I remember it like it was yesterday, the magnum of 2001 Mount Jefferson Cuvée that I shared with a few fellow geeks on a cold winter night. We prepared a feast of braised lamb shanks and roasted root vegetables, and sucked the marrow out of this Pinot Noir. The wine shifted with each sniff, each sip, and while the dinner consisted of talk about the weather, of politics, of happenings in our daily lives, after dinner we could speak only of the wine- of the black cherry, Bucheron rind, floral aromatics, hints of smoke and truffles, the silky body, and of our amazement that the Willamette Valley could produce something this captivating. I affirmed, half way through that final glass, that I too had been converted. I had become a Cristomaniac.
Cristom founder Paul Gerrie had spent most of his adult life in Pittsburgh where he owned a consulting business called Questa Petroleum. The business provided Gerrie with the means to discover the world of wine, through his palate and through travel, and after decades of hard work he decided it was time to pursue his ultimate dream: to own a winery. In 1991 he began his quest, searching for vineyard land in both North and South America, and when he attended the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon's then up-and-coming Willamette Valley, Gerrie knew exactly where his next home would be. In 1992, he purchased a large vineyard on a south-facing hill in what is now known as the Eola-Amity Hills AVA and commenced on constructing his new winery.
But Gerrie's search was only half over. The next part of the equation was to find his right hand man, the winemaker that would ultimately bring Gerrie's dream to fruition. Gerrie was introduced to Steve Doerner, a California winemaker with a biochemistry degree from the illustrious UC Davis, who had 14 years of experience with Pinot Noir under his belt and still couldn't get enough of the grape. Doerner reflected, "I wanted to keep making Pinot Noir, which is what I specialized in down in California, and I wanted to work for a small company because I like the diversity of this job - instead of being a cog in the wheel you're a little bit of everything, you wear a lot of hats and your job changes seasonally. At the time it seemed life changing, but I haven't looked back." He moved up to Oregon shortly thereafter, and the rest was anything but history.
When they took over the winery, most of the vineyards were overgrown with poison oak and blackberry bushes, and only one vineyard was suitable enough to keep. The rest were tilled over and planted to vine gradually, starting in 1993 and the brunt of the work was finished in 1996. And the fruits of their labor, well, where do I begin?
The Cristom winery and tasting room is situated at the foot of a 60+ acre estate, and standing at the winery door we look up the hill at their 7 vineyards, 6 of which are named after family matriatchs. It's an absolutely gorgeous expanse, whether viewing it in the first part of spring with the vine shoots sprouting wildly throughout the vineyard, or when the vines are weighted with the heaviness of the fruits they bear, or even in the wet winter months when the barren, clipped vines hold the promise of next year's crop. As John D'Anna, Cristom's national sales manager, once said, "Of all the trails I've hiked, climbing the hill and walking around these vineyards is my favorite walk on this earth. And I get to do it every single day."
These vineyards are the lifeblood of Cristom, and in order to truly understand their wines, you have to understand the personalities of the matriarchs. Join me and we'll hike up through the vineyards with Steve Doerner and John D'Anna:
Walking down the front steps, we head east of the winery and find ourselves in Emilia vineyard, which is located at the lowest elevation of all the Cristom vineyards. Emilia is named after Gerrie's mother-in-law and features 5 acres of Pinot Gris vines that were planted in 12-inches of top soil that cover a flat layer of clay. Cristom produces an estate Pinot Gris that is directly sourced from Emilia and was also their first to be marketed with the new Eola-Amity Hills AVA designation. Doerner points to the black hoses running along the Pinot Gris vines and says, "You'll notice that we have added irrigation in this section here after the '03 vintage which was very, very hot and we discovered a few places that were very stressed. We could have made better wine had we had a little bit of water in those places."
Taking a slight jaunt up the hill we walk through Louise, named after Gerrie's maternal grandmother. At an elevation of 250 to 400 feet, Louise's Pinot Noir fruits ripen much quicker than the Pinot from Cristom's other matriarch vineyards. Louise was the first vineyard that Cristom replaced, and they replanted all 9 acres to higher densities. "I think Louise emphasises an intense fruit compared to the others, but there are more similarities than huge differences between the wines," Doerner remarked.
Standing in Louise Vineyard, Doerner turns to the south and his eyes scan the Willamette Valley floor. He contemplates a moment, thinking back over the millenia it has taken to form the Willamette Valley. "There are 3 major soil types in the valley," Doerner begins with a sincere desire to educate us Cristomaniacs about the terroir that contributes to his Pinots. "The old ocean floor, which are the sedimentary soils that came from the marine layer that were basically scraped off the valley floor from tetonic plates bumping into each other; then on top of that were all the volcanic flows... the old marine layer was either never covered by the basalt or it has eroded away and became re-exposed. The more recent event was the last ice age, which is when the Missoula Floods came down the valley and made the valley nice, flat and fertile."
On the far east end of Louise is Germaine. Named after Doerner's maternal grandmother, Germaine is a 4.5 acre vineyard featuring densely planted Chardonnay in volcanic loam soil. Planted back in 1993, the Dijon 75 and 95 clones planted here are known to ripen much more fully than other typical Willamette Chardonnays. Cristom used to have a much stronger representation of Chardonnay in their vineyards, but decided it was too hard to market - they wanted a wine that would market itself, so they tore out most of the Chardonnay and replanted the areas with Pinot Noir, but they still make about 100 cases of Chardonnay each year.
To the north of Louise, we climb the steep hill and find ourselves out of breath when we arrive at Marjorie, which is Cristom's oldest vineyard. The first vineyard, which is the most notable vineyard for any winery, could only be named after the most influential person in Gerrie's life: his mother. Marjorie was originally planted in 1982 on a vinifera rootstock and features 5 different clones of Pinot Noir within its 8.5 acres of Jory soil. Some Cristomaniacs believe that Marjorie features the best fruit of all of the vineyards because of its older vines, wider vine spacing and well-drained soils, but Doerner just believes that's what makes Marjorie easier to spot in a blind tasting. Marjorie's original vinifera rootstock has been attacked by phylloxera, and you'll notice that around 10 of the rows have been torn out and replaced by the native labrusca rootstock that is immune to the pest.
Still farther north and at the very tip-top of the vineyards, we find our beloved Eileen. With an additonal 4 acres of vines added early this spring, there are now 16 acres of Jory soil found at 550 to 700 feet in altitude that is entirely planted to Pinot Noir. Named after Gerrie's wife, Eileen receives the brisk winds from the nearby Van Duzer corridor, which cools down her fruit and makes it ripen much more slowly than the other matriarchs.
Finally, looping around Eileen and down the slope to the west, we come across the über-steep Jessie. Named after Gerrie's paternal grandmother, Jessie is the vineyard that wants to break free from the other matriarchs. Her volcanic soils vary from the other vineyards, her climate is a touch different because of her slightly west-facing slope, and her Pinot is, well, it's Jessie's Pinot. Doerner describes Jessie as standing apart from other other Pinots by describing it as having "a floral character of lavender", and he is quick to point out the shallowness of Jessie's topsoil, which barely makes measures 12-inches before hitting the stress-inducing volcanic soils below.
Finally, after a 2 hour jaunt, our knees feeling like we've inched our way down a Mosel hillside, we're back behind the winery in Cristom's experimental plots of Syrah and Viognier. The vineyard may not have a name, but it is certainly unique as it is one of the few vineyards in the Willamette Valley to feature Rhône valley varietals.
Now that we're back at the winery, it's time to rest our feet and taste what Doerner does best. Cristom produces around 10,000 cases of wine per year with a focus on Pinot Noir and a lesser focus on Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Syrah and Viognier. All of the estate wines are single vineyard wines, while the Mt. Jefferson Cuvée and Sommers Reserve Pinot Noir consist of grapes both from Cristom's own vineyards and from handselected vineyards around the Willamette Valley.
"I look for complexity, but first of all balance. You don't want anything to stick out. I don't think bigger is better," Doerner says as he explains his hands-off winemaking philosophy. "We're not trying to make a wine for a target audience. I just make wines that I like, and hopefully we find enough other people that like our wine as well. But one of the things that I'm proudest of is that our wines are distinctive, they have some personality. From the beginning we've used native yeasts (yeasts that are found on the grape skins and in the vineyards) and a lot of whole clusters (fermenting with the clusters intact, as opposed to crushing the grapes), and those are two things that I think are different in terms of how they're made. That gives them structure. They age very well, but they're not as outgoing when they're young."
Doerner makes Pinots that are true to his words, and let me tell you, every single one of his wines are balanced. They feature aromas that will make you refuse to lift your nose out of the glass, and they show one of the greatest expressions of terroir you will find this side of the pond. I've spoken with Cristomaniacs around the United States, and each person has expressed a similar view of Cristom's wines.
Tasting the Pinots, the 2005 Mount Jefferson Cuvée features a gorgeous nose with fresh pomegranate, baked apples, plum and spice on the palate, while the 2004 Mount Jefferson Cuvée is fully integrated and shows all the intangibles of a hallmark Pinot. The 2002 Marjorie Vineyard has rich, dark fruits surrounded by forest floor and truffles, while the 2003 Eileen Vineyard is rich, fruit-forward and velvety, and the 2004 Louise Vineyard is a hearty "must pair with steak" Pinot. But the one that really got me was the 2004 Jessie Vineyard... buckle your safety belt, and prepare yourself for out-of-this-world complexities and impeccable balance in this outstanding Pinot. Each of these Pinots has its own personality but they are all shy when young. They are built for a minimum of 5 years in the cellar and a few will last up to 12 years.
And not to exclude the non-Pinot Noirs, the 2005 Estate Pinot Gris is dry, crisp and refreshing with notes of pear, apple peel and clay. The 2005 Estate Viognier has an enigmatic floral nose with green apple, white peach, lychee and pepper on the palate, and will make a phenomenal food wine. Meanwhile, the 2004 Estate Syrah maintains a relatively high acidity and resembles a St. Joseph more than a New World Syrah, with notes of dark, brambly black berries, smokiness and leather.
After a perfect morning of walking Cristom's incomparable vineyards and tasting the wines that result from tedious vineyard management and hands-off winemaking, the only thing left to do is take one last look at the Eola Hills rolling around the estate, and breathe in the clean vineyard air. As I drive away from the winery, I am reminded of why I am a Cristomaniac: The passion of Gerrie, D'Anna, and Doerner is so real. They spend their days in this little slice of heaven, crafting wines that create conversation, but remain true to their terroir. I can't think of anything more fitting for a table full of wine geeks, finishing the last morsels of braised lamb, dreaming of a walk among the vineyards at Cristom.