The Path to Cameron Wines

From John, February 14th, 2020

Part 1:  Clos Electrique Blanc

White Burgundy is arguably one of the greatest genres of wine on the planet. And with over 300 years of viticultural selections and winemaking techniques, it seemed silly to me to try and invent or emulate anything else in the world of Chardonnay. A visit to the cave of the Comte de Lafon and the young winemaker Dominique Lafon in 1981 inspired and cemented my relationship to the Burgundian approach. Later visits to the caves of François Jobard and Jean-Claude Ramonet further refined my techniques. All of these fabulous winemakers were generous with their knowledge to those willing to listen. And so it began.

I was also very lucky to have friends in the California wine industry who helped me find amazing old Burgundy clones, many of which had been originally introduced by legendary early California winemakers such as Carl Wente and Paul Masson. Among the people who helped me were Mary Edwards (who at that point was with Matanzas Creek), Larry Hyde (already making a name for himself in the Napa Valley) and Jeffrey Patterson (Mt. Eden Vineyards). What I brought north to Oregon in the mid-80’s constituted a treasure trove of old Burgundian viticulture which had been disseminated across California mostly during the early part of the 20th century.

And while great wine is truly made in the vineyard, it is also made (or at least augmented) in the cellar. And it was at this point that I was able to introduce some of the techniques of the Burgundian winemakers to bring out the inherent greatness in the Burgundian clones. Obviously Oregon weather, which so closely resembles that of Burgundy, helps make all of this possible. So I would be remiss in not giving a nod to the shitty winter weather, schizophrenic springs and surprises of summer that characterize Oregon!

And finally there is the element of patience. It takes time to establish a dry farmed vineyard and even more so with many of the low vigor clones here-in that make such fabulous wine (it takes usually 7-8 years before a moderate crop can be achieved). Nor can the wine be rushed through the fermentation and aging phase in the cellar (it is necessary to leave the wine in barrique on the yeast sediment for 2 years before it is ready to be bottled). And at this point, the patience must be transferred to you the consumer: yes you can drink this wine now but oh how much better if you are able to cellar it for an additional 10!!

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a 100% tariff will devastate the wine industry

From John, January 19th, 2020

The use of tariffs has become a defining reality in American economic life. Many things have become more expensive due to the wide range of items being taxed.  For example wine bottle glass is more expensive, even American-made glass, because manufacturers can now raise their prices in response to the rise in price of foreign glass. Specialty items manufactured overseas such as French cheese and Scotch and Irish whiskey are arbitrarily hit with tariffs even if there is no comparable product made here.

But all of this pales compared to the latest threat of 100% tariffs on French and European wine.   The 25% tariff implemented on French still wine in October has already unsettled the wine market in the US.  It has succeeded in reducing overall sales of wine in the 4th quarter compared to previous years.  A 100% tariff will literally kill it.

Sales of Oregon wine are miniscule compared to that of European wine. Wine retail shops and distributors and restaurants around the country depend on sales of the latter to run their businesses. We therefore “ride on the coattails” of European wines in order to move our product. With a doubling of import prices, I expect that many importers and distributors will fail within a year. Already there is very little wine in transit from Europe due to the uncertainty of the situation.  All of this is elegantly explained in a recent article by Oregonian/OregonLive author Michael Alberty.

While I pride myself on making Pinot noir and Chardonnay in a strictly Burgundian tradition that often tastes like “the real thing”, Abbey Ridge is not Volnay and Clos Electrique is not Chambolle. Nothing can replace the legendary wines of Burgundy.

We are all the losers if Trumps’s 100% import tariff comes to pass.

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Navigating a Rainy Vintage

From John, October 27th, 2019

The last 5 vintages in Oregon have been pretty easy affairs as far as weather during the harvest goes. However, 2019 was another matter entirely. After successfully fighting the perfect conditions for powdery mildew* all summer we entered September with our fruit in pretty good shape.

A bit of rain in early September is not unusual and usually not a problem. Unless the berries are within approximately 2 weeks of being ripe, moisture on them is not a big problem. But once one gets inside that 2 week window, the issue of rain can be a serious issue. At that point the skins soften up and the berries are more prone to absorbing moisture, therefore becoming more susceptible to fungal infections. If a single berry splits at this point it is food for the lurking fungal spores and the game is on.

In 2019 significant rain fell early in the third week of September. Fruit in the lower elevation vineyards was not quite ripe, but it was close. And this where the winemaker’s decision comes into play: picking early will avoid botrytis** infections but the fruit will be under ripe. Waiting through the rain will allow the fruit to ripen more fully but now risks inclusion of fungal infection. Because the rains were emanating in the North Pacific gyre, and would therefore be cold, we chose to wait. The results were of course mixed: by the time we picked the following week, the fruit was ripe though the sugar was reduced by the absorption of rainwater and some botrytis had started to grow.

By contrast fruit in the higher elevation vineyards was not quite ripe enough to be heavily affected by that rain event. As a result, when we picked those vineyard blocks another week later only negligable botrytis had developed and the sugars were perfect.

As the season wore on, however, with more rain events interspersed with sun, botrytis became a bigger factor. Fortunately at that point we are mostly harvesting white grapes and they are not so negatively affected by botrytis as are the red grapes. Botrytis kills color (so bad for making red wines) but can add interesting aromas/flavors, such as honey and apricot notes (so good for increasing complexity of white wines).

Any time that one gets a generally rainy harvest scenario, the wines are likely to be mixed in terms of interest and quality. And it puts the easy vintages into perspective!

 

*Powdery mildew (Erysiphe necator) is a fungal infection that appears as a whitish-grey powder on leaves and berries. Disease development is strongly favored by high humidity and cloudy weather, in addition to relatively warm temperatures. Practices such as proper pruning and leaf pulling  promote an open canopy with good air circulation and light penetration, which can reduce conditions that favor powdery mildew development.

**Botrytis cinerea, a grey-brown fungal infection, is the most common form of wine grape rot in Oregon.  Though beneficial in the production of dessert wines, botyritis infection in Pinot noir is not desirable!

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Irrigation: the oxycontin of viticulture

From John, March 30th, 2019
old non-irrigated vine

old non-irrigated vine

It makes everything feel good but it is terribly addictive and the health of the patient is always compromised. I am talking of course about irrigating vineyards in North America.

Certainly Europe would have to be considered the progenitor of American viticulture and their vineyards are largely dry farmed. And in the beginning, and until quite recently, vineyards in America were also dry farmed.

So what happened? After the famous Steven Spurrier Tasting in 1976 (won by Stags Leap Winery and Chateau Montelena), investment in vineyards started pouring into the Napa Valley and California viticultural areas in general. With that money came bankers and accountants demanding return on their investments. And to ease the pain of those hefty financial transactions, vineyards began irrigating.  With irrigation, vines could be in production in 2 years instead of 5-7, yields could be increased and the quantity of sugar in the grapes could be pushed to previously unknown levels.

Note that nothing has been said about “quality” here. As yields went up, quality went down and as sugars went up, California wines became known as high alcohol fruit bombs. By comparison the beautifully crafted wines that won the Paris Tasting in 1976 were all around 12.5% alcohol. You would be hard pressed to find a Napa Valley wine today that is less than 14-15% alcohol (unless it comes from one of the remaining dry farmed vineyards such as Frog’s Leap).

In Europe, if one introduces irrigation to one’s vineyard, one immediately loses rights to an appellation because rainfall (timing and quantity) is a basic component of terroir. Irrigated vineyards have no more terroir than a hydroponically grown green house tomato.

The Oregon wine industry basically copied the California model approximately 10 years later.  In our case, a tasting of Burgundies vs Oregon Pinot noirs took place with wines from our 1983 vintage. And again, with the fame garnered by the results, money poured into the Willamette Valley tethered to grandiose schemes for irrigating the new vineyards. The results have been largely the same with a plethora of high alcohol, fruit-forward wines.

The good news is that there are still plenty of dry farmed vineyards in both Oregon and California. Though they constitute a minority of the plantings, they are certainly producing the best wines. Many of these vineyards are represented by the Deep Roots Coalition.

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Grafting (without the corruption)

From John, February 27th, 2019
John bench grafting

John bench grafting

a field grafted Pinot noir vine

a field grafted Pinot noir vine

Here in winter of 2019, clearly there is a whiff of graft in the air!  Though what they define as “graft” in our political arena is quite a different concept from what “graft” means at Cameron Winery.  In late February or early March, you can usually find us engaged in our form of graft.

Why graft grape vines?

Most of the world’s wine is made from Vitis vinifera, a species of grape native to Europe and Asia.  While it is certainly possible to grow Vitis Vinifera on its own roots, most viticultural regions now have infections of Phylloxera (a pesky little American root louse that literally devours the roots of our beloved vinifera vines).  In response to this microarthropod, our friends in France long ago figured out a way to deal with it.

If one grafts a shoot of Vitis vinifera (a “scion) onto rootstock derived from native North American vines (which are resistant to the little louse), “Et voilà, le travail!”, a viable vine results that can grow in the presence of Phylloxera.  Of course that’s just the theory.  The reality involves a number of different approaches to the subject. 

How do we do it?

In Oregon, we commonly “bench graft” winter cuttings from dormant scion and rootstock in order to propogate new vines.  It is a bit of an art to line up complimentary scion and rootstock “sticks”, make a cut in one and complimentary cut in the other (think of a positive and a negative) and put them together.   After joining the parts, we lay the successive grafted vines in a box of moist perlite and keep them warmed at 70F for approximately 3 weeks.  At the end of that time, a healthy callus has knitted the two halves together and we immerse the rootstock in rooting hormone, then in potting soil. The whole “plant” is put in the greenhouse to await budbreak of the scion and growth of roots below from the rootstock.  If the resulting vine is healthy, we nurture it throughout the summer and plant it in vineyard the fall.

The second method of grafting is called “chip budding” or “T-budding” and is done on mature vines that already have a healthy root structure.  In this case, the growth at the head of a mature vine is cut off and a scion bud is inserted into a cleft or “T” cut into the remaining trunk.  The little bud is carefully wrapped by tape wound round and round the trunk until it is secure.  In a few weeks the bud will have formed a callus with the rootstock and will begin to grow.  This is an excellent method for changing the type of vine that one has in the vineyard.  For example, at Cameron many years ago we made the mistake of planting Dijon clones.  And now, 20 years later, with healthy root structure resistant to Phylloxera, we are slowly grafting over these vines to old Burgundy clones of both Pinot noir and Chardonnay. We lose one year of productivity but then are back in production with superior grapes!

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Some unexpected effects of climate change

From tEr1, October 25th, 2018

One of the Culprits

For the non-propagandized, global warming is an obvious and real phenomenon.  But how it is manifesting itself can sometimes be subtle and discomforting at the same time.

Clearly hot dry summers are becoming the norm in Oregon which, by late summer, can stress the vines.  In 2018 the rains essentially stopped by the first of May and only resumed fitfully in early September.  Though we had ample rain during the previous winter and spring, by the end of August, moisture was only to be found very deep in the soil.  For older vines this was not a problem but it of course played havoc with younger plants.

On the subtle end of this phenomenon, a warm winter failed to knock back the vole (small, burrowing mouse-like rodent) population that inhabits part of the underworld of our vineyard.  With ample food stocks from the wet spring, the population exploded.  But as the hot summer left the ground cover parched, the now thirsty and starving voles started to go after young vines, stripping them of foliage and then devouring the rest of the plant.  When they had finished wiping out young plants they took after 35 year old vines, gnawing around the bottom of the trunks for food and moisture.  By the time September came around with some welcome rain, many of our valuable old vines had been girdled and were dying.

Hopefully some of our old vines will recover by sending up shoots from ground level in the spring, but likely many of them will not.  Hawks, owls and our cats have been busy taking down the population so we are optimistic that the issue will not repeat itself next year.  Fingers crossed.

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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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The Path to Cameron Wines

On the occasion of our 35th anniversary, I thought it would be interesting to document the path that led to Cameron wines. Here is part 1 in a 3-part series which explains the inspiration for Clos Electrique Blanc.

There’s More... >
a 100% tariff will devastate the wine industry

Sales of our wine literally rides on the coattails of French wine sales. If a 100% tariff is levied, it will devastate us like nothing seen since Prohibition.

There’s More... >
Navigating a Rainy Vintage

In 2019 significant rain fell early in the third week of September. So, when should we pick the grapes? Picking early will avoid botrytis infections but the fruit will be under ripe. Waiting through the rain will allow the fruit to ripen more fully but now risks inclusion of fungal infection.

There’s More... >

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