit brand.

Today, Voit is anchored at Björnson Vineyard in the heart of the Eola-Amity Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA), where he oversees the production of more than a dozen brands. This includes Five Fourteen Vineyards, Moffett Vineyards, Cramoisi Vineyard, Sylvanus Estate, Holmes Gap Vineyard and numerous startups.

He is also the winemaker for Elizabeth Chambers Cellar, consulting winemaker for Eminent Domaine and advises Dancin Vineyards.

His own brand, Harper Voit, produces around 1,400 cases annually. The portfolio includes single-vineyard Pinot Blancs, Pinot Noirs and an old-vine Riesling. He is also experimenting with a sparkling Pinot Blanc.

Voit oversees the production of more than a dozen brands across the state.

How does one person simultaneously monitor so many different projects?

“It is a lot of juggling,” says Voit. “But it’s not me doing the physical labor. I’m staring now at eight people who are good to take over if I get hit by a bus.”

Voit describes custom-crush operations as often being “an efficiency model enterprise. Make decent wines at good prices for a variety of labels.”

“A lot of custom-crush wines are at the whim of logistics and capacity,” says Voit. “I promise compromise-free, non-efficient, non-cost effective, hyper-focused winemaking.”

Vineyard sources are paramount, and Voit leans toward cooler sites. He makes the wines for Holmes Gap in the cool Van Duzer Corridor, which is expected to become an official AVA.

Another project for Sylvanus Estate offers what Voit says is “the highest level of stem lignification [when the wood ripens, hardens and turns brown] I’ve ever seen in the Willamette Valley.” This vine characteristic inspires Voit to employ significant whole-cluster fermentation to lend distinctive, earthy characteristics as well as a woody structure to the final wines.

Voit also shares grapes with Ben Casteel and Jerry Murray at a high-density, mixed-clone vineyard he leases. They each claim every third row, and employ what Voit calls “a reactive, gut-oriented approach.”

The goal is to explore three interpretations of identical genetic material. “It may take a decade or more, but there’s got to be something fascinating to learn,” he says.

John House and Ksenija Kostic House of Ovum
Ksenija Kostic and John House House of Ovum / Photo by Ezra Marcos

John House and Ksenija Kostic House

The Houses admit that to specialize in white wines may not be the most lucrative business decision. But they believe these wines maximize their low-intervention approach and allow the vintage and vineyard to shine, not the vintner.

“At Ovum, each wine is produced the same way,” says John. “If the wine smells and tastes different, it has everything to do with terroir, and little to do with the winemaker. Our hope is that, through our attention to detail and honest technique, we can produce old-fashioned wines in the modern world.”

While the Houses aspire to be invisible, their winemaking techniques and goals to coax out textural complexity in their wines are impossible to completely overlook.

Ovum’s Rieslings and Gewürztraminers are pre-soaked before fermentation; put through spontaneous fermentation in concrete egg, oval cask or barrel; and aged on the lees for eight to nine months for further complexity. They make no additions to the finished wine, other than minimal sulfur dioxide.

“I’m lucky to have worked with some of the most respected and technical winemakers in Oregon,” says Ksenija, though the couple shares winemaking responsibilities at Ovum.

While the Houses aspire to be invisible, their winemaking techniques are impossible to completely overlook.

She cautions that over-reliance on technical expertise can stifle the intuitive and holistic aspect of winemaking. “When we started Ovum in 2011, it was hard to break away from textbook winemaking. As years went on, I learned to trust myself. [It’s] not always easy, but in time it became liberating.”

Each points to Big Salt, a co-fermented field blend of Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Muscat, as a favorite shot in the dark. It’s ripe, aromatic, intense and compelling.

“Big Salt tells a story of that particular Oregon vintage, while multiple AVAs harmonize through the help of Mother Nature, not the conductor,” says John.

Ovum wines put a playful spin on such serious enological considerations with memorable monikers like Off the Grid Riesling and Since I Fell For You Gewürztraminer. But more so, they express Oregon strengths beyond Pinot Noir.

“To define ourselves with only one variety is shortsighted,” says Ksenija. “My hope is that in five to 10 years, Oregon will be known as a dynamic region beyond just Willamette Valley and Pinot Noir.”

Isabelle Meunier of Lavinea
Isabelle Meunier of Lavinea / Photo by Ezra Marcos

Isabelle Meunier

“On the world stage, most regions are focused on vineyards,” says Meunier. “Here [in the Willamette Valley], a handful of sites are recognized, but not as many as you’d expect. We’re on the springboard, and I wanted to be part of that conversation.”

Meunier, a native of Quebec, studied winemaking and viticulture in New Zealand and Burgundy, where she worked at Felton Road and Domaine de la Vougeraie, respectively. In 2007, Dominique Lafon hired her to oversee winemaking at the new Evening Land property.

She took over winemaking of the company’s Sonoma Coast wines in 2012, and met her business partner, Greg Ralston, that same year, when he was appointed Evening Land’s new CEO.

The two left Evening Land and founded Lavinea in 2014, with Meunier as winemaker and Ralston as managing partner. Their experience and shared passion brought quick success.

Meunier follows an all-natural approach that includes native yeast fermentations and minimal oak profiles.

“We came to realize that we had a shared sensibility about what Oregon Pinot and Chardonnay could be,” says Ralston. “Isabelle had made two vintages of Sonoma Coast wines also, which showed me her skill set. At the end of the day, there has to be a compelling story behind the wines, and Isabelle has the ability to tease a pure voice out of a site.”

“We want Lavinea to present a portfolio of wines that can showcase the beauty of each site,” says Meunier, “sites that are able to shine in the glass as a great place. In order for that to happen, you need vine age, soil, exposure and each site has to have a certain point of distinctiveness that makes it different from the norm.”

Each of Meunier’s wines achieves that. Together, they pinpoint specific characteristics of Yamhill-Carlton, Eola-Amity Hills, Dundee Hills and Tualatin Valley sites.

In the winery, Meunier follows an all-natural approach that includes native yeast fermentations and minimal oak profiles. She fashions wines with deeply etched flavors that “integrate the best of both the Old World philosophies with New World techniques,” she says.

Her approach is hard to dispute. Meunier focused on Chardonnay, considered by many Oregon’s next superstar variety, early on, and uses LIVE certified-organic grape sources. She’s also embraced innovative ways to work with existing trellising and unique picking techniques that have paid dividends. This craftsmanship is emblematic of the constant attention to detail that results in great wines.

Herb Quady of Quady Winery
Herb Quady of Quady Winery / Photo by Ezra Marcos

Herb Quady

Asked what defines his approach to winemaking, Quady doesn’t hesitate. “Generally, I am a minimalist. My overarching goal is to produce wines of place: tight, focused wines that showcase the nuances of a site.”

Quady’s education began in his family’s sweet-wine enterprise, Quady Winery, in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He completed the Viticulture and Enology program at California State University, Fresno, and moved to Southern Oregon in 2003.

Quady made wine for Troon Vineyard while he developed his own estate vineyard in the region. In 2006, Quady North was officially founded.

The timing was serendipitous. New wineries and vineyards brought a different focus, one that moved away from cool-climate grapes in favor of Mediterranean varieties. Quady’s original estate vineyard, named Mae’s after his eldest daughter, was planted to Viognier, Orange Muscat, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Malbec, Syrah and Tannat.

Much of Quady North’s production is co-fermented… letting the wine’s chemistry work itself out naturally.

Why Tannat?

“At Troon, I was tasked with making Malbec and Tannat, two varieties we thought had potential for our region,” says Quady. “I remember the day that the fruit came in.

After running the chemistry, I wrote up work orders to acidulate the Malbec and de-acidulate the Tannat.

“I was suddenly struck with how ridiculous that would be,” he says. “Why would I add acid to one lot and remove it from another? The only reason would be to stubbornly make standalone varietal wines from each.”

Instead, Quady elected to try co-fermenting the lots, letting the chemistry work itself out naturally. “The wine came out delicious,” he says. It reinforced his belief to create balance in wines as early in the process as possible.

Much of Quady North’s production is co-fermented: Cabernet Franc is co-fermented with Malbec, and Grenache with Syrah. Vermentino is matched with Orange Muscat for a pét-nat, while Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc are all co-fermented for a white blend.

“Pan-Rhône-ish, with a distinct Loire-ish influence,” is how Quady describes his wines. “It takes experience with the vineyards and lots, but it works wonderfully.”