Michael Beckley Makes Wine and Music for the Senses
by Alison Ruch, Staff Writer
People seem to agree that wine and music are somehow inextricably bonded - a little Peggy Lee with our Pinot noir, some Chopin with our Cabernet, an evening of Miles Davis and Merlot...
Michael Beckley, owner of Quercus Wines, has thought at length about this bond, and he's found a way to describe what the two have in common. Both are intricately, painstakingly composed (if done well), yet both are ultimately designed to appeal to our senses, to allow our brains to depart from the science or geometry behind the song or blend, to focus on sensation alone.
Beckley, who is both a guitar player and a winemaker, begins work on a new vintage or music project with these kinds of questions running through his mind: "I know how a song is structured, but what is it doing to my senses? I know the pH and titratable acidity and tannin level of this wine, but how do I sense it in my mouth? What is there about it that pairs well with this food and is abhorrent with that food? How come Hendrix loud at two a.m. ain't cutting it but is a delight at four p.m.? How come this Mozart is putting me to sleep at ten p.m. but is wonderful with coffee at seven a.m. on a Sunday?"
People love to pair wine with things - food, personality types, settings, occasions. Michael Beckley wants to compose wines that pair with our moods, or the specific cravings of our taste buds. Sure, he's mastered the chemistry of winemaking, but it's the feeling of his wines that he's ultimately obsessed with. With so many big wineries these days focused more on the lab than the love, it's heartening to know that Beckley, while very down to earth about the technicalities of winemaking, doesn't shrug off what bliss may come from a well-composed wine. Beckley's unique approach may have something to do with his aversion to rules and regulations - or to doing things in a traditional sequence, or "by the book."
At the ripe old age of sixteen, Beckley set down his trumpet - because of "oppressive band directors" - and picked up the guitar. He began to teach himself the songs he wanted to play, in the way he wanted to play them. It seems that from that point on, Beckley continued in this manner, learning what he wanted when he wanted.
Beckley didn't come to his position as winemaker via a university program, or though another "conventional" route. Since graduating from high school, he explored the world as a vagabond of sorts working in a number of industries while traveling across the country, Kerouac-style, hitchhiking, working the odd job or two and winding up in San Rafael, California, with "seventy-three cents and a bag of oatmeal."
Once Beckley made it to California, he settled down for a while, living for a year in a sailboat and working as a (self-taught) assistant to the harbormaster, amongst an assortment of other jobs. He treated each new work opportunity as a chance to learn the rhythm of that lifestyle. At that time, from Beckley's standpoint as an inquisitive consumer of regional wines, the rhythm of wine work sparked an interest.
He had been a wine-lover for years, and his interest continued to blossom after taking wine tours in Mendocino and Sonoma. The cyclical nature of harvest, fermentation, barrel aging, bottling, harvest, etc., appealed to Beckley, as did the rural, agricultural lifestyle. Oregon was attractive to Beckley in that there seemed to be lots of opportunities popping up in wine work (if you were versatile), and it was overall less flashy than Marin County. He and his wife, Claire, decided Oregon would be a great place to raise their then two-year-old. In 1989 the family moved to an apartment in McMinnville, in the heart of Oregon wine country.
It was there that Beckley learned his next-door neighbor was the winemaker for Sokol Blosser Winery, where he subsequently took his first job in the wine industry. It was a learning curve, as Beckley assisted in his first wine job during harvest time.
"It was a good proving ground for me, being thrown into the thick of having to deal with so many things - filtering white wines with residual sugar - tasks that one might go to school for," Beckley said.
By 1994, Beckley was hired by Domaine Drouhin as Chef du Cave, the French equivalent of Cellar Manager. There he familiarized himself with even more cellar techniques, particularly the method of racking wine (separating the liquid from the lees) by hand as opposed to by pump or by using compressed gas to move the wine.
Because the center of Drouhin operations was in Beaune, France, Beckley also faced the unique challenge of negotiating cellar procedures with people overseas. Once a month, he would send samples of the wine via FedEx to Drouhin's "huge, modern lab" in Beaune. Tests would check the pH and for potential problems and allow the French staff to taste the wine from Oregon.
The exposure to the French wine enriched Beckley's idea of winemaking, especially Pinot Noir. "I learned more what it takes to produce finesse and elegance, more about European/French-Burgundian wines," he said. "I started to consume more and realized the benchmark that Burgundy is for Pinot noir."
After eight years of working at Domaine Drouhin, plus a year and half working as Production Winemaker at Erath Vineyards Winery, Beckley decided knew enough about the winemaking process to produce his own wines. "It was time," he said. He was grateful to his mentors, but - like the sixteen-year-old Beckley with his guitar - he wanted to strum his own chords, his own way.
The Solo Albums
When he founded Quercus Wines (aptly named for the oak genus used to make wine barrels), Berkley determined he would run it as closely as he could to how a small Burgundian producer operates, "without," he added, "the family involvement." Quercus is a one-man band.
"I try to emulate the hands-off technique from Burgundy, gently herding the wine to its final destination," said Beckley. "I don't have any delusions that Oregon is Burgundy - it is still Oregon, with its own unique grape-growing atmosphere.
"But the [winemaking] techniques are interchangeable," he added. "They generally mimic what has been done in Burgundy for hundreds of years." An analogy Beckley might draw is to the way a jazz standard is played differently each time it's approached by a new musician. The song is the same, and there are traditional methods with which to play it; the interpretation is unique.
Beckley believes that, in winemaking, some traditional methods are marks of integrity, and that, "many dedicated, small producers of all kinds of reds will use these techniques now."
He is not opposed to using techniques such as fining and filtering if he knows they will help to produce a better wine. His philosophy values thoughtful use of these processes.
"Fining and filtering ought to be just tools," he said. "If you do it all the time, it is part of your process - you're not thinking. The role of the winemaker is to nurture. I'm 'hands-off,' but not at all costs."
The Quercus barrel program is strictly French, and Beckley says he's not a fan of new wood and that, "If I wanted to suck on a tree, I'd go get a tree,"
He does admit that new wood will lift the fruit, but said it usually ends up overwhelming his palate. Beckley's barrel cocktail comes from a variety of coopers: Taransuad, Cadus, TM Mercurey France, Tonnellerie Claude Gillet, Dargaud & Jaegle.
Another priority for Beckley is maintaining lower alcohol levels in his wines. His Harmonia Pinot Noir and his Theia Chardonnay are below 14 percent alcohol, and he'd like to see it lower. "I'd love to do a 13.1/12.9%, something that doesn't put you under the table," he said.
As an independent producer, Beckley carefully selects the vineyards he buys from (which now includes Archer, Bayliss, Coelho, Hidden Rocks, High Valley, Momtazi and Temperance Hill), based on quality fruit and management. He seeks out healthy grapes with good color and acidity levels - and grapes grown in a natural environment.
Beckley's objective is to avoid tampering with what is already healthy, or already working out fine. This is why before he reaches for the amp and the cord he reaches for his acoustic guitar. And he's consistent, even down to the food he eats. "Eighty percent of my diet is organic," he said. "I don't spray anything on my property. In the cellar, I try to be as low-impact as possible, trying to translate those grapes into as natural and pure of a shape as possible - just as one would like to see in the vineyard."
A standout for flavor and value is the Quercus Harmonia Pinot noir. Beckley initially thought he'd call it Harmony (for obvious reasons), but, true to his aural fixation, the name just didn't sound quite right. Harmonia had a better ring. In addition, he realized that naming the wine after this ancient goddess summed up nicely his dedication to harmony and to civic unity.
Beckley's new 05 Harmonia Pinot reflects his description of the vintage perfectly: "great acidity - almost closer to a Burgundy - with delicate flavors from the fruit that came in after the rains." Given a little air time, the 2005 Harmonia starts off with expressive aromas of berry fruit, roses and sandalwood. It has a juicy, lush mouthfeel, with red berry and pie cherry that gives way to hints of milk chocolate and creamy berry. The finish is spicy and long.
In keeping with the god and goddess names, Beckley named his Chardonnay after the goddess of light. The new 05 Theia Chardonnay is a remarkably crafted, great value wine. In this wine, Beckley uses 100% Temperance Hill Vineyard Dijon Clone 76 fruit, which he chose specifically to make the kind of Chardonnay that appeals to him: bright, fruit-focused, with just a hint of spice.
Beckley's Hyperion Syrah 04 (the Titan sun god of wines) is rich and delicious. It is delightfully reminiscent of buttered rolls. Beckley models the Syrah after Rhone Syrahs, using no new wood and keeping the sweetness to a minimum. "I'm not interested in ushy-gushy Syrahs," he said. "This is more like old world Syrah. It still maintains its own Oregon flavor, but it's closer to a Rhone-style than many Californian Syrahs."
"When it came time for a 'reserve' [wine]," Beckley said, "the idea of a feminine wine and a masculine wine - one more forward and ready to roll, and one for the cellar, more structured - gave rise to the husband and wife concept of Harmonia and Cadmus." His Cadmus Pinot noir 04 shows blackberry and red cherry scents, and in the mouth these fruit flavors are accompanied by hints of fresh earth, red cherries and red raspberries. Beckley uses a medium to heavy toast on the twenty-five percent new oak barrels he uses for this wine, which assist the natural grape tannins in creating a lightly toasty, structured wine. The Cadmus Pinot is as harmonious as the Harmonia, with a bit of a darker undertone.
Beckley also has a new label, Rock Creek Cellars, named for the creek that runs behind his property, with a nod to one of his favorite music genres. The Rock Creek Cellars Pinot noir 05 is due out this October. It's on the caliber of a reserve wine, one that Beckley calls one notch less structured than the Cadmus Pinot, though equally as tasty. This wine reminds Beckley a bit of Savigny, a Burgundy he admires. Deep garnet in color, this wine's aroma reveals spice, dusty earthiness and dark fruits. It's supple on the palate, with berry and red cherry flavors, very fine tannins and a long finish. Beckley thinks this one will develop further in the bottle. He recommends up to ten years, "if there are any bottles left by then." He's making 250 cases.
Playing by Ear
These days, Beckley is busy with '06 fruit, thinking about the growth possibilities for Quercus, and also about ways in which he can keep his winery a one-man show. As the winery becomes more and more well-known, and as he begins to distribute in California, slow growth will be the challenge for Beckley. Luckily, he has a knack for focus and, as a self-taught individual, a keen sense of what he knows, what he needs to learn and where that knowledge will take him.
As for Beckley's music, he's currently playing with a few different McMinnville circles, "mostly open mics and blues jams," he said. When asked what his musical ambitions are, he smiled mischievously and said, "Ask me in a year."