Belle Vallée Cellars
The Education and Overnight Success of Pinot noir Specialist Joe Wright
by Alison Ruch, Avalon Staff Writer, March 2005
Life is short. We all make the best of it in our own special ways. Joe Wright wants to dedicate his life to making the best possible Pinot noir. The serendipity with which Wright found his way into the Oregon winemaking scene makes a good argument for fated careers.
A Foot in the Door
In the mid 1990s, Joe Wright's car broke down in Colorado. With no set destination in mind, he decided settle there for a while, finding a job clerking a wine shop in Glenwood Springs. One of Wright's earliest experiences with Oregon wines was at a seminar the wine shop sent him to, hosted by the Oregon Wine Board and Kevin Chambers of OVS and Reed & Reynolds Vineyard. He was intrigued by this and other seminars the shop sent him to, so when he and his wife, Suzanne, decided to head further west and make a life in Oregon (in 1996), it seemed natural that Joe would get involved in the wine industry there - the land of Pinot noir.
Wright initially planned to work for a distributor in Tillamook, but since he arrived in Oregon during harvest, he decided to seek experience at a winery, where he could really get to know the ins and outs of the winemaking process. He had planned to return to the distributor once he had gained this experience; things changed.
"I set up five interviews with people looking for general cellar help," Wright recalled. "My very last interview was at Willamette Valley Vineyards, and I took that job just because there was so much going on there. They were the largest producing winery in the state, at that time. And Kevin Chambers happened to be the GM [general manager] there."
Before long, Wright was assistant winemaker, under Joe Dobbes (now of Wine by Joe and Paschal), at Willamette Valley Vineyards, learning all of the tricks of the trade necessary to go it alone. Before the idea of making his own wines occurred to Wright, he devoted himself to intense winemaking training.
Dobbes was thoroughly impressed with Wright's abilities. He said, "He's got an incredible work ethic. He's very steady at what he does. He has an innate talent for winemaking - as well as beer making." (Apparently Wright also makes fantastic beer!) "He's very focused - always eager to learn more and improve what he's doing."
Dobbes thinks the Belle Vallée venture is "Pretty darn cool." He said Wright has "a beautiful situation where he's a partner in the winery. He's making some really solid wines - he's got the right tools..."
Everyone who's met Joe Wright tends to agree on the fine quality of his character. As Dobbes put it, "He's really an affable guy. He's easygoing, just really a pleasure to work with. Very, very reliable. I know Belle Vallée has a bright future ahead. He's got what it takes."
While working at Willamette Valley Vineyards, Wright learned how to make several different styles of wine. His brief rundown of the experience goes as such: "Lots of higher end single vineyard Pinot noirs... The Griffin Creek brand with the Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, both red and white. We were making 200,000 cases a year - thirty-two different wines."
A Winery is Born
Wright was hooked. No longer interested in working for a distributor, he wanted to make wine; he wanted to make Pinot noir.
"What I really wanted to focus on with all my attention, and devote my heart to, was Pinot. When I built this place (Belle Vallée) I really based it around Pinot noirÉ the fermenters, the barrel room; it's a hard facility to make white wine in!"
Back in February of '02 Joe Wright, Mike Magee, and Steve Allen lingered late at a wine enthusiast gathering, discussing the possibility of opening their own winery. The three, having just met that evening, decided to give it a go. Only three months after that, Wright left Willamette Valley Vineyards to focus on Belle Vallée, and by September of that same year, "this place looked like it does today." All was up and running.
As far as the winemaking goes, Wright said, "I am a one man show. I am my own everything: my own cellar rat, vineyard guy, cellar master, winemakerÉ I do all my own lab work in house - and at the end of the day, I'm my own secretary."
Wright also does all the buying for his packaging: glass, labels, corks and capsules. Magee is in charge of sales and marketing, and Wright assists with that part of the business, so whenever he's not tied to the cellar he's traveling the country to spread the word about Belle Vallée.
Things happened fast for Wright, who is still somewhat baffled by his progression in the wine industry, and the cyclical nature of his duties. He said, "I was clerking the wine shop, potentially distributing, started working at a winery, and then built my own winery. Now I'm selling my own wine."
Nouveau-Style Pinot a Hit for Joe
One of Wright's most unique wines is his Whole Cluster Pinot noir.
"Once I built this place, my partners asked, 'What can you make that you can release this spring?' I thought that would probably have been a white wine, but I had just built a red wine facility! Then I thought: a whole cluster Pinot noir."
Whole cluster wines are made in the same way Beaujolais Nouveau is made, bottled and sold very soon after harvest.
"I allow it to go through a secondary fermentation. Initially, what comes off are these very bright red flavors like strawberry and bubble gum... Once you let it go through malo (malolactic fermentation), everything marries . . . all those flavors take one step into the darker fruit spectrum, and it becomes a wine with just a touch more depth... I can allow it to be bottled unfiltered, which I like because the filtration can really strip the wine of all it has to offer. It's a really delicate wine."
Wright learned to make whole cluster Pinot noir from a master: a French intern he hired at Willamette Valley Vineyards - a young man from Beaujolais - whose family owns and operates a winery there.
"The fun thing about it is it's one of the first Pinots you'll see from the vintage, so you can get your first impressions of the vintage before anything else comes out. It's a great summer Pinot. I hate to say this, but you just put it in the freezer for five minutes - just to take the edge off - and it's extremely delicious and refreshing."
Like all producers of Beaujolais Nouveau-style wine, Wright has fun with his whole cluster and doesn't try and take it too seriously. Nonetheless, it has been very well received. Bottles of Belle Vallée Whole Cluster Pinot have been selling fast, and Wright's 2002 Whole Cluster Pinot noir won a Decanter Bronze Medal. Decanter describes it as, "Penetrative, pervasive, perfumed aromatics; exuberant, rich, fresh fruit; medium bodied with soft texture."
A Range of Pinot noirs, Cabernet and Merlot Too
Belle Vallée Cellars' wine line-up encompasses the most popular flavors prospering in the Willamette Valley - and then some. Wright crafts a "Vintage" Pinot noir, a Reserve Pinot noir, a Grand Cuvée Pinot noir, a Pinot noir Port, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Pinot gris, a Syrah, and a Merlot.
The Belle Vallée 2002 "Vintage" Pinot noir was described as "a lusty mouthful of blueberry" by Wine Spectator and as having a "super attack" with the flavor of "complex candied strawberries, soft, rich and serious, good length. Refined fruit..."
Co-owner of Belle Vallée, Mike Magee, says of Decanter's reaction to their "Vintage" Pinot noir:
"They couldn't believe that we were a new winery."
Decanter gave this wine the gold medal and North American trophy for Pinot noir.
Wine Spectator also gave great recognition (and 89 points) to Wright's Belle Vallée 2002 Reserve Pinot noir, calling it, "supple and sweetly ripe, generous with its cherry and berry flavors, shaded with white pepper and dusky spice notes, lingering enticingly. Light grip on the finish." This wine also won a silver medal from Decanter.
Wright says of the Belle Vallée 2002 Grand Cuvée Pinot noir, "It paints my picture of some of the best that I have in my cellar at that time. I'm working to build a wine through blending that creates something seamless from your first aromatic encounter with the wine, through the mid-palette, and then a long, lingering finish that keeps you thinking about the wine."
A silver medal winner at the L.A. County Fair, the judges describe the Belle Vallée 2002 Grand Cuvee Pinot noir as "Ripe and velvety smooth with layers of black cherry, dark plum, and currant flavors that are wrapped in a layer of firm but very fine tannins. Beautifully balanced with a lengthy, persistent finish of fresh earth nuances."
The Belle Vallée Cellars' recently released Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon have both received gold medals from the Portland Wine and Art Festival and the Oregon State Fair, respectively.
Wright's Pinot noir Port has what Magee calls a "cult following" and he says, "It's just killer with chocolate." People who say they don't like Port like this Port! Wright carefully monitors the grapes he uses for his Port from the vine to the bottle to ensure maximum sweetness and complexity.
Joe Wright believes in "building a wine." He prefers to blend wines from several vineyards to "consistently produce premium product" instead of trying to adapt to the whims of nature in a single vineyard year to year.
"My basic philosophy is building concentration in the vineyards. Our job is to extract that in the winery. I take a very individualistic approach to my winemaking in the sense that it's very intuitive - minute by minute, day by day, month by month, and then, slowly, that gains momentum again," depending on the season and the activity in the winery at the time. Wright is there monitoring each step in the wine producing process, whether it's at the vineyards, in the cellar, or in the lab.
Joe puts much time and thought into the blends that become his different Pinot noirs.
"There is a method to my madness. My blending decisions evolve over eight to ten months of tasting the wines by myself, with the public, with my peers, with restaurateurs, and seeing what people like, what people don't like, the reactions on people's faces... Today I have ideas about what is going where, but it really becomes clear after ten months of doing that with people - what I think the public's really going to want out of the wine."
The barrels used in making Pinot noir can have a major effect on the flavors and styles of Pinot noir. Joe turns his barrel room around every two years.
"I'm buying 50% new oak every year. I house about 225 barrels." Regarding coopers, Wright said, "I have my own cocktail of barrels. I like Sirugue, Remond, Rousseau and Cadus. As far as toast levels go, I either use medium-plus barrels or medium barrels with toasted heads. "
As far as grape clones go, Wright uses about 65% Pommard clone mixed with Dijon 115. Wright believes the "elegance" in his Pinot noirs comes from the Pommard clone.
Yet, "These Dijon clones are really great... They've got a lesser juice to solid ratio, so you get all your aromatic precursors from the solids in the fruit. The small percentage of the Dijon clone just adds another layer of depth and intrigue to the wines."
Wright's Port-making process is a delicate art. The craft begins in the vineyards, where Joe manages the removal of tertiary flower buds from the vines before they fully fruit. He "tries to trick the plant into pushing what little fruit it has on it a little harder and faster" to maximize the high sugar content at this early stage.
"If we don't have any disease pressure, and the weather permits," Wright said, "we'll let the fruit hang and let dehydration set in "for even more sweetness. The process is rigorous.
In the winery, Wright adds a high amount of sulfur to the wine to preserve it prior to fermentation, then, halfway through fermentation, he fortifies the Pinot noir with spirits, "getting the wine to retain its natural sugar."
He cools the wine, using dry ice and lets it "cold soak" for about 9-10 days, allowing it to ferment, while making sure no ethyl acetate or vinegar creeps into the wine. Then Wright begins what he calls his "dance" with the Port, adding yeast, ice, and alcohol to keep the fermentation going, but always remaining conscious not to add these ingredients too vigorously.
"It takes constant attention, and I put a lot into it" Wright said. "And then we add our final addition of spirits and ice. I'll keep it cold and let it soak again. The flavors extracted from it are just incredible."
While some winemakers press off the wine and fortify it separately, Wright prefers to fortify all the elements together: skin, pulp, seeds, juice - all of it - again, to maximize the flavor. This careful process is what makes Belle Vallée Cellars' Pinot noir Port so very special.
Wright works with eleven different vineyards for his Pinot noir, and thirteen vineyards in total. Mike Magee calls this Wright's "mosaic of 13 vineyards." He notes that Wright "has great relationships with the vineyard owners. Some of these relationships take years to get in place. We're very proud of these relationships." Magee believes they are "A key element to our success."
"I don't just buy [fruit] when it's for sale. I strategically buy from vineyards placed in different growing areas in the Willamette Valley," Wright said.
He carefully considers what the grapes are undergoing in terms of weather patterns, row cultivating, canopy management, and leaf pulling to make sure he's selecting the best quality fruit each year. "Production levels may vary," he said, "but I can always come up with high quality wine - even if it's three hundred cases."
On why Wright has chosen not to grow grapes, he said: "There's really a glut of good Pinot out there. Because of all the fruit that's coming into production, more and more good fruit is becoming available at an even fairer and fairer price. So why grow your own fruit? We do as far as the management of the vineyards, but we're not out there buying up land."
Wright currently contracts with Winter's Hill Vineyard, Temperance Hill Vineyard, Cherry Hill Vineyard, Freedom Hill Vineyard, Vitae Springs Vineyard, Lemelson Vineyards, Rainbow's End Vineyard, Alpine Vineyards, Elton Vineyard, Hyland Vineyard, Momtazi Vineyard, Quail Run Vineyard, and Del Rio Vineyard.
"Everybody's doing a wonderful job for us," Wright said. "All our growers are just great. It's awesome. Everybody's very supportive."
Location, Location, Location
Since wineries are often positioned up in the hills, surrounded by rows and rows of grapes, it is unique that Wright, Magee, and Allen have chosen an urban setting in which to set up shop. Belle Vallée Cellars is located near the commercial center of the city of Corvallis. In this facility, fruit processing, fermentation, barrel aging, blending, bottling, case storage, and lab work are done.
Wright believes the location of Belle Vallée "completes a circuit that connects the North Willamette Valley to the South Valley." He adds, "Before us there was a gap between Eola Hills Winery and Tyee - or Benton Lane Winery. It helps people connect to the wine country down here; and I believe in the wine country down here. It's up and coming. This is great wine country as far as the outcroppings in the hills we have popping up in the costal range - the east slope of the costal range - the soils... Wineries are popping up in PhilomathÉ It's going to take time, but it'll happen."
Judging from the instant success of Joe Wright's wines, there's no doubt he'll continue with this strong line of palate pleasers.
Joe Wright's swift climb from cellar rat to winemaker/wineryÐco-owner is certainly unique. Most winemakers go to school for the craft, or spend years working their way into the business; very few end up with their own wineries. Wright's dedication and good fortune carried him fast and far.
He figures he'll be quite content if he's able to continue making quality wine for the rest of his life. "If you're lucky, you can make wine 50 times in your life and then you die. It's a sad part of the career. It's not like being a brew master, where you can try over and over again throughout the year," he said.
What Wright loves most about winemaking are the "never ending possibilities - lifetimes worth of blood, sweat, and tears - and, unfortunately, I can't say that by the end I will have figured it all out." Anyone who's spent some time with Wright knows he's certainly going to try.
Belle Vallée Label Art
Belle Vallée's label art is adapted from fused glass art made by Corvallis artist Claire Magee (wife of Mike Magee). To read more about the art and see the gorgeous labels, click here.