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Outside Knowledge Shapes Northwest Wineries

Wine regions attract winemakers from California and France

by Peter Mitham
Brian Denner is leaving California to serve as winemaker at DanCin Vineyards in Medford, Ore. (above), in the latest example of how Northwest wineries are recruiting talent from other winegrowing regions to fueld the growing industry.
Medford, Ore.—The tide of investment that’s swept across the Northwest during the past 18 months has grabbed headlines, but a quieter transfer of wealth—in the form of expertise—also has occurred.

While many of the new players moving in from California have tapped local experience to bring them up to speed on local winegrowing, there’s also been an influx of fresh perspectives related to winemaking.

Most recently, DanCin Vineyards of Medford, Ore., appointed Brian Denner as winemaker. Denner has worked in Oregon’s Rogue Valley for four vintages, moving north in 2010 from California, where he had worked for Williams Selyem Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., and Denner Vineyards in Paso Robles, Calif.

“The bulk of the reason we brought him on was his Pinot experience, his Chardonnay experience, and Williams Selyem,” explained Dan Marca, who co-owns DanCin with his wife, Cindy Marca.

Denner had worked with the Marcas from the start, so the appointment was a natural fit that allowed Denner to apply both his developing expertise with conditions in Oregon and the experience he’d gathered working with Pinot Noir in California.

California knowledge
A contractor in California, Marca chose the Rogue Valley to grow Pinot Noir with encouragement from Glenn McGourty, an extension advisor in Mendocino County, Calif. (and Wines & Vines columnist), who taught some of the Marcas’ first viticulture classes.

But making good on that hunch requires expertise, and for a small producer in a part of the state that’s working to emerge from the long shadow of the Willamette, Denner seemed like a wise choice.

“It’s that experience that I think is going to help us produce even better quality Pinot Noir in Southern Oregon,” Marca said.

Similarly, Atlas Vineyard Management Inc. of Napa is using its California connections to bring new technology to Oregon vineyards (see “Pinpointing Vineyard Irrigation”), while Terry and Sue Brandborg moved north from California in 2001 to launch Brandborg Vineyard & Winery in Elkton, Ore., fueled by a confidence in the area that led to last year’s creation of the Elkton Oregon AVA (see “AVA Boosts Profile for Southern Oregon”).

Old world style
During the Oregon Chardonnay Symposium earlier this year, part of the discussion focused on a so-called “Oregundian” winemaking style applying Old World sensibilities to New World grapes.

Several winemakers noted that the long-standing presence of winemakers from France—including the Drouhin family—have influenced Northwest winemaking in ways that make more sense than models established in the warmer climate of California.

“Oregon is Oregon, and we shouldn’t try to be Burgundy,” said Veronique Drouhin, winemaker at Domaine Drouhin Oregon (see “Oregon Winemakers Rally Behind Chardonnay”). 

Drouhin’s experience in France has given her a perspective on what wines from Oregon can be—and in the case of Chardonnay she feels the state has a fair way to go.

But she also has a distinctively European perspective on winemaking that values terroir over technology.

Perched in the Dundee Hills, Domaine Drouhin Oregon touts itself as having “French Soul, Oregon Soil.” Drouhin told the symposium she was excited to see what the family’s latest acquisition in the Eola-Amity Hills would produce.

Washington and British Columbia
The influence of France is felt elsewhere, too.

Long Shadows Vintners in Washington state enjoys collaborations with Michel Rolland and Gilles Nicault, the former a graduate of the prestigious Bordeaux Faculty of Oenology, while the latter worked at wineries in Côtes du Rhône, Provence and Champagne prior to bringing his skills to Washington state in 1994.

North of the border in Canada, a growing contingent of Bordeaux winemakers is transforming the Okanagan.

Pascal Madevon was an early arrival, joining Osoyoos Larose in 2001 as part of Groupe Taillan’s joint venture with Vincor Canada (now part of Constellation Brands). The impressive quality of fruit he saw in the Okanagan and the region’s potential for red wine production was engaging enough to convince him to stay (the quality of life didn’t hurt, either).

When he left last year for Culmina Family Estate in Oliver, B.C., Madevon was replaced by Bordeaux graduate Mathieu Mercier, who remained when Groupe Taillan assumed full ownership of the Osoyoos Larose property last fall.

While it’s easy to credit the influence of global ta lent and fresh perspectives with improvements in a region’s wine, more often than not they coincide and support a maturation already taking place.

John Simes, the New Zealand-born winemaker at Mission Hill Family Estate in West Kelowna, B.C., enjoys credit for the winery’s landmark 1992 Chardonnay that won the Avery trophy at the 1994 International Wine & Spirit Competition. Yet he joined the winery partway through harvest, putting the finishing touches on what was very much a work of great potential that was already in progress.

Similarly, the influx of talent to the Northwest today has both set the stage and—all things being equal—confirm the hopes placed in the region as it continues to evolve.

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