It’s been a long time coming… Jose and I sat with Greg Lint, president of Oak Knoll Winery, and winemaker Jeff Herinckx about three years ago and talked about creating an Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium that would begin to define an Oregon style. With the popularity of this variety still gaining steam, and Oregon having such a unique terroir, it just seemed like an intriguing event to create. Both Greg and Jeff were then, and are now, very excited to host it. Next, timing became the most important factor. Early this year, we all became committed to the project as something that has to happen, “now,” and it’s underway for June 9, 2011.
Winemaker Jeff Herinckx is a superstar in his own right, having been trained by Oak Knoll’s founder Ron Vuylsteke. Working under Ron for nearly 20 years, Jeff became winemaker once Ron retired. He’s now seen 26 harvests at Oak Knoll, and takes great pride in crafting all of Oak Knoll’s wines. To better understand the style of winemaking introduced to Jeff by Ron, we have to examine Ron’s own history:
Ron’s Vuylsteke’s background for winemaking came from his grandfather, who emigrated from Bordeaux’s Arcachon region of Saint-Émilion. Oak Knoll’s founder Ron Vuylsteke’s grandfather Leonard Vuylsteke, a native of Belgium, started making wine in the Arcachon Bay region. Leonard then moved to Saint-Émilion, where he became the village winemaker in the early 1900s. He next immigrated to the United States with his family, on one of the last ships able to make safe passage out of Europe just before World War I. Arriving at Ellis Island in New York, the family traveled across the country by train to join relatives, who had settled in the farmland of the northern Willamette Valley. Grandson Ron Vuylsteke also became a winemaker, and went on to become a pioneering legend in Oregon’s winemaking history.
Today, Jeff has taken that history and given it his own modern twist in his native Oregon terroir.
When the idea came up years ago, the first person I thought of for the winemaking and viticultural aspects was Robert Brittan. Robert has helped me with the Petite Sirah Annual Symposium. Because Robert is such a brilliant man when it comes to winemaking, he’s been invaluable to the Petite project. In fact, he was on the board of directors for PS I Love You for years, before moving back to Oregon. For anyone who doesn’t know Robert, he spent 25 years in Napa Valley, before returning to his native state.
Robert Brittan spent 16 of those years at Stags’ Leap Winery, with Carl Doumani as his boss and friend. It was told to me, by more than one wine writer, that Robert was responsible for crafting what they considered to be the benchmark in Petite Sirah, but this didn’t also pigeon hole his ability to only craft one variety. In my estimation, Robert is simply brilliant, if brilliance can be referred to in any of the simplest terms.
We can’t forget, with his illustrious career mostly centered around Napa Valley, being a native born Oregonian and beginning his education at Oregon State, the chance of him returning to Oregon was pretty high… And he did. He now owns and operates Brittan Vineyards, and he also consults with the state. What a rare opportunity for us to get together again on a project at Oak Knoll. Brittan Vineyards is only about 20 minutes away from Oak Knoll… Kismet strikes, again!
For me, he would be a perfect person to bring in to discuss wine of any color and flavor. It’s been a few years since he’s returned and is growing his own grape vines (having started doing that in Napa, before moving north), which makes him even more important to this project.
While he’s got the respect of the wine industry as not only a superb winemaker, he’s also well respected for being such a pleasant, down to earth man. Since day one, Robert has been one of the kindest people I’ve met in the wine business, and for me, this is also one of the main draws… A man who is extremely busy and is always there when I need him. When I called him he graciously told me:
“Jooooo [he has a way of drawing out my name when we talk], of course I’d love to help you. I have ideas and may bring in a couple more people to help out, and I give you my full support.”
And this is only the beginning…
Another winemaker committed to this Pinot Gris Symposium is winemaker Jason “Jay” Bull of Zimri Cellars (J Bull Wines) in Newberg, Oregon, and the winemaker for David Hill Winery and Vineyards. Jason Bull has extensive experience in the wine business. He, too, first gained his credentials in California’s Sonoma County and Napa Valley, starting his career at Dry Creek Vineyards. Before moving to Oregon, Jay worked for many prestigious wineries. His website tells his story better than I could, but I will say this… His career is illustrious, and I’m very anxious to meet him.
Meet Jason Bull or “Jay” as most of his friends call him. Jason started his career in the wine industry in 1988 at Dry Creek Vineyards while majoring in Enology at Fresno State. After graduating, Jason moved north to Sonoma County to work With the Benziger’s of Glen Ellen. When the label was acquired by Hublein, Jason found himself in the heart of the Napa Valley in sales at the St. Helena Wine Center. During his time at the wine center, Jason was introduced to a who’s who of the Napa wine industry which led him to an Assistant Winemaker position at Flora Springs. At the same time, Jason did temporary work for Heidi Barrett at Paradigm, Screaming Eagle and Grace Family wineries helping with the 1994 crush. After Flora Springs, Jason headed back to Sonoma briefly before taking a job at Von Strasser. While working for the Mayo family, Jason began consulting for Domain Danica of Healdsburg. During this time, Jason had a chance to work with many varietals including high-end Pinot Noir which would eventually become his passion. After leaving Von Strasser, Jason worked for a French barrel cooperage which gave him invaluable experience with barrel aging.
As fate would have it, Oregon was one of his sales territories. This was Jason’s first chance to come to Oregon as he was offered a job at Laurel Ridge Winery. This is where he spent four years as the winemaker and general manager making multiple award winning wines from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir. Just before the crush of 2005 Jason was offered a job with David Hill Winery and Vineyards and gladly accepted. At David Hill, Jason oversees all vineyard activity as well as making all the wines. Jason also makes wine for several small producers at David Hill Winery. A few of them are K & M Vineyards, La Dolce Vita, Kason Vineyards, and Meier Farms Vineyards. His Zimri Cellars label is marketed under the parent company J Bull Wines.
More will follow on this symposium which is being held for owners, wine grape growers, and winemakers in Oregon. For now, this is something worth noting, because I know that it’s going to be a very special day… when the best and the brightest gather to discuss Pinot Gris and it’s terroir in the state of Oregon.