Cristom's Winemaker Speaks
The wee hours; middle of the night in the middle of a cold Oregon harvest. A single spotlight burns in the fermentation room at Cristom. Great silver fermenting tanks glisten and groan under the weight of tons of black grape must. For eight days now, the Pinot Noir has idled. Native yeasts...off to a slow start.
But this night, a figure in jeans and a work shirt climbs the steps to the ramp above the tanks and peers into the vats. They are full of grapes and finally, they are beginning to warm.
With one stroke, the man plunges a long steel shaft into the cake, punching the skins and seeds, and stems down into the darkness of the juice below.
Aromas of a naturally occurring fermentation explode upward from the tank, almost potent enough to throw the man's head back. He heaves the punch down tool back into the cake of grape skins. Lush, warmed blackberries, cinnamon and flowers burst up and out of the blackness. A new wine is born.
"That is a very gratifying moment," Steve Doerner says. It is a characteristic understatement that belies a guy whose entire adult life has been one long and passionate dance with the heartbreak grape. "But it is equally gratifying to sip wine you really like at dinner and see other people pleased by your work."
There is an old saw in the world of wine that says that great winemakers are both scientists and chefs. It is an unusual combination of world views: blending careful, methodical techniques with a flair for rich, unforgettable aromas and flavors. It embodies Steve's long-standing love affair with Pinot Noir.
"My initial interest in wine came from a scientific curiosity," he says. He earned a degree from the University of California at Davis in biochemistry in 1978. "But my mother's side of the family is French. We always had wine at dinner growing up. It was always there." And by the early 1980s the quest of crafting up fine wines from the most fickle of grape varieties had become Steve's lifelong calling.
"I had no preconceived biases about winemaking. I just wanted to do things in what I considered to be a traditional manner," And Steve did. From the outset he went where most others in the industry refused to go by eschewing laboratory yeasts to work by encouraging indigenous yeast or native yeast fermentations.
Today, nearly two decades later, native yeast fermentations are a hallmark of Cristom wines ... and a key to their complexity, elegance and true varietal character.
"We don't handle the wines if we don't need to, "Steve says. "and that includes filtering. We are gentler - the way it's been done for centuries."
His is an Old World approach to a new site on the edge of Oregon's vast Willamette Valley. "We have a longer growing season than California where I began making wine," Steve says. "Part of the reason Oregon has been so successful is that we have an almost marginal climate here. It's cool. And that allows us to slowly get them ripe without as much sugar."
By late October Steve's hands are stained red from all the juice. His hair is a little disheveled ... beard untrimmed. The harvest is in. The new wines are running into barrels. There is time to assess what the year has brought.
"I like wines with a lot of weight and body, but more importantly finesse. If you can make a wine with masculine qualities of weight and flavor and with a feminine quality of finesse then that's the epitome of a great Pinot Noir."
"I never want to think we've made the perfect Pinot Noir," he says with a wry smile. "We set out to make great ones at Cristom, and we are succeeding, one harvest at a time. -"