Last week I had a chance to meet up with Gabriel Jagle, assistant wine maker for Illahe Vineyards and Winery. Located in Dallas, Ore., it’s in the heart of Oregon’s famed Willamette Valley.
To be more exact, the 80-acre estate winery lies in the sub A.V.A of Eola-Amity Hills, with neighbors like Bethel Heights, Cristom, Evesham Wood and Witness Tree. This is rural countryside, at the southern end of the main Willamette Valley wine tasting route, far from the bustle of Portland and the beginning of wine country.
Speaking of sense of place, Illahe’s back label points out that the word is Chinook jargon for land, earth and soil. Continuing the expansion of the notion of terroir, one cultural philosophy at a time. And for Illahe, the terroir of the land meets the terroir of culture in a celebration of historical winemaking updated to a modern primitive motif.
Jagle beams as he tells me the story of Illahe, and it’s owner/growers, Lowell and Pauline Ford and their children, who perform wine making and sales duties for the family business. Lowell grew the diminutive Müller-Thurgau in the early 1980s, as well as ehrenfeltzer, grüner veltliner, pinot gris and pinot noir. He has sat on the board of the Northwest Viticulture Center for many years, and purchased the land for Illahe in 1999, which at the time was merely a pasture. Family farmers first, stewards of the land, and wine makers second, the Fords employ a modern primitive philosophy in going beyond sustainable methods like organic farming. They planted in 2000 and harvested their first grapes in 2006.
Illahe is forging ahead with an ethos whereby they hand pick, sort, press and pump small lots of high quality grapes that they then age in French and Oregonian oak barrels, after which they hand bottle and hand label. If only it were that simple. Oh, wait, it is. In fact, for their 1899 line of wines, they continue the minimalist, natural (native yeast if it is added at all) and historical pursuit of grape craft by employing a Percheron draft-horse team to pull the grapes into the gravity fed winery for the first of what I’ve seen called “electricity free” wines. When they do use electricity, they use solar panels to harvest the sun. They also harvest rainwater.
Lest you think this some backward pursuit of the primitive, the Wine Spectator caught up with their wines and gave their 2010 Willamette Valley 91 points and named it a top value wine. This put Illahe on the map for sure and their wines are now selling out.
Ford believes, and Gabriel reiterates, that this kind of mark can be both good and bad, because of pressures that demands can bring about. However, the goal remains to focus on quality wine. Part of that focus is also on showing the world that Oregon makes other wines than pinot noir. Illahe, for its part, produces a stunning grüner veltliner, an excellent viognier, a pinot gris and a dry riesling. The riesling, by the way, will be resting in new clay amphora, produced in a kiln on the property. The Grecian-style clay pots, made in ten and twenty litre sizes are another nod to historical wine making traditions.
The wines are sleek, low alcohol gems that reflect the climate and the non-interventionist, non dogmatic style of both the region and the Ford family. The 2012 grüner rings in at 12.5% alcohol and is $15 a bottle, with light aromatics and clean, pure and light fruit notes like pear, apple and honeydew. The finish is salty with essences of spiced shortbread. Quick, a bowl of steamed clams! Similarly, the ‘12 pinot gris drinks of melon and stonefruit, with hints of cinnamon and green tea. The ‘11 riesling is crisp and dry, and their ‘11 Reserve pinot noir speaks of power and elegance. Going back to those vintages, Gabriel points out how warm and full the 2012 vintage and its wines are, “full of fruit-forward deliciousness,” while the terse and cool 2011 actually allowed the fruit, with a perfect acid/brix ratio, to go right into cold soak, and is now “like a beautiful green banana ripening in the bottle.” And I must add, due to the recent popularity, the Willamette Valley pinot noir is sold out, as are the Bon Sauvage pinot noir, their Viognier and rosé of tempranillo.
Gracing each of these wines is a wonderful artistic label featuring classic American early 1900s-era font art by letterpress artist Ruth Lingen and a drawing by James Siena. Siena is known for showing his work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan and the Whitney. He happened to receive a few bottles of viognier in his NYC art studio from another artist who is friends with the Fords, and he loved the wine so much that he offered to do the labels. Of course, after the wine is hand bottled using an old school six-bottle filler, these labels are lovingly hand fixed.
Jagle exudes excitement when I ask him about the state of the Willamette today: “Excitement” is his first word. The former Trader Joe’s employee and later wine buyer for Whole Foods learned the best way, by taking home bottles of cheap wine and strove more for the experience than for the taste. Now, with stints working for John Grocau/GC Wines and Owen Roe behind him, he has gone from “helping out, washing some barrels at harvest time,” to getting to “play with some of the wine making toys.” Jagel notes that similarly, the collaboration of wine folk in the area is inspiring, with diversity in full effect, recollecting a conversation at the Oregon Wine Symposium with a man who had just returned from Beaujolais, France and is now growing and making gamay in Oregon. He lauds the new, small producers who are making as few as fifty to two hundred cases a year as having a spot at the table alongside some of the bigger operators. He concludes with “It’s great to be a part of this rising tide.”
I will and did drink to that.
Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at email@example.com