St. Innocent Winery's Mark Vlossak - Hard-wired for Wine
by Alison Ruch
Start them young. It is, perhaps, the most common advice given to parents interested in guiding their children toward learning a second language, developing a musical skill or revealing an athletic talent. In those early years, children absorb information that tends to stick for life; it is their hard-wiring. Mark Vlossak's dad hard-wired him for wine. An early start is precisely what his father, John Innocent Vlossak, provided for Mark, who remembers drinking wine and conversing about wine from age seven on.
In 1988, when the adult Mark Vlossak was in the position to name his winery, a thank you seemed in order. He called the winery St. Innocent, for his father who was born on All Innocents Day. "While [my dad] was learning about wine, I was learning in his shadow," Vlossak said. "When I decided to start the winery, I wanted to thank him for having trained my palate and given me the experience of what wine is really about."
"Frankly, you can teach anybody to make wine; it's not really that hard. But to make wine that reflects something - either an intentional personality, or the terroir of the site or a grape varietal - you have to have an understanding of what that's really about. . . . If you start young enough, it just becomes part of your hard-wiring, and I realized that my father had given me the opportunity - I was hard-wired for wine. I had an interest, and he supported it. He didn't say, 'You're seven years old; you're not drinking wine,' he said, 'You're seven years old; you want some wine?'"
Vlossak's parents emphasized drinking wine with meals and drinking in moderation - to enjoy the wines' flavors, not their effects. "The idea of drinking wine to excess was really kind of gross," Vlossak said. "Wine was always about eating. Wine was never something you did on a deck, and it wasn't something you did out of the trunk of a car - not something you did just to drink."
Vlossak's mother, Doris Jean (Dot) got interested in French cooking around the same time as John Innocent discovered his interest in wine, and to this day the two disagree over who was first to introduce the other to the epicurean lifestyle.
Hard-wiring Inspires a Career Shift
Though he grew up a wine and food aficionado, Mark Vlossak didn't always dream of becoming a winemaker. He was raised in Wisconsin and began his college career studying chemistry. In his sophomore year, he changed schools to the University of WisconsinÐMadison to study theatre, which he chose as his undergraduate major. After a few years on the road doing lighting for dance, opera and theatre companies, Vlossak decided he wanted less transient work and pursued a career in pediatrics.
It was pediatrics that eventually brought Vlossak to Oregon - he "wanted to go somewhere with water and mountains" - where he completed an internship in Portland and later worked in Salem.
Cooking and collecting wine, especially Champagne, continued to be play an important role in Vlossak's life, and he avidly read wine and food magazines. An article in a 1983 issue of Bon Appétit struck Vlossak so hard it inspired him to learn the craft he'd admired since childhood. Already hard-wired to taste, discuss and contemplate a wide variety of wines, Vlossak was in a good position to try his hand at making wine. The Bon Appétit article was on American sparkling wine and began with a quote from the 1940s Cabernet Sauvignon pioneer André Tchelistcheff, saying, as Vlossak remembers, "The greatest sparkling wine in America would be made in Oregon and not in California because it was the right place to grow the grapes of Champagne - Pinot noir and Chardonnay."
"I read that," Vlossak said, "and I said, 'I'm going to do that.'"
Once Vlossak made the decision to learn to make wine, he wasted no time seeking out teachers and mentors. "I literally spent the next five years trying to figure out how to do that," Vlossak said. "I started taking classes at Davis, going to conferences, going to the Society of Wine Educators, took classes that Lisa Van de Water taught, ended up working for her at The Wine Lab in Napa - really learned the lab analysis side of things - , apprenticed for two years with Fred Arterberry - probably one of the most brilliant Pinot noir producers to ever exist in this state - " Through all of this, Vlossak practiced medicine.
Vlossak and a team of eight investors started up St. Innocent Winery in 1988 and, on top of making St. Innocent wines from then on, Vlossak also managed to make award-winning wines for Panther Creek Cellars from 1994 to 1999. He left the medical field in 1998 to focus on St. Innocent.
Since opening, St. Innocent has gone from producing roughly 600 cases a year to 6,500 cases a year. Vlossak makes seven single-vineyard Pinot noirs, two Chardonnays, two Pinot gris and a Pinot blanc. He also makes a very small amount of high-end sparkling wine.
As a winemaker, Mark Vlossak combines the hard facts he's sought out in his training with the instincts he's developed about wine since childhood. When Vlossak first visits a vineyard he's considering buying from he does an intuitive assessment.
"It's very subconscious," he said. "I go, I walk around the vineyard, I look at where the sun is, I look at the wind blowing in the afternoon, I look at the vines, I look at the elevation... You want a vineyard with good air drainage, sun in the morning - so an East or Southeast or Southern-most facing vineyard is usually an advantage. You want to be high enough to be out of the frost pocket; you don't want a forest next to you where you're getting a lot of shade..."
Outside of the visual and spatial particulars of a vineyard, Vlossak samples vineyard sites by tasting wines made from each site's fruit. "I expanded to some vineyards because there were certain wines and certain sites that I found inspirational," Vlossak said.
"Patty Green used to make White Rose for Tori Mor, and I totally loved it - thought it was a brilliant bottle of wine. When the vineyard sold, the new owner called me up and said, 'I like your wine. Would you like to make wine from White Rose?' and I was like 'Yeah! Sign me up! How much blood do you want?' That's how I got White Rose."
The 2005 St. Innocent wines come from Anden Vineyard, Freedom Hill, Justice Vineyard, Maresh Vineyard, Seven Springs Vineyard, Shea Vineyard, Temperance Hill Vineyard, Vitae Springs Vineyard and White Rose Vineyard.
Vlossak noted that over the past fifteen years, with so many of Oregon's vineyards falling prey to Phylloxera infestations, he had to approach vineyards with replanting in mind. Vlossak has walked other blocks at his current vineyard sites as their vines were dying in order to find the best places for re-planting. This arrangement actually provides both Vlossak and the grower with a unique opportunity to work cooperatively from the very beginning of the vines' lives. They are able to look at the space and decide together which clones, trellising system and rootstock will work best there. While Vlossak is certainly not pleased with Phylloxera problems, he's made the best of the aftermath.
After selecting vineyard sites, Vlossak works closely with vineyard managers to ensure that the crops are treated so that the vines grow in balance. Vlossak described this balance as a very difficult-to-perfect art of meticulous management that assists the vines in growing "vegitatively - chutes and leaves - only until the fruit changes color and then the vines focus on the process of flavor development.
"From early on, I liked a lot of fruit exposure, so we pulled leaves," Vlossak said. "We were the early people to really aggressively pull leaves - and probably went through a phase where we pulled too many leaves - had almost too much exposure and kind of awkward tannins as a result - but I think it was an important learning curve, and because of that we didn't have rot problems.
"Of course the most important decision is when you pick," Vlossak added. His usual method of gauging when to pick is to taste the fruit when he thinks it's close. He's done this since his first harvest and only recently has begun to, as he put it, "run numbers on grapes." But the numbers, he said, are more of a back-up measure.
"You can fix sugar, and you can fix acid and you can fix pH if you have to," Vlossak said. "If things are really messed up, you can make adjustments to make the wine safe to make (to avoid bacteria infections) - and appropriate - , but you can't add flavor. Flavor is what Mother Nature gives you."
St. Innocent Gets Some Vines of Its Own - and a New Winery
"For four or five years, I've been trying to solve the problem of a winery with no grapes of its own," Vlossak said.
Due to family traumas and reconfigurations among vineyard owners, Vlossak has dealt with a couple of major losses in his vineyard allotments, both of which occurred rather suddenly to vineyards that had provided very large portions of his annual yield. The first of these was O'Connor Vineyard; the second was Seven Springs and Anden Vineyards.
"Life has its challenges, and it offers opportunities," Vlossak said.
When the O'Connor Vineyard - which had provided 40% of Vlossak's fruit in the late 90s - was leased to Willamette Valley Vineyards for ten years, Vlossak approached Dick Shea to see if he might lease a section of Shea Vineyards. Shea was willing, and Vlossak was able to lease a large section of Shea to make up for what was lost at O'Connor. "That ended up being a really good move," Vlossak said. "It's a spectacular vineyard, and we were a good match. I was able to make really good wine from [Shea]. It wasn't the same profile as O'Connor, but it fit a similar niche in the market. I was able to move from one vineyard to another in a really positive manner."
Also quite positive is that, this spring, Vlossak is returning to and looking after his own vines in his own section of the former O'Connor Vineyard site.
About three years ago - nearly six years after Vlossak was informed he'd lost access to O'Connor Vineyard fruit - the O'Connor vineyard was on the market. Vlossak was intrigued but didn't make a move on the property. Then, "totally out of happenstance," Vlossak said, "one of my best customers called me and said, 'I've been on Wall Street and then I've been in Chicago working for Sarah Lee, and I'm thinking I want to get involved in the wine business...' I said, 'Well, Pat O'Connor's vineyard's for sale. Come and buy O'Connor and you can be a grape grower, and you can own this vineyard. And, somewhat to my surprise - and perhaps to his surprise - he said, 'Okay.'"
This customer, Tim Ramey, and his wife, Kari, traveled to Oregon and sealed the deal. Their new name for the vineyard is Belle Vigne (beautiful vine). In addition to running Belle Vigne, they decided Kari would manage an events facility, also on the property. The hitch was, zoning requirements don't just allow for events facilities in the center of farmland unless the facility also houses a winery.
The Ramey's had been loyal St. Innocent customers since the early days and were familiar with (and crazy about) the wines Vlossak made from the O'Connor site, so Ramey's first choice for a winemaker was an easy one. The plan was to build a small winery and have lots of "extra space" for events.
A move was never out of the question for Vlossak, but he swore he'd never move unless it involved a tasting room in wine country. "People don't come to wine country to drive in an industrial park in Salem," (St. Innocent's home to date) Vlossak said. "They sometimes come to see me in an industrial park because they want to see St. Innocent, but they don't ever just wander into St. Innocent because it's in the middle of freaking nowhere. On the other hand, we had a good winery. Logistics were good."
The partnership opportunity seemed somewhat fated. "It was this one hundred and thirty-three acre vineyard that historically had been very important to us - and that we had made wines that people loved from..." Vlossak said. "It sort of put it all back together. After lengthy consideration, Vlossak proposed to the Rameys that St. Innocent purchase an interest in the vineyard and build a new winery for St. Innocent there.
"I was able to get a vineyard, move into the country where I would be right between Bethel Heights and Cristom," Vlossak continued, "and I wouldn't have to become a farmer because there was already a farmer there, and there was already a vineyard crew, and they were already replanting vineyards - and doing it essentially state of the art. . . . It was a remarkable opportunity."
Vlossak's Winemaking Instincts and Intentions
Most of Vlossak's winemaking decisions are based on years and years of tasting and talking about and thinking about wine. These decisions have a lot more to do with the gut than the brain, and, so far, Vlossak has no regrets. "There's a certain instinctual component that I trust implicitly in my winemaking - that things are right or things are wrong - that has to do with those early experiences," Vlossak said. "I don't know if it's important in terms of quality, but it's important in terms of style." Vlossak knows what he's looking for and is generally confident he knows which methods will get him there.
But it's not methods Vlossak is interested in so much as it is the vision for the final product and the journey each vintage requires of the winemaker. "I don't think wine is made by techniques," Vlossak said. "Techniques are there to allow you to solve problems and achieve goals rather than to make wine. Techniques don't make wine; winemakers make wine."
Vlossak poses the same questions to himself each year: What will allow me - in this particular vintage, with these particular grapes, and this particular varietal, trying to reflect this particular vineyard - to make the wine I want to make? What do I need to do to do that? "A lot of my winemaking decisions have a very intellectual, calculated origin," he said, "but they're never implemented unless I have a really deep sense that it's the right thing to do at that time because I have a head that works overtime. I never let that over-amplified cognitive power make wine.
"I'm not going to do anything even if my brain is saying, 'Oh my god, you gotta do this, you gotta do that!' If I don't have a sense that it's the right thing to do, then I don't do it, and that's guided my winemaking since the first wine I ever made, and it's never let me down."
Vlossak's primary objective is to make wines that are "most pleasurable and most accessible" years from when they are bottled. "I try to make a wine that will evolve very slowly as opposed to tasting really good the first time the first person opens the first bottle on the day it's released," Vlossak said. "I would much rather that the last bottle of the case that they drink in ten or fifteen years is the most extraordinary experience that they have with the wine.
"I like wines that have aged," Vlossak continued. "I hold onto wine. I have wines that I bought when I graduated from college, and my dad still has wine from '59 - from when I was seven years old and we started drinking wine together and he bought all of the '59 Premiers grands crus Bordeaux."
Vlossak's goals are very dependant on when he decides to pick his grapes. "I look for that particular moment, and that's when I pick the grapes and then extract them in a certain way to emphasize those flavor components - those essences - that, for me, fully describe that place in that time - that moment, and that vintage - and I try to put those into that bottle of wine.
"The focus isn't 'I'm going to taste it at x flavor' because every year is a different set of flavors." Instead, Vlossak asks at harvest time: "How much is this vineyard going to show this spice and these flowers in this particular year?"
It's the spice and flowers and other flavors coming off the fruit that inform Vlossak's barrel program. "For me, if the oak in the wine doesn't support the flavors it's not right," Vlossak said. "In some vineyards, that's not very much oak; in some vineyards, it's a whole lot more oak. Unfortunately, I went through a period where I put too much oak in and I had to back off a few years ago in order to find the right balance. It's something I look at really carefully.
"Right before we take the wine out of barrel, we taste every single new barrel and the selection of used barrels, and we take notes on how well that terroir is reflected in each of those woods because we don't ever remove wine form barrels and put them into a tank and blend them together and then put them back into barrel. The wine that goes out of the fermenter into the barrel stays in that barrel until we're ready to bottle it.
"We've done this for thirteen years, so we have the notes of what's worked and what hasn't worked. We try to maximize the opportunities for the percentage of wood and the kinds of coopers and the kinds of forests - the kinds of toast - that are in each wine, vineyard by vineyard because it turns out that some vineyards are completely different than others in what seems to work well."
Vlossak and his crew have learned that, once they find a good marriage of barrel and vineyard, it's generally effective to keep the pairing consistent year to year. That relationship, in Vlossak's experience, has trumped any sort of vintage variations. "I'll go so far - in a particular vintage - to renegotiate my barrels a little bit," Vlossak said, "but the reality is you have to order barrels six months before you get them because they have to be made and then they have to come across the ocean and you have to prepare them..."
Vlossak's current barrel cocktail consists of Sirugue, Cadus, Billion, Berthomieu, Sylvain, Damy and Taransuad.
Top Shelf Wine at Fair Prices
St. Innocent wines have a reputation for being both delicious and deliciously well priced. The notion of a well-priced wine was instilled in Vlossak, as was wine appreciation, when he was young.
When Vlossak's dad first got excited about wine, he got in touch with an importer who had several retail shops in Wisconsin. John Innocent traveled to Europe to help pick out wines for these shops, and, before long, the retailer realized that John Innocent's picks were - by far - the most popular in all of his shops. John Innocent was granted an importer's license and got sent to France each year to buy wine, sort of as a hobby. "Not a bad deal," Vlossak laughed.
John Innocent's early purchases were Mark Vlossak's first exposure to wine pricing. "Direct import prices," Vlossak said, "which were considerably less than you're paying off the shelf - were sort of what wines should cost - even great wines."
When Vlossak started traveling to Europe, in college, he'd buy wines directly from wineries, which - sort of contrary to how it is in the U.S., due to differences in distribution - sold wines at the lowest prices around. "I'd go to these great producers, like Robert Groffier, and buy his Bonnes Mares for fifty bucks a bottle," Vlossak said. "So the idea that somehow I would charge more than Groffier charged for his Bonnes Mares, which is my favorite thing out of Burgundy, seemed absurd. . . . My sense was, if I wouldn't pay for it, I don't have any business charging somebody else that kind of price. I decided I was going to work within what I thought was fair."
The St. Innocent Wines
Mark Vlossak learned to love wine as it paired with food, and so it follows that the St. Innocent wines are designed to complement food flavors.
"The flavor profiles were embedded in my brain - my food & wine neurons," Vlossak said. "For me, that means the wines have more acidity. I like acidity in wines. It really stands up to meals. It also allows me to meet the goal of ageability because wines with more acidity tend to age more elegantly."
The New Winery and Vineyard
Mark Vlossak intends to make wine in the new St. Innocent facility next fall.
The winery facility will run, in large part, on gravity-flow systems that will gently usher fruit through fermentation and into barrels, which will be stored as they have been traditionally - underground. Starting from scratch after several years of experience has allowed Vlossak to design this facility to perform at maximum efficiency. Above the winery will be a tasting room as well as a dance floor and other event facility amenities, including a room designed specifically for brides to primp in prior to wedding ceremonies.
Vineyard owner and manager Tim Ramey has leased out a few other sections of the vineyard (one to a Mondavi grandson), but a significant part of the vineyard will be used to make vineyard designated wine for St. Innocent and Belle Vigne's own label. He's very excited to be able to bicycle around the vineyard to check things out - and also to Justice and Temperance Hill Vineyard, which are just up the road.
Kari Ramey has plans for horse-drawn carriages and even a gazebo at the highest spot in the vineyard with a breathtaking view of the Oregon Cascades. Recently, Vlossak was headed off to build a form for indoor waterfalls in his barrel room. (Adieu, industrial park!)
St Innocent Wines
Each wine, including the Pinot blend (Villages Cuvée), carries a unique flavor profile depending upon its fruit source. Vlossak notices, for instance, a mélange of red and black fruit in the Shea Vineyard Pinot noir versus a wild blackberry minerality and a pumpkin pie spice (minus the sweetness) in the Seven Springs fruit.
The Justice Vineyard Pinot Noir, Vlossak noted, has a rich, red fruit flavor and is, he said, "almost more textural - a creaminess with spicy overtones. What a texture! Like a cross between a wine and a milkshake."
In white wines, Vlossak likes complexity and balanced flavors. "The idea that a Chardonnay would have a whole boatload of oak or be really buttery is the antithesis to what my goal is," Vlossak said.
"My goal is to have a lot of things in harmony, so I wouldn't avoid oak, but it would have to integrate with the overall character - with the acid and the fruit textures and the lees - all of those things that go into the flavor profile."
Consistent in Vlossak's Vitae Springs Pinot gris is what he calls a "Clementine-orange peel spice component, with a spice that's almost heat - like a chili. Because the Shea Pinot gris has died of Phylloxera, my only Pinot gris will come from that vineyard. I love it."
St. Innocent used to produce a lot more sparkling wine; now Vlossak is interested in focusing on making a little bit of totally incredible sparkling wine. Keep an eye out for his Late Disgorged 1998 Brut in December of 2007 and his 2006 Blanc de blanc in 2012.