Jay Somers was talking dirt. Hardly had we shaken hands when he started pointing to the ground and describing the various soils in his vineyard: marine sediment here, iron-laced volcanic soils there.
Or something like that. I couldn’t keep up, because Nina, Somers’s 5-year-old German shepherd, would drop her ball at my feet and fix me with a yearning gaze until I threw it again. And again. Within minutes of my arrival at J. Christopher winery on Chehalem Mountain in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, I had seen two of the three essential elements of a successful winery visit: a winemaker focused on terroir and an adorable dog.
The third element — the wines — would soon follow. Somers created the label (Christopher is his middle name) in 1996 with $3,000 and two tons of pinot noir grapes. Three years ago, he partnered with Ernst Loosen, the famed Riesling producer from Germany’s Mosel Valley. (Loosen is chief winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Eroica Riesling as well and has helped ignite a Riesling revival in Washington state.) Loosen’s investment allowed Somers to buy land for his 40-acre vineyard, called Appassionata, and build a new winery. The place doesn’t have a glitzy tasting room or hospitality center. Nina is the only welcoming committee.
Somers, a 47-year-old guitar collector who once dreamed of being a rock star and still sports the flowing locks of a musical iconoclast, practices a holistic form of organic viticulture called biodynamics that’s popular in Oregon. He does not inoculate his wines with commercial yeast to induce fermentation. He favors traditional techniques from Burgundy — pinot’s homeland — over modern methods, even using foot-stomping humans rather than tools to accomplish pigeage (“pee-JAHJ”), or punching down the layer of grape skins that forms over the juice during fermentation.
Visiting Oregon wineries almost invariably involves a geology lesson. The Willamette Valley’s prime vineyard lands are the result of three influences: the ocean that covered the region eons ago, the volcanic eruptions that formed the Cascade Mountains to the valley’s east and the coastal range to the west, and the sedimentary wash of the great Missoula Floods at the end of the last ice age.
The demarcation is sometimes clear: The Dundee Hills American Viticultural Area, or AVA, is almost consistently volcanic, while the Yamhill-Carlton AVA is sedimentary. The Eola-Amity Hills AVA offers both, with volcanic soils on higher grounds, while the Chehalem Mountains AVA is a wild card, with a mixture of soil types. That is a simplified description, of course, yet it demonstrates why Oregon is such an exciting wine region.
Somers makes a pinot noir from grapes sourced from throughout the Willamette Valley, but his heart is in his “terroir series,” wines from the valley’s various sub-regions, designed to showcase their locales.
“The neat thing about these wines is that you can really taste the influence of the soils, because the winemaking is the same,” he says. The 2011 Dundee Hills Cuvée is perfumed with red fruit and citrus, while a wine called Nuages, after a Django Reinhardt tune, shows the floral characteristics of the Chehalem Mountains AVA. La Mer, from the marine soils of Yamhill-Carlton, is reticent and brooding, seething with power.
“I’m trying to get people to stop using the word ‘Oregon’ to describe what we do,” Somers says. With such diversity, a single word is surely inadequate.
At the southern end of the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, winemaker Mark Vlossak, 60, takes a similar approach at St. Innocent winery. Like Somers, Vlossak is determined to express the region’s soils through his wines.
“People spend their hard-earned money on these wines,” says Vlossak, a scholarly type who looks like noted chef Alain Ducasse. “If you taste my pinots and tell me they would be better blended together, then I’ve failed. If you say they have a story to tell, then I’ve succeeded.”
Vlossak’s 2011 pinot from the ironically named Temperance Hill Vineyard, high above the winery at 750 feet elevation, is stunning, with the structure and bright aromas that come from volcanic soil. The Zenith Vineyard pinot, from marine soils 500 feet lower on the same slope, is more generous and expansive, with berry flavors and lush texture.
My schedule wouldn’t allow for a vineyard tour, so Vlossak led me outside the tasting room. From a small patch of grass between the parking lot and a picnic area, he pointed toward Temperance Hill and the lower Zenith Vineyard. As he described their soils and orientation toward the sun — there was also a mention of the Van Duzer winds that come off the Pacific and cool the vineyards in this part of Willamette — I looked down and realized that we were standing in the only spot where visitors could exercise their dogs. I held my breath and listened without fidgeting. I like dog-friendly wineries, after all.