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.