A Primer on Pinot noir Genetics

From John, December 3rd, 2017

Pinot noir (and Chardonnay to a lesser extent) is well known for consisting of a multitude of clones. You may ask “what is a clone?”

Within the Pinot noir genome are a number of variants which confer differences in things as diverse as how the vines grow (droit and fin), size and shape of clusters, vigor of the vine and so on.  Within the Pinot noir genome are both chromosomes and free circular pieces of DNA called plasmids, both of which express genetic characteristics. The combination of all of this genetic material is what constitutes a clone.

The origin of plasmids is not particularly clear. Agricultural scientists like to refer to these pieces of genetic material as viruses but that is most likely a simplification. Pinot noir is thought to be genetically unstable and this may in part be due to changes (mutations) in the structure of the plasmids.

Over many generations, farmers in Burgundy have selected new clones that occasionally pop up in their vineyard…a vine with smaller clusters, or tinier berries, or darker color for instance.  They then propagate those clones and, if the wine improves, those clones become a long term part of the massale (the selection of disparate clones) in that vineyard. This huge selection of genetic diversity within the great Burgundian vineyards has certainly contributed to the justifiably stellar reputation of these vineyards.

In the 1950’s, agricultural scientists both in California and France discovered that they could “sanitize” vines by destroying the plasmids in dormant Pinot noir and Chardonnay plant material by subjecting the cuttings to excessive heat. Because plasmid DNA is much more heat labile, it can be destroyed while the chromosomes remain. The resulting plant material produced vines with simpler clusters of large berries and generally more vigorous growth characteristics.  These new “sanitized” vines are referred to as “indexed vines”.

I would argue that with the genetically-modified large clusters and large crops, the resulting wines are significantly inferior to wines made from the original non heat-treated vines.  The controversy over “indexed vines” continues to this day.   Now, if you want to purchase new cuttings from purveyors such as UC Davis, they must be indexed in order to be shipped to Oregon. It is a classic battle between industrial agriculture which strives for more production through genetic manipulation and small family farmers who want to produce quality food from old proven cultivars.

In my 35 years of experience, I have found that wines made from indexed vines (such as UC Davis 108 Chardonnay and Dijon PInot noir and Chardonnay) are just not as good as those made from old original clones.  I encourage new vineyards to consider this when choosing cultivars to plant.

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Introducing 2014 Massale!

From John, November 28th, 2017

Introducing our newest creation, 2014 Massale of Pinot noir.

Also newly released are our 2013 Nebbiolo and 2015 single vineyard wines:  Clos Electrique Rouge and Blanc from our estate vineyard just outside the winery door and Abbey Ridge Pinot noir and Chardonnay, from our friends at one of the oldest and best vineyards in the state of Oregon.  2015 was a warm year, but our vines said “you call this hot?”.  Their deep roots gave them everything they needed in the cool earth well below the surface to make elegant wines without, well, breaking a sweat.  We think you’ll love them!

 

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Jackson Pawlick 2001-2017

From John, November 1st, 2017

It is with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to our best dog ever, Ms Jackson Pawlick, vineyard and delivery assistant, hiking and running companion and source of endless entertainment for 16 years.

Although she had humble beginnings in Estacada, she was an Einstein of dogs.  She knew over 50 words, her favorite being “cheese” but she recognized many important phrases such as “go get son of a bitch” (her squeeky George Bush toy), lets go to the river,  the names of everyone in the family & the winery.  Jackson was a running phenom easily covering 5-6 miles in Forest Park if asked to do so.  She practiced yoga on command (down dog!), fetched the New York times every morning, but perhaps her coup de gras was “spazz out”, a amalgamation of 4 favorite tricks, spinning around, rolling over, speaking and finally downward dog.  More than anything she was a unique personality, a sweet soul, a loyal friend.

She was pre-deceased by her best friend, Guido and is survived by our new puppy Linus, Julian’s corgi P. Middy and the extended Paul-Wadsworth family.  We hope she is eating cheese in doggie heaven.

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2017,  A Classic Oregon Vintage

From John, October 26th, 2017

Now that the Nebbiolo has been harvested, there is time to reflect on the vintage just completed.

With abundant rainfall in the Spring and early Summer along with moderately cool temperatures, we knew that 2017 could well be a different sort of vintage than those which we have experienced over the last 5 years.  Bloom was pushed to the latter part of June, and if one defers to the classic Burgundian formula of 100 days from full bloom to harvest, then it becomes clear that an October harvest is in the makeup.  And, indeed, October it was.

Throughout the 80’s and 90’s as well as in the early years of this millenium, harvest in the Willamette Valley fell for the most part within the confines of October.  October is when the nights get cold and the days moderately warm.  This allows slow even ripening and the retention of ample acidity in the fruit.  Higher acidity dictates a slower, controlled fermentation since yeasts are a bit sluggish when the pH is low (acidity high).  As a result, the must ferments at a bit lower temperature and sits a bit longer in the fermentation vessels before it is ready for pressing.  This happy confluence of events generally means higher tone aromatics and the extraction of a bit more structure in the wines.

Add to the above, perfect weather throughout the vintage and absence of any disease in the fruit. A fabulous set of 2017 wines is in the offing.  Stay tuned.

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A Natural Wine Begins in the Vineyard

From John, May 10th, 2017

The quality of a wine has everything to do with the health of the vines from whence that wine comes. And the mileau within which the vines grow has everything to do with that health.

From the cover crop that grows throughout the vineyard to the microflora in the soil, everything exerts an influence on the final product. Even driving a tractor in the vineyard can compact the soil, affecting aeration and drainage.  This in turn impacts the growth of microflora beneficial to the roots of the vines.   Therefore, at Cameron Winery, after winter pruning,  we remove all of the prunings from the vineyard by hand so that we do not have to introduce a tractor with an attached mower or flail to chop them up when the soil is wet and more compactable.

Influencing what grows in the vineyard (besides vines) and where it grows is a critical part of the process of creating a healthy environment. While we seed with various types of cover crops (clover for nitrogen, buckwheat for phosphorus mining, mustard for drainage and killing nematodes, to name a few) controlling their growth under the vines is always an issue.

We have generally opted over the years to hand mow underneath the vines although this is incredibly labor intensive (see photo).

The alternative, which a majority of vineyards tend toward, is the use of herbicides, of which Roundup (Glyphosate) is by far the dominant player.  Glyphosate is a class 2A carcinogen according to the World Health Organization, and has been linked to several types of lymphomas.  In the soil, there is evidence that glyphosate is quite toxic to soil bacteria and therefore also inhibits nitrogen fixation by cover crops such as clover and interrupts other important microbial activities in the soil. At Cameron Winery, we are clearly not fans of Roundup and are clearly committed to looking for alternatives.

At the Ecofarm Conference this year, we were introduced by noted root specialist Robert Kourik (the author of Roots Demystified) to a method of mulching. Newspaper is placed under the vines as a base on which we place chipped up vine prunings (see photos below). This is in the experimental phase at this point but we are hoping that it can replace mowing under the vines at least in part.  We are also experimenting with no-till techniques to help preserve soil biology, a topic for a future rant.

In the end it is clear that truly healthy vineyards as well as other forms of healthy agriculture require a lot of love and labor. But I can tell you that nothing is more enjoyable than working in and being a part of a healthy vineyard.

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A Wee Rant About “Natural Wines”

From John, January 8th, 2017
Keeping abreast of natural winemaking.

Keeping abreast of natural winemaking.

Wine has always seemed to me as the most natural of substances. So it comes to me as a bit of a surprise that a whole new genre of wine, “Natural Wines”, has been created.

To be sure, there is a plethora of manipulated and manufactured wines out there, but even they come from real grapes fermented by real yeasts. So I intuit that the creation of the “natural wine” classification is a reaction to the addition of concentrators, micro-oxygenation, coloring agents and the like to modern winemaking. And, to be sure, I share the disdain for this increasingly large collection of manufacturing techniques.

But let us be fair in our evaluation of this new genre: it is, to be sure, a narrow and arbitrary classification meant to suit the marketing needs of whoever is using it. For example, when I see a cloudy wine and am told “Oh this is a natural wine”, I am compelled to retort “I can’t think of anything more natural than gravity…maybe the winemaker should have waited to rack his wine for bottling!” And when one encounters a wine which is oxidized, yes this is a natural process, and to be sure there are some great wines that are made with oxidation in mind (eg Radikon and other wines from the Collio as well as of course Sherries). But in many other cases oxidation or smells of fingernail polish remover or brutalization by a lactic acid bacteria infection emanate from poor winemaking practices.

A winemaking practice which is “modern” should not necessarily be considered outside the realm of “natural.” There are in fact a good many “modern” practices which are both organic and sustainable and can be utilized to make beautiful vibrant wines. Rejecting these practices is a bit like rejecting a naturopathic or traditional cure for a sinus infection because it is not “natural”.

And I will admit to occasionally producing wines with some of the preceding faults….the difference is that those wines go down the drain in my cellar, not into the bottle.

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Water Stress in Oregon!?

From John, November 17th, 2016

While the 2016 growing season had its share of late summer hot weather, it was not as hot a growing season as in the previous year.  However, water stress was another issue.  By late April not only were we experiencing unseasonably warm weather but the ubiquitous Oregon rain mostly came to a halt as well.  The rain that we did receive after that was either of short duration or was soaked up by the cover crop which had been stimulated to grow by the warm temperatures.  And the ground simply dried up as the season progressed without significant rain.
In the case of our vineyards at Cameron, we have over the last several vintages engaged in a practice of no-till, instead simply mowing the covercrops.  The idea is to keep carbon fixed in the soil right where it is since tilling sets in motion microbial degradation of carbon to CO2.  Most vintages this will work fine but in an extremely dry and warm vintage, the vines end up water-stressed.  Partly as a result of this, the berries did not size up as much as we thought they would, so crop levels were a bit low.
The saving grace for the entire 2016 vintage came in early September when we received a significant rain event just prior to harvest.  Since rain water is absorbed to some extent directly into the fruit, the spongy, slightly dehydrated berries rehydrated to a perfect turgid state and we were in business.  The end result of all of this is a cellar of very concentrated wines (due mostly to the small crop) which are wonderfully balanced (due to the beneficent rain).  So get ready for a brilliant 2016 vintage of small production down the road!

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Arrivederci Dear Guido

From John, August 19th, 2016

Guido, our 18 year old Tuxedoed cat, who some will remember as the greeting committee at Cameron Winery and others will remember as the sheriff, quietly passed away on August 18.

Guido & John in the cellar

Guido & John in the cellar

Guido helping in the vineyard

Guido helping in the vineyard

In the cellar, he was a fixture on the top of barrels when we were tasting or racking wine, often issuing his opinion about things.  In the warehouse, he rode on pallets of wine as they were being forklifted and flopped down on newly bottled cases while we were bottling to supervise the activity and cheer us on.  In the vineyard, he would always appear while we were pruning, pulling leaves, or picking fruit, insisting that we stop our activities and give him some love.  In the yurt, he was a fabulous host, warming our pillows and purring us to sleep.

In his youth, no rodent within a quarter mile was safe.  He emerged from the vineyard with a throaty growl to announce every catch.  And yet, he warmly greeted visitors, often inspecting the inside of their car while they weren’t looking.

 

The mighty hunter

The mighty hunter

Guido will be missed by many, here are some reflections from those who knew him well:

Mighty Guido, what a cat, like no other, it was a pleasure to know him:  Kyle Cheney

Guido was a remarkable cat, best cat ever:  Bill & Julia Wayne

He has left a cat-shaped hole in our hearts:  Cheryl Cappellin

A cat with a two squirrels shaped hole, I would say:  Tom Sivilli

A man among cats, he will be missed:  Chad Hageman

He was such a character, I can’t imagine it feels the same right now:  Tyson Crowley

What a great life he had out in the farm, chasing whoever he pleases:  Martina Ralle

He was definitely one of a kind: Dan Eliot

He was a special animal for sure:  Star Black

He was the sweetest and definitely a big part of being out at Cameron:  Elaine Skinner

Guido is survived by the other member of the A-team,  our dog Jackson Pawlick, who he actually tried to kill by tipping a palate on top of her when she was a puppy.  We will never forget him.

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Green is the new Noir

From John, August 9th, 2016
Unripe Pinot noir

Unripe Pinot noir

Green-cropping (selectively thinning excess fruit before it ripens) is the height of fashion amongst those seeking to make stellar wines, and with good reason. Because grapevines are programmed by evolution to maximize self preservation, given optimal conditions, they are inclined to produce more berries than winemakers want to see.  When a vine is carrying too much fruit, it fails to ripen that fruit properly.

A grape cluster might at first appear to be “on the money” with respect to sugar content and sometimes even color and acidity. But critical elements related to mouth feel, fullness and finish might not be there. This is particularly true with respect to Pinot noir, perhaps the most finicky of grape varieties when it comes to crop load.  In the Willamette Valley, the optimal yield usually translates to approximately 2-2.5 tons of Pinot noir per acre.

Fortunately for the astute winemaker, it was determined years ago that at the point when the developing seeds inside the grape start to harden (around 2 months before harvest), that cluster is exactly half the weight that it will be when ripe. As a result, at some point in July we usually know approximately what the crop is going to look like. And as soon as we have that information, it is time to immediately drop the excess crop onto the ground. The closer to harvest that one eliminates the overcropped fruit, the less beneficial is the effect to be had.

Eliminating crop even as it is blooming is perhaps the most effective time to achieve the greatest good, but obviously this involves a bit of a gamble that the ensuing set will be good and if you’re wrong, you may have very little crop at all! If you hit it right, the best fruit can be had from this scenario, but because this is so risky, we only use this technique on a limited number of vines.

And though it takes courage to drop beautiful clusters on the ground, at Cameron virtually every year requires a bit of crop adjustment to make the best wine possible.

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What’s a Brix?

From John, April 22nd, 2016
The Elements of Pizza by Ken Forkish

The Elements of Pizza by Ken Forkish

Measuring Brix isn’t just important for winemaking.   The consistency and quality of premium canned tomatoes (such as San Marzano) relies on careful measurement of the Brix of  tomatoes at harvest (to determine ripeness) and in the final product (to determine sweetness and thickness).  Here we proudly present “What’s a Brix?”, written by my wife Teri, and featured on page 67 Ken Forkish’s fabulous new book, The Elements of Pizza.

The Brix scale is named after 19th-century German scientist Adolf Brix, who invented the hydrometer, an instrument that could measure the sugar content of grape juice for wine.  Before this, ripeness could only be determined subjectively, by taste.  The Brix scale can also be used to measure ripeness in the juice of other fruits, like tomatoes.

In winemaking, 1 degree Brix is equivalent to 1 g of soluble solids (the sum of sucrose, fructose, vitamins, proteins, and so on) per 100 g of grape juice.  In winemaking, an effort is made to harvest at a particular Brix level, and this measure of ripeness and its corresponding sugar content in the fruit directly relates to the fermentation potential in the wine, its flavor, and ultimately the conversion to alcohol.  In theory, alcohol is produced at a rate of approximately 51% of fermentable sugar.  Variables such as exposure to oxygen and temperature, the amount of yeast and yeast diversity determine the actual conversion rate from fermentable sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Tomatoes go through the same seasonal harvest variability as grapes and other fruits of the earth do.  There is a right time to harvest, and measuring Brix in tomatoes is as important to timing harvest as it is for grapes, when the desire is to produce canned tomatoes that have consistent flavor, acidity, texture and water content (think of it as thickness or thinness of tomato sauce from one can to the next, from one day to the next).  Fruit ripening involves a series of related and complex enzyme-catalyzed transformations.  When starches are converted into simple sugars by natural enzymes, the fruit sweetens.  A tomato changes from green to red as chlorophyll breaks down to reveal underlying pigmented compounds such as anthocyanins and lycopenes.  It becomes less tart as organic acids are converted into less acidic molecules; softer as pectin is broken down; and more fragrant as volatile aromatic compounds are synthesized.  Brix is an extremely useful objective marker for ripeness.

 

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A Primer on Pinot noir Genetics

Pinot noir is well known for consisting of a multitude of clones, which over the generations have been selected for desirable characteristics. In the 1950’s, agricultural science decided to “sanitize” the genome of many of these clones. The result was vigorous vines with large crops and wines with less character. The controversy over the use of indexed vines continues.

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Introducing 2014 Massale!

May we also suggest one of our 2015 single vineyard wines and or Nebbiolo for your holiday table?

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Jackson Pawlick 2001-2017

It is with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to our best dog ever, Ms Jackson Pawlick.

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