February 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Technical Spotlight: Irvine & Roberts

Estate winery focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Southern Oregon

 
by Andrew Adams
 
 

The short story is that it was all inspired by an intoxicating night in Rome.
The long story is that it started with a unique piece of property and came to fruition with a great deal of expert help.

     First the short story: Doug and Dionne Irvine were traveling through Europe with their daughters and met friends from Seattle in Rome. The group enjoyed a long dinner with many bottles of wine, including several by the Gaja family.

     The Irvines owned an 80-acre ranch in southern Oregon—a property they purchased in 2001 after successful careers in Southern California real estate development—but wine was still relatively unknown to them. “We weren’t really familiar with wine at the time, and I just loved it,” Doug Irvine told Wines & Vines. “Well, we drank a bunch of Gaja that night and I go, ‘Wow, this is great, I want to do this. This is the kind of wine we want to make.’ ”

     So, they went back to their property just outside of the city of Ashland in the Rogue River Valley AVA, planted a few acres in 2007 and formed Irvine Family Vineyards. The vineyard included a mix of varieties such as Tempranillo, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a small block of Nebbiolo because of that inspiring night in Rome. “Everybody, everybody, said don’t plant Nebbiolo, it won’t work here,” Irvine said. “And so, we planted the Nebbiolo and everyone was right; it didn’t work, and it was horrible.”

     Some varieties did thrive, however, and from that initial 4.5 acres of vineyards, the Irvines made some decent wine. By 2010 they were sharing it with friends and pouring it at community fundraisers held at their home. Those events were attended by some of the winemakers in the area’s small but growing wine industry. While the wines were passable, what really captured the winemakers’ attention was the unplanted hillside that rose to the east of the Irvines’ home. “They would say: ‘Do you know what you have here? You really need to check that out. It’s perfect for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,’ ” Irvine recalled.

   They did check it out, and the long story begins with the Irvines’ decision to take the idea of a little vineyard and expand it into what would become a 56-acre estate winery focused on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay by drawing on the expertise of some of the best winemakers and the leading vineyard development company in Oregon.

     The Irvines received some initial help from Dr. Greg Jones (now of Linfield College), a climatologist who was with Southern Oregon University at the time. Jones helped with some soil analysis and recommended wine grape varieties for the couple to plant on the property. Ken Wright, founder of Ken Wright Cellars in the Willamette Valley to the north, also said they had a site with excellent potential, and they should go for it. “Whenever we had a question, he had the time to answer, and was encouraging and positive,” Doug Irvine said.

     After deciding to plant, the couple hired Results Partners to develop the property. The company is the largest vineyard management and development company in Oregon and has developed more than 3,000 acres of vineyards.

     Of the varieties from the first small vineyard, Pinot and Chardonnay seemed to do the best and were a sensible match for the east-facing hillside, which is around 2,100 feet in elevation. The first planting there was a mix of different clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay covering 26 acres. The vineyard is certified through Salmon Safe and LIVE.

     Around the same time the vineyard was getting planted, the Irvines also met Michael Donovan, whom Doug Irvine referred to as “Mr. Oregon wine guy” and has worked in the Southern Oregon wine industry for decades, starting with the widely acclaimed restaurant and wine shop Chateaulin in Ashland. Before joining the Irvines, Donavan was the managing director and director of national sales and marketing for RoxyAnn Winery.

     The three all worked a harvest together in Burgundy in 2013, which helped further cement their vision of a winery.

     Donovan joined as managing director and brought on veteran winemaker Robert Brittan as consultant. Brittan would later design the estate winery.


Sibling partnership leads to expansion
Another pivotal addition was the second name on the label, Roberts. Doug Irvine’s sister, Kelly Roberts, is married to Duane Roberts, who is known as the “burrito king” for making a fortune developing frozen burritos in the mid-1960s. He later sold an even larger food-production company to ConAgra Foods Inc. in the 1990s.

     Roberts went on to form the sprawling real estate and investment firm Entrepreneurial Corporate Group and is the owner of the historic Mission Inn Hotel & Spa in Riverside, Calif. Duane and Kelly Roberts are philanthropists and significant donors to the Republican party. Following the 2016 election, Kelly Roberts had been expected to be named the U.S. ambassador to Slovenia until she had to withdraw from consideration because of the couple’s diverse investments.

     Doug Irvine said he and his wife worked with the Roberts on real estate deals in the past, and he had to temper his brother-in-law’s enthusiasm for investment or else they’d be trying to buy all the acreage in Southern Oregon. He said the partners now agree on the more modest goals of a boutique, estate winery, and that the Roberts have been instrumental in the development and expansion of the brand. Their partnership formed in 2012 and provided for the acquisition of a neighboring parcel of land for more estate vineyards as well as the new tasting room and winery.

     

     “They’ve played an incredible role in this process and the expansion,” Dionne Irvine said. “We really felt that the brand needed to reflect who we really were, which is both (names). It just seemed appropriate, especially with the opening of the winery and tasting room, that it reflect truly who we are.”

     The first commercial vintages of the estate wines were produced at custom-crush facilities, with the last being Barrel 42 in Medford, Ore. Plans for a new winery included a full-time winemaker, and the owners conducted a wide-ranging search, ultimately choosing in-state talent.
Vince Vidrine joined in spring 2017 and was able to put together the final blends of the previous vintage. Vidrine was working at Domaine Serene Winery as associate winemaker when he was hired by the Irvines and Donovan.

     Vidrine was the first student to graduate from Oregon State University with a degree in enology and viticulture, and he also worked at Domaine Henri Naudin-Ferrand in Burgundy, Staglin Family Vineyard in Napa Valley and several other wineries. Before joining Domaine Serene, he was the assistant winemaker at Brittan Vineyards winery in McMinnville, Ore.

     Vidrine said he recognized the opportunity to use what he’d learned in producing Burgundian variety wines and explore a new site with exceptional potential. While Southern Oregon has a reputation for being a warm area that is best suited to Tempranillo, Grenache or full-bodied Syrah, Vidrine said the Irvine & Roberts estate offers cool-climate potential in a place most would assume only has warm conditions.

     “In the Willamette Valley, I consider it a cool growing area, and I always found the warmer pockets in that cooler area to be very interesting. I think some of these cool pockets in a warmer area are also super compelling, and that’s what I think we are here,” he said. “We have really great vine balance here. The size of the vines corresponds very well to the amount of sunlight we get, and so we can really balance the fruit out. I’ve been really amazed and thankful how the sugars don’t race like I thought they would here.”

     Donovan said there’s a widely shared misconception that the Willamette Valley is the only suitable place for Pinot Noir in Oregon, but he said the variety accounts for more than half of what is grown in the southern half of the state. These grapes have been used by other Oregon wineries to blend in riper notes and color, but the southern half of the state is poised to stand on its own in terms of quality.

     Southern Oregon “is known for Viognier, or we’re known for Syrah or Bordeaux varieties—and we are, it just depends. It is such a huge appellation, but there are these micro-pockets that are just ideal for Pinot,” Donovan said. “Very few people until recently, in the past five to 10 years, have focused on making ultra-premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.”

     Vidrine also had experience working with Results Partners and said that helped make the decision to come to Southern Oregon easier, because he knew he’d be working with professionals who also have the resources to support quality grapegrowing.

     In an ever-tightening labor market, he said the company is able to get things done in the vineyard exactly when they need to. “That was a really positive part of the equation coming down here, knowing that while being focused on putting a winery together and establishing a style and helping to bring the brand forward, that we not just have reliable but excellent farming,” he said.

     Completed for the 2017 harvest, the winery is built into the hillside behind the tasting room and above the vineyard. Simple in design, the 11,000-square-foot facility is designed for flexibility. Vidrine said he shares Brittan’s “open building” approach to a winery, so everything can be refigured as needed.

     Construction was delayed a couple of years because planning officials in Jackson County had their hands full after Oregon residents voted to legalize recreational cannabis, and the state enjoyed a bit of a green rush as people sought to plant marijuana. “That just took a long time to get through the process. I think the county was overwhelmed with the marijuana industry sprouting up,” Doug Irvine said.

     But Donovan said the extra time helped ensure all the details were worked out on the winery, and the timing coincided with Vidrine being able to join the team.

Few bells and whistles
The production facility is a simple structure with a large open area for winemaking; two temperature-controlled barrel rooms and another area that can be used for private tastings. “It’s a great, simple winery,” Vidrine said. “It’s not a bells-and-whistles winery; it’s an intentional and flexible space designed for making great wine.”

     Current production is between 8,000 and 10,000 cases, but the winery could accommodate around 15,000 cases. “As it’s designed now, it’s nice there’s flexibility; we can move things around easily,” Vidrine said.

     When harvest is done, Vidrine can put all the support infrastructure and tanks into storage and then have a big empty space he can use as needed. “If we had tanks in here full-time, then they’d just be in the way during bottling season,” he said.

     With everything portable, the winery’s bottler, Signature Mobile Bottling, should be able to back into the cellar to make the bottling process easier and more efficient as well as protected from the weather. “There are some of us in wine production who just do not want to paint ourselves into a corner,” he said. “The idea here is we can optimize the space we have and not have lots of space that’s unused during the year.”

     The crush pad is on one end of the winery and covered by an overhang extending from the building. Grapes are harvested by hand into half-ton MacroBins that are delivered to the winery on tractors, typically early in the morning so the fruit is as cold as possible. All of the harvest equipment is from Fairfield, Calif.-based Euro-Machines, and the first step is a dosing hopper that empties onto a sorting table that leads to a Euro Select destemmer.

     Vidrine said he likes Euro-Machines in general because the supplier is eager and willing to work with the Oregon wine industry and quick to provide service or advice on how best to use its machines. He likes the Euro Select because of its multiple variable-frequency-drive motors that power two sets of paddles. “It really delicately knocks off the berries, so there’s lots of control when it comes to whole berries going in to the fermentor,” he said.

     The destemmer empties onto an elevated conveyor that in turn dumps directly into 2-ton, open-top tanks by JVNW, a tank manufacturer based in Canby, Ore. Vidrine particularly likes the small, fully jacketed tanks that also feature valve screens, temperature probes and variable-capacity lids. “When we drain and press, we drain right out and then tip right into the press, so there’s no dig-out on these,” he said of the small tanks.

     Vidrine also has 3- and 5-ton fermentors he uses for larger lots and when he wants a different tank ratio to adjust maceration. “It’s very useful to have a few different dimensions to work with.”

     The press is a 35-hectoliter Europress that can handle about 3 tons of red pomace or 2.5 tons of Chardonnay, which undergoes whole-cluster pressing followed by 24 hours of settling before fermenting in oak barrels.

     Vidrine is still getting to know the vineyard and said he purchased barrels from at least a dozen different coopers in 2017. He said he’s learning how to match vineyard blocks as well as clonal selections of the vineyard to particular coopers. All of the oak will be French, and with medium to lighter toasts and tight-grain staves. “We don’t want the structure of the barrels to drive the wine but to support the wine, and that goes for Pinot and Chardonnay.”

     Helping Vidrine in the cellar is assistant winemaker Ana Mantheakis. She received her master’s degree from the University of California, Davis, and worked harvests at in Oregon, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia and France before returning to her native state for her first full-time job.

     Mantheakis previously worked at Barrel 42, where she helped produce some of the Irvines’ earlier vintages of wine. “I actually punched down their Pinot in the past,” she said. “I’ve known them for a while, and I’m thrilled to be working for them.”

     The winery’s small lab is equipped with an Anton Paar densitometer, Thermo Fisher Scientific pH meter and Astoria-Pacific rAPID-T analyzer that can run glucose, fructose, NOPA and malic acid. For more complicated analysis, Vidrine sends samples to ETS Laboratories.

     During the most recent vintage, one of those more complicated analyses was for smoke taint compounds. When Wines & Vines visited the winery in early September, much of Southern Oregon was blanketed by a thick layer of smoke from several fires in the area. Vidrine was not too concerned but admitted any time there’s smoke on the grapes after véraison, there is some reason to worry. He said little to no ash accumulated on the grapes, however. “Most of the time, or most of the season, it’s been hazy but not intensely smoky,” he said.

     Donovan, who remembered the smoke-tainted vintage of 2013 said 2017, said there has been nothing like that year.

     In 2013, the Irvines opted not to release any of their Pinot Noir because they felt the wine did not meet their standards for quality. Dionne Irvine said that absorbing the cost on that vintage is one example of how the couple has sought to do everything the best they could in starting an estate winery. “If it’s not absolutely perfect, we’re just not going to do it,” she said.

(Editor's Note: This story was corrected on Feb. 12 to clarify that Pinot Noir accounts for more than half of all wine grapes grown in Southern Oregon.)

 
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