The Seekers

A willful grape meets its match in Yamhill County, Oregon's winemakers.

East of the state capital, Salem, the landscape round Oregon's Highway 22 degenerates into an unattractive jumble of quasi-countryside dotted with semi-suburbs and bisected by faux freeways. As soon as you turn north onto old U.S. 99, everything changes: The flat terrain shrugs up into gentle hummocks and furrows; the untidy ticky-tacky of sprawl is gone, replaced by widely scattered homes and farmsteads, set among fields and groves deployed so tastefully you suspect a divine hand—or Steven Spielberg's art director—has been at work here. This is farm country as city folk fancy it: peaceful, prosperous, calming to the soul. The look of bucolic bounty is illusory. There have been farmers, ranchers, and dairyfolk in Yamhill County for 150 years. A lot went bankrupt, and none got rich. As in other rural areas of America, there's been a steady drain of population as seekers of opportunity and the good life drifted off to the big city, Portland. But in the last quarter century, that outflow has been countered by seekers of another kind: people who'd done well in the lottery of life but found themselves dissatisfied with the usual prizes—who happened on this landscape and found it a fitting backdrop for their own dreams, settled in to stay, and in the process have made the land flourish as never before. The tool of transformation was grapes. You can grow wine grapes under many climatic conditions, but they do best where sun, soil, rain, and seasons are all moderate, in areas for the most part a few degrees either side of the 45th parallels of north or south latitude. A few varieties refuse to grow anywhere else, and supreme among these is the pinot noir, a delicate beauty of a vine which, perversely, refuses to give its best unless grown under climatic conditions that periodically threaten to wipe out its modest crop entirely. France's Burgundy region gave birth to this grape, and it still yields its greatest wines there. But in the 1970s it was noticed that no spot on earth resembled Burgundy more in climate and terrain than the Dundee Hills of Yamhill County, Ore. The very first plantings of pinot noir in Oregon showed that the geographic resemblance carried over into the bottle. At their best, Oregon pinots could offer much the same intoxicating bouquet, the throng of subtle flavors, the ineffable velvety texture that make great burgundy great. The boom was on. As booms go, it's been remarkably quiet. It costs a lot of money and time to make a vineyard where none was before, and the pinot noir grape is so willful and dainty—two to three tons per acre is a good crop, where other varieties might produce seven or eight—that no one is going to get rich growing it. Pinot is a grape for people who love a challenge and are willing to wait for years to see their investment pay a dividend. It is a grape, in short, for people with a comfortable bank balance—who can afford to do something for the pure pleasure of doing it well, for whom a cash payoff is a bonus, not a matter of survival. Ned Lumpkin started dreaming of growing grapes when he encountered Germany's noblest wine region, the Rheingau, while serving with the U.S. Army there in the early 1960s. When he returned to Seattle, there was no established fine-wine tradition in the Northwest, and exploratory visits to Oregon's Milton-Freewater country and the Washington desert near Vantage yielded little of promise to set against the immediate pressures of making a living and raising a family. Many contemporaries had already cut loose from professional careers to follow the siren piping of the grape when a visit to the Oregon wine country four years ago goaded Lumpkin and his wife Kirsten into action. They have made up for lost time. A steep, south-facing hillside northwest of Carlton, Ore., was found and acquired in November 1999. Planted in April 2000, it produced its first nine tons of pinot in the fall of 2002. Three went for blending to respected winery Panther Creek, three more to an even bigger name in Oregon wine, Ponzi. The final three ended up in the fermenters of a brand-new facility called the Carlton Wine Studio, a full-service winery built to order by Lumpkin and winemaker partner Eric Hamacher to serve the needs of the highest of high-end boutique vintners too small or too undercapitalized to build or buy their own facilities. In addition to 15,000 cases of their own wines, Carlton's owners, among others, played host this harvest to legendary mistress of wine Lynn Penner-Ashe's first vintage since laying down the reins at top producer Rex Hill; California winemaker Tony Soter's first Oregon-crafted pinots and chardonnays; Jack Bagdade's superb Domaine Meriwether sparkling wine; and the sultry reds of "Rh�Ranger" Andrew Rich. Even by Oregon standards, the Studio's outputs are small, but in Yamhill County size hardly matters, because nobody's really big. Status depends first on quality results, but dedication and aspiration aren't far behind. More than those in any other wine region in the world perhaps, these growers and winemakers are seeking not just fine wine but an ideal: bottle by bottle, grape by grape. Open one of their finer efforts and you'll be amazed at what 25 short years and immeasurable dedication can achieve.

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