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Evesham Wood Winery

The Legacy of Founder Russ Raney

Russ Raney, Evesham Wod's founder, in the cellar

In 2010, Evesham Wood founder Russ Raney sold Evesham Wood to Erin Nuccio. This article chronicles his thirty year career building Evesham Wood, planting his Le Puits Sec vineyard, making Burgundian styled Pinot noirs with a devoted following.

Any established winemaker will tell you that if you want to produce and sell wine you've got to know how your unique style fits in to the national - even global - wine market. Russ Raney, winemaker at Evesham Wood, knows that the wine he makes from grapes grown west of Salem in Oregon's Eola Hills will never taste just like French Burgundy - nor will his wine ever taste like California Pinot - nor would he want it to.

Trained in winemaking and related business in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, and beginning his career in the industry as a retailer and then a wine buyer for a wholesale company, Raney has had the opportunity to sample wines from all over the world. What appeals to him most is the diversity in flavor available to us on a global scale.

Raney's unique contributions are wines that honestly reflect their origins, the fruit's terroir, or natural growing conditions. This reflection of terroir is Raney's ultimate goal. He's not tweaking his wines to get the scores or to sell tens of thousands of cases. Any changes he makes in his winemaking practices, in the vineyard and in the winery, are limited to efforts to enhance that taste of origin - the Evesham Wood taste.

For a Love of Pinot Noir

Russ Raney prepping for harvest

The market's first taste of Russ Raney's wine was back in 1986. Raney's interest in Pinot noir was sparked in the early '80s, when he worked in wine retail in St. Louis. He found that, at the time, "There were so few interesting - if not drinkable - Pinot noirs from the U.S.," he said. Raney set out in search of a place in this country with a climate that closely compares to the climate in Burgundy, where he might try his hand at making a more-than-just-drinkable Pinot.

"I looked from Hudson Valley, New York, to Sonoma to Oregon and considered any possible place that I thought would be suitable for Pinot," Raney said, "but I started focusing more on Oregon after tasting some Willamette Valley wines in spring of '81. I was skeptical still - I had some wines that were not so balanced - , but I felt like there was better potential here than anywhere.

"Oregon seems to be known for attracting idealistic Pinot noir producers in search of the Holy Grail," he laughed. "You see some of that in California, but by contrast in Washington it seems like [winemaking] has been more a case of families that are already involved in agriculture, and already have big land holdings, all of a sudden deciding 'hey maybe we can make more money growing grapes - making wine instead of wheat.' I think the industry there is quite different than in Oregon where you have natives and people coming in, like we did, to research the best sites for Pinot noir."

Truly, Organically, Deeply

After a few years of living and working in Portland, and doing whatever wine-related work they could in their free time (including some for Ponzi, Adams, and Adelsheim Wineries), Russ and his wife Mary settled on buying a site for a home and vineyard just west of Salem, Oregon, in the Eola Hills. They named their winery "Evesham Wood" after the Vale of Evesham in the Cotswold Hills of England because the landscape at their vineyard is reminiscent of this English countryside. "Wood" refers to the small woods that frame the vineyard on one side. The site is set at 300-420 feet, on an east-facing slope, and has shallow basalt soil - a soil situation that puts a desired pressure on the grape vines to promote ripening. The years of searching for an appropriate site had finally paid off. Russ Raney's home - the winery is in the basement

It wasn't long after the Raneys started planting vines that they decided if they were going to have a vineyard, that vineyard would be farmed organically. Also, it was important to them that the vineyards they bought fruit from (Freedom Hill, Anden [formerly Seven Springs], Temperance Hill, Mahonia, and Cubanissimo) were sustainable and L.I.V.E. (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) certified.

"We feel strongly that [organic] is the right philosophy, but in going in that direction we also feel like we can better produce the wine that is very expressive of our particular site," Raney explained.

One of the things that convinced Russ and Mary to go organic was their attentiveness to problems non-organic practices caused bird populations on their estate vineyard. They were particularly interested in maintaining the already dwindling Bluebird population (thanks to Starlings chasing them from their nests), and were, Raney said, "concerned about what they and other birds were ingesting from what we were spraying on the grapes and on the ground."

When they started out, Raney explained, "We weren't sure how much [organic farming] we could do without risking our crop. And we found out the hard way... When you're growing organic you have to be on a rigorous spraying schedule. We lost practically our whole Pinot crop in '96 because we simply didn't apply enough sulfur against powdery mildew and/or didn't apply it at the right times. This came after '95, the first year we started forgoing the use of any petrochemicals." Russ Raney up to the elbows in grapes

The Raney's estate vineyard is named Le Puits Sec ("The Dry Well") because the first well they tried to drill on their property yielded, Raney said, "not a drop of water." Le Puits Sec was officially certified organic in 2000. This process can take years for some vineyards, but Raney explained, "Because we hadn't been using any banned pesticides since 1995, Oregon Tilth's soil analyses showed no toxic residues in our soil during our first certification inspection. We didn't have to go through the usual two to three year waiting period before certification (it was granted within a year of our application)."

Raney is continually searching for ways to make their farming practices as gentle to the earth as possible. "In the future," he said, "we're hoping that we can get the vines healthy enough through the use of compost teas that we can greatly reduce sulfur sprays." (Sulfur is allowed for organic certified farmers to use to deter mildew.) "We like to stay as natural as we can. Some biodynamic farmers in France are spraying milk on crops to prevent mildew... Who knows? Maybe we'll be spraying milk next year."

Le Puits Sec Vineyard is not irrigated. Raney believes that - especially at a vineyard situated in a region "where we get thirty-nine to forty inches of rain a year, [irrigation] is not really necessary, once a vineyard is well-established." He belongs to a small group of North Willamette Valley growers and wineries called the Deep Roots Coalition. The group is concerned about groundwater depletion and they believe that stress on vine roots - forcing them to grow deeper to find water - can actually make for healthier vines and better fruit. Le Puits Sec Vineyard

"It just doesn't make sense to irrigate," Raney said. "We're running out of groundwater. It seems wasteful for us to use so much water in the vineyard industry, other than maybe for establishing the vineyard in the first couple of years. (We do get some dry stretches that can be very stressful on young vines.) But once the vines are into production our feeling is, in addition to wastefulness, the wines that are created from [irrigated] sites - they may be quite nice wines - are often less distinctive and tend to be very similar from year to year. This is because they're trying to give the vines, by way of irrigation, the same amounts of water [each year]. Also, if they're not careful, irrigating could dilute the juice."

Raney added that the group is not out to change other growers' and winemakers' practices. The Deep Roots Coalition is most interested in gathering to discuss how to "produce wines that are more expressive of the soil," he said. You might notice "non-irrigated vines" printed on Evesham Wood labels - the mark of Raney's dedication to water conservation and deep roots.

French Influences

The philosophy of the Deep Roots Coalition is not unique to Oregon. For years, French winemakers have purposely not irrigated their vineyards, in order to ensure that their wines reflect the fruit's unique terroir. In fact, Raney added, "In France, vineyards within controlled appellations (the AOC regions like Alsace, Champagne, etc.) would be denied their AOC status if they were to irrigate their vineyards." Russ examining the soils

Russ Raney is strongly influenced by French winemaking practices. When Willamette Valley Pinot noirs were really starting to take off, Raney said, "There was some criticism of Oregon producers for trying to go all out to emulate Burgundy [styles] even though we have a different set of soil and microclimate components."

At Evesham Wood, he said, "Although we know that we have a different situation here with our terroir, we are still striving still for certain aspects of that Burgundian style of Pinot noir. We know that our soil will inherently create a Pinot noir that's going to differ somewhat from Burgundy, but that doesn't mean we can't strive for the kind of finesse and elegance...to produce wines that are a little more restrained and have a little more acidity for ageability." Henri jayer

One of Raney's greatest French influences is the renowned Henri Jayer, of Vosne-Romanée, Burgundy. Wine Spectator calls the now retired Jayer a "dean of Burgundy winemakers."

"I was introduced to Jayer's wines by a friend from my retailer days," Raney said, "and I started corresponding with him. He was very helpful and very forthcoming with information on his winemaking techniques. Eventually I met him and saw first hand what he was doing. There are a lot of little details about his winemaking technique that I collected. He was very adamant about certain things like sorting fruit at harvest - to sort out grapes that were unripe or grapes that had bunch rot - being very selective." Jory soil in the vineyard

Raney explained that Jayer " was kind of the original advocate of pre-fermentation maceration," or the extraction of color and flavor by soaking crushed fruit with its skins, at a cool temperature, prior to fermentation. He added that, "Some [winemakers] were advocating for too extreme - ten days or longer at really low temperatures. Jayer did it more naturally, allowing the grapes to soak on the skins for five or six days at ambient temperature, which is basically the technique I've adopted here. Occasionally here it's harder to do than in Burgundy because at harvest time here the temperature is a little higher, so to be safe we might put some dry ice in to help keep things a little bit cooler."

Raney has also adopted Jayer's (along with many other Burgundian producers') racking technique. (Racking is draining liquid wine from its sediment, by moving it from one vat or cask to another.) Jayer's method involves racking from the end of the barrel instead of the top. Raney said of this practice, "To my knowledge, we may be the only winery in the Willamette Valley that's still doing it. Some found it to be a little time consuming, which it is, but we've found that it's the best way to get a clean racking, which is important for us because you get cleaner wine in the end in the bottle." This is especially important to Raney because Evesham Wood wines are not filtered, to preserve as much flavor as possible, so most of the sediment is removed during racking. Russ at harvest

In 1989, Raney attempted to isolate a yeast strain from the sediment in a bottle of Jayer's wine. "I wanted to see how much of an impact the yeast strain had on the texture of a wine," he said. "We were trying to achieve this silky texture that Jayer seemed to get in all of his Burgundies." Though it was difficult to be certain that the yeast was the source, Raney's wine did end up silky.

The Raneys dubbed this wine "Cuvée J.," and brought a bottle with them to France in '98 to give to Jayer. "Lots of other new world wine producers have done this, since he's kind of an icon. I didn't specifically ask for feedback, and I didn't get any," Raney laughed.

"He's very much a product of his own terroir, if you will. He believes, and maybe rightfully so, that not just the C™te d'Nuits produces the greatest Pinot noir in the world, but specifically his commune of Vosne-Romanée... A lot of critics will tell you the same thing, that that commune and a lot of the other vineyards surrounding it (Cros-Parantoux, Les Beaumonts and Echezaux) are really the pinnacle of Pinot noir sites in the world."

Another of Raney's French influences is the Burgundian white wine producer, Michelle Niellon. "He doesn't have quite the aura of Jayer in his field of white wine making," Raney said, "but he's very respected and I think people really like the very expressive style of wine - very natural, very subtle, and restrained. Niellon is one of the major proponents of that style, and again I think it's the way he kind of allows the wine to make itself and doesn't intercede any more than necessary. Just like Jayer, he's been very nice about sharing information about his winemaking. His wines are not big, showy, fat wines you might see in California and sometimes in Burgundy."

"You can taste the minerals in [Niellon's] wine from the geology of the vineyard," Raney added. "This is our model that we want to emulate. And just like with Pinot, we realized we can't make the same wines they do, but we can certainly try to achieve some of the attributes."

Global Wine Market: Problems and Promise

Cuvee J label

Though Raney is not ashamed to borrow techniques from those he admires, he is against producers conforming their wines to please the masses. "We're very much opposed to this trend towards global wine styles - the globalization of wine taste among people around the world," he said. Pinot noir in barrel

"I guess it's easier for us to have that attitude when our production level is so small that we don't have to please the masses. We can continue to be kind of a niche producer that has a special following. We don't expect everyone to like our Pinot noir. We try to create the best, most complete wine our site will offer, but we realize that wine is highly subjective and not everybody's going to like it - and that's okay.

"I very much am opposed to the attitude of a lot of wine producers around the world that they have to make a certain style of wine to get the high score to enable the winery to sell out of their wines every year. As a result of that manipulative approach in winemaking you've got a lot of wines that taste alike, worldwide - regardless of the region or the grape variety or whatever. There are certain techniques that are used to get high must concentration -- (These are chemicals that "clean" already-filtered-out grape sediment, so the winemaker may recover and use sugar remaining in that waste.) ...and whatnot - that create wines that are hardly differentiated from one region to the next around the world, and to me that's sad."

"I just hope that the younger generation of winemakers do enough of their own research to realize that it ultimately will end up producing a world of wine that's fairly boring. The wines may be quaffable, but they're certainly not going to be real interesting."

To actively resist the conformation of wine, the Raneys have joined an international group founded by Nicolas Joly of Ch‰teau Coulee de Serrrant called Renaissance des appellations, or Return to Terroir. Mostly composed of European biodynamic producers, this group organizes wine tastings around the world designed to remind people of the uniqueness of flavors available, and to counter globalization. Russ Raney with fermenting grapes

While the group leans more toward biodynamic in its approach, Evesham Wood was allowed to participate as an organic producer. Although they're not officially certified as biodynamic, they do use some of the core practices, such as composting, trying to create more biodiversity in the vineyard, and using stinging nettle (along with sulfur) to combat mildew. Biodynamic farming is a subset of organic farming, the terminology actually predating "organic." Its central focus is soil health maintained without chemicals.

There is also a highly philosophical side to the biodynamic practice. Biodynamic farmers have a reputation for making agricultural decisions based on the status of the moon and stars. "I'm not sure of the cosmological aspects of biodynamic farming," Raney said, "and, frankly, I think many other practitioners of biodynamic techniques aren't sure about this aspect of it either."

What Raney likes most about Renaissance des appellations is that each member subscribes to a quality charter that demands the application of certain sustainable, organic practices in order that the wine produced most accurately reflects the terroir of the vineyard(s). The practices the charter stipulates cover both vineyard and cellar management.

"I like the idea that they're trying to bring together all the people that have the same beliefs about what constitutes good wine," Raney said.

The Evesham Wood Wines

Lovers of Burgundian-style reds and whites can attest to the really good wine coming out of Evesham Wood Winery. Their Pinots won't knock you over; instead, they'll keep you upright, drinking with deep concentration in order to decipher each nuance the wine has to offer. These wines pair well with food yet drink superbly all on their own.

It's obvious when tasting Evesham Wood wines that Russ Raney is committed to balance. He explained how he uses fruit from Temperance Hill Vineyard, one of the most identifiable flavors he incorporates: "[In our] Willamette Valley bottle we're trying to balance Temperance fruit character - darker higher in acid/tannins - with fruit from a lower elevation site - more supple, lighter colored - a nice compliment."

"The acidity is a big issue," Raney added. "It's very difficult in our particular climate to achieve the kind of ripeness we want in these warm vintages without sacrificing some of the fruit acid, and to me that's a critical aspect when you're trying to produce a balanced wine."

For his Pinot noir, Raney uses exclusively Franois Feres barrels, and has for the last nine years. He finds these barrels are consistently high-quality, and said, "I know a lot of wineries feel like this is one of their best ways of achieving complexity in the wines is by using barrels from a lot of different cooperage companies, but we think we can achieve subtlety in the wines better in other ways." Russ Raney's total vintage 2006

Raney's Willamette Valley Pinot is one of the most complex and compelling Pinot noirs you'll find under twenty dollars. His estate vineyard (Le Puits Sec) Pinot is rich with notes of plum and pepper. The Seven Springs vineyard designate is a meaty, earthy Pinot with a long and satisfying finish. Raney's top-of-the-line Cuvée J is not to be missed.

Raney's whites should not be overshadowed by his outstanding Pinot noirs. With as much dedication to the craft of winemaking - and to featuring terroir without manipulation - Raney's Blanc du Puits Sec (a blend of 25% estate Gewurztraminer And 75% estate Pinot Gris) is a smooth medley of earthy mineral and fruit with a pleasant touch of sweetness, inspired by blends coming out of southern France. His Willamette Valley Chardonnay, made from Mahonia Vineyard fruit, is a lovely combination of stone fruit and crisp citrus. "We've got a following in local restaurants for that wine by the glass," Raney said.

Raney's Chardonnays are not aged in oak barrels. "A lot of wineries in the state have been trumpeting their non-oak Chardonnays lately," he said. "We'd been making a non-oak Chardonnay since the beginning - since '86. There's a growing interest in no-oak chardonnay, which is good because it shows American Chardonnay consumers that there is life beyond big, buttery, fat, high-alcohol California Chards. And they tend to have more of a fruit medley, as well."

Evesham Wood has an ardent group of fans in the Willamette Valley. These wines have been known to sell out quickly at the Avalon store, and customers often mention their eagerness to sample Raney's forthcoming vintages.

What's Next at Evesham Wood

With Evesham Wood's success over the past several years, customers are curious to know what Russ and Mary envision for the future of the winery.

More than anything, the Raneys would like to continue making wine, mindful of the impact they're making on the earth and ecosystem, as well as of the best methods to naturally derive complex flavors. These priorities won't change.

This doesn't mean that they're opposed to experimentation. Raney plans to continue exploring new organic and biodynamic practices, and he also plans to try out a new grape varietal. The Raneys bought "about a ton's worth" (not really that much in terms of how many bottles this will produce) of Tempranillo because they were "curious about how the variety will perform in the Willamette Valley."

Like any artist, Raney stays fresh and inspired by trying new things, while making sure his mainstays are consistently exquisite. Those who've discovered the wonder that is Evesham Wood Winery agree that it pays off to stay appraised of what Raney's got in the barrel and the bottle.

Le Puits Sec Vineyard on a foggy morning, October 2005

The Raneys are happy with the quantities they currently produce and don't intend to expand. They are most content as - what they call - niche producers, determined not to bend to cater to trends or the tastes of the masses. This is not to say they won't continue to watch what's happening with wine on a global scale. They're enthusiastic about becoming more involved with both the Deep Roots Coalition and Renaissance des appellations in order to promote vineyard and winemaking practices that encourage flavor diversity and ecological sustainability.

Mary described their new label image, a simple and elegant Pacific Dogwood on a cream-colored backdrop. "You don't see it a lot. It used to be all over," she said. "They live on the edges - by the forest - but need a little sun."

This may be the perfect emblem for a small winery with a humble knack for producing gorgeous wines. They fit into the global wine market on the edge, managing to thrive by way of simplicity, cultivating strong vines with the existing gifts of the natural world.

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