This is the latest chapter in our ongoing series of posts about wines and wine makers that we feature on our Online Wine Store. Our Topochines Vino wine store focuses on small-production wines from family wineries in the United States and Europe. This chapter is dedicated to one of our newer winery partners, Ghost Hill Cellars in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, whose 2013 and 2014 Pinot Noir Blanc are sold on our site.
Most of the world’s champagne is made from the red Pinot Noir grape. After the Pinot Noir grapes are pressed, the extracted juice is removed before the dark skins contribute any color. What emerges from this process is a clear liquid that will, after a couple of fermentations, become champagne. What many people do not know is that a still, white wine can also be produced from Pinot Noir Grapes; this wine is called Pinot Noir Blanc, or white Pinot Noir. We encountered this wine recently during a trip to find unique wines for our Topochines Vino wine store. We were so impressed with the wine that we snapped up several cases and the 2013 and 2014 vintages are now available here: Ghost Hill Pinot Noir Blanc.
Just before Thanksgiving, we spent nearly a week in Oregon’s Willamette Valley crisscrossing the Valley from one A.V.A. to another. One of our favorite stops was the intriguingly named Ghost Hill in the Yamhill-Carlton District. According to legend, in the late 1890’s a miner was traveling from Southern Oregon to sell his gold in Portland. He made the fateful decision to stop for the night and set up camp at the top of what is now known as Ghost Hill. During the night, so the story goes, the miner was robbed and killed, his horse mortally injured, and his hard-earned gold stolen. To this day, the miner is said to wander the hill looking for his stolen gold and to right the wrongs that befell him that night. Hence the name Ghost Hill.
Not hard to imagine a ghost on that hill
While the miner may be still searching for his gold, the Bayliss family has struck gold of its own on this property – wine gold, that is. In total, the Bayliss family owns 234 acres of farmland, a true “Century” farm – meaning it has been owned continuously by the same family for over 100 years. In the case of the Bayliss clan, they are on their fifth generation working this land. For most of the 20th Century, the Ghost Hill land was dedicated to sheep and cattle, hay, and other crops. In 1999, Mike Bayliss and his wife Dendra decided to plant Pinot Noir on a portion of the property and today they farm a 16-acre parcel planted 100% to Pinot Noir. Their Ghost Hill Cellars label produces several different wines from these grapes – the above-mentioned Pinot Noir Blanc, a rosé of Pinot Noir, and two separate Pinot Noir offerings.
We did our tasting in the cozy Ghost Hill tasting room, with owners Mike and Dendra pouring the wines and telling us more about each of the wines. Mike and his son Michael built the wooden Ghost Hill tasting room building by hand,
inspired by prospector shacks of the 1850s. The building features a sliding barn door,
reclaimed windows from the nearby Trappist Abbey Church, and a counter made from the former altar floor.
Ghost Hill Cellars tasting room
Mike and Dendra live on the Ghost Hill estate in the same farmhouse where Mike was born 70 years ago. He and Dendra have been married for 50 years and they are true partners managing this large farm. As Ghost Hill only makes wine from Pinot Noir, we made our way through their portfolio, starting with the whites, moving to the “pink,” and on to the red.
We started our tasting with the 2013 Ghost Hill Cellars Pinot Noir Blanc, and tasted it side-by-side with the same wine from the 2014 vintage.
We enjoyed both wines immensely; they were crisp and refreshing with aromatics of pear and spice and, on the palate, apple, pear and honey. Our next wine was the 2015 Ghost Hill Cellars Rosé of Pinot Noir.
Like the white Pinot Noir, the Rosé was crisp and refreshing with a nice balance of fruit and acidity. Strawberry and citrus on the nose give way on the palate to a luscious blend of watermelon, citrus fruit and strawberry.
Our final two wines were (red) Pinot Noir offerings – the 2012 Ghost Hill Cellars Prospector’s Reserve and the 2013 Bayliss-Bower Pinot Noir. Both of these wines are blends of four different Pinot Noir clones from Ghost Hill’s estate vineyards. Both wines are classic expressions of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, although the Prospector’s Reserve (priced slightly higher than the Bayliss-Bower) is a bit more dense and full-bodied. Either wine would make for a great pairing with Christmas dinner.
For us, the “trifecta” of wine tasting occurs when we encounter (1) wines that we love, (2) in a magical location, (3) made by people that we like and admire. Ghost Hill Cellars hit the trifecta for us.
One of the wines in our Topochines Vino Wine Store is from Oregon winery Vidon Vineyard whose winemaker Don Hagge we met recently and enjoyed a tasting of over a dozen of his wines. The 2016 Vidon Rosé of Pinot Noir is available here for $20.00 per bottle.
We recently ran across a book that asserts “wine is not rocket science.” After our recent trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, we are not so sure. One of the wineries we visited as we were scouting wines for our Topochines Vino Wine Store is Vidon Vineyard, located just outside of the town of Newburg in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. Vidon’s founder and winemaker, Don Hagge, is a rocket scientist. Referring to Don as a rocket scientist is not a generic way of saying that he is a really smart guy. Don isa rocket scientist. Literally. Before starting his wine career at the age of 69, Don worked at NASA as Chief of the Physics Branch at the Manned Space Flight Center (now called the Johnson Space Center). So, you see, he really is a rocket scientist.
After completing a 2-year tour in Korea in Naval aviation, Don returned to the University of California, Berkeley (Go Bears!) to complete his engineering degree. While at Berkeley, Don had the opportunity to study and work with Ernest Lawrence, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics (for inventing the cyclotron) and the founder of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. After receiving his PhD, Don did post-graduate work at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and the Centre d’Etudes de Physique Nucléaire in Paris. He then joined NASA and supported a number of key space Apollo space missions including Apollo 11 (Armstrong’s moon landing) and Apollo 13. Transitioning from government to private work, Don moved to Silicon Valley and had a long, successful career managing high tech organizations.
When we first heard Don’s story, we wondered how this stellar scientific career would translate to winemaking. After tasting his wines, we can say the translation is perfect. In everything he does, Don applies his scientific knowledge and challenges pre-existing assumptions about the best way to grow grapes and make wine. His goal is to continue finding ways to do things more efficiently through a test-and-learn approach: try something new, measure the result, and implement the new solution if it is indeed better. Although several wine makers told us their preference for screw tops vs. corks, Don made his case the way a scientist would – with data.
Most wine consumers are aware that a certain percentage of wines are ruined each year as a result of “cork taint,” which involves the cork being tainted by the chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole. While the cork industry claims taint occurs in only 1-2 percent of all bottles, the above data suggests otherwise, with 2007 showing a nearly 10% frequency of taint. For their white wines, Don uses a screw top; for the red wines, he uses a glass stopper rather than the traditional cork. In addition to avoiding cork taint, he points out that the use of cork results in unacceptable variability in aged wine. As he explains, a case of red wine that has been aged 10-15 years will have 12 different wines because each cork is different and the oxygen entry will vary by bottle. Generally, wine consumers that age wine are looking for consistency not variability. If there is a theme to Don’s use of science at the winery, it is to eliminate variability in the process so that each wine tastes the way that it should.
To strengthen the scientific fire power in the tasting room, Don decided to double the number of PhD’s from one to two by hiring David Bellows to assist with the wine making. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Arizona, Dave received his PhD from the John’s Hopkins School of Medicine. Complementing Don’s physics training, Dave is a molecular biologist and has long had an interest in wine. Together, these two run Vidon’s cellar like a lab with more emphasis on predictability and and little to no worry about following conventional methods simply for the sake of tradition.
During our visit at Vidon, we tasted at least a dozen wines, starting with the several 2016 Vidon white whites: Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Viognier.
These wines were exquisite examples of their variety – aromatic, crisp and dry – and very nice values at $20.00. We also tasted the 2015 Chardonnay, a lovely “French-style” Chardonnay with crispness and nice acidity but also a lovely yellow/gold color and a full-bodied texture. Before moving on to the red wines, Don poured for us his 2016 Vidon Rosé of Pinot Noir, easily our favorite rosé from among the many we tasted during this Oregon excursion. We made room in our car for a few cases of the 2016 Vidon Rosé so that we could get them up on our website as soon as we got home. This wine has a gorgeous light-salmon color and a beautiful aroma of cherry and apricot with a hint of strawberry. On the palate, the wine is clean and crisp, balancing the fruit flavors with nice acidity to provide a long finish. While perfect for summer, we think this rosé drinks just fine in Fall and Winter as well.
Moving on to the red wines, we tasted the entire range of Vidon Pinot Noir offerings, three of them named after a different Hagge grandchild – Brigitta, Mirabelle and Hans. Measured by total case production, the top Pinot Noir is the “3-Clones.”
This particular Pinot Noir is produced from three different Pinot Noir clones, while the “grandchildren” wines are produced from a single pinot noir clone (777, 115, Pommard) from grapes grown in different blocks on the 20-acre property, of which 12.5 acres are planted to vines.
We thoroughly enjoyed these wines and they clearly reflect Don’s hands-off approach to winemaking. We could definitely discern differences between vintages of the same wine as well as the difference between, for example, the Mirabelle Pinot Noir (clone 115) and the Hans (Pommard clone). As part of Don’s non-interventionist approach to making wine, he generally avoids new oak in fermentation resulting in subtler wines rather than the bolder, fruit-forward wines that many Oregon producers favor as they search for high scores from wine reviewers. Despite this approach, however, the Vidon wines have managed to accumulate an impressive array of scores from the top wine publications.
This is one of Don’s favorite fact sheets in the tasting room as it shows the price difference between his 94-point-rated Pinot Noir and wines from some well-known names in Willamette Valley whose prices are 2.5 times higher per bottle. For us, this was one of the key takeaways of the visit to Vidon: the focus on making high quality at prices much more approachable than many places we have visited in the past.
As we drove away from the Vidon tasting room, one of us said to the other, “When I grow up, I want to be Don.” We were mesmerized by his incredible life story, but even more captivated by the courage and passion to try something so different at the age of 69 and to be still fully engaged at 85. Make no mistake, Don is no figure head or chairman emeritus at Vidon Vineyard. He can still be seen riding a tractor in the vineyards or doing punch downs in the cellar.