The play on words of the title references the Missoula Floods, a series of geographic events that are almost too odd to be believed, and about as grand a scale as the planet Earth can safely contain. Thankfully for anyone reading this, you weren’t around when it happened, but yo do get to enjoy the fruits of the terroir that it left behind in forming the diverse soils and exposures in which the grapevines of Pacific Northwest currently grow.
The article provides a primer on the spate of relatively new AVAs that have been approved throughout Oregon in recent years, many divvying up ever smaller chunks of the Willamette Valley. Check it out via the link below.
That’s the sense that I got, anyway, when I attended the virtual live tasting of wines celebrating their golden anniversary as a family run wine outfit. Leading us through the event were founders Susan Sokol Blosser and Bill Blosser and their second generation, Alison Sokol Blosser and brother Alex Sokol Blosser.
And I use “leading” in a very loose sense here. With all of the good-natured ribbing going on between that group, the proceedings had more of a fly-on-the-walll-during-a-family-meal vibe than that of a formal tasting event. All for the better, of course.
The Sokol Blosser clan first planted vines in Oregon 1971, with their first vintage produced in 1977. At the time, the wine industry in OR was nascent. Back when Francophile founder Bill was fond of wearing a beret (“Bill only took it off when he was taking a shower or going to bed,” according to Susan). Since then, of course, the Oregon wine scene has exploded, relatively speaking, to the point where the Sokol Blossers joked that they can on longer afford the land in their own backyard. “Mom and dad got really lucky choosing our spot. We called it the high rent district ” noted Alison.
“We were, I guess, certifiable,” mussed Bill, “but we also were dreamers; we loved wine. I got totally infatuated in wine and vineyards [in France]. As I watched the rest of the US wine industry re-blossom in the 1960s, it just got more… gnawing at the back of my mind.” Initially, the Sokol Blossers were going to try their viticultural hand in California, but they fell in with a small group that saw potential for Pinot Noir in Oregon – and through a UC Davis climate study that suggested that Dundee Hills was “as close to Burgundy as you were going to get in the United States” (Bill). Prescient thinking, as it turned out, of course.
There’s a lot more to the repartee, and to the SB story, and (in a manner in which I am pretty sure the family would approve) we’re going to tell it through the wines…
This Brut level, Méthode Traditionelle sparkling (their largest production) uses grapes picked early specifically for bubbly production, blending Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but it “also has a hint of Early Muscat, Müller-Thurgau, and Riesling” (Bill). The title is an homage to Sokol Blosser’s long-time support of the Prescott Western Bluebird Recovery Project (“we’ve fledged maybe 20, 30 bluebirds a year” Susan noted).
“When Alison and I took over as co-presidents in 2008… my mom likes to say it took two people to take over for her… Alison and I made a promise that before we turned things over to the next generation, we would be known as a sparkling wine house.” -Alex
“Actually, our first promise was that we would not kill each other!”-Alison
“We always thought that sparkling should be part of our program. We didn’t have the courage to do it, because sparkling is difficult; you make any mistake, and it shows up.” -Bill
Floral and very, very zesty, this bubbly is bursting with lime, lemon pith, green apple, and pear action – all of it delicious. And it is fresh, fresh, FRESH. While the finish isn’t long, it is quite pure, very refreshing, and extremely easy to like.
Alex joked that “making wine is like the excitement of the World Series, the circus, and the business of a kitchen in a restaurant, all rolled into one.”
But this Pinot release doesn’t give any hint of the chaos that he insinuated. Made with a combination of native “house” yeast, commercial yeast, and ambient ferments, there’s a nose of tea leaf, bergamot, and black cherry fruits. The palate showcases noticeable structure, intense freshness, and even some astringency that suggests a nice long aging curve ahead of it. With chewy red berry fruit flavors, enhanced with smokey spice, this one is Big (for OR), but also juicy, and focused.
“When we first planted, we all heard the stories from Burgundy, that the grand cru would be the first five rows… and we’ve seen over our fifty years that it’s true. We do see it over the individual blocks in our vineyard. Every year they just keep coming out and proving that they’re the real thing.” -Bill
The Old Vineyard Block Pinot Noir was harvested from the initial section of the vineyard planted by Bill and Susan in the 70s (subsequently replanted 2007-2009 on cuttings from vines taken from the original plantings, heritage-style). Several clones are at play here, including Pommard, Wädenswil 1A, and “a Gamay like-clone we identify as Pinot Droit.” They recreated the original label for this 50th anniversary bottling, giving the package a rather retro-cool feel. This elegant red sports intense cherry fruit aromas, and comes off as very focused and pure. That bergamot thing is there again, along with lots of dusty, herbal spice tinges. So fresh and delicious, it absolutely dances on the tongue. I love the combination of density and transparency – and the incredibly long finish.
What’s an anniversary tasting without a library bottling to show off, right? Alex got a rather auspicious start to his wine-making career at SB with this vintage. “What a gift!” he reminisced. The source block was replanted in two sections, during 1998 and 2000. “This was a great vintage. Period. I will most likely never see another vintage like this in my life time” (Alex).
This one is in tip-top shape, folks. It’s got spices galore, that are all over the tea spectrum. There’s an elegant, almost austere nose here, with cherry and red berry fruits, earthiness, and hints of plum. The great mouthfeel is equal parts supple, earthy, structured, and vivacious. It has an almost dark chocolate bitterness woven into on the palate, as well, with freshness and even tinges of youthfulness showing up from time to time. The finish whispers more than it shouts, but it’s got intriguing things to say, and lots on its mind.
“Craig Camp, who has been heralded for turning around Troon Vineyards in Oregon’s Applegate Valley points out that in their replanted vineyards “biodynamics is the framework we integrated into our process. Regenerative organic is the next step.” Wine Industry Network.
Please join us for a panel discussion about regenerative agriculture with Paul Skinner, Paul Dolan and Jordon Lonborg and myself as we discus the future of winegrowing.
After so many of these tastings, can I tell you that they substitute for getting my boots on the ground in Oregon’s vineyards? Of course not. But they sure beat flipping through the pages of books about Oregon wine country (even if those books are pretty sweet)!
While I’m no stranger to the less-explored side of Oregon wine country, a lot of consumers are, seeing little past that state’s production of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Not that spending time just on those two varieties will do you wrong when it comes to Oregon, of course; but with a statewide economic impact of over $5.5 billion, and vineyards that support over 80 different wine grape varieties, it behooves wine lovers to branch out a little bit when it comes to this gem of the Pacific NW.
Actually, the Nielson data would disagree with me somewhat about consumers not getting cozy with Oregon wine. As of 2019, U.S. retail sales of Oregon wines (as measured in dollars), rose 13.8% compared to total table wine category performance of just 0.9%; and the average bottle price of OR wine sits at a pretty $16.41, well over double the $7.62 SRP for the average domestic bottle. So… the time seems kind of ripe for Oregon’s lesser-known side to start getting showed off to the masses. And as this tasting’s wines demonstrated, that side looks just as good as the one that Oregon’s been showing us with its PN and PG highlights…
Chardonnay has been planted in Willamette Valley for quite some time (coming in along with Pinot Noir in the 1970s and 1980s), but the bombastic “California” style was all the rage then, and since that isn’t exactly what OR does, they turned their attention to promoting Pinot Gris instead. Which is a kind of a shame, since Chardonnay is proving to be northern Oregon’s most exciting grape right now. As Walter Scott winemaker Ken Pahlow described this dry farmed site, “we’re kind of an island, exposed to a lot of the elements. We’re only about 45 miles from the coast” and their soils are “riddled with rock; some can be as big as a car. This vineyard shows off all the things we love about Eola-Amity Hills Chardonnay. We’re 60 years in, and we’re still discovering the best sites.”
Chardonnay seems to love it there. This one is exploding with citrus, lemon peel, lemon blossom, tangerine, white peach, mild herbs, chalk, and saline notes. So light on its feet, but it has breadth along with the apricot, lime, apple, lemon, and savory action on the palate. This is at once delicious, focused, and superbly crafted. Enticing stuff.
Not an unexplored grape for Oregon, of course, but it is from one of teh state’s newest AVAs (officially recognized in 2020). 2019 was a more classic (i.e., cool) vintage for this area of northern Willamette Valley. Combined with its fog/marine layer, high rainfall, and close proximity to the Columbia Gorge, “the property heats up faster than the AVAs to the south” according to winemaker Chad Stock. This warm up is followed by a huge diurnal shift, with dips of 30F not uncommon (so, hellloooo, acidity!).
Floral, with lovely wild raspberry fruit and hints of pencil lead (a signature of the area), and a touch of leather, this is lithe and vibrant, with cherry, pomegranate, and more raspberry action on the palate. The tea-like tannins have both texture and personality. This is on the more moderate, Burgundian side, and full of energy and elegance.
Speaking of the Columbia Gorge, here’s a rare (just 70 cases) treat from that area, from a vineyard planted in 2011. Founder Steven Thompson sums up the Columbia Gorge thusly: “it’s an incredibly exciting place to live and grow wine. It’s home to the ‘O.G.’ vineyards.”
Lifted, incredibly aromatic, lithe, and floral (think violets, roses, and lavender), strawberry and cherry abound and everything is bright and focused here. One of the more structured Grenache wines that you’ll encounter, the finish is remarkably long, full of lavender and cherries and a sense of indefatigable energy. Pretty, and pretty gorgeous.
Oregon’s oldest estate winery has the benefit of farming 60 year old Malbec vines. Dyson Demara (HillCrest’s owner, who worked for Pine Ridge and Robert Mondavi Winery) was impressed with his site’s Malbec early on: “it was quite phenomenal from a very early stage. Good wines taste like a grape, great wines taste like a place.” With little flat land, the area remains relatively unexplored by big wine companies, supporting a lot of variety diversity (“its like a playground here”).
Fermented in concrete, this red gives off stewed red, black and blue plums, mulberry, balsam, and sagebrush, with meat, smoke, and tobacco notes as well. This is mature, for sure, but maintains some nice savory and juicy qualities. The stewed fruit continues through the palate, and the long finish. There’s very good freshness and minerality among the chewiness, too. This is going to be an acquired taste, though, for those who enjoy their reds with more age on them.
From Belmont Vineyard, just 104 cases were made by Juan Pablo Valot, who is originally from Argentina. Southern OR is warmer tan its northern counterpart, and capable of bigger reds like this one (from what might be the state’s most impressive-performing red grape variety, all things considered).
Smoky! Meaty, too. Spice out the ya-ya (pepper, tobacco). Raspberry and blackberry fruits mingle with the toast and smoke. Really, this is like tending over pork in the smoker. Savory, with some plushness, and leathery tannins, the finish is long and powerful. This is for those who love their Syrah meaty, muscular, and a little forceful.
This pricey number hails from SJR Vineyards, in Walla Walla’s Rocks District. 100% whole cluster and 100% native fermentation, with 30 months in 100% new French Oak that you absolutely cannot tell is new. Co-founder Billo Naravane noted that, due to current regulations, he has to “declassify” the wine to the greater WWV AVA. At just 3700 acres, the area is realtively small. “The cobblestones are roughly the size of a baseball,” emphasized Naravane. so it was expensive to plant, and the vines are constantly under water stress due to how deep the stone layer is. The grapes absorb the ambient heat from all of the rocks, lengthening development.
White and black pepper, dried herbs, smoke, game, and lavender, with leather, meat, and dense, plummy fruit, this one comes off immediately as assertive and polished. Silky and concentrated, but with lift, minerality, and savory and saline notes that dance around the blackberry fruits on the palate, it’s delicious, all the way through its incredibly long finish.
“Troon Vineyard is a story of rebirth, regeneration, and rediscovery,” reads the lede in the Oregon Wine Press article “Troon Renaissance” in their July issue about the transformation of Troon Vineyard. The author, Barbara Barrielle, could not have better captured the spirit of what has been accomplished at this small vineyard in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon.
When I first visited Troon Vineyard in 2016, I felt a connection to the vineyard from the first day because I could feel the potential of this site. I can still clearly remember that day as I stared at the vineyard with the dramatic backdrop of Grayback Mountain and the Siskiyou Range. I felt that this was not only a site with potential, but with soul. The serene beauty of the Applegate Valley is unmatched by other American wine regions and, while the site and the valley were beautiful, the condition of the vineyard was not. This was a vineyard that needed to be born again.
In 2016, the rebirth of Troon Vineyard began. This was no easy task as the owner at that time did not share my vision of the potential of the vineyard and the wines. For years, Troon had been focused on what I would call “gimmick” marketing. Funny labels and contrived marketing spin were the strategies. Also, key staff members had been driven off by, shall we say, less than enlightened management practices. I still cringe when I think of the loss of one, particularly talented staff member due to insensitive treatment. Fortunately, at least, she moved on to another winery in the Applegate Valley and remains a friend to this day. I had been brought in to put the business in order so that it could be sold. I saw it as a short-term project, and I was getting ready to move on when Denise and Bryan White arrived and decided to purchase Troon. In the meantime, I'd fallen in love with this vineyard. Thankfully, they did too. For it would demand a labor of love to not only restore the vineyard but to restore honor to a tarnished brand.
Troon Vineyard had been in a dark period for some time. To say the brand was tarnished would be an understatement. I was brought in to put a bandaid on it and then to move on once first-aid was applied. That’s all the owner at that time wanted, and I just wanted to get out of Napa and have some time to find a compelling vineyard in the Willamette Valley. It did not take me long to realize I had found that vineyard, but it was in the Applegate Valley. Without an owner that is connected to the vineyard and the soil, there is no hope. The vineyard convinced me to hope anyway.
What is now Troon Vineyard was divided at that time. The west ranch was being farmed using the nuclear option by the family that had purchased it in a sale that had broken the property apart. Knowing little about farming, they pushed the vines to their limit using every chemical trick and allowing the vines to overproduce and exhaust themselves. I’ll always remember reading their spray list and seeing a product called Venom. Any product with such a name needed to be checked out. The first thing I saw on the product label was that it killed bees - all of them. These poor plants would never completely recover from this abuse, but, hopefully, the soils and the bees could. Fortunately, the east ranch was still under our control, and there I pulled the plug on chemicals in the vineyard and the cellar. It was not an easy task as the winemaking and vineyard team at the time had never been asked to aspire to make great wines, so they had not.
We had to not only regenerate the site, but the people that worked it.
In 2017, the regeneration of Troon Vineyard began. The essential step was the purchase of the Troon Winery and the west ranch by the Whites. They had already purchased the half of the original property that had been sold off and then they purchased the Troon Winery site to reunite the entire estate. The other big step was the arrival of biodynamic consultant Andrew Beedy. A huge leap forward was made as, now that both vineyard blocks were under our control, we were able to move immediately and totally to organic and biodynamic agriculture on the entire estate. Then plans were initiated for a range of research projects to dig into every aspect of the vineyard. There was a lot to learn.
This year also was the start of our compost program, which required us to produce over two hundred tons of biodynamic compost a year. That’s a lot of manure. Fortunately for us, our neighbor here in the Applegate Valley is the Noble Organic Dairy, with thousands of cows eager to contribute to our cause.
Regenerative agriculture became the foundation of everything we did, and biodynamics provided the framework to build on. We were searching for the soul of this vineyard. It had been there all along, but we had to rediscover it.
In 2018, the rediscovery of Troon Vineyard began. Vineyard Soil Technologies from Napa Valley arrived and dug over seventy five-feet deep soil pits. A team of soil scientists spent a week in the pits researching every aspect of the vineyard. At the same time, we began our project with Biome Makers, as they created an annual database on the bacteria, fungi, and yeasts that made our soils unique. Master viticulturist Jason Cole came on board to manage the redevelopment of the vineyard. We wanted to understand how every aspect of the vineyard changed as we implemented biodynamics. We needed all the data we could obtain to help us make the right decisions.
There were a lot of decisions to be made as we had decided to replant the entire vineyard. The existing vines were simply beyond saving. The biggest issue was extensive red blotch virus infection, but the vines had also been weakened by the years of convention farming. Weak vines are easy targets for other vine diseases, and these vines had become an encyclopedia of afflictions. As devastating and expensive it was to have to replant the entire vineyard, there was a silver lining as we could now choose the right varieties for this site and plant them the right way. Instead of having to deal with a hodgepodge of varieties, some less than ideal for the site, we could replant with a plan. That plan would be to focus on the varieties of southern France. Those varieties would include syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, cinsault, counoise, tannat, malbec, negrette, bourboulenc, marsanne, roussanne, viognier, clairette blanche, bourboulenc, vermentino (rolle) and picpoul. Many of these varieties will not appear as single-variety wines but will be part of blends.
Blends are to become the heart of Troon Vineyard as we create the new Troon.
In 2019 we recreated Troon Vineyard as the replanting project began as we planted ten new acres of vines. Some of these were new areas, never before planted, and others were replanting of vineyards we had removed the year before. It is always a sad experience to remove vines - even sick ones. Planting new vines is the flip-side of that emotion as there is nothing that fuels the spirit of optimism more than putting vines in the ground. We are planting not only for ourselves but for future generations. There are few things that “pay it forward” more than planting a vineyard. These vines will produce wines we’ll never taste, made by people we’ll never meet.
The work that began in 2016 was recognized in 2019 as we were awarded our first Demeter Biodynamic® and CCOF Organic certifications. There are separate certifications for the winery and vineyard. Therefore, we received our full certifications for the winery, but our “in-transition” certifications for the vineyard. We’ll get the final Demeter Biodynamic® certification for the vineyard in 2020 as it takes three full years of biodynamic farming, and in 2019 we were a few months short of that goal.
The older vines were now really showing the impact of our biodynamic regenerative agriculture program. They were healthier and producing better fruit. Our good friends in the Applegate Valley, Barbara and Bill Steele, at Cowhorn Vineyard, had graciously agreed to sell us some of their biodynamic syrah, grenache, marsanne, roussanne, and viognier to get us through the shortfalls of our own production as we replanted. So we had grapes from our own estate that were dramatically improved in quality combined with excellent fruit from Cowhorn to work with, but, as with a great violin, you need a virtuoso to play it to show what it can do. That talent arrived as this vintage was made under the guidance of new Troon Vineyard winemaker Nate Wall. Nate is an incredibly sensitive and passionate winemaker whose love for the site equals the Whites and my own. His background in science (B.S. in Biology and M.S. in Environmental Engineering) was ideal for our philosophy of searching for the science in biodynamics. His extensive experience making pinot noir in the Willamette Valley provided the light, minimalist touch needed for wines from the Applegate Valley.
The confluence of a healthier vineyard, better fruit, and the right people made the 2019 vintage a milestone vintage for Troon Vineyard. The wines from this vintage finally give a glimpse of what this special vineyard is capable of producing. The first of our new generation of wines included wines released in 2020: Piquette, Pét tanNat (100% tannat pét nat), and Kubli Bench blends that included an Amber (orange wine) and a Rosé. Another orange wine, Amber Amphora Vermentino, has been aging on the skins and stems in three amphorae for the better part of a year and will be released this fall. While most of the 2019 red wines (which we are equally excited about) will not be released for a few years, we did produce a 100% carbonic maceration Grenache, which we are enjoying chilled this summer.
So in 2020, Troon Vineyard has been reborn, we have regenerated the vineyard and the wines and created a team that has rediscovered the soul of a vineyard. Joining that team in 2020 is the energetic and creative assistant winemaker Sarah Thompson. This will be the year we receive our full Demeter Biodynamic® certification that will recognize years of hard work and investment. But these achievements only mean that we have arrived at the starting line of a race that never finishes. There is no such thing as a finish line in winemaking.
Regeneration is a constant. Every year it begins again only building on the work of the preceding years. Agriculture is a relay race. We can only do our best for the land, the plants, and our wines and then, finally, pass the baton on to the next runner. Hopefully, they’ll run the race with the same intensity that we ran our leg.
Planting mourvèdre at Troon Vineyard as dawn breaks over the Siskiyou Mountains
It was before 6 a.m., but there were already a lot of holes. Dawn had not broken, but a dim light was just starting to flow over the mountains. Hundreds of holes had already been dug. Around thirty people moved their spades rhythmically, almost silently, as they dug twelve-inch holes, one after another. This is how you plant, or should I say, how they plant a vineyard.
Last week at Troon Vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, we planted about a third of the vines we need to plant this month. That was over four thousand holes, dug by hand in less than two day’s work. But digging the hole was only the beginning. Once the holes are dug, they must each receive, by hand, a shovel full of Biodynamic compost mixed with Azomite and Calphos and then a vine needs to be dropped in each hole. On each vine, the biodegradable root cover had to be removed by hand due to the requirements of our organic certification. Then, on their knees, with their hands, each hole is filled and the vine is in its new home.
One day these vines will give birth to wines served in some of the best restaurants in the world. But it is these people in the pre-dawn hours with their spades and on their hands and knees that brought these vines to live in this vineyard.
Winery tours and articles like to feature barrels, tanks, and machines, but it is the hands of the people that craft them that make wines of place come to life. From the moment the vines are planted, to when they are tended in the vineyards, to the cellar work that turns grapes into wine, the best wines are handmade wines.
Hands, not things make memorable wines. Hands hold the spades that dug the holes to plant them, hands shovel the compost to help them grow, hands prune and position the shoots as they grow, hands pick the grapes, hands sort the fruit that arrives at the winery and hands hold the glasses when it’s time to savor the hand labor that put the wine in those glasses. Making and enjoying wine is a hands-on experience.
The thousands of holes dug by dozens of hands will start to produce wine in three years. Many hands will touch each of these vines as they grow over the next years. Your delight and pleasure in the wine they will one day produce will be the result of the work those hands. Hand to hand to hand and, finally, to the glass in your hand.
Wines of place, with terroir, touch you because of the many touches that have brought the wine to you.
Planting grenache noir at Troon Vineyard
Placing new vines one-by-one in the freshly dug holes. Each of the wrappers on the roots also had to be removed.
Standing there looking at the now real Troon Vineyard block 9, newly planted with mourvèdre, was an emotional experience. So much planning, work and investment transformed from an idea into a vineyard. There in front of me, I could finally feel the wine that would come from these vines. Putting a plant in the ground that hopefully will be producing wines long after I’m gone is a very different experience than planting a crop that will be replaced after one season. But it was the day before that we got to know each of these vines.
The process of preparing these vines for their new home begins the day before planting. Troon winemaker Nate Wall and assistant winemaker Cary Willeford and I spent the day preparing and applying a series of Biodynamic Preparations to the new plants. First was Biodynamic Barrel Compost, which we dynamized for twenty minutes by hand before applying to the roots of each plant to give their microbiome a head start. Meanwhile, we had been preparing a tea of Biodynamic Preparation 508 (equisetum or horsetail). Which was also dynamized by hand then sprayed on the leaves and graft junctions. This preparation helps the plant ward off fungal diseases like powdery mildew. The time, care and intention that went into this process I believe are integral to what makes Biodynamics such a powerful agricultural system. The culture we built by providing care and attention to each plant changes our relationship to them and to each other.
Biodynamics achieves many goals. Your soils are healthier, your plants are healthier, your fruit tastes better, your wine is better and, obviously, its better for the environment. It is a lot of work, but it is also a lot of fun. You feel good about what you’re doing everyone feels pride in a shared worthwhile endeavor.
Yesterday afternoon all of our existing vineyards were also treated with Biodynamic Barrel Compost, we did not want them to feel left out. After all, plants do talk to each other you know.
Troon assistant winemaker Cary Willeford and winemaker Nate Wall apply Biodynamic Barrel Compost to the roots of the new vines.