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.
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