Whenever someone starts talking about Cameron wines the conversation inevitably turns to owner and winemaker John Paul. After earning a PhD in Marine Biology in the mid-70s, John Paul chucked it all and went to work in a California vineyard for $5 an hour. After a stint as the assistant winemaker at Carneros Creek in Napa Valley, he purchased a vineyard in the Dundee Hills within Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Today, his wines are as much an expression of his irrepressible personality as they are the Dundee Hills terroir he champions. Whether it’s the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay he crafts with monastic patience or the Nebbiolo, Tocai Pinot Bianco and Moscato he’s embraced from many pilgrimages to northern Italy, each wine is a singular reflection of one place, one time and one winemaker.
The wines also reflect an ecological approach that he has fostered not only in the vineyard, but the winery as well. When the cellar was constructed he seeded the walls with spores so fungus would flourish and create the appropriate environment for fermentation and aging. Walking down the staircase into the cellar, there’s a sense that the cellar is actually alive. This may well be the source of the classic “Cameron Cellar Funk”, a quality that pervades nearly all the wines made there. If tasting blind against other Oregon Pinots, even other Dundee Hills Pinots, you can pick out Cameron nearly every time.
Dry viticulture is first among the factors he lists in making great wine and this point he tirelessly promotes whenever given a chance. Other tenets he follows are spontaneous fermentations (fostering wild yeasts rather than inoculating) whenever possible, long maturation times in barrel that extend up to 24 months or more and also a cold, underground cellar. No heaters will be found at Cameron during crush, pumping up the temperature to encourage fast and furious ferments.
One of the things you start to love about Cameron wines is the inconsistency from vintage to vintage. He believes wine should reflect the vintage as much as possible while trying to produce a great wine. You won’t find any gadgets or techniques designed to make a product that tastes the same from year to year, or that takes any of the uncertainty out of the experience of opening a bottle of wine.
But ultimately, to understand his wines you have to understand the man himself. We recently sat down over dinner, opened some of the Burgundies that have influenced his style and let the tape recorder roll:
SF: With a PhD in Marine Biochemistry, do you think you have an advantage or a unique perspective on winemaking that some of your peers don’t?
JP: Yeah, because I understand the chemistry of wine. I mean, look, all the basic tenets of modern biology and biochemistry came from Louis Pasteur. He was a wine chemist. He’s the father of modern biology. A wine chemist! Right and Left Handedness, which is a basic tenet of biochemistry and microbiology—he found that with tartrate crystals that had dropped out of wine. He looked at them under a microscope and he saw that there were two different types of crystals and he painstakingly, with tweezers, separated the crystals out into two groups, redissolved them and found that one bent light to the right and one bent light to the left. And that was DNL isomers, which are a big part of biology and biochemistry. It was from wine! All the basic stuff in microbiology is from wine yeasts and lactic acids and bacteria from wine.
SF: You accepted a research fellowship after getting your PhD, right?
JP: Yeah, I had received a PhD in marine biochemistry from SCRIPPS Oceanographic Institute in San Diego and I got a post doctorate fellowship with a Nobel Laureate. I remember when I first arrived in Berkeley, walking around campus and here I am going to work for this Nobel Laureate who won the prize in chemistry in 1964 for elucidating the dark reactions of photosynthesis. That was my gig—plant physiology and photosynthesis. And I remember walking around the campus going, “Wow. I’m here. I made it. I’m at the pinnacle of my academic career. Which also played into my later thinking, “Well, where the hell do I go from here?”
SF: It’s all down hill, maybe!
JP: I may have peaked! (Laughter) I went and started working for $5.00 an hour at a winery and working in a vineyard. I was in Lake County pruning grapes. I was the only Anglo in the vineyard and I learned Spanish and I learned how to cook tortillas at noon, out in the vineyard. Taking the cuttings and making a little fire and putting your tortillas on top of the fire…
SF: Do remember the moment you realized wine was something special to you?
JP: I can tell you when I decided Pinot Noir was it. I got into wine when I was living in Berkeley and thought it was pretty neat. But when I got the job as assistant winemaker at Carneros Creek Winery in December of ‘79, and because I was in that position, I got to go to a tasting the following spring at Walnut Creek of 1976 Domaine Romanée-Conti wines. All their wines. So there was La Tache, Romanée-St.-Vivant, Blochet and Richebourg—they were all there. And there were these big Burgundy-type glasses. And they were all in front of me. I mean, I had never had any wine like this before, and I sat down—‘76 was an absolutely brilliant vintage in Burgundy—and I remember I just started smelling these glasses and I couldn’t drink them. They were so gorgeous I couldn’t drink them. I just wanted to smell them. I was going from glass to glass to glass and that was my epiphany that this is the greatest grape variety in the world. I fell in love with Pinot Noir.