Against the Current

Despite troubled times, an Oregon winemaker comes up trumps.

When a joke lasts nearly 2,000 years, it must contain a grain of truth. It was about 75 A.D. that the Iberian wit Martial remarked of some Roman fop that he had chosen the fastest way of turning a large fortune into a small one: by planting a vineyard and setting up as a winemaker. Martial's snotty bon mot is as current today as ever. But, far from sneering at those who persist in pouring their cash into the endless pursuit of vinous perfection, wine lovers should express their gratitude, because it's precisely idealists with deep pockets who keep the pursuit of fine wine alive during times like ours, when the bottom line seems to say that plonk's all that pays. A remarkable case study is unfolding in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where the wine boom of the 1990s led to egregious overplanting, and the crash of the 2000s is seeing vineyards ripped out or abandoned and ripe fruit rotting on the vine. In such an economic climate, it's usually midrange-to-marginal operations that suffer most. That description fits to a T one of Oregon's oldest wine operations, Yamhill County's Chateau Benoit. Founded in 1972, Chateau Benoit holds a place in Northwest wine history for its pioneering experiments with European white-grape varieties like Mller-Thurgau and sylvaner, but in more recent times, no one would have placed it among the state's leading producers. Enter, in 1999, Dr. Reverend Robert Pamplin, owner of the nuts-and-berries conglomerate Columbia Empire Farms and one of Oregon's leading, indeed, all but omnipresent, philanthropists. Although not himself a wine-industry vet-eran, Pamplin approached his new venture in the same spirit that has motivated most successful Northwest wine operations: Realizing that Washington and Oregon winemakers cannot compete with California (or Australia, for that matter) in the low-end mass-production market, he instructed winemaker Scott Huffman to do what needed doing to turn Chateau Benoit into a producer of fine wines. Like many leading Northwest winemakers, Huffman is a graduate of the famed University of California at Davis enology program. Unlike many Davis graduates, he also spent years as a professional vineyard manager. When unleashed by Pamplin, he attacked Chateau Benoit's credibility problem at the root, ripping out and replacing inferior vine varieties on the winery's own properties, planting new vines on promising sites, and identifying and contracting with growers who had a record of producing superior fruit. Recognizing that reviving a label's tarnished reputation can take years if not decades, Huffman and Pamplin decided to start an entirely new one parallel to the old, specializing in the most challenging area of Oregon viticulture: single-vineyard pinot noirs. This summer the first results of the new program are being released under the Anne Amie label: four 2001 single-vineyard pinots that stake a claim to quality terrain among Oregon's finest. The four bottlings are remarkably individual, each foregrounding distinctly different aspects of the mercurial pinot noir grape, while achieving a satisfying balance of their own. The most "mainstream" of the four comes from a 12-year-old pinot vineyard called Yamhill Springs, which expresses a fine balance of flavors and aromas despite a whopping 13.8 percent alcohol content; perhaps because Huffman held the crop down to a ruth- less 1 ton per acre (2.5 to 3 is typical even among better producers). The wine from the Laurel Vineyard is utterly different in character. Situated at 1,000 feet in elevation, fruit may not even ripen at Laurel in a cool year, but in a hot summer like 2001's, it produces lush, fruity, fragrant, mouth-filling wine that one could take for syrah, not pinot, and that cries out, "Drink me! Now!" Strikingly different again is the wine from organically farmed Hawk's View: Relatively pale in color, it is the most restrained of the four in flavor, but its firm tannic tang promises years of development in bottle. Doe Ridge, the closest vineyard to Chateau Benoit's winery, features an agreeably earthy, musky flavor reminiscent of today's small-production artisanal reds from pinot's home turf, Burgundy. All four Anne Amie wines were produced in comparatively tiny quantities and are priced at a daunting $40 per bottle. But then, they were not created to make money but to make a point: that there's a new contender on the Oregon pinot block. And pinot noir fanciers are not easily daunted. Huffman and Pamplin will have no trouble placing their thousand or so bottles where they will do the most good, in the cellars of the opinion makers whose approving word of mouth is essential to develop a reputation for fine winemaking. With Anne Amie as a standard setter, Chateau Benoit will find it easier to persuade those opinion makers to give future vintages of their more affordable wines a chance. Until then, the Pamplin fortune is at Huffman's disposaland to subsidize the wine- bibbing habits of the rest of us.

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