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Wine Powered Pinot: The Eola-Amity Hills Break Out

by Patrick J. Comiskey
April 1, 2013

The vineyards at Cristom

Once valued more for the nervosity they contributed to Willamette Valley blends, the rocky, wind-battered slopes of the Eola–Amity Hills have emerged as one of Oregon’s most singular terroirs for pinot noir.

In 1983, brothers Terry and Ted Casteel were just starting to build their Bethel Heights vineyard project in what were then known as the Eola Hills in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, having left careers in academia to join forces, with their families, in a winery. They carpeted the windswept western slopes south of Amity with vines, encouraged by their early efforts but lacking a clear sense of where their wines fit in the larger framework of domestic pinot noir.

Then a young winemaker from California showed up wanting to purchase fruit from their fledgling vineyard. For three vintages, Randall Grahm had been struggling to make pinot noir in the Santa Cruz County hamlet of Bonny Doon, and the results, so far, had been lackluster.

That autumn, Grahm spent his downtime on the deck at Bethel Heights, overlooking the vineyard, penning early newsletters and winning Scrabble tournaments (his prodigious vocabulary raising suspicions that he was cheating). He gathered his fruit on a series of cool October nights and schlepped it down to California, where it became, in effect, the source of immediate discouragement.

The Eola Hills wine, he says, was ethereal, effortlessly graceful, better than anything his estate could produce. “It was so much better, right out of the gate,” says Grahm, “by several orders of magnitude” than anything he’d worked with in California. “A Huysmansian revel,” he wrote on the back label of its dark fruit, black spice and cool, dark earth. This bottling, says Grahm, set him down an alternate path. He abandoned pinot noir in his home state and replanted his vineyard to Rhône varieties the following year.

The Casteels took this, naturally, as encouragement. “For us,” says Ted Casteel, “that was one of the first real signs that this place was special.”

With few wineries and even fewer tasting rooms, this cool congregation of hills west of Salem was never a destination; it was one of those places that you had to want to go. In the first decades of the Willamette Valley’s nascent wine industry, the Eola Hills were known more for vineyards than wineries, providing structure and exotic flavors to bottlings that drew fruit from across the region. But the wines have emerged as fully fledged statements in their own right—some of the most consistently thrilling and precise in any Oregon pinot noir lineup.

St. Innocent’s Zenith Vineyard (left) is on sedimentary soils; Temperance Hill (right) shows the brownish-red hues of the Jory and Nekia soil series. St. Innocent’s Zenith Vineyard (left) is on sedimentary soils; Temperance Hill (right) shows the brownish-red hues of the Jory and Nekia soil series.
On Google Earth the Eola–Amity Hills look like the island they once were, surrounded in prehistory by the shallow waters of Lake Allison, a remnant of the Missoula floods. Seed crops—rye, wheat, clover and meadowfoam—now grow on those ancient deposits. But the spectral evidence of the floods is still here, if you know where to look. In nearby Sheridan, off Highway 18, there is a state natural site called Erratic Rock: a 60-ton slab of Canadian argillite that surfed here, via the floods, on a raft of ice. The AVA itself begins above the flood line, starting at 250 feet and maxing out around 850 feet.

Vinifera vines first came to the Hills in 1970, when Jerry and Ann Preston founded Amity Vineyards. (Myron Redford, the current proprietor, bought the Amity property four years later.) Others, like the Casteels, soon followed.

Back in the early ’80s, the Hills were thought of as cool—even too cool—the growing season often commencing, and ending, nearly two weeks later than at vineyards up-valley. But in good years a trill of acidity coursed through these wines, a racy signature that made the early Eola Hills wines stand out.

Steve Doerner Steve Doerner
That vivid acidity was largely wind-borne. Along Oregon’s coast there are few straight shots inland; in general, the Coast Range buffers the ocean’s impact on the warm inland valleys. But near Lincoln City, there’s a conduit where the wind makes a break for the Willamette: the Van Duzer Corridor, a channel so narrow it’s practically a spigot. The Eola Hills lie directly in its path. On most warm summer afternoons, the winds rise as the sun starts its descent. Cool ocean air pours into the valley through stands of old-growth Douglas fir. The mercury plummets 35 degrees or more, disrupting alfresco dinners and altering the physiology of the every grape in its path.

“There’s a density to the tannins that has to do with the drying and cooling effect of the winds,” says Mimi Casteel, Bethel Heights’ vineyard manager. “In the better wines, you’re going to taste that energy.” Bethel Heights is more or less the avant garde; in fact, they have an arrow-shaped sign pointing to the Corridor, as if it’s a feature on the horizon that could be seen with a good pair of binoculars. Zenith and Temperance Hill lay claim to a similar coastal impact.

As the hills crest, the vineyards on the lee side are spared some of the wind’s fury. Steve Doerner’s vineyards at Cristom—Jessie, Marjorie, Eileen and Louise—mostly face east, somewhat protected from the evening windblast. Partly thanks to that cushioning influence, he’ll often harvest a full week sooner than his neighbors. The wines display slightly riper textures and higher pHs, too, though this may be due in part to his devotion to whole-cluster fermentation, a nod to the wines of Dujac, in Burgundy, where he did a stage. While he’d probably take this approach wherever he makes wine, there’s a special quality to the fruit here, he says, that lends itself to stem inclusion. “I don’t even know if it’s a word,” says Doerner, “but I like what Ken Wright calls it: ‘nervosity.’”

Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Winery agrees that wind is essential to making Eola Hills wines what they are. The wind’s routine ferocity, he points out, shuts down the vines at key intervals in the growing season, preserving acidity while lengthening the ripening period. It also makes a difference in the grape’s physiology: “It may be fifteen minutes that that vine goes to sleep,” he says, “but over the growing season that’s a lot of hours.”

Standing on a knoll at Temperance Hill, one ridge above Bethel Heights, with a view of Mt. Jefferson on the eastern horizon, Vlossak points out another factor that makes the Hills unique: a diversity of soils that, for the Willamette Valley, is rather extreme.

Evening Land Vineyards Evening Land Vineyards
At this elevation, it’s easy to sense the tumult that created these hills, crimped between the Coast Range to the west and the Cascades to the east. Much of the Willamette Valley is defined by the same soils found here—the Jory volcanics, the sedimentary deposits of the Willakenzie series. But only here, in the Eola–Amity Hills, do these series so frequently coexist side by side, Vlossak says.

At Bethel Heights, for example, the vines grow mainly in volcanic-based soils of various depths, but at the adjacent Justice Vineyard, which the Casteels now own, the soils shift to sedimentary more or less at the property line. Next to this is Zenith, Vlossak’s home vineyard, composed of sedimentary soils that, says Vlossak, “have less of everything—less nutrients, less water; when the soils go dry, the vines start acting like the world’s going to end, and they ratchet up the intensity.”

Rocks, in fact, seem to be one of Eola Hills’ defining features. In nearly every site I visited, there was a wall or pile of rocks that had been extracted from the vineyard, rough-hewn boulders ranging in size from a large fist to, say, a Smart car. In most places, basalt serves as the bedrock of these hills, a remnant of the volcanic activity that formed the Cascades, which finally tapered off around six million years ago. That bedrock wreaks havoc on vineyard equipment and even inhibits the growth of the Hills’ ubiquitous fir trees—they look stunted in comparison to those in the rest of the valley.

On a chilly day in January, Isabel Meunier, the winemaker for Evening Land Vineyards’ Oregon wines, took me on a tour of Seven Springs Vineyard, accompanied by her vineyard manager, Ryan Hannaford. Meunier pointed out the Jory and Nekia soil blocks, two volcanic series. “Jory is defined as sixty inches of topsoil,” said Meunier. “Nekia is an average of forty.” “Nekia is where I break all my equipment,” Hannaford added matter-of-factly.

The shallowest series, said Meunier, called Witzel, has a depth of around 12 inches. “When an Oregon property goes on the market,” she said, “Witzel is considered unplantable.” Nevertheless, the winery’s top Oregon bottling, Summum, is planted on Witzel series. That parcel, on a January day in a vineyard devoid of foliage, was easy to make out; frost clung to a ripple of rock that disrupted the vineyard’s contour, sticking out of the slope like the spine of a sleeping cat.

I drive down to the Eola Hills from Carlton, and everything— the cherries, nuts, grapes—everything blooms a week to ten days later.”
—Isabel Meunier, Evening Land
The vines in this block were scrawnier than their neighbors, the mark of their stressful life. But the wine from this block is frequently one of Evening Land’s most graceful, not so much mineral in structure as in propulsion: “The rock is more prevalent in the root structure here,” says Meunier, “but I think the wines take on more vibrancy and complexity. The tannins seem silkier, more in balance, with the mineral filling in.”

Antica Terra’s vineyard is six miles northwest of Seven Springs, just east of the town of Amity. Winemaker Maggie Harrison was lured here from California, where she worked for many years with Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non. She was reluctant to move north until she saw the site: Antica Terra sits on an ancient slope of sedimentary origin in what is one of the rockiest outcroppings in the region, a place so bereft of soil that when she first visited the site in 2005 and was told the vineyard had been planted in 1989, she thought she was being lied to—the vines looked too spindly to be that old.

This vineyard is the source of Antikythera, a wine of such dark-fruited, cinnamon-stick pungency and unrelenting intensity it seems carved from stone. “Intense, yes,” says Harrison, responding to my exclamation on tasting this wine. “Well, we get no fruit…tiny yields, tiny berries,” she says. “How could it be otherwise?”

The Eola Hills Vineyard The Eola Hills Vineyard
That character has drawn many of the valley’s younger, more talented winemakers to the region. Isabel Meunier’s here for it. So is Tad Seestedt of Ransom Winery, who draws from several older vineyard sites in the area; so are Ken Pahlow and Erica Landon of Walter Scott Winery, and Erin Nuccio, whose recent purchase of Evesham Wood from his former boss and mentor, Russ Raney, carries on Raney’s tradition of producing perhaps the lightest, most attenuated of all of the wines made from the region.

It’s also the place that lured the late Jimi Brooks, a young winemaker felled by a heart ailment in 2004 whose legacy reverberates throughout the valley. Brooks was drawn to the Eola Hills Vineyard, planted in Amity in 1973, for the nervosity of its riesling, and went on to lease riesling and pinot noir from that site. His winery is based here now, the wines made by Chris Williams; Jimi’s sister Janie Brooks Heuck, with her husband, David, purchased the vineyard in 2009.

For years, Mark Vlossak has conducted blind pinot tastings at Oregon Pinot Camp, an annual intensive for sommeliers and wine buyers, comparing the Eola–Amity Hills wines with those from other AVAs, like the Dundee Hills. To him, the differences are striking. Whereas the Dundee Hills wines tend toward seductive red fruit, the Eola–Amity Hills wines are usually darker and spicier, possessing “an edgy rusticity,” as he puts it, which sets them apart.

Indeed, that edge seems to be integral to the structure of the wines here, as if the rocks that stud the landscape have worked their way into the flavors, lodging an earthy, soil-spice quality into the fruit like soil caked into a boot sole. The fruit feels taut. Over and over in my notes the word “compression” appears, as if the fruit were contained within a mineral frame and propelled by that minerality at the same time. The wines have the sort of energy that few others in the Valley can claim.

This feature appears in the print edition of April 2013.
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