Ten years ago I housesat for friends in the Napa Valley. They kindly left me a selection of their favorite wines of the moment, including several Napa wines available only by subscription—wines seldom seen in public, wines people connive and fight for.
Yet night after night I was drawn to a Pinot Noir that one of my hosts, Carl Doumani, a winemaker internationally celebrated for his Stags' Leap Petite Syrahs, had recently begun making in Oregon with a partner, Steve Girard. Called Benton-Lane, it was a deep strawberry red, with a whimsical, lovely postage-stamp label of the same color. The wine seemed to be the essence of grape, fruity and luscious, with an extremely full but not domineering flavor. It did not demand admiration; it simply went with whatever I cooked. Benton-Lane Pinot Noir became my default restaurant red when I wanted something very good that would not become a topic of conversation and yet would reveal a subtly different flavor with every taste. I look for all these qualities in food, too.
Last summer I visited the Willamette Valley, the heart of Oregon Pinot Noir country, and stayed in McMinnville (a seventy-five-minute drive southwest of Portland), home of the annually sold-out International Pinot Noir Celebration. There I found wine after local wine with that same mouth-filling flavor and a mysterious transparency—as if the whole series of decisions that go into making wine had been reduced to revealing where the grapes grew.
Even more appealing was the frontier spirit. Oregon Pinot Noir has become well known in the wine world, of course—at least in the United States. But the region feels different from Napa, which I have visited at least once a year since the mid-1980s. The northern-California climate is perfect for grape production and for people, too, and Napa's proximity to San Francisco has for many decades kept land prices extremely high; Napa and Sonoma are the Hamptons of the Bay Area, but with world-class wines. Winemakers in Napa are likely to have been trained at the University of California at Davis and speak fluent technical jargon; vineyard owners are likely to talk about a love of wine, nurtured during restorative trips to Europe, and a dream of life lived according to the rhythms of nature that kept them going through the darkest days of stockbroking and orthodontia.
The winemakers I met in Oregon were a much more familiar type—full of the passion and near fanaticism that draws me to artisan cheesemakers and bakers and to farmers who raise heirloom breeds. I saw in them and their wine the same link to land and learning that guides great chefs and food makers. Oregon is still a haven for radical idealists who, like those other artisans, are fueled by stubborn eccentricity and a need to make the most of limited resources. (I couldn't help wondering, though, if the appealing characters I spoke with were neglecting to mention the families who had set them up in the simple life; free-spirited and iconoclastic California winemakers, I have found, usually descend from bankers or movie barons.)
Vineyard living is seductive. The close connection to natural cycles, the ability to produce something noteworthy resulting from decisions made during and after the growing season—it's as if gardeners could cook a great dish that combined everything they grew that summer, know it would last for years, and have the world admire and pay good money for it. Yet the wine business is notoriously expensive to enter and difficult to survive in. Could someone with abundant dreams and skill—and no money—start making and selling wine?
In talking with two particularly dedicated Oregon artisans—one just getting on his feet, the other the self-taught maker of a cult wine who after twenty years is acquiring grand-old-man status—and also with Carl Doumani, I found that the answer is a qualified yes. Making wine is very hard work, and in Oregon people are doing it themselves. They are the equivalent of the vaunted French garagistes—tiny, independent winemakers who shun the establishment yet manage to build dedicated followings.
The price of admission is several years of unpaid and constant labor, a second, paying job and/or a working spouse, and a sure sense of how to make wine. Many California winemakers talk up the farming aspect but have other people do it for them, as befits gentleman farmers. An aspiring garagiste must love the whole process: growing grapes, spending long hot days in a vineyard, and, of course, making decisive choices in the days after the grapes are crushed and before new wine goes into old barrels. Winemakers in Oregon share a goal: making delicious wine like the Pinot I bonded with, wine that makes you forget other kinds and lets you just enjoy drinking it. California winemakers would say that is their goal too. But almost every acre of prime California vineyard has for many years been beyond the grasp of dreamers.
Jimi Brooks dreams of owning his own vineyard in great Pinot Noir territory. In a few years he probably will. In the meantime, he is bottling his own wine and establishing his brand. Like other ambitious winemakers without money or property, Brooks is buying grapes and leasing land until he can afford his own. But, unlike most winemakers in the Willamette Valley, he grew up there and attended the picture-perfect Linfield College, in McMinnville. He didn't study winemaking, or even think much about it, until he lived abroad and supported himself by working in Beaujolais wineries. Once home, Brooks apprenticed with an experienced French winemaker, learning the tools of the trade on the job rather than at school.
Pinot Noir is a famously difficult grape. Its unpredictability (it mutates easily) and its potential for greatness are reasons why so many stubborn idealists want to grow it. Pinot Noir grows best in climates cooler and damper than those of Napa and Sonoma. In France it grows in the relatively northern region of Burgundy and in Champagne, even farther north, where it is one of the three classic grapes used for France's emblematic sparkling wine. Pinot Noir is thought to be closer to wild strains than most other cultivated wine-grape varieties. Its thin skin and relatively few seeds make for soft wines with a sweetness that is missing in other reds: tannins, the astringent substances in wine, are all in the skins and seeds. But its thin skin makes the grape particularly vulnerable to fungus if rains are heavy during the ripening season. To avoid the possibility of a ruined harvest, growers "drop crop" in mid-August, cutting off as many as half the fruit clusters so that fewer grapes will compete for nutrients, and so that the ones left will be ripe by late September or early October, when rains often come. This is an expensive form of insurance, and accounts for yields per acre typically half those in Napa, where the land can be relied on to produce smackingly powerful grapes year after year. (The most famous Napa red-wine grape is Cabernet Sauvignon, which in France grows in Bordeaux, southwest of Burgundy—an area with a climate closer to the Mediterranean one to which Napa's is always compared.) Cool-climate vineyard managers must be ruthlessly selective. But when Pinot Noir is great, it reveals like no other grape the soil and climate it grew in—the desideratum of all artisan-made food.
This direct expression of what the French call terroir is what wine lovers and especially winemakers love about Pinot Noir. The possibility of making great Burgundian wines in America inspired the founding fathers of Oregon Pinot Noir to try growing the grapes in the mid-1960s. David Lett, of Eyrie Vineyards, and Dick and Nancy Ponzi, of Ponzi Vineyards, were priced out of California but wanted to get back to the land and lead the attractive winemaking life. They showed that Oregon Pinot Noir could compete favorably against Burgundy in blind tastings, as California Cabernet Sauvignon had done against Bordeaux. Maison Joseph Drouhin, a great Burgundy winemaker, put its stamp of approval on the Willamette Valley by buying land next to where Lett first planted Pinot Noir. A few big-money wine companies followed, and even the wine critic Robert Parker chose to buy his only winery, Beaux Frères, in the Willamette Valley (see "The Million-Dollar Nose," by William Langewiesche, December 2000 Atlantic).
A certain progression became familiar in Napa in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after Americans triumphed in blind tastings in France: first came French heavyweights, then rich amateurs (the Napa wine business is unsparingly chronicled in James Conaway's Napa). Some of these sorts came to Oregon, too, but not many; and of those who came some left. Good Pinot Noir is much harder to make than good Cabernet Sauvignon; one late rain can mean a year's worth of watery wine. And then there is the rain that falls for most of the nine months after the growing season. The difficulty and especially the damp climate put off the kind of second-career retirees who flock to sunny California. Oregon remains largely the province of mavericks and radicals.
Good land is always the chief investment for any winemaker—the first thing rich dabblers buy, the last thing sweat-equity garagistes like Brooks invest in. The path he and numerous friends are following is to support themselves at established wineries that will allow them to make their own wine on the premises with grapes they buy—in effect establishing a winery within a winery. For instance, Brooks is the winemaker at Maysara Winery, where the Iranian vineyard owner, Mo Momtazi, has taken him under his wing. Brooks pays for his winemaking bond and all separate expenses related to his own bottling, but he has free use of the Maysara processing equipment. And, of course, the farmers from whom he buys grapes pay all the costs of labor and equipment and land maintenance. Those farmers also give him grapes grown by the organic methods he favors.
Brooks can thus make mistakes at minimal expense; his first vintage, of 300 cases in 1998, cost him just $4,000 to produce, he told me recently. He can also develop his own style and begin to acquire a reputation while saving up for land. It is land he hungers for. Like many garagistes, he thinks of himself more as a farmer than as a winemaker; if he can—as he puts it—buy himself out of self-imposed slavery, he hopes to crush his grapes and make them into wine at a cooperative facility near the property he has his eye on. "I'm building a foundation," he kept saying—something he wants to pass on to his seven-year-old son, Pascal, who follows him around the vineyards and the winery, and even on sales calls to local restaurants.
The model for Brooks and many like-minded young Oregonians is John Paul, a colorful maverick with a big personality who makes some of the state's most admired Pinot Noirs at his Cameron Winery. Paul, a wiry, fine-featured man with energy to burn, trained as a microbiologist in southern California, where he was born; while doing postgraduate work in the Bay Area, he realized that he preferred helping friends near Napa to make wine. A tasting of 1976 Romanée-Contis, among the world's most sought-after Burgundies, hooked him for life.
In the late 1970s Oregon Pinot Noirs had not established their pre-eminence, and Paul looked at the Anderson Valley, the Russian River Valley, and other cool-climate territories near the Bay Area where he might plant Pinot Noir. Eventually, with the help of a loan from his mother (his father, an aeronautics engineer, was horrified, Paul says, that just on the verge of being able to get a real job he would throw away his education), he bought land near David Lett's Eyrie Vineyards. Lett was a hero of his who turned out to be a generous colleague and adviser. For three years Paul worked nearly full time on his first harvests; his young family lived on his wife's salary as a teacher, and his occasional earnings as an oceanographic consultant went into the winery. In the winery's fourth year he was able to pay himself a small salary.
Paul decided to keep his business very small, not only to keep control over every step of winemaking but also to avoid committing himself to the personnel costs that anything over 4,000 cases of wine a year—the size he calls magic—would require. Rather than look for a distributor, who would take a large share of the profits, Paul hand-sold his wines to Portland restaurants and wine stores. His approach, possible only with a production as limited as his, was so successful that other vintners were soon copying it.
It helped that national publications called Cameron's Pinot Noirs among the country's purest expressions of terroir. Paul's force of personality and jokiness helped too. He calls one of his vineyards Clos Electrique, for the electric fence surrounding it, and doesn't miss a chance to dress in drag for various editions of his newsletter, which at its best has Onion-y humor and at its worst is college-boy jejune. (You can find a sampling at cameronwinery.com; like all offbeat winery newsletters, it takes its cue from the limitless erudition and wit of Randall Grahm, the founder of Bonny Doon, in California.) An annual sellout is his Cameroni Vino Pinko (his three Cameroni wines are based on the white wines of Friuli, in northern Italy), a pale rosé that is pink-gray from the amount of dark grape skins left in. Vin gris, as the French call it, is an interesting cross between white and red wine; Randall Grahm sells a version he calls Pink Wine. Paul had the genius to put an iconic engraving of Che Guevara on the label, and Portland wine shops can't get enough of it.
Brooks found his first job through Paul, and has taken a great deal of advice from him. He, too, plans to keep his production below 4,000 cases a year, and to use distributors and salesmen as little as possible. He can thus avoid the terrible tangle of national distribution, which means coping with fifty different sets of regulations. Brooks has also taken a cue from Paul's marketing whimsy, naming an inexpensive Pinot blend Runaway Red, after a barrel that fell off a truck and rolled into a stream, where the bung was miraculously jammed in place and all the wine survived. The orange-red label has a large picture of Trotsky—in honor, Brooks says, of Trotsky's flight to Mexico. Like Vino Pinko, it sells out.
A few successful gimmicks and good reviews are essential to small producers if they are to get the high prices they need to charge for their Pinot Noirs. Paul asks $30 to $40 a bottle for his high-end Clos Electrique and Abbey Ridge, Brooks $30 for his top-of-the-line Janus. These are standard prices in Oregon, and loyalists are happy to pay them for wines like Paul's and Brooks's.
Or loyalists pay for futures, at convivial open-winery events that take place on Thanksgiving weekend. Many small winemakers have no space or staff for salesrooms, so they open once a year, giving barrel tastings of new wines and selling cases at a 30 to 40 percent discount. Local enthusiasts get to form and keep up acquaintances with winemakers they admire (another cult favorite is Felix Madrid, of Carlo & Julian, named for his twin sons), and winemakers get interest-free loans for two or three years. Invariably, Paul told me, someone will drive up to his Thanksgiving open house in a large, late-model Mercedes, buy several cases of ready-to-drink wine (he doesn't sell futures), and say, "Gosh, I envy you; I'd like to do this." "They have no idea!" Paul said. "They don't know what I went through to get to the point where I could take their eight hundred dollars and carry a box of wine out and shove it in the trunk of their car. I say, 'You'd rather drink it, trust me.'"
Benton-Lane Pinot Noir costs $18 a bottle, a price that has remained steady and is made possible by economies of scale. Carl Doumani and Steve Girard were both successful Napa vintners and had ready access to credit. They bought enough Oregon land at the outset (farther south in the Willamette Valley, between Eugene and Corvallis) to grow grapes for 25,000 cases a year, an output that obliges them to keep a staff of nine full-time employees.
I asked Doumani if someone with Brooks's expertise and lack of capital could get started in Napa today. Having spent the past few years building a Napa winery, Quixote, that he expects will produce 4,000 cases a year, he was in a position to compare. Good land in Oregon, he told me, costs $10,000 to $12,000 an acre. Good land in Napa costs at least $80,000 an acre and usually more than $100,000. Building costs in Oregon, Doumani said, are exactly half what they are in Napa. Equipment and labor costs are equivalent. But official attitudes are not: Napa has for ten years been anti-development, placing wineries high on its suspect list. When Girard first moved to Oregon, city officials and even the governor asked what they could do to make things easier for him and Doumani in opening the winery, and then took steps to help. Doumani gave me as an example the cost of permits. All told, usage permits for Benton-Lane cost $1,600. Permits for a Napa winery of the same size would cost $26,000.
Despite strong sales for nearly fifteen years, the founders of Benton-Lane are still paying off their initial loans. So far Brooks is incurring as little debt as possible and paying it off before he increases his production, which he will do in 500-case increments. He can't afford debt, and he knows that success will never bring him riches. "What interests me," he said, "is my own sense of place and having something to pass on to my family." Pinot Noir lovers can benefit from his and Paul's devotion to place. No other wine, after all, tastes so clearly of where the grapes grew.