By Christina Kelly
Cristom Vineyards in Salem, OR is well known for crafting silky Pinot Noir with power, finesse and weight.
What some people might not know is the winery also produces a lesser-known estate Viognier-a grape traditionally considered difficult to grow in colder climates, and not well known in Oregon. In addition, winemaker Steve Doerner crafts small lots of Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, with grapes from the estate, Eastern Washington and other Oregon vineyards.
The winery is edging closer to 10,000 cases per year, and about 1,500 are white wines, making availability difficult without shopping around, especially the Viognier and Chardonnay.
"I'm very pleased with our Viognier, especially since we grow it at the estate," Doerner said. "Our Viognier is very rich. For me, it's more about the nose than the palate. It has floral characteristics on top of the fruit.
"When you first smell the Viognier, you expect something light-weight because it's so aromatic. But when it hits the palate, it's rich and ripe and actually has a higher alcohol content."
The success of Viognier in a small patch at Cristom has convinced Doerner and winery owner Paul Gettie to produce another grape not widely grown in the Willamette Valley-Syrah. Doerner and Gettie believe that if Viognier can ripen in their vineyards, Syrah has a good chance. (Most Oregon Syrah contains fruit either from Eastern Washington or Southern Oregon, where the climate is warmer).
Doerner planted several acres of early ripening Syrah grapes and estimates he will produce about 150 to 200 cases.
"If I didn't know the Viognier could ripen in our vineyard, I certainly would have my doubts about Syrah," Doerner said. "It's a bit of an educated experiment. We will have to define our own style of Syrah here in Oregon if this takes off."
The winemaker points out that Northern Rhone in France is only a couple of hours from Burgundy and the difference in climate is not day and night, but similar.
"I can't say we'll get it right every time, but I'm optimistic about Syrah's future in Oregon," he added. "Who thought we could grow Viognier here?"
Fresh White Wines
While experimenting with Syrah, Doerner said he is also working to improve the white wines produced by Cristom. Although many Oregon winemakers are pulling out Chardonnay vines and planning Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris, Doerner said he is not giving up on producing a good Oregon Chardonnay.
"I think Chardonnay is a more noble variety than Pinot Gris and I don't want to give up on it yet," Doerner said. "We've struggled with it in Oregon because we've put so much emphasis on our Pinot Noir. The other varieties sort of languish when we focus so much on Pinot."
In order to improve his white wines, Doerner said he would allow the varieties to be a little less dry in order to have a "fresher" taste.
"I've been a fan of getting wines as dry as possible," he explained. "Sometimes you lose freshness and fruitiness trying to get it dry. I've learned that my wines are still dry … but I don't have to keep them in the tanks so long to achieve that dryness."
Cristom's Pinot Gris has improved in the past few years after Doerner struggled through corkiness in the wine. Now, he says it is dry and crispy, with melon, apricots and hints of pear flavors. Doerner said he also struggled with the freshness issue in the Chardonnay in previous years, but the latest vintage on the market has hints of honeysuckle, rose and Asian pears. The wine has a creamy texture and a rich feel in the mouth.
The winery produces four vineyard-designated wines-Marjorie (named after Gerrie's mother), Louise (after his grandmother), Jessie (another grandmother) and Eileen (after Gerrie's wife). In addition, Cristom produces two blends, a Reserve and Mt. Jefferson Cuvee.
An Engineer, A Biochemist, A Winery
Cristom is the product of Paul Gerrie, a Pennsylvanian engineer who came to Oregon in 1991 to attend the International Pinot Noir Conference and check out Oregon wineries. He initially hired a consultant, Mike Etzel, (who later opened Beaux Freres) to look for vineyard acreage.
"The moment I stepped off the plane, I knew I would love Oregon," said Gerrie, who named the winery after his grown children, Christine and Tom.
Gerrie purchased the 90-acre Pellier Winery and immediately began searching for a new winemaker. He learned about Doerner through the wines of Calera, based in Hollister, CA.
Doerner was looking for a new position, after 14 years with Calera. He admits he never intended to be in the wine business, after graduating with a biochemistry degree from UC Davis. But fate and a job offer took him to Calera, where he produced Pinot Noir, Viognier and Chardonnay.
After Gerrie made him an offer, Doerner moved to Oregon and said he was happy to be in a small winery where he got to make wine and perform all the tasks of a small business.
"I like doing a number of different things," said Doerner, 46, who grew up in Oakland. "I like experimenting with yeast trials and whole cluster trials. I am a generalist. I like a lot of different things and wine is only one of them."
Although Doerner, who is single, has many interests and hobbies, he recently backed away from one of his favorite activities-motorcycles. A few months ago, Doerner was riding his motorcycle through McMinnville when an elderly man driving a truck hit Doerner and sent him flying at least 25 feet, landing on his right wrist. The motorcycle caught fire and burned to metal parts.
The pins holding his wrist together were removed this week, and Doerner swears he won't get on a motorcycle again. Given the nature of the accident, the winemaker said he came inches from death.
"I don't know why I'm suppose to be here, but apparently I am suppose to be on this earth," Doerner said. "I feel very fortunate. Since the accident, I've had other job offers, but I think I am suppose to be right where I am."
Gerrie agrees that Doerner belongs with Cristom and recently made him a partner.
"I think he is a fabulous winemaker," Gerrie said. "I couldn't have picked a better person. Our palates are similar and we both believe that our job is to make the best wines we can."