Many wine enthusiasts have been in a setting such a restaurant, bar or winery that has characteristic ambiance. These are places where conversations flow a little more easily and the wine somehow just always tastes better. So, here’s the question. Can a wine have within itself that same kind of ambiance? An ambiance that exhibits the setting and atmosphere that it came from? Most wine experts would call that terroir, or a sense of place. Yet, on a recent visit to the Willamette Valley I found wines that not only had a sense of place but also an elegant ambiance that with each sip told its stories of struggles, victories and most importantly the patience that it takes to craft something remarkable. The winery that I’m talking about is Lenné Estate which is located in the north Willamette Valley near the town of Yamhill, Oregon.
The view of Lenné Estate from NE Laughlin Rd in the Yamhill, Oregon
Every story should start from the beginning so before I began my visit and tour of Lenné Estate I asked Steve some questions to get a better understanding of how he came to be a winemaker and learn more about the history of Lenné.
Do you remember the wine that was “the one” that started it all?
“The first dry wine that every “clicked for me” was an inexpensive French Chardonnay from Macon. A girlfriend’s brother took us out to dinner and ordered it and for the first time I could see that a dry wine with food was something to enjoy. But I really got into wine after graduating from college.”
Tell me something about your early career in the wine world, how did you got into the wine industry?
“After graduating from University of Oregon I had to leave Oregon because there were no jobs here at that time. I went back to my home state, Colorado, and got a job in an oil company. I really started to learn about wines at that time and one day my boss came to me and told me that there were going to be layoffs but my job was safe and I decided right there and then that I wanted to be in the wine industry. I packed up my VW rabbit and drove to Napa Valley and started my career.”
That nudge to start a new career began in 1984 and Steve’s early days in Napa started with working in the cellars at Beringer Winery. Soon he was working in tasting rooms all the while continuing to learn as much about wine as he could. In California Steve also started a gourmet pizza business called Borolo’s Gourmet Pizza, and pizza is still a passion that he shares when he fires up his woodfired pizza oven at the winery for member parties and other special events.
Fast forward to 1998 when Steve made the move back to Oregon with his wife Karen to pursue his next step in a wine career. After doing consulting work for Chateau Benoit Winery followed by a VP position in marketing and administration at Anne Amie Vineyards, Steve shared with me the story of how he and his wife found the land that is now home to Lenné Estate.
“I was working there and my wife’s dad had died and he left her a little bit of money and she wanted to get some rural property and I said we might as well get some property that’s suitable for a vineyard. After some searching, we came up here on a Sunday in 2000 and within an hour I was on the phone and basically made the guy a full price offer. It wasn’t on the market at that point but he was just about ready to put it on the market.”
Original Photographs of the Lenné Estate property when it was purchased. (Courtesy of Lenné Estate)
When the Lutz’s brought the property Steve explained that there was nothing there. In fact, there were very few vineyards in this area, after about ten years new vineyards were starting to be planted and now the hills around Lenné Estate in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA are full of vineyards.
The road to achieve these now flourishing Lenné Estate vineyards was not an easy one and Steve has a saying that “Oregon Pinot Noir really rewards the patient.” A true statement especially after you spend some time with him and hear about some of the rough times that he encountered while trying to get his vineyards planted.
As we toured the vineyard Steve told me shared some of the reasons that he chose this lot of land and a few of the struggles that certain parts of the vineyard presented. Although most of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA area is comprised of some of the oldest mostly marine sediment soil in the Willamette Valley, the soil that Steve’s vineyard is situated on is home to a different type of soil called Peavine.
A nutrient-depleted sedimentary soil, Peavine is typically found in the mountainous regions of the Oregon’s Coast and Cascade ranges. Peavine is a combination of sandstone, limestone, basalt and shale which is ideal for growing timber but not much else.
Ultimately the patch of Peavine underneath Lenné Estate turned out to be a favorable anomaly for Steve, yet mastering the soil still wasn’t without its hardships.
Steve noted that “Peavine is really a poor sedimentary soil and the county classifies it as the worst agricultural soil in the county. We had a very difficult time establishing it. Now, it makes us who we are.”
One of Steve’s biggest struggles was getting a block that is planted with the 667 and 114 clones of Pinot established. This block now produces their wines called Kill Hill and hearing Steve tell the story behind its name you just have to shake your head and laugh.
“It is called Kill Hill because we just had a ton of dead vines just trying to keep this alive. This is a real difficult spot, although the whole vineyard has poor soil it is particularly nasty in this block. So, when we planted this I was trying to keep them alive by hand watering.”
“I’d pull the doors off the tractor and pull the pull tank and I had the spray tubes and we put everything in grow tubs and we wedged them into the ground so I would go through and just fill up a grow tube and then another and just keep going.” He laughed and added, “I burned out the clutch on the tractor that year. It’s really steep up and getting that tractor to stop and go, it was really tricky!”
Lenné Estate’s 20.9 acres, has 15 1/2 acres which are planted to five clones of Pinot Noir: Pommard, 114, 115, 667 and 777. From these five clones Steve is producing eight unique Pinots, four of which are different single clone wines, as well as Chardonnay that he started making in 2016. Working with a focused and minimalist style both in the vineyard and in the winery, Steve is concentrating on bringing out the precise grape characteristics and flavors that his unique vineyard provides. That once pesky Peavine soil according to Steve is helping to craft an array of complex Pinots with concentrated flavor, prominent aromatics of mocha and delicate tannins.
Extracting the complexity of Pinot varies greatly between winemakers in Oregon, so I asked Steve if there were any lessons he learned in his training as a winemaker that have stuck with him. He stated, “Something I learned in Oregon is to appreciate the variation of vintages. We have had all kinds of different vintages but managed to make great wine in almost all of them. Some don’t show well early on but in the end they have all been good.”
When asked how he would describe his winemaking style and how has that changed over the years? Steve replied, “We try to make very fruit driven wines that are reflective of the vineyard, not of the cellar. We want as many primary fruit characteristics to be intact when we bottle. To that end we believe in pressing early, commercial yeasts and inoculating for secondary fermentation.”
It’s the land itself, the sense of place that brings something specific to a wine, a type of liquid geography that forms part of it’s story. The best way however to learn its true story is to get tasting!
Fun Fact: The name Lenné is a tribute to Karen’s late father, Len, who owned a chicken farm in Wokingham, England. Len’s profile graces Lenné’s labels.
After starting off with a sip of Lenné’s lovely 2019 Chardonnay, Steve decided to do a little something different with my Pinot tasting and he poured three of his wines in a side by side vintage tasting.
Pinot is the hallmark of Lenné’s production and is the big draw for club members and first-time visitors of the Willamette Valley. When you search for Lenné Estate wines you will consistently find five-star ratings, and for good reason. Having the opportunity to taste three of Steve’s most popular Pinots, Eleanor’s 114, Jill’s 115 and South Slope Select in a 2018-2019 vertical tasting was an educational way to really experience the slight to drastic nuances that occur during each year in the vineyard.
Starting with Eleanor’s 114 Pinot Noir, named for Steve’s mother, I was intrigued to try a Dijon 114 single clone wine for the first time. The 2018 Eleanor’s 114 delighted me with its intoxicating aromatics of red fruit and earthiness. Combined with an incredibly balanced lingering finish that is a little frisky and somewhat rustic in all the right ways.
Then comes the 2019 Eleanor’s almost the complete opposite with a show of blackberry, just picked ripe cherries and threads of floral notes. I really enjoyed the silky mocha splash in this elegant Pinot and the poise of acidity with each sip.
Lenné Estate Jill’s 115, is named after Karen’s mother and is a one of their most popular single clone Pinot Noirs, crafted from the best barrels of Dijon 115 each year. “Umber in a glass” is what my tasting notes said for the 2018 ‘Jill’s 115. I know, umber is not a word normally associated with wine but with its boisterous black fruit veiled in rich mocha, umber went from a color to a flavor for me. Really a homey wine that shares so much of what the vineyards at Lenné have to offer.
2019 Jill’s 115 is like the 2018’s little sister in so many ways. With the first sip you get some competitive aromas of the same dark fruits found in the 2018 but with a younger more floral aspect that shows its youth and freshness. Not to be outdone by her older sister, the 2019 sneaks in a long smooth finish with a small tease of “I bet they like me better than you Sis!”. Oh, sibling rivalry, you really can’t pick a favorite!
This is a barrel selection that is predominately composed of the Pommard clone and both of these vintages will have you pulling the glasses a little closer to take in the lively aromatics that float out of the glass. These two vintages are similar in many ways with both delivering aromas and flavors of baking spice, blueberries and warm cherries.
The 2018 has a little more spunk and energy with some well merged soft tannins and harmonious acidity. I appreciated the 2019’s sprightly charm and it was easy to tell that this ‘select’ Pinot will age really well. Both vintages made for some memorable sips.
The 2018 Lenné Estate cinq élus Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir was the final wine tasted and one that Steve is extremely proud of, and for good reason. The name, ‘cinq élus’, translates to “five chosen” and this wine is made only in great vintages of a blend of the Steve’s favorite barrel from each one of his five different clone specific vineyard blocks.
I think the heart and soul of many of Lenné Estate wines is the mocha aspect. That little delightful wisp of chocolate in your glass can be so seductive in a Pinot and the ‘cinq élus’ expertly delivers this mocha kiss in both the aroma and palate. This wine is what many Oregon Pinots aspire to be. A perfect blend of expressive dark fruit and warm inviting spices, a serious wine but still playful especially as the wine begins to open up. Though at the higher price point of $85/bottle, if you are looking for a classy Oregon Pinot to take home and tuck away for just the right occasion, this wine should be high on your list.
Before wrapping up my visit I had a couple more questions for Steve that I wanted to share;
Wine is such a personal thing, especially to a winemaker so I was curious what Steve hoped people say about his wine?
“Well I know what people say about our wine because I hear it every day. We often hear that we have the best wine in the valley. I think we heard that a lot early on but the quality of wine is really come up in the last 10 years. We know there are other great producers but we are confident in our site and our style of winemaking and feel we can hold our own with anyone in Oregon.”
I always like to ask winemakers if they have a Favorite Food and Wine Pairing and I absolutely loved Steve’s answer!
“I love duck and lamb with Pinot Noir but also love Alsatian wines with a variety of foods, particularly Thai food and charcuterie. I pretty much love any wine with crunchy Cheetos.”
At the heart of the unique Willamette Valley experience, is exploring the different AVAs, and talking directly with the winemakers who live and breathe this terroir. Being able to sit down with a winemaker and having a conversation about their wines and what makes them unique to the Willamette Valley is always the highlight of my return to this beautiful wine region.
If after reading this story you feel like you want to know more about Lenné Estate and its wines then make sure you add a wine tasting there to your Willamette Valley travel itinerary. Grab a glass of wine and find a spot outside to take in the amazing Willamette Valley views.
There are a lot of new and exciting things happening at Lenné Estate to be aware of when planning a visit:
They are continuing to do a popular series of blind tastings where Steve pours samples of top-flight wines from around the world, including one of his own, without revealing their identities.
You can read more about Lenné’s Blind Tastings in this article published by the Oregon Wine Press, Blind Date: Lenné Estate Pinot tasting a risky but educational experience.
Also, they have finally kicked off a library program so they will have one library wine that will be releases every Memorial Day. They are starting with the 2011 vintage but starting in 2023 they will have the 2013 and each year after they will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the vintage by releasing a ten year old wine on Memorial Day.
Can’t make to Oregon? No problem, visit Lenné Estate’s website at https://www.lenneestate.com to learn more about their current releases and order wines directly.
I’m looking forward to visiting Steve again at Lenné Estate because I know that I’m guaranteed to find amazing Pinots with an ambiance and elegance all their own as well as engaging conversation, some laughs and Oregon wine adventure inspiration. Maybe I’ll see you there!
Cheers everyone and thanks for reading. Leave a comment if you have any questions about Lenné Estate or just want to share your favorite wine from Steve.
Images and content ©Drink In Nature Photography/Drink In Life Blog
Spring Frost. For the past few years, vineyard Spring frost and other grape damaging weather has been a recurrent topic in the wine world as well as in the wine industry news. Although Spring frosts have always existed, climate change and an increase in earlier vine development has many winemakers experiencing a raised level of worry as Spring arrives in the vineyard.
Again this year, wine industry news platforms in regions around the world and here in the United States have been filled with headlines like these:
“Apocalyptic” hail storms in French wine regions”, that decimated whole chunks of French vineyards at Whitsun have dashed the hopes of winegrowers who had aimed to fully replenish stocks of grapes and wine after last year’s void. From Vitisphere
California North Coast wine grape season off to wild-weather start amid frost, water concerns, from North Bay Business Journal.
Late-Spring Frost Imperils Oregon and California Vineyards, from Wine Spectator.
In the Willamette Valley, severe frost hit on April 14th and 15th as temperatures plunged into the 20s throughout the valley. This was yet another setback for growers in the Willamette Valley, which experienced smoke taint in 2020 from extensive wildfires in the region.
Of all of the devastating headlines in April, it was this headline Willamette Valley could lose half its grape crop after frost hits Oregon vineyards, from the Oregonian that caused a lot of stir in the Oregon wine community.
On a trip to the Willamette Valley earlier this month, I spoke with a few winegrowers to get a better perspective of the severity of the damage and hear how they felt the frost would affect this year’s crop. As a wine writer and enthusiast, I find that the vast affects weather and environmental factors have on viticulture and the creativity winegrowers implement to mitigate many of these conditions an interesting topic. I hope you’ll find the perspectives of the winegrowers that I talked with just as interesting.
What I heard a lot about was the grape bud contains three potential growing points, known as primary, secondary and tertiary buds, each of which is progressively less fruitful, the Willamette Valley wine world has been waiting and watching to see what grows. Many of the growers I spoke with didn’t see any destruction in their vineyards, but most of them have friends and colleagues that suffered devastating losses.
Photo: Lenné Estate Vineyard
Here are some of comments about the effect that this year’s Spring frost had on their Willamette Valley vineyards from the growers and winemakers themselves.
When I asked about this year’s weather compared to previous years, Steve Lutz, owner and winemaker at Lenné Estate in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA told me, “Right now, we have about the same amount of growth that we had in 2011, which was the coldest vintage ever here. So this year in comparison is going to be interesting.” Steve did add that “The wines in 2011 were so acidic and they are taking a long time to come around but it is an interesting and long-lived vintage.”
Aside from the frost the regions cooler than average temperature has slowed things down in the vineyards this Spring. Steve shared, “This was a really bizarre year, we should have 2 to 2 ½ feet of growth right now but it is very stunted, but we’ll see what we get. It should be interesting and if we get a warm summer, we should be fine, so we’re going to keep our fingers crossed.”
While touring his vineyard Steve pointed out examples of the primary and secondary shoots saying, “Things are really different this year, you can see that what we’re doing is we’re leaving some of these shoots coming out of the top of the trunk here, which normally we just leave the fruiting cane and the shoots that come out of the shooting cane. This year we’re really hedging our bets because we still have a lot of what looks like primary shoots coming out, we have some secondary shoots too, so we’ve got fruit and we’ll see what we set.”
I asked Steve about multiple picking passes in the vineyard collecting the grapes from both primary and secondary clusters and he replies, “I don’t know how that would work. For the fruit you would have to have a really discerning eye, to have a crew go through and pick primary fruit versus secondary fruit will just not work. Unless, it was a crew of winemakers going through to make it work.”
While taking a morning drive through the Youngberg Hill’s Vineyards in the McMinnville AVA, owner and winemaker Wayne Bailey spoke about how they fortunately were not affected by the frost this year.
Wayne Bailey inspecting the vineyard.
“We have all primary shots, we did not get affected by the frost. We’re high enough and close enough to the ocean that we didn’t have any freeze issues at all. We had just on the very last day about 2 hours that got below 32 degrees but it wasn’t impactful at all. Because of our altitude what you found was the cold pockets were in the swales and things like that, my understanding is it got up to about 400 feet and we don’t have anything below 500 feet. We were very fortunate in that regard, and everything looks great.”
Wayne went on to express that “unfortunately a lot of our neighbors didn’t fare as well. In fact, Robert Brittan (of Brittan Vineyards) who is five miles down lost all of his chardonnay as a result, because the chardonnay was farther along. I don’t know if he has secondaries coming up yet or not.”
Wayne also added that the cooler weather for him is actually a good thing, “I like the cool wet springs and I like the timing that we are getting into because it means we will be ripening in October instead of in September.”
A stop at Bells Up Winery to spend some time with owners Dave and Sara Specter was another opportunity to talk about the April frost this year and how it affected their vineyard just outside of the town of Newberg in the Chehalem Mountains AVA .
As we walked through the vineyard, I asked Dave if at this point he could tell if he was going to have more primary or secondary buds? Here’s what he told me;
“I can’t tell right now but I think it is going to be mostly primary, because we weren’t pushing that much when we had the frost.” He went on to add, “we have seen some pictures however, that our friends whose site is just a couple of mile away, sent us pictures of his place, he got hit hard. There was primary bud death where it was just crispy, what had pushed just turned browned and it had snapped. We did not see any of that here, so I am reasonably optimistic that were going to be okay.”
“What we’re hearing is that there is a lot of resilience out there.”
Dave went on to say, “Some around the valley have experienced much worse. Chardonnay has been hard hit, as well as pinot. But what we’re hearing is that there is a lot of resilience out there. Also, if you got secondaries the fruitfulness of those is going to be much much less but they will at least give you something. The last couple of years they have just been crazy weather wise.”
More information about Bells Up Winery can be found on my post THE BELLS ARE IN THE AIR AT BELLS UP WINERY.
The sun made a welcome appearance for the first time during my trip when I arrived at Elk Cove Vineyards to chat with Anna Campbell, daughter of Pat and Joe Campbell, the founders of Elk Cove. As we toured the grounds and vineyard, I could see that their vines although somewhat short looked extremely healthy and unaffected by the frost. When I asked Anna about this she shared, “This location here we are high enough up that we didn’t have any frost. We are just a little behind because of the cooler weather. Once we get heat the vines and grapes will catch up but probably not to what has become the normal in looking at the last few years of harvest in early September.”
The article in Oregonian that stated “the Willamette Valley could lose half its grape crop after frost hits Oregon vineyards” came up during our time in the vineyard. I asked Anna what she thought of such a drastic headline and she said, “There are just some people that when anything goes wrong in a season they just say, ‘it’s a disaster’.” She went on to say that her brother, Adam, head winemaker for Elk Cove, “is definitely more chill, he is just like you know there’s nothing we haven’t seen before, Mother Nature always throws something at us.”
Case in point, Anna added was that her parents “made wine when Mount St Helens erupted and we had a half inch of ash in 1980, that slowed down ripening. So, we don’t like to judge a season until the vintage is made.”
A first time stop to taste some wines and talk with Bill and Sandy Sanchez owners of Potter’s Vineyard and Vino Vasai Wines near Newberg, was yet another chance to hear how their vineyards were doing this year. Bill briefed me on the favorable state of the vineyard, which is located in the Laurelwood District AVA, noting that they had been affected by the spring frost and that different harvesting procedures may have to occur this year. Bill stated, “We want to get some fruit from the secondary buds this year, but if you have delayed ripening then are we going to have two picks. Normally that is hard to do so this year we will most likely pick more as a family because we tend to pick the fruit for the family and rosé wine club first.” This type of forethought is what will help many of the small wineries bring in a crop this year instead of writing the year off as a complete loss.
Going through hard times is one of the things that can create even stronger bonds between people in such a tight knit community like the Willamette Valley. Especially when something like this brutal frost hasn’t happened in a long time in the valley.
Bill went on to say, “This is the first time that I have seen this and many of my colleagues in thirty years have ever seen it. They said 1985, so thirty some years ago was the last time many of them had seen a spring frost like this that damaged the crops so extensively.”
Areas of the Willamette Valley can sometimes be deceiving when it comes to determining elevation by sight alone and higher elevations don’t always mean you are safe from frost. Before stopping in on a cold rainy day to reconnect with Brad McLeroy, owner and winemaker of Ayres Vineyard, I had thought that being “up high” in the Ribbon Ridge AVA they would have escaped the frost this April. Sadly, that was not the case. Since rain prevented a walk in the vineyard we talked about the effects of the frost while sampling some of Ayres’ exceptional Pinot Noir.
As he poured his Pinot Brad told me, “The frost got us even at 500-foot elevation, to what extent, it is still to early too know exactly. There is definitely damage so we’ll be down in production. But, one of the vineyards I lease are in the foothills at 600-foot elevation and they had nothing, they were fine.”
Ayres vineyard was the first one that I had heard about that sat at 500 feet elevation and had still suffered losses from the frost this year. Brad expressed some optimism by stating, “Regardless we will be making wine much later this year, with the cooler weather the vineyards are about a month behind. Hopefully we have some ‘second summer’ days that help along the ripening.”
To achieve this Brad added, “We might need to keep the secondary shoot this year, if we do, we’ll have to go plant to plant and make those decisions. What that could mean because doing multiple pass throughs is labor intensive is doing less tastings and closing the doors a little more to spend more time in the vineyard myself. For example, three days a week we might need to get out there more and pay a little more attention to a particular block to see what’s really going on.”
If you are interested in learning more about Ayres Vineyard you can read my post A VISIT TO AYRES VINEYARD & WINERY
How the grapevines will fare following this historic frost in April is still to be determined. One thing that was reinforced in my conversations with each of these individuals is that Oregon winegrowers are incredibly resilient. It is in their nature to change and adapt to this season’s challenges, like they have others in the past.
If you enjoyed this update of Willamette Valley vineyards, I’d like to hear your thoughts on it, or if you have news to share from another winery affected by the frost this year.
I will be sharing more about my trip to the Willamette Valley in a series of articles over the next few weeks, starting with my tour and tasting with Steve Lutz at Lenné Estate coming later this week. Until then Cheers and thanks for reading.
Images and content © Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.