Still crazy good after all these years: Oregon's Cristom Pinot Noirs

--> When I asked winemaker Steve Doerner how his approach to winemaking has evolved over the past twenty years when I visited him at Cristom Vineyards this past August, he confessed, “I’m almost embarrassed to say that I haven’t changed much at all. I guess you can say I’ve grown comfortable with my ways.”
From most vintners, that statement might set off alarms (lord knows, I’ve been in enough wineries of long standing, chatting with vintners left sadly behind the times). But from Doerner, this was actually music to my ears. You see, we first met in 1989, towards the end of his fourteen year stint as winemaker for Calera Wine Company in San Benito, working with ultra-ripened pinot noir and chardonnay grown by Josh Jensen.
While Calera’s wines may never have been to my taste (I’ve always found them overly alcoholic and ponderous – a byproduct of a warm climate terroir, not any winemaker’s doing), I distinctly remember being astounded by what Doerner was doing there: applying 100% natural yeast and whole cluster fermentation, wines pressed and going “dirty” directly into barrel, zero filtration, and at all times, bare minimal handling – techniques considered not just brazen, but downright foolhardy by the convention of those days, even among the more cutting-edged producers (like Merry Edwards, David Ramey, and Chalone’s late Richard Graff) of the time.
Doerner was doing then what many winemakers today still haven’t caught up with.

Cristom pinot noir at veraison
And by gosh, last month I heard Doerner repeat the same thing I heard him say way back when: “Never try to do anything to pinot noir that you aren’t sure won’t work.” Then, as now, Doerner professed faith in time honored methods of Burgundy –plenty enough empirical evidence even for him (Doerner’s degree at U.C. Davis was in biochemistry). But of even Old and New World “innovations,” like pre-fermentation cold soak and post-fermentation maceration, Doerner has never felt a need. Then, as now, he repeats, “with only wild yeasts to do the work, whole clusters take a little more time to get started, and fermentation within individual berries takes even longer. So in a way, there is extended contact because of the sheer length of fermentation (between 14 and 21 days), with the different yeast strains working at their own pace.”
Now, you may have heard in some quarters that this whole thing about native yeast fermentation is mostly marketing hokum because wineries who do this usually have a history of commercial yeast usage (therefore, most “wild yeast” fermentations are probably the work of cultured yeasts, since all previously used yeast strains tend to remain in the air and on the surfaces of every winery).
So it was with great interest, in 1992, when I read about Doerner taking the job as winemaker for the newly founded Cristom Vineyards in Willamette Valley. You can bet, in November of 1993, that I beat a path to the door of Doerner’s new home, my ears stinging by the onslaught of Oregon winter. So many questions, especially:
  • How does a winemaker, basically trained in California, adjust to Oregon grapes, and much cooler Oregon terroirs?
  • What would be the effect of Doerner’s previous methodolgy (i.e. natural yeasts, whole cluster, minimal handling and zero filtration) on Oregon grown pinot noir, or would he be forced to make changes?

In 1993, as now, I was pleasantly surprised to find Doerner not only applying the same principles as before, but making wines of greater power and focus than ever; only, with the finesseful attributes of Oregon grown fruit. Regarding native yeast fermentation: no problem. “Stuck” fermentations, green “stemmy” tannins or other related issues? Obviously nada, as Doerner tasted me on barrel after barrel of Cristom’s first wines: clean, young, sturdily structured yet lush, supple pinots. Ergo: the veracity of natural yeasts is not, after all, a myth hoisted upon us by the French. Given the chance, the yeast strains that appear naturally on grape skins out in the field do just fine in the winery, and by vignerons like Doerner; especially when you begin with whole clusters (at Cristom, generally about 50% of the fermentation vats in warm, ripe years like ’06 and ‘03, and closer to 30% in cooler years like the ’07 and ‘05).

But as always, it doesn’t matter what a winery does, or doesn’t do, if the results in the bottle aren’t worth their salt. In Cristom’s case, I think they’re better than ever. In past vintages, tasted five-ten years back, I confess to not being 100% enthusiastic about every one of Cristom’s pinots; finding some bottlings hard, or unforgiving, in tannin and toughness. But in recent years, I’ve come back to being almost always mightily impressed: pinots of strength and sinew, but also languorous, sultry textures and perfumes – like Audrey Hepburns in black silk, pearls, and wispy smoke from the long platinum cigarette holder.

General impressions after tasting through barrels of ’08 (overall: bright, beautifully scented, crisp and finely structured pinots) with Doerner last month, followed by newly released bottlings of ’07...

Cristom (red roof) from above; Jessie, the reverse-Idaho shaped block to left;
Marjorie, straight up, just above tree break

now here, I found, were some things to write home about:
Cristom, Marjorie Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 (Eola-Amity Hills) – Cristom now identifies six different sites (or “Ladies”) on its 65 acre estate; yet never prone to hyperbole, Doerner says that “terroir exists, but we need more data points.” Even so, the Marjorie is Cristom’s oldest section (planted in 1982), with the highest percentage of Jory type soil (the mineral rich, red toned volcanic soil, also associated with Willamette Valley’s Dundee Hills AVA), given to a decidedly feminine structure and perfume, scented with the redder berry characteristics of the grape. In the ’07, these qualities comes across as thickly textured, with a good bottom grip of tannin, while dancing, zesty acidity brightens the profile, finishing with sweet sensations of red berries and cinnamoned rose petal nuances.
Cristom, Jessie Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 (Eola-Amity Hills) - From Cristom's steepest, rockiest site with multiple exposures and shallow soil, primarily composed of the brownish volcanic clay in the Nikea series. In this slightly more stressed medium the pinot ripens variably, resulting in a generally darker complexity of red fruit; and what's more, in rich concentrations. The nose in the '07 is jammy sweet, bright, richly oaked, almost wild with blackberry, raspberry and dried cherry skin; the flavors electrified on the palate by the sheer intensity of the fruit, bursting out of the sturdy, fleshy structure thickened by the polished oak.
Cristom, Sommers Reserve Pinot Noir 2007 (Willamette Valley) - The Sommers are generally blends of “favorite” lots selected for extended barrel aging from the Eola-Amity Hills estate, with smaller proportions of coastal and Dundee Hills cuvées, resulting in artful distillations of the multi-faceted house style: in the ’07, masculine, meaty, and well muscled, centered around round, fleshy qualities steeped in sweetly floral, predominantly dark fruits, backed by polished oak, draped in velvet textures.
Cristom, Signature Pinot Noir 2005 (Willamette Valley) In this crème de la crème bottling: the full, strapping masculinity that is invariably found in a Cristom is all here, in spades; beginning with a dense, round, buffed body gripped by sinewy tannin, fleshed out to overflowing with concentrated, velvet lined fruit, perfumed by wild blackberry, raspberry and cherry cola, deepened by smoky oak, peppermint spice, and organic nuances of crushed brown leaves. Only the third vintage (after ’98 and ’04) of a Signature pinot produced by Cristom since its inception in 1992.


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"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.