Sunday, August 16, 2020

What's Happening in Willamette... Catching Up with Some Iconic Winemakers.

In France, many winemaking families can talk about their history going back five or six generations. In Oregon there is... barely one generation. David Lett, aka "Papa Pinot," arrived in the pre-winey Willamette Valley in 1965, believing Pinot Noir and other grapes could be grown there to make quality wine. And more than one person undoubtedly looked at him like he was crazy and assumed he'd flee with his tail between his legs before too long.

Luckily for us, that didn't happen, and Papa Pinot was right -- the Willamette Valley does not only produce quality wine, it produces outstanding wine. If you're wine-nerdy like I am, this might not come as a total surprise (plus hindsight is definitely 20-20,) as the climate and soils are similar to those in Burgundy, one of the world's best regions for Pinot Noir.

The Willamette industry grew so exponentially and has become so well-regarded that it's easy to forget this place has been making wine only a bit longer than I've been alive. Lett was certainly the pioneer, but there are many iconic producers who arrived early, jumped in with both feet, and who are now pushing the boundaries of the region's potential, figuratively, but also literally.

Rollin Soles of Roco Winery got his start at Argyle, one of the earliest notable Willa wineries (still producing great wines and continuing to rack up the kudos today,) and his experience there gave him an intimate knowledge of the region and the confidence to not only set out on his own but to explore the boundaries of where winemaking is possible that far north. He speaks with the passion and wonder of a 19th-century explorer on the cusp of a great discovery: "When you're at the edge, you can be successful presenting a beautiful Pinot Noir." This "true expression" of Pinot is what inspires him to make wine right at the limit. He has such affection for the vineyards he sources his fruit from, Soles believes they could all produce outstanding single-vineyard wines. (And perhaps that is on the horizon?!)

Soles' 2018 Roco Gravel Road Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is like the sun poking out after a quick summer shower, reflecting stunning prisms off all surfaces. A pale ruby-red color, bright and fresh red cherry fruit -- a little cherry cola situation too -- plus rhubarb, anise, underripe blackberry, with a whiff of spice and earth on the finish. High acidity as expected, with subtle integrated tannins and high alcohol. ~$25

I was curious about the level of alcohol, as I tasted a few more Willa Pinots and saw they all were over 14%. This was unexpected to me, as I assumed the generally cool climate wouldn't seem to encourage so much sugar ripeness to achieve that level of abv. I asked Lynn Penner-Ash of Penner-Ash wine cellars about that aspect of the winemaking.

"It is my belief that the increased alcohols are indicative of our warming growing region. We’ve worked hard to maintain balance and get phenolic ripeness but do have to work to keep the alcohol levels from being out of balance with the wines. We’ve really seen more success these days doing multiple pickings within the same block to be able to keep natural acidity, get phenolic ripeness, and balanced wines. That drives our vineyard managers crazy..." but gives her many more options for blending to achieve balance. (She also credits more efficient yeasts, GO YEAST!)

Lynn was one of Willa's first female winemakers, joining the team at another early winery, Rex Hill, in 1988. Back then there were only 49 wineries; now there are around 780! Talk about exponential growth. Somewhat along Soles' philosophy, Penner-Ash looks to source fruit from all of the unique growing areas dotted around the Valley. Her main goal is to blend these special vineyards together to craft the epitome of "what Willamette is." The Penner-Ash main blend is sourced from ten different vineyards across six AVAs (American Viticultural Areas; sites designated as individual wine production areas sharing similar characteristics.) This practice also gives her flexibility due to Oregon's vintage variability -- if some sites underperform one year, she has other ways to balance out the wine. And much like Champagne houses' signature blends, Penner-Ash looks to keep a consistent style from year to year with her largest bottling, the Willamette Pinot Noir.

The 2017 Penner-Ash Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is like teatime at Downton Abbey, a little dark and brooding, but elegant, with sublime floral perfume. It is a cherry-red color, with smoke and spice, some cocoa/mocha, definitely a more savory style. The acidity isn't so blinding, but still shines brightly, with high alcohol and enough low chalky tannins and body and intensity to carry the fruit flavors over the long minerally finish. A really gorgeous wine. ~$42

Michael Etzel was another early drinker of the Willamette Kool-Aid, founding his winery Beaux Frères in the early 1990s. (Along with his brother-in-law, the wine critic Robert Parker, who has since left the company.) Etzel's son Mikey is now taking on more of the reins, as the second generation of Willamette wine families is finally starting to be ushered in. Some of Beaux Frères' innovation includes an upcoming collaboration with winemakers from Burgundy -- which is intriguing, as folks from old world regions tend to be insular and protective. I, for one, will keep my eyes peeled to see what happens there!

But at home, Etzel is another winemaker who prides the place where he sources his wine; the back label of his 2018 Pinot Noir states TWELVE different vineyards with the percentage of wine from each!

The 2018 Beaux Frères Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is a walk in the woods on a crisp fall morning. A ruby-purple color, with bright raspberry, cherry, and cranberry fruit, a dusty purple violet/lavender sheen, a bit of sweet cigar leaf, with zingy acidity, high alcohol, good body and intensity, and supportive tannins over the finish. Maybe a bit of a rollercoaster right now; I'd love to see this in a year or so when all the components integrate a scootch more. ~$58

The Willamette Valley is already regarded as one of the best places for Pinot Noir in the world (they do grow other grapes there; look for iconic cool-climate-loving Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, but also Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Meunier are finding success.) Now that iconic winemakers like these are fully confident in their vineyards, comfortable pushing boundaries, and bringing in the next generation, who knows what the future holds?

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A special thank-you to for providing these wines and organizing a virtual tasting with the winemakers. 

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Saturday, June 6, 2020

EM DUBS, the Application -- Or, the Journey to Master of Wine Begins

I never wanted to be a Master of Wine.

Seriously, my entire wine career, even with people dangling the possibility in front of me, suggesting I would be suited for it, and the fact I love to study things I love, reaching the "Highest Designation Possible" was not a goal I ever aspired to.
  • I'm competitive... but I have a streak of lazness. 
  • I'm smart... but my knowledge doesn't always flourish in context. 
  • I have a great palate... but not an encyclopedic one. 
But then I spent a year and a half pursuing and attaining the rigorous WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits, completing it as fast as one possibly can (I somewhat insanely took three exams on the same day,) never failing a single question, and earning three highest Distinction grades and two Merits over the six units all the while pursuing my performing career (three leading roles in plays and musicals over that period, plus countless auditions, readings, and classes,) and dealing with some major health issues of my parents.

Once the dust settled and I had time to reflect on my experience with Diploma, I realized that not only did I pretty much OWN it (in spite of a great deal of stress,) but I really wanted so much more than I got from that program. It was an intense period, but I suddenly felt in an unfulfilled vacuum. I pretty much toasted passing the damn thing and swearing I'd never ever ever study again... and three days later was researching the MW application process.

The Master of Wine is hard. Super-hard. As of this writing, there are only 394 Masters of Wine in the entire world. More people have BEEN TO SPACE than have passed the demanding, exhaustive program. Just about every single MW has spoken of blind fear and feelings of being a fraud at multiple points along the journey. It usually takes 5-6 years for someone to pass all aspects of the program, but only a few hundred are accepted each year, and only around ten people graduate each year. Often fewer. Hello, attrition. What would ever make me think I could do this? What kind of hubris does the Minx HAVE?!?

You know that competitive streak of bullet point number one above? I recently realized I never wanted to try to become a Master of Wine because I never wanted to FAIL at it. The fact is, statistically speaking, I probably will fail. Plenty of people smarter and more focused than I certainly have. But what happened in my post-Diploma aha moment was I realized I had to TRY.

Even if I never earned those post-nominal initials, I wanted to play with the big kids. I wanted to be able to ask smarter questions, to put things in context, to meet winemakers and hear things in their own words, to taste theoretical concepts in the glass, to understand the ramifications of minute choices... after 25 years in this business and countless certifications I do consider myself a wine expert, but I wanted to be one of the BEST experts. And I know now that even if I don't achieve the final goal, pursuing this program will make me the best expert I can possibly be.


Step 1: Apply -- this involves filling out an online form including a short biography, a summary of your role in the industry (you have to be working in the wine business, although they say they will entertain applications of non-professionals on an individual basis.) You have to have earned the WSET Diploma or its equivalent, you need to provide statements on how you would contribute to the IMW (Institute of Masters of Wine) community, and describe practical ways you'd study and prepare for the exam. As many others have advised, you shouldn't go into this half-baked; well-thought out answers will go a long way. You also need a recommendation from a Master of Wine. It costs around $400 to apply. This year the application was open from around May 1-May 29.

Step 2: Take the Application Exam. Once my application, fee, and recommendations were received, I got an email with details about how to take the exam. It's carried out online, and is divided into Theory and Practical (tasting) portions. Just like the actual exam, only a FRACTION of its difficulty!! Meaning, for the application exam you're expected to assess four wines, the categories of which you're told in advance. For the actual MW exam, it's THIRTY-SIX wines tasted blind. The application exam theory questions are unknown, though drawn from past MW exams, and you get three options under the broad themes of Viticulture, Vinification, Handling, or the Business of Wine to choose one to answer. This year, the last day to complete the application exam is July 10 so I still have a few weeks to study!

(In case you're curious, my study consists of choosing a past question, taking notes on how I would answer it, reading and doing research to flesh out those notes, then writing a 30-40 minute timed essay. I'm up to 3-4 per week now. I'm trying to cover all the major topics so will hopefully have already answered one that shows up on my entrance exam?! FINGERS CROSSED.)

Step 3: Find out sometime in September or October if you're in. All of the webinars and advice have said that the application exam is truly an assessment of potential; you're not super-dinged if you make a wrong statement as you would be on the real exam. I feel that if I get a question I've prepared for, I will be able to write an articulate essay full of facts (and examples, they LOVE examples.) But 90 minutes to plan, outline, and write an essay is not a lot of time, I've found. I'm going to get calluses on my fingers for crossing them so hard...


If accepted, hooray, you're in Stage 1. You'll need to go somewhere for a week of course days (I want to travel internationally but obviously national routes will open first post-Covid, so chose the North American option, hoping it'll be possible!) and you'll be assigned an MW mentor, and there will be other touchstones and guidelines, but this program is self-study so it's pretty much: AMF-YOYO. (Adios, My Friend, You're On Your Own.)

After a year you sit the Stage 1 Assessment Exam (mine would be June 2021.) If you pass, you're on to Stage 2: The Big Kahuna, or, All the Marbles. More course days and touchstones, lots of travel and tasting, and sitting the ACTUAL MW EXAM in June of 2022. I think only 3% (or is it .3%?!?!) of students pass both Theory and Tasting the first try. So another year goes by and you sit whatever you failed again. Wash, Rinse, Repeat (you have 6 attempts, I think, before they kick you out.) Hopefully you eventually pass both, and next you write a research paper. Honestly, I have five ideas already, but you can't write the paper until last!! The paper usually takes a year to 18-months but can take up to five years. So, assuming I make it, I could earn my MW as early as autumn of 2023, or as late as ~2033. HOLY CRAPPPP.

Oh, and by the way, you can expect to spend about $14,000 on course fees (more if -- and when -- you retake bits,) and an additional $35,000-45,000 on sourcing wines, travel, accommodation, etc., over the length of your program. (And many say that's a conservative estimate.) That's a LOT of dough, but PHDs cost 5x as much, so... #shrugemoji. I have financial support from the family wine business, thank goodness, and there are some scholarships available, but honestly, the cost is what eventually drives a lot of people out of the program.

Well, that's it. I put off finishing my notes on "advantages and disadvantages of stem inclusion in winemaking" to write this, because I found others' personal experiences very helpful in ultimately deciding to do this (though many seem to have abandoned their "MW Journey" blogs... either from departing the program, or SIMPLY NO TIME!!) And I also wanted my friends, fans, and family to understand this epic undertaking a little better.

I'll try to touch base with more personal blogs over the course of this thing (and not getting accepted will make it a SHORT course! But I'm hopeful.) I already am having more fun preparing for the entrance exam vs. 99% of my Diploma study. So that, I think, bodes well.

Shoot me any questions you might have, and I'll try to answer them! And please stay safe and well.