Every June, 270 members of the wine industry get to attend the Oregon Pinot Camp in the Willamette Valley. Last year, Cayman Distributors Limited’s wine sales representative Lee Quessy was lucky enough to get a ‘silver bullet’ invite from Erath Winery. As a result of his experience, the Cayman Islands has been lucky to see a number of new fine Oregon wines on the shelves of BlackBeard’s and other establishments licensed to sell wine on Grand Cayman.
What if, as an adult, you could take the experience of a childhood summer camp, add lots of learning, great wines, great foods and a group of people who are as much into wine as you were? That’s exactly what Cayman Distributors Sales Representative Lee Quessy got to do last summer when he was selected to attend the Oregon Pinot Camp.
Held 23 to 26 June 2012, the annual camp is organised by a group of 50 Oregon wineries. The three-day camp includes workshops, winery visits, wine tastings and dinner.
Limited to 270 people every year, gaining admission to the camp is not easy, Quessy said. Only wine industry professionals are accepted and the normal application process is difficult. However, each of the participating wineries gets some ‘silver bullet’ invitations, meaning they can invite wine professionals from the distributors with which they do business.
“I was a silver bullet attendee through Erath Winery,” Quessy said.
Although its wine industry really didn’t start until the early 1970s, Oregon has become an increasingly significant American wine-producing state. Because of its cool climate, certain grapes grow better than others, with varietals like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir doing better than grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, which need a hotter climate.
Many of the pioneers of Oregon’s wine industry filtered up from California and had to learn from scratch about wine growing in the region, which some people thought could not be done. Because the odds of becoming successful were against all of these Oregon wine-making pioneers, the industry was built on a foundation of collaboration.
Quessy said that although he has found wine making in California more status driven, in Oregon it is more family like. Now days, it’s the children of those early pioneers at the helm of Oregon’s wineries and they continue to collaborate in a way few wine producing regions do, with Oregon Pinot Camp being just one of those ways.
For Quessy – a certified sommelier – the Oregon Pinot Camp was not only a chance to learn things about Oregon and its wines, but also to learn about some over-arching aspects of wine making, like vitaculture. Although Oregon produces a number of different wines, it is in Pinot Noir that the state has really made a name for itself.
“I think Oregon is the New World home of Pinot Noir,” Quessy said, noting that Oregon’s primary wine grape growing region and Burgundy, France, are both on the 45th parallel north and that climate temperatures area about the same.
More than 82 per cent of Oregon grape plantings are in the Willamette Valley in Western Oregon, sheltered in between a coastal mountain range to the west and the Cascade mountains to the east. Almost 90 per cent of those plantings are Pinot Noir.
The climate of Willamette Valley is mild year-round and it has a long growing season that lasts between 150 and 180 days, perfect for Pinot Noir.
Although North America’s Pacific Northwest is known for its heavy rainfall, Oregon actually has a very dry summer.
“Oregon gets more rain than Burgundy, but most of it is in the winter,” Quessy said. “In June, July, August and September, it’s almost drought conditions in Oregon.”
Still, rain is a threat to wine grapes in Oregon.
“One thing you have to worry about in Oregon is if the rains come early,” Quessy said. “If you can’t get the grapes ripe before the rains come, it’s over.”
Like in Burgundy, year-to-year variations in climate can affect vintages in Oregon and Quessy said that Pinot Noir is one of those wines that really reflects the climate conditions in which the grapes were grown.
Just like the limestone soil in Burgundy brings out a mineral expression of Pinot Noir grapes grown there that can’t be replicated in other places, Oregon’s rich and varied soil types give Oregon Pinot Noir wine a unique taste profile
When trying to classify the taste of Oregon Pinot Noirs, Quessy said they encompass a bit of both Burgundy and California Pinot Noirs.’
“It has the acidity of the wines from Burgundy and the fruit forwardness of Pinot Noir from California, but it definitely has its own style.”
During the three days of the camp, the attendees boarded a yellow school bus each morning to visit some of the participating wineries, where they got to speak with the winemakers, taste the new wine releases and sample some of the great vintages from the wine libraries. It was during these visits that Quessy found several Oregon wines that he liked and was able to get added to the Cayman Distributors’ portfolio.
Over a lunch at Abacus, Quessy and Cayman Distributors Wine Marketing Manager Jodie Petts tasted and spoke about some of the Oregon wines it carries, including some of the new ones. Some of the wines are available retail, while others will only be available at the new West Indian Wine Company in Camana Bay.
One such wine is Longplay 2010 ‘Lia’s Vineyard’ Pinot Noir, which earned 91 points from Wine Spectator. This elegant wine, from the Chehalem Mountains AVA, has distinctive floral aromas and cherry flavours.
“It’s perfectly balanced with a nice acid backbone,” said Quessy. “It’s silky smooth on the mid-palate and it has a long, long finish.”
Only 378 cases of the wine were made and Cayman Distributors got 20 of those cases and will showcase it only at the West Indian Wine Company.
Another of the new wines that Quessy discovered during Pinot Camp is 2010 Alexana ‘Ravana Vineyard’ Pinot Noir, from the Dundee Hills AVA, which is known for its volcanic soil. This is a lush wine with body, great balance, and spicy cherry flavours. It’s a good example of the Burgundy-meets-California style in Oregon and it just recently received a whopping 94-point rating from Wine Spectator.
Even though the Alexana was young, it was still drinking well.
“That’s a good thing about a lot of Oregon Pinot Noir,” Quessy said. “You can drink it right way or keep it 10 years.”
This wine won’t be available retail, but it will be in the West Indian Wine Company and at several restaurants, including Abacus.
Although the Longplay and Alexana are two higher end and relatively rare Oregon Pinot Noirs, the state makes plenty of affordable options that are carried by BlackBeard’s and Big Daddy’s. One of those wines is Oregon’s other Pinot, Pinot Gris, which is made with the same grape as Pinot Grigio.
The 2010 Erath Pinot Gris [Retail: $18.59] is an easy-drinking white wine with crisp acidity and flavours of green apple, lemon and banana. Served cold, it’s perfect for outdoor drinking in Cayman and with the seafood dishes served here.
Erath’s Estate Selection Pinot Noir [$32.59] is a step up over its regular Pinot Noir [$23.59] and is a wine that reflects its origins. With flavours of ripe cherries, vanilla and black tea, this is another wine that is unmistakably from Oregon.
Cooper Hill Pinot Gris [$16.59] and Pinot Noir [$20.59] are both easy-drinking wines that are perfect for having a casual glass on their own in Cayman’s hot climate. The winery has a reserve line called Cooper Mountain Vineyards and its Reserve Pinot Noir [$25.59] is one of the good Pinot Noir values available here in Cayman. Rated 93 points by Wine & Spirits, the 2010 vintage reflects a little of the earthiness that separates Oregon Pinot Noirs from most California Pinot Noirs.
Like many Oregon wineries, the Cooper Hills/Mountain winery is biodynamic and sustainable, something that seems to come naturally in the state.
Quessy said he thinks Oregon wines have turned the corner as far as being recognised.
“I think Oregon is a trending wine region,” he said. “People are taking notice. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s starting to become mainstream.”