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Beaver State Burgundy

July 29, 1993|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

McMINNVILLE, Ore. — Terry Casteel was showing Robert Drouhin of the famed French winemaking family around his Pinot Noir vineyard. It was 1988 and Drouhin, who was setting up a winery here in the red hills near Dundee, wanted to buy grapes from neighbors to tide him over until his own vines came into production.

"Robert told me to drop a ton of my fruit on the ground," says Casteel. "I was shocked." Dropping fruit on the ground, called "thinning," means less fruit to sell, which means lower revenue. Drouhin told Casteel that great Pinot Noir cannot be made from grapes that yield more than three tons of grapes per acre.

At that point, Casteel's Bethel Heights Vineyard was producing about four tons on an acre. Casteel followed the advice, Drouhin bought the grapes, made a Pinot Noir that he priced at $30 a bottle, and gained worldwide praise.

And thus he left a lasting message with Casteel and many Oregon wineries: To make great Pinot Noir, don't expect to make a lot.

Casteel told the story during the seventh International Pinot Noir Celebration held at Linfield College here last week. The IPNC, as everyone here calls it, is a semi-serious look at how Pinot Noir is grown and produced around the world. Attending were some of the better names in the Pinot Noir game, but clearly the focus is on Oregon, a state that for a decade has received accolades for its Pinot Noirs.

I have never been a big fan of Oregon Pinot Noir. Three years ago, I did a wide-ranging tasting of them and couldn't understand the hype; three times in the last 18 months I did smaller tastings of Oregon Pinot Noirs and found only a few worth getting excited about.

Things are changing, however, and I'm being converted. Today it's clear that the lessons of early pioneers David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards, Dick Erath of Knudsen Erath, and Bill Fuller of Tualatin Vineyards; the innovations of David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyard, and now the involvement of Drouhin are bearing fruit.

Less fruit, actually, which makes for better wine. Many local growers say Drouhin's influence has made an impact seen in more consistency and greater varietal character.

Some, however, feel the pre-Drouhin sharing of information has been a key. "We've gone for more intensity in our wines, and lower yields lead to that," says Michael Adelsheim, business manager for his brother David's Adelsheim winery. "We have been asking growers to drop crop and certainly Drouhin's proximity has been an influence, but it's just part of a larger give-and-take between all Pinot-producing regions. There is open communication."

The greater learning curve here has come about not only because of the IPNC, but also because of this weekend's Pinot Noir technical conference scheduled to be held at Steamboat on the Umpqua River.

But there may be a much simpler answer to why Oregon Pinot Noir has improved so much in the last few years.

"It's the first time we've had a string of vintages where it was warm enough late in the growing season to allow the grapes to hang on the vine," to mature properly, says David Lett, who planted his Eyrie vineyards in 1966. "Our vintages parallel those in Burgundy. We've just been blessed by good weather since 1987."

This area some 40 miles south of Portland is roughly on the same latitude as Burgundy, 45 degrees north, and has a similar climate, which means it's cool enough to grow Pinot Noir. It is why Drouhin, owner of Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune, was so interested in planting here. His Domaine Drouhin Oregon has 45 acres bearing fruit on a 120-acre parcel opposite Hilltop Road, overlooking Dundee.

Yet when IPNC attendees visited Drouhin's modern, four-level, gravity-flow winery last Saturday, they saw one of Oregon's drawbacks. They walked the vineyards under leaden skies that periodically sprinkled them and left one local grower shaking his head, "If we don't see the sun pretty soon, we won't harvest the 1993 crop until 1994."

It is precisely these erratic weather patterns that make Oregon such a dicey proposition for growing grapes, especially grapes as fickle as the temperamental Pinot Noir, with its notoriously pigment-poor skin that, if left under sunless skies too many days during the year, will give the winemaker little more than dark rose and not enough flavor to even call red wine.

One of the most dramatic moves to intensify fruit in Pinot Noir has occurred since 1990 at Drouhin's ranch, where he has adopted the high-density vine planting techniques so common in Burgundy.

In most California vineyards, vines are planted seven feet apart in rows that are 12 feet apart. This 12-by-7 grid means there will be about 550 vines per acre, and--with each acre producing nearly four tons of fruit--each plant will produce 14 pounds. Drouhin's vineyard here is planted on a meter-by-meter grid, meaning there are 3,016 plants per acre. With total yields reduced to under three tons per acre, Drouhin is asking each plant to generate just 1.8 pounds of fruit each year.

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