Winemaker Chris Heider on His Brainchild
by Alison Ruch
From a top-secret location, on a 720 square foot slab of concrete, Chris Heider and the Department of Philosophical Enology crush, blend and bottle wine for 720 Cellars.
720 Cellars is the child of Chris Heider's right and left brains - the "technical and analytical," Heider said, "plus the creative - and/or the crazy side." As a full time ecological consultant, full time dad, part time winemaker and part time winemaking consultant, Heider could be a candidate for a modern-day Renaissance Man competition. His thoughts on winemaking are equal parts methodical precision and freeform spontaneity.
From Heider's methodical madness come the 720 wines that have, since the first vintage - 2003 - , garnered a cult following of folks looking for reasonably priced, fruit forward Oregon wines. Heider and his crunch-time crew of what sound like cartoon characters (Peaches, The Hammer, General Ace Renegade and The Banshee), though he purports are actually humans, work to make low alcohol, nuanced Pinot noir and dry, crisp Pinot gris.
They bottle and sell the kind of wine that Heider likes, and he doesn't intend to compromise to please the masses. "If you like it, too," Heider said, "that's great. I want you to have the wine. If you don't, I can recommend five other winemakers that you may want to try. Everyone has their own style, and everyone has their own desire." (It should be noted that the 720 wines have sold out every vintage; it seems Heider has found some palates that concur with his own.)
First Inklings Toward Winemaking
Because he is an Ecologist with a special interest in berries and sustainable agriculture, it wasn't a huge stretch for Heider to seek vineyard and winemaking work in 1995. After a field stint that coincided with an unfortunate international border dispute in South America, Heider returned to his home state, Oregon, and started working at Woodhall Vineyard, an Oregon State University research site. That year, Heider made 120 gallons of wine. "Some was good," he said, "and some was vile hooch."
After working for a year at Woodhall, Heider was hooked on winemaking. Because the job itself was at its peak and there was more to learn in the natural resource world, he went back to school for a graduate degree in Ecology. Heider's full-time occupation became, and still is, environmental consulting. He runs his own consulting business and deals with a range of issues from watershed planning to wildfire management to climate change. Recently, Heider took a trip to Palau to investigate the effects of climate change on mangroves and the ecosystem services they provide.
Above, Chris collecting data at Granite Creek.
Pouring the Foundation of 720 Cellars
Never skipping a vintage, Heider had the "hair-brained" idea to start a commercial winery. Having friends and contacts in the wine industry, he was able to source fruit from some of the Willamette Valley's top vineyards, and has since 1998. An important part of this goal was to utilize his home base in Philomath, Oregon, and he knew it was something he could keep small and craft from home. Heider and his wife, Kristen, contemplated winery plans for about three years - about 720 days, to be precise - and what they decided was to set up shop in their garage.
Heider poured out exactly 720 square feet of concrete to provide a stable surface for fermenters and barrels and released the first 720 Cellars wine on 7/20/03. Is he superstitious? "No," he said whimsically. "It's just because we could."
"We needed something to fill in 'Box 1: Name of Applicant' when we registered [the winery.] After seven hundred and twenty days of deliberation, we decided on '720.'" There are many, many other meanings for 720 that Heider will not divulge, but he said, "720 is known in some circles as one of those Burgundy Numbers...it could take an advanced math degree to figure it out."
Above, 720 Cellars cellar staff
On Standards and Spontaneity
Now that Heider is knee deep in purple, the parallels between his environmental consulting work and his work as a winemaker are clear.
"It's a combination of working with data along with working from your gut," Heider said. "In both the winery and the natural resource sides, I deal a lot with disturbances and new situations," he laughed. "I'm a professional arm waiver."
Heider is glad he understands what he calls the language of science fundamentals so that he can embark on the more abstract work that winemaking requires. "I can visualize wine chemistry," he said, "but in the end it all comes down to taste...it's down to the First Principles, to use the parlance of our times."
The only procedural standard Heider confessed to upholding is "Some years I do; some years I don't..."
In general (if such a term can be applied to Heider's style), he said, "I use small, open-top fermenters that hold 1-1.5 tons. I destem. I use a lot to no whole clusters, depending on the quality of the year. I sample throughout harvest and cultivate yeasts from those samples. They sit around in buckets and I'll either use them or I won't...
"I do a manual punch down [during fermentation] to submerge the skins to get flavor extraction. After three weeks in the fermenter, I remove the 'free run' (liquid off the skins). I press the skins with a wooden basket that holds about one fermenter per press. I take out the skins, taste the juice, press and either blend with the free run...or not, depending on the tannins. Nothing is by a cookbook recipe."
Heider calls himself a "minimal interventionist" but said, "If you need to use chemistry in your winemaking, you do. I am fortunate with our vineyard partners to be able to dial in and pick on acid and flavor." As a born experimenter, Heider enjoys seeing what tweaks of native yeast fermentation can change. "It's risky," he admitted. "I do surf the edge sometimes to get some interesting results, and if things go in the wrong direction, you have to change it as soon as you can." Heider will take risk any day over settling for wine he's not entirely pleased with. "I prefer to push the envelope where we can...not for over extraction, but for complexity."
Heider uses 15-20% new oak barrels and views barrel wood "as a seasoning and a tool to enhance fruit." "I don't like heavily-oaked wines," he said. He holds the wines for about ten months and then transfers them to a set of neutral oak barrels, holding them for one more winter season until bottling. "The neutral barrels offer all the nice aspects of the barrel environment without over oaking the wines," Heider explained. "Most Pinot noir wines aren't ready for bottling within a year. For our vineyards, I think it's rushing it... And what's the hurry? Pace yourself."
When Heider, with the support of his tasting team, deems the wine ready, all of it is bottled in-house - "gravity all the way," he said - at about 250 cases per day.
"We cut no corners on the fruit, the barrel program, sanitation - things that matter. I skimp on the facility, appearance - stuff you can't taste."
Heider's Flavor Objectives
Again and again, Heider returns to flavor as the ultimate deciding factor in his winemaking, which is why he regularly gathers area aficionados to taste his wines and discuss their development.
Jake Hartinger, Heider's appointed Director of Consumer Advocacy and Ambassador of Burgundian Affairs, explained, "[Chris] prefers a low-profile, limited-production, natural approach that focuses on Burgundian-style wines (not high-alcohol, overoaked monsters).
"All events with Chris are informal and fun," Hartinger continued. "We pull out some large boards [cedar planks], pull a few corks, taste and talk - often about the dichotomy of Pinot noir production where winemakers are either going for balance or volume. Chris is going for balance and purity with added complexity and flavor coming from the older vine terroir."
Heider has noticed that his palate is Ã¼ber-sensitive to the taste of alcohol. "I'm not a Syrah-like Pinot guy," he said. "I don't like the taste [of alcohol]. People are becoming more and more accustomed to high alcohol wines, and I really don't enjoy that. Climate trends and high sugar are just going to be part of the challenge, but I revert to the First Principles of balance in wines, like what we see in Grand Cru Burgundies..." Heider has no notions of making Burgundy in Oregon, but he does confess that the delicate Burgundian flavors are the ones he's looking for in his Pinots.
Lucky for Heider, his Executive Staff of two Directors of Burgundian Affairs have, he said, "shown me more Grand Cru Burgundies than I deserve for a person my age." Some of Heider's favorite Burgundies include Chevillon (All Nuit St. George); Dujac (Clos St. Denis, and some Gevrey aux combotte); Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC) (Grand Echezeaux and Romanee St. Vivant); Lambrays Clos de Lambrays monopole; Meo Camuzet (Nuits St. George boudots); Mongeard Mugneret Echezeaux, Grand Echezeaux; Ponsot (no new oak old style wine); and Momessin Clos de Tart (monopole).
In white wines, Heider prefers dry. "I don't care for sweet wines at all, unless it's vintage port with chocolate cake" he said. The flavors he gets from his Pinot gris reflect this taste. He calls it a "crisp, dry wine with nice honey flavors that develop over time."
"I just like the fruit to be perfect, really," Heider said, grinning.
The (Perfect) Fruit
All of the fruit Heider uses is farmed organically. "Most [of the vineyards] are certified," Heider clarified. Heider works with Croft Vineyard and Temperance Hill Vineyard, both of which he's dubbed "bomber sites" - in Heider vernacular, a big compliment.
"At Croft," Heider said, "in the 2006 vintage, my youngest vines are in their seventh leaf (of the reds), and the oldest were planted in '85." Heider explained that he likes the minerality and the multiple dimensions that come off the old vines best but also has fun working with young vines. "Starting in 2007, we're working with a few acres of third leaf vines. They're quite different. Our objective is to capture the authenticity of the fruit and the soil - over extraction, in my book, is very out of place. It's like trying to make something appear more mature while missing the wonderful expressions of youth. As a parent of three girls, I'll say it's like putting make-up on a 10 year old.
"I'm looking forward to working with and watching the young vines I have now mature over time," Heider continued. "It takes a long time to get to know the vines." Some of Heider's favorite Oregon wines are made by people who have patiently stuck with the same vines, year after year, so they know well the vines' special traits and quirks. These wines include but are not limited to Chehalem, Cristom, and St. Innocent.
Heider, as ecologist, is pleased with the efforts he sees Oregon vineyards making toward sustainability and organic practices. "Growing things in a sustainable way is an obviously good compromise to condominiums," Heider said. "I am pleased to see that so many of the vineyards are working to maintain fisheries habitats - making salmon safe wines..." Chris has well thought out ideas on sustainable and organic farming.
Still, Heider is always asking, What can be done to make things better? He thinks the answer lies in sustainable agriculture - sustainable, he said, "on both the ecological as well as the human level - ensuring that vineyards work only with well-treated, well-paid crews."
Available Now from 720 Cellars
The new 720 Cellars 2006 Pinot Gris nicely captures Heider's white wine priorities. Its bright fruit flavors - citrus, pear, and pineapple - are featured, with a clean stonefruit/mineral backdrop. In typical Heider fashion, the 720 Cellars 2005 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is beautifully balanced. The promise of creamy cherry, anise and baking spice is made to the nose and delivered, in full, on the finish.
The 720 Cellars 2005 Croft Vineyard Pinot Noir starts out with scents of ripe raspberries and red cherries and sweet pie spices. Its flavors continue the red fruit tone, with the addition of a tiny hit of sasparilla and more soft spice. The finish is well balanced and long.
Heider has grand visions, sure, but for now his vision for 720 is to keep things humming and to keep operations small. "Now, in 2007, I'm in my thirteenth vintage, but I feel like I'm just starting. I'm only thirty-five years old," Heider said.
Maybe someday, he said, he'll look for some property, plant a vineyard, expand the winery - but not now. For now, he's pleased to say, he and his wife Kristen go through a tank of gas every one and a half months. He can work mainly from home and spend time with Kristen and his three daughters, Ada, Elena and Eva - each of whom help out with winery chores.
These days, Heider explained, winemaking is "a way I can get creative balance in my life. It's a lot of work, but it's a creative outlet, and it uses things I enjoy... You get to use your brain. I hate to call it art, but...it's personal. It enables me to be home, and the people in the industry are really great, and [my] kids learn about business... They all like to grow things," Heider smiled.
What Heider decided when he started 720, and what he still believes today, is that it's important to go into business with "eyes wide open." He doesn't expect...anything, really. This is particularly true when it comes to wine ratings and reviews, about which he said, simply, "I might do it [submit wines] for fun."
Jake Hartinger called Heider a "winemaker to watch." He explained that, "[Chris's] understanding of ecology, environment and chemistry have allowed him to focus on some of the very best grapes in Oregon, and his winemaking style continues to improve. . . . What is truly amazing to me is that he has built this capability on an extremely limited budget through friends, partnerships and what I might call an Oregonian spirit. . . . Even if he was well-funded, I don't think he would change. He might say something like, 'Why would I want a big huge winery when I have this garage that is exactly 720 square feet?!'
Besides being enthusiastic about the novelty of the small winery facility, Hartinger said, "Heider's environmentalism keeps him committed to a low profile re-use approach to life and winemaking."
Heider said, no matter what, he wants to keep making wine that he thinks tastes good and to try to keep the prices reasonable - driven, of course, partly by data, partly by instinct.
Winemaker and Ecologist Chris Heider on Organic, Sustainable and Salmon Safe Farming:
Salmon Safe is in partnership with both the Oregon Tilth (organic) certification and the Low-Input Viticulture & Enology (LIVE) program. A major issue with the Salmon Safe certification involves the transport of fine sediment flows to potential fish-bearing streams. Erosion control through planting of cover crops and other techniques minimizes the vineyard's input of fine sediments to streams; these sediments are harmful because they effectively "cement" potential spawning gravels for native fish, including salmon. Clean gravels, clean water, and plenty of shade near the stream edges are important factors that enhance fisheries habitats. Salmon Safe and certifications from Oregon Tilth and LIVE provide managers with guidelines and tools to minimize the impacts of agriculture on the aquatic environment.
Example vineyards going the organic certification route and Salmon Safe include Croft Vineyards (who we buy from), with extra efforts made in the vineyard for composting, and sustainable farming practices that are not without added expense. Chancy Croft, manager Ray Nuclo and I recently had a conversation about investigating their carbon footprint on the vineyard, and looking at the cost-benefit of how an investment in higher efficiency equipment might minimize their atmospheric impacts.
Though not LIVE or organically certified but certified Salmon Safe, others like Dave Buchanan at Tyee Winery have undertaken considerable personal expense on their farms to increase and enhance native wetland communities, which increases water storage and a range of other ecosystem services that benefit fish, wildlife, and our future water resource protection. Our neighbor and good buddy Matt Compton at Spindrift Cellars manages five vineyards that are certified sustainable through the LIVE program, and are certified as Salmon Safe vineyards. Our friend Dai Crisp (Lumos Wines) started Croft Vineyards following organic methods and now manages Temperance Hill Vineyard (we also buy from) and his own Wren Vineyard following certified Salmon Safe practices and certified organic practices (though not currently certified organic). He's been farming organically for 18 years.
For our organic vineyard partners in a year like 2007 where powdery mildew pressures were off the charts, it takes a lot of guts and determination for these vineyards to protect the plants using organic methods. To illustrate by example, consider what it would take to fix an old Volkswagen engine with a stick and a rock. Believe me, (as a former VW enthusiast) it can be done. I am happy to report that folks like Dai and Ray and others stuck to it, never took vacations, never let down their guard, and the wine and environment will be better for it. We all probably owe them a beer.