Five Winemakers Creating Cult, Collectible Oregon Wines You Can Actually Find | Wine Enthusiast
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Five Winemakers Creating Cult, Collectible Oregon Wines You Can Actually Find

There are as many reasons to stock up on Oregon wines as there are bottles to collect. In addition to the obvious—a global reputation for expressive wines—the state’s had a string of outstanding vintages starting in 2014. This has made the wines a hot commodity for both collectors with expansive cellars and those just getting started.

Conversations with some of the state’s top vintners further solidify why these wines have such strong appeal to collectors. Ahead, meet the producers whose bottles are worth the hunt—because isn’t that part of the fun?

Tony Soter, Soter Vineyards

Aiming for Grand Cru-level Greatness

Winemaker Tony Soter’s résumé spans four decades and includes consulting work at Napa stalwarts like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Spring Mountain Vineyard and Spottswoode. His own California brand, Etude, rose to fame for its Pinot Noirs, which led Soter and his wife, Michelle, to trade Napa for Oregon.

They started to plant the Mineral Springs Ranch vineyard in 2002 and launched Soter Vineyards in Oregon two years later. It focused their commitment to environmental and biodynamic farming, as well as sharpened Soter’s vision for world-class Pinot Noir.

Using the classic Burgundies as a reference point, he says that he set out “to make wine as from this property as convincingly great as any Grand Cru Burgundy. That’s our ambition: to ferret out the great New World sites. I believe we have some here in Oregon. It’s not a replication of Burgundy, but a wine you can pick out in a crowd.”

Rarity or scarcity often motivates people to collect, but Soter says it’s up to the winery and the wines to deliver something that makes the hunt worthwhile. There should be, he says, “a demonstrated track record of being more than they ever were as young wines with the passing of time.”

Soter is convinced that Oregon Pinot Noirs are more ageworthy than those from California.

“I think it has to do with a degree of ripeness,” he says. “When grapes get too much sun, they lose their aromatics. They become more like raisins than grapes. But when just on the cusp of being underripe, some turn into wines with beautiful bouquets. Sometimes, the shoulder vintages, those in the shadow of the great vintages, are the ones that develop.”

In pursuit of those goals, and as a gift to those who search for something rare, Soter’s Origin Series (white label) wines are an ongoing experiment in the study of terroir. They avoid overripe grapes and heavy-handed oak treatments, and each is focused on a single appellation.

The “lay-down collectors’ wine,” says Soter, is the Mineral Springs White Label Pinot Noir. Farmed biodynamically on the estate vineyard, it’s a dark, powerful wine, packed densely with black fruits, graphite and complex earth flavors.

Jim Anderson kneeling in a vineyard, holding ripe grapes
Jim Anderson of Patricia Green Cellars/Photo by Melissa Jones

Jim Anderson, Patricia Green Cellars

An Affordable Bonanza of Pinot Noirs

“This Is Not A Corporate Winery—Real People, Real Wines” reads a T-shirt on sale in the tasting room of Patricia Green Cellars. Make no mistake, this producer cranks out a lot of wines: The winery released 27 different Pinot Noir bottlings just in 2017. But it’s neither quantity nor quality alone that inspires Jim Anderson, the cofounder and winemaker.

“Patty and I weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths,” he says, referring to cofounder Patty Green, who died in late 2017. “We had to build it up the hard way. In Oregon, there’s a lot of respect for that. We wanted people who wanted the wines to be able to afford the wines.”

Anderson proudly points to the Balcombe Vineyard Pinot Noir, $36 when first released and increased just one dollar to $37 over 18 vintages.

The sheer number of bottlings, many limited to just a few hundred cases, means that tasting room visitors and wine club members have a wide range of options.

“There’s only a handful of Burgundy négociants who make more wine than we do,” says Anderson. “We have ultraspecial wines, but also great individual single-vineyard wines under $40, and even less if you’re in the wine club.”

Though a few selections cost $75 and up, there are plenty of less expensive choices made with the same care, and club members can pick and choose what to buy. Anderson operates what he calls a “first right of refusal [wine] club,” meaning that members get first crack at bottles like the Bonshaw Block, whose price remained steady at $60 after the 2016 vintage became the first Oregon Pinot Noir to be awarded 100 points by Wine Enthusiast. Club wines that don’t sell out are offered to folks on the waiting list as a reward for their patience.

The winery has built a loyal following. Some fans go back to the 1990s, when Patty and Jim worked together at Torii Mor Winery.

“People were really drawn to her,” says Anderson with fondness. “She was one of the first full-time women winemakers in Oregon, who transitioned from working at a winery to owning her own start-up.”

But as real as the people and wines have always been, the business itself is a bit piecemeal in nature. “No other winery would look at our business model and think ‘That’s a really good idea!’ ” he says with a chuckle.

Clare Carver and Brian Marcy sitting on a wooden bench in a house, holding glasses of red wine
Clare Carver and Brian Marcy of Big Table Farm/Photo by Melissa Jones

Clare Carver and Brian Marcy, Big Table Farm

Art on the Label and in the Bottle

You won’t be the first person drawn to the wines of Big Table Farm when you set your eyes on the illustrated, letterpress labels that depict life on their property.

Clare Carver, who designs the labels and manages the 70-acre farm, says painting was her first passion, closely followed by the “great joy” of working with her team of draft horses.

Her husband, Winemaker Brian Marcy, creates a selection of Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs here that have quickly earned cult status.

“The labels are more collectible than the wines in some ways,” says Marcy. “They are so unique, and the response that we get from people—they may not know anything about wine, but they love the labels.”

“They reflect what’s happening on the farm, and that vintage,” says Carver. “Just as Brian’s wines reflect, optimize and illustrate the vintage. So there’s a really nice connection with the art being an expression of the vintage just like the wine… That’s why you collect things, because you want to remember something special. You want to hold on to a unique thing that happened at that moment.”

Carver and Marcy work closely together. Marcy has the final say on label design, and Carver joins in on the blending of the wines. “We affirm each other in our creative process,” she says.

The couple moved to Oregon from the Napa Valley, where Marcy worked and apprenticed at Turley Wine Cellars, Neyers Vineyards and Marcassin, among others.

Starting with their first Oregon vintage in 2006, they’ve built a loyal following, not only for the wines, but also the farm’s produce, pasture-raised pigs, eggs and honey. Along with her award-winning labels, Carver’s oil paintings have been exhibited throughout the San Francisco area, the Northwest and Australia. Many are available for purchase on her website. And those fabulous labels? They’re free on every bottle.

Christophe Baron holding an egg-shaped rock on his shoulder in a vineyard
Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards/Photo by Melissa Jones

Christophe Baron, Cayuse Vineyards

Ageworthy Wines Leaving No Stone Unturned

Cayuse Vineyards checks off every box that might appeal to collectors: high scores, unique wines, scarcity and supreme ageability. That last claim has been somewhat controversial, due to the acidity and alcohol content of Christophe Baron’s Syrahs, Cabernets and Tempranillos. Sit down and taste a selection of back vintages with Baron, Cayuse’s founder and self-described vigneron, and Elizabeth Bourcier, his assistant vigneronne, however, and it’s clear these wines are built to age. Even those that are nearly two decades old haven’t reached their limits.

Baron, his unruly, chopped hair showing streaks of steel gray, becomes even more animated than usual when asked about the importance of making ageworthy wines.

“Ageability has always been crucial, paramount to the project from the start,” he says. “This being said, when you start from scratch, the first vineyard in the stones [planted in March 1997], you are dealing with young vines.

“The potential is there, but you still need to open up all the gates of terroir one by one by one, experimenting, focusing on the style of wine you want to create. It’s the legacy of each project. You have to have wines that are better with age.”

Though Cayuse wines have about an eight-year waiting list, they’re available on the secondary market, and there are several newer projects that are worth the effort to find.

Baron’s Horsepower wines, for instance, come from several high-density vineyards worked with draft horses. While his newest project, Hors Catégorie, continues Baron’s exploration of off-the-radar Eastern Oregon sites. This one comes on the north fork of the Walla Walla River, with slopes up to 60 degrees that must be harvested with a winch.

Meanwhile, Bourcier’s pet project, La Rata, is another venture to look out for. It’s inspired by a lunchtime bottle of Clos Erasmus and modeled after Priorat. And the No Girls wines, which she also oversees, are built from a newer vineyard, La Paciencia, with terroir described as “sandpaper” soils.

All of the wines are grown and vinified in Oregon and carry the Walla Walla appellation.

“We talk about the wines losing baby fat with time,” says Bourcier. “It’s not just about what is the best wine right now, it’s how will we build this wine now for the future. It’s about managing tannin, oak treatment, picking decisions. We’re in a hot region here, making wines that are balanced and fresh, but have enough tannins to age.”

Dick and Deirdre Shea standing under a tree in front of a vineyard
Dick and Deirdre Shea of Shea Wine Cellars/Photo by Melissa Jones

Dick and Deirdre Shea, Shea Wine Cellars

Estate Wines from an Iconic Vineyard

Since its first harvest in 1989, Shea Vineyard may well have the most sought-after grapes in Oregon, even if Dick Shea would never make that claim. But among the 21 wineries fortunate enough to obtain this fruit, almost all feature the name Shea prominently on their labels, some since the mid-1990s.

Savvy collectors understand that these grapes have been identified as exceptional by numerous vintners. So why not turn to the estate winery to find the most collectible gems?

Founded in 1996 by Dick and his wife, Deirdre, Shea Wine Cellars now uses about 25% of Shea Vineyard’s production for proprietary wines.

“Our fundamental philosophy is to maximize the expression of Shea fruit,” says Dick, who was also the original winemaker. “It seems to want to get really ripe, lush and opulent here, so we run with that in a way that brings layers of flavors and complexity. These marine-sediment soils are austere and drain incredibly fast.

“In Dundee, they love soils that retain the water. Here we love it that they don’t. We ripen early, often beat the rains. We have different clones, different elevations, different age vines and different rootstock. So there are five or six unique spots within the vineyard, which makes a big difference in the finished wine.”

Shea knows them all, and the estate winery offers an interesting range of single-block and single-clone wines, as well as a reserve called Homer.

Collectors can assemble single-vintage flights of Shea Vineyard wines from many different producers. It illustrates how the fruit can serve different styles and winemaking techniques.

Though the winery doesn’t have a club, son Peter Shea says that mailing list members get first access to special wines like Neli, a four-barrel blend (neli is the Estonian word for “four”). Deirdre points to some other one-off specials like the 2008 Last Hurrah, made from the last of the self-rooted vines just before they succumbed to phylloxera.

Shea celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, which just might inspire another mailing list special in the early 2020s.

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