Grace Evenstad tells of the time it registered with her that there was more than an ocean separating the Willamette Valley from Burgundy.
She and her husband, Ken, own and operate Domaine Serene in the Willamette Valley, and in 2015, they pursued their dream of making pinot noir in Burgundy by buying a 15th century chateau in Santenay. Grace was showing a French guest around Domaine Serene's vineyards when the guest asked, "Which rows are yours?"
Inwardly, she laughed. In the U.S., an owner possesses all the vineyards, but in Burgundy, a vineyard often has multiple owners, a confusing situation rooted in more than a century of history. Clos Vougeot's 123 acres, for instance, are divided into 100 plots with 80 owners. The Evenstads own all of their estate vineyards. In France, their 25 acres are in 20 parcels in 7 villages.
The Evenstads are realizing greater differences between French and American winemaking as they settle into Chateau de la Crée, an estate once owned by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Phillipe the Good and founder of the Hospices de Beaune. One doesn't go into such a hallowed chateau without respect for history – and for the French who are loathe to sell property to Americans. They rejected Robert Mondavi's attempt to plant vineyards in the Languedoc many years ago.
The Evanstads are the first Oregon wine producers to buy vineyards in Burgundy. Domaine Serene's president Ryan Harris said they made the deal in a few months, thanks to a bond between the Evenstads and the sellers, plus a lot of courting of neighbors and local officials. And, he said, "We threw a lot of parties."
Domaine Serene produces great pinot noir and chardonnay year after year. But as much as they know how to make world-class wine, they were not prepared for what they found at Chateau de la Crée.
Grace Evenstad says of the employees, "Everyone is now gone."
She also said she was surprised by the lack of "science" being used at the winery and in the vineyards. Although the owners said the vineyards were bio-dynamically farmed, it is unclear what that means in France. She said vineyards lacked adequate spacing between rows; pesticides and other chemicals from neighboring vineyards were wafting onto those of Chateau de la Crée.
"Things were being done by tradition," Evenstad said.
She was quick to distance Domaine Serene from the pinot noirs being poured at a tasting we recently attended. "They aren't ours," she warned, less someone come away with an unfavorable impression of their new venture. "You will see a difference in the 2015s and beyond."
Indeed, they didn't hold a candle to Domaine Serene's heralded Evenstad reserve pinot noir, although perhaps that was the soil and climate difference between old and new world wines. We actually enjoyed the earthy character of the 2013 Chateau de la Crée Clos de la Confrerie Monopole Santenay and the 2013 Chateau de la Crée Premier Cru Santenay Beaurepaire. There was little price difference between the wines.
Up until now, the ownership exchanges between France and the United States has been pretty much one-sided. Moet Chandon was among the first to launch a sparkling wine company in California in 1973. Champagne makers Taittinger and Roederer soon followed. Then came Clos du Val, Dominus, Opus One (a partnership of Mondavi and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild). In Oregon, Robert Drouhin of Burgundy's Maison Joseph Drouhin raised eyebrows -- and the region's prestige -- when he launched Domaine Drouhin in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
Whether the Evenstads are taking the French too much for granted remains to be seen. The French can be very temperamental and don't readily accept the notion that Americans can make better wine on their turf. Is a better pinot, for instance, defined by American producers as one with more extracted fruit, higher alcohol and a bold style?
Bon chance, Ken and Grace.
J Vineyards & Winery Russian River Valley Cuvee 20 ($38). This delicious sparkling wine has a beautiful label and a vibrant character. Mostly chardonnay, it shows off delicate apple and almond notes.
Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2014 ($38). We loved this deliciously vibrant but serious Tuscan wine. It is a tantalizing blend of 85 percent prugnolo gentile, 15 percent colorino, canaiolo and merlot. It's a wine to put against meat, but also a wine that can easily last a decade. We also were impressed with the Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano "Asinone" for $60 that is almost entirely sangiovese. It is incredibly intense and complex – a sangiovese for the ages.
Rutherford Ranch Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($50). Winemaker Jay Turnipseed says the next chapter for Rutherford Ranch is to step up the premium wines and this is a good start. With fruit from Oak Knolls, the wine is well balanced with omen of longevity. Forward black cherry and cassis fruit with hints of chocolate and vanilla.
Goldeneye Confluence Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2015 ($84). More elegant and refined than the Gowan Creek pinot noir, the Confluence Vineyard broadcasts wide red berry aromas and fresh strawberry and cherry fruit flavors.
Ravenswood Big River Zinfandel 2015 ($40). One of several single-vineyard zinfandels from this top zin producer, Big River has a supple mouthfeel and juicy blackberry and plum fruit flavors. Ravenswood is a leader in complex, chewy zins that can match up with the most daunting dishes.