In 1997, John and Karen Bergström purchased a 15-acre plot of land in the Willamette Valley just outside of Dundee, Oregon. Their son, Josh, had interned with local wineries during the previous two years and the family decided to open a winery together. In 1998, Josh headed off to France to earn a post-graduate degree in Viticulture and Enology from the CFPPA (Center for the Formation and Promotion of Agricultural Production) in Beaune. There he met his future wife Caroline, a Beaune native in the process of finishing her degree in wine marketing.
1999 brought Josh and Caroline home to the Willamette Valley, where his parents had been sowing and plowing under rich green cover crops to revitalize the soil and prepare the land for vines. During his first year back from France, Josh planted vines and purchased grapes from other vineyards to make the first vintage of Bergström wine. He sourced fruit from other vineyards until 2001, when he produced his first wines using grapes from his family's vineyards.
From the beginning, the Bergströms firmly believe that winemaking starts and ends in the vineyard, where they only use biodynamic techniques. They use natural sprays to combat vine disease and organic composts to maintain a balanced soil structure. They introduce indigenous predatory insects to combat the leaf-hoppers and mites that could potentially wreak havoc on the vines. Their vine maintenance is just as meticulous, as the Bergströms will make 40 to 50 passes through a vineyard every year to prune double buds, remove shoots and drop clusters from the vines to ensure small yields.
In order to understand their winemaking process a bit better, I ventured out to the Bergström winery on a typical autumn day in the Willamette Valley – grey, overcast skies with a light mist brushing against my face as low-lying clouds crept into the vineyards. I drove along the twisting road between vines that ended mere feet from the road, past hazelnut farms and Adelsheim to an unassuming white house nestled between two blocks of vines. I parked the car and entered the house, which the Bergströms have turned into a temporary office and resting station, a place to get away and put their feet up during harvest breaks.
Michael Denton from Merenda Restaurant and Wine Bar in Bend, Oregon, was helping the Bergströms with harvest and was the first to greet me. It was Michael’s turn to make lunch for the harvest staff, and he designated this drizzly Saturday as "Crubble" day. In the next room, I found out what Crubble meant as plate after plate of cracked crab legs and bottle after bottle of empty bubbly covered the table. Most of the harvest workers had already finished their meal and were back on the job, punching down the fermenting fruit and washing away the crushed grape skins scattered across the ground. But Josh Bergström was still sitting at the table, holding a milk bottle to the lips of his 2-month old son, cradled in his arm.
Fifteen minutes later after handing the baby off to Caroline it was back to work. As we prepared to venture up the gravel road to the winery, Josh conveyed why he maintains such a laid-back approach to winemaking, even while in the midst of a typically stressful harvest. "We’ve all worked for a chef in a restaurant who will get so upset that they’ll throw a prepared dish at a kitchen wall, or a winemaker who will yell, ‘Oh my God! It’s raining! It’s raining!’ and break down in tears in the winery." He paused for a moment, took a sip of bubbly, shook his head and said, "It’s just not worth it."
Inside the winery, empty Francois Freres barrels lined the walls waiting to be filled with juice. More oak barrels were being hauled in from the rain by Josh driving the forklift. Migrant workers stood on 2x8s overtop the fermentation tanks, wielding long-wooden poles that they thrust through the cap to punch down the fruit. Matt, who flies to Oregon from New Zealand to work every harvest, combined a selected strain of yeast with water and poured the mixture from a beaker into barrels of Chardonnay.
An oak barrel that stood 5-foot tall and 6-foot in diameter was filled to the rim with Pinot Noir grapes. Gas bubbles expanded between the macerating skins like a child’s bubble gum until they burst. Josh keeps this fruit in the barrel for 7-14 days to extract the most possible flavor from the grape skins, before the juice is bled directly into the French oak barrels where it remains until bottled just before the next harvest. Josh reached into the barrel, grabbed a fistful of skins and squeezed out enough juice to fill a coffee cup, the rich mauve-colored juice oozing between his fingers and dripping back into the barrel.
This extended maceration time is what makes Bergström’s Pinot Noir so seductive. In the glass, its color is such a vivid shade of magenta that it makes you stop and wonder if you’re really supposed to drink it or simply sit and marvel over its beauty. On the palate, the fruit flavors are so expressive they can be considered nothing less than opulent. But these Pinot Noirs aren’t fruit bombs – the careful vineyard maintenance and cautious fruit selection process creates terroir-driven wines that each possess their own charisma.
The Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is fruit forward with hints of bark and truffle and a silky body. The Cumberland Reserve Pinot Noir is supple on the palate and Rhône-esque in style. The Nysa Vineyard Pinot Noir is velvety and laden with enough spice and earthen complexities to make your head spin. Meanwhile, the Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir features floral and spice aromas on a plush body that can be described as nothing less than elegant.
While best known for their Pinot Noir, Josh also produces Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling, all in small quantities. The Chardonnay grapes come from the famous Eyrie Vineyard, from which Bergström is the only winery allowed to source grapes. It features a vivid display of fruit with a subtle oak influence that gives it a firm, yet smooth body. The Pinot Gris is fruit forward with tropical notes and a spicy backbone. And the 2004 Riesling is their first effort, and an impressive effort at that. The wine shows an optimum balance of sweetness and acidity.
When asked how 2005 had treated the grapes, Josh looked to the floor, gritted his teeth and said, "I hate using this term, but it’s been a Burgundian year. We normally pick the Nysa vineyard on September 20th, but this year because of all the fog and rain we had to leave the grapes to ripen on the vine until October 10th. The longer hang time gave the fruit a richer flavor and most of the grapes have brown seeds. So far, from the quality of the grapes coming in from the vineyards, 2005 is a perfect Pinot Noir vintage."
Along with the aforementioned wines, Bergstrom has released as many as twelve vineyard-specific Pinot Noirs, depending on the vintage. But which wines make it into vineyard-specific labels isn't decided until after fermentation. "Once we see how the fruit fares in the barrels, we’ll determine how many vineyard specific labels we’ll produce. If one vineyard has an off year, there’s no way we’re going to make a wine under that label. We won’t make a customer pay $65 for a wine if it isn’t worth it. You only have one chance to impress someone and one chance to piss them off. And if you piss them off, they’ll never buy your wine again."
At the end of the day, Josh sauntered out behind the winery, followed by Matt and Michael, and grabbed a shotgun out of the back of a pickup truck. They set up a few discarded oak barrels and, amidst a roar of laughter from razzing each other, they added new bung holes to each barrel. Even during the most stressful time of year for any winemaker, Josh maintains the same humble philosophy that every wine geek approaches wine with: wine is a vehicle used to bring people together to enjoy life.