Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Visit to Oregon's Lange Winery

DUNDEE HILLS, Oregon – During a recent business trip to Oregon I had the opportunity to travel the Willamette Valley. The valley is home to some of the world’s best Pinot Noir.

I usually keep the columns and blogging to the under $25 price point, but I had a really special visit to the Lange Winery and thought I’d use that experience to explain price points and also to share a winemaker’s insights into great Pinot.

Many of the great Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc white wines made in Oregon are under the $20 price point. Most of the Pinot Noir is priced over $30, but many wineries have at least one bottling that will be $30 or under.

In virtually every public talk or conversation I’ve done on wine, I get asked about the difference between a $10 bottle and a $40 bottle of wine. It’s about the quality and craftsmanship that goes into the winemaking and it shows in the taste.

Industry publications Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast have praised Lange Winery as one of the best. I spent time with Jesse Lange, whose parents Don and Wendy started the winery in 1987. Jesse farms the vineyards and makes the wine with his father. He also serves as the winery’s general manager.

See a few extra photos from my visit by clicking here.

“It’s really critical in making Pinot Noir to make it in very small increments,” Lange said. “We do the farming in very small increments. You’re able to pay attention to things at a level I don’t think a lot of winemakers get to do. Pinot Noir is so expressive, there’s a range of flavors and elements of complexity. It’s the ultimate winemakers challenge to both grow and make.”

While large production wineries will blend wines in vats the size of a farm silo, Lange blends their Pinot Noir no more than three barrels at a time.

“I describe what we do as sustainable farming, small artisanal winemaking, focusing on quality not quantity,” Lange said. “We’re looking to make classical wines that have a lot of the fruit elements of Pinot Noir and the spicy elements of Pinot Noir. There is a hedonistic side to wine drinking that I think every wine drinker can appreciate from the total beginner to the expert.

“I want to make sure when people have a glass of our wine they say ‘Wow, I want another glass.’ I think our style really plays well because our wines are well balanced with a lot of fruit, great palate texture, and richness without being over the top.”

Lange produced 14,000 cases of wine last year. In comparison many of the big California winemakers, names you’d recognize, make more wine in one facility than all of Oregon’s wineries combined.

The secret of Oregon wines, and especially Lange’s Dundee Hills’ wine, is the environment. To wine geeks, that’s terrior. “That means place,” Lange said of the French term. “It’s a very broad all-encompassing term that includes soil, climate, heat units, elevation, but also encompasses the wine grower’s philosophy about farming. Certain wines from a certain place and a certain varietal really showcase that.

“The secret is the place, without question. You can only grow world class Pinot Noir in about five places. You just can’t grow world class Pinot anywhere.”

Fortunately for Hoosiers, you can buy Lange wines in our state. They have a beautiful Pinot Gris around $16 and an award-winning Pinot Gris Reserve at $22. The reserve was the best Gris I tasted during my two-day visit.

They also have a reasonably priced Pinot Noir. The 2007 Lange Willamette Valley Pinot can be found in Indiana for about $24. They have other bottlings of reserve and estate wines that range from $30-$60 which is consistent with most Oregon premium wine producers.

To progress in your wine drinking and to understand boutique wineries and real handcrafted wines, try a Lange Pinot Noir. Or try an Oregon Pinot Noir recommended at your wine shop.

For Jesse Lange the most important thing is creating wines that are correct to that terroir. “I don’t want anybody to taste our wines to say I really like it because it tastes like Cabernet or it’s like Syrah. I want it to be its own and be an Oregon Pinot Noir.”

His explanation on the attention to detail was probably best in an off-handed remark he’s obviously used before as we walked the grounds near the beautiful overlook of the valley. “We want to be more like Audrey Hepburn than Marilyn Monroe.”

Monday, April 13, 2009

Taste, Taste, Taste

Any wine shop owner, winery hospitality worker, and even a newspaper columnist/blogger will tell you the best way to learn more about wine is pretty simple.

Taste. Taste. Taste.

There are lots of ways to do that but don’t overlook the simplest approach. During the warmer weather months many of us have friends over for a cookout or gathering. How about adding a couple different bottles of wine and spend some time before or after just talking about what you’re drinking? That is a wine tasting in its easiest form.

But if you are serious about your wine or just would like to be more serious you need one person who has a little more knowledge. You might have a friend who fits that category but the easiest way is check with any retail wine shop. There is no better way to sell wine than let people taste wine.

The base of my wine knowledge started with wine tastings. One of the very best is Dean Wilson in Indianapolis. Deano has been doing tastings since 1997. And he has some definite opinions about what people should look for at a wine tasting.

“We take the guess work out of it for the consumer,” Wilson said. “We keep it seasonal. Right now we’re doing heavier style whites and lighter style reds. Come summer time we’re still doing lighter style reds and lighter style whites like Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Grigio. In the summer we do bigger bolder whites like chardonnay. In the fall, we’re getting into ports, tawny ports. At Christmas time, we’re doing ports, and bigger style reds and obviously the bubbly or champagne right before the New Year.”

Wilson said it’s sort of like wine for dummies – taking the guess work out of what wines work best with the season.

Jill Ditmire, owner of the Mass Ave. Wine Shop in Indianapolis, has a similar approach to the taste, taste, and taste philosophy. “You can read reviews, watch videos, listen to others but your palate is your best buy indicator. Go to tastings.”

Both wine shop owners said encouraging people to try new things is the real key. “Too many people think all there is in the wine world is Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay,” Ditmire said. “I love it when someone samples a Tempranillo or Malbec and says ‘wow, that tastes so different.’ “

Deano takes the wine drinkers moving away from entry level wines and tries to ease the transition. “We like to let them know that some of the top entry level wines are over sugared,” he said. “So when people say they get hangovers or headaches from drinking wine, I say life is too short to drink cheap wine.”

But Ditmire and Wilson agree there are so many easily affordable options.

“I try to steer the consumer to new world wines like Australian Shiraz because the fruit is sweeter up front and you still have the dry residual finish on the back,” Wilson said.

In the end, the best wine is the wine you like.

“Anyone who tries to tell you what you should drink doesn’t know much at all,” Ditmire added. “We each experience wine differently. A good wine is one you like. A bad wine is one you don’t like.”

So check with your nearby wine shop and get to their tastings. It will open up an entirely new world of wine for you and really pique your interest in discovering new wines.

Howard’s Pick:
Deano’s Vino : Dean Wilson offers the most education-based wine tasting I’ve attended in Central Indiana. He does tasting every Wednesday night at 6 p.m. There is a $5 charge but you get to taste anywhere from 5-7 wines and he usually has some crackers, cheese or meat as part of the tasting. His shop and restaurant is located in Indianpolis’ Fountain Square District.

Others: Mass Avenue has tastings on Tuesdays at 5:30. Cork and Cracker on the north side does weekly tastings. Vine and Table in Carmel has wine open for tasting many days, but especially on Saturday mornings.