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Territorial Vineyards and Wine Company

Pairing Urban with Rural

by Alison Ruch

 

The traditional snapshot of a destination in wine country might look something like this: a grand estate made of stone or brick, tastefully garnished with ivy, fixed high on a hill - isolated from neighbors and noise, bicycles and busses. The folks at Territorial Vineyards & Wine Company have chosen to turn this tradition upside down. Their winery is in the thick of the action, located in downtown Eugene in the colorful and free-spirited Whitaker neighborhood.

As natives to the city and arts enthusiasts, the founders of Territorial chose to establish their winery away from their vineyards, in an environment where they could promote and host a smorgasbord of artistic creations - from abstract paintings and avant-garde jazz to poetry slams and elegant Pinot noirs.

above, street mural near Territorial's Winery in the funky Whitaker Neighborhood

Alan and April Mitchell, Jeff and Victoria Wilson-Charles, and John Jarboe formed Territorial Vineyards & Wine Company in 2001 with the shared vision of a winery that used all estate-grown fruit and practiced an unapologetic "hands-on" approach to winemaking. They knew what they liked - earth-friendly farming, conscientious winemaking, and well-balanced, fruit-focused wines - so they decided to control the process from start to finish, unlike most other wineries that begin with picked and purchased fruit from external vineyard sites.

Territorial is making a splash in Oregon - and in some national - wine circles, as well as in the Eugene arts scene. Their wines have been praised by Winepress Northwest, Northwest Palate and Eugene Magazine, and the funky Territorial tasting room has become a "must-hit" destination for those traveling to and through Eugene. Because of the winery's dedication to supporting local arts, the whole operation has come to define what it means to be a community winery.

Alan Mitchell, Vineyard Farmer

Vineyard manager Alan Mitchell often spends his days split between the urban and rural necessities of the winery. If you happen to catch him in the tasting room, he'll gladly offer an update on the farming life that is inseparable from the pressing, blending, barreling, and bottling going on just on the other side of the tasting room wall.

at right, Alan pouring wine at Avalon

Mitchell began working in vineyards when he was in his early twenties, where he was, as he put it, "tying vines for four cents a vine." He paid his way through college doing vineyard work, earning two Master's degrees, one in political science and one in German. Once Mitchell graduated, he half-heartedly sought work in the fields he'd earned degrees in, but he was ultimately seduced back to the vineyards.

Mitchell loves farming, and he likes vineyard work in particular because it's often softer on the environment than other forms of agriculture. And the people involved in wine work are compelling characters. They are, he grinned and called them, "just a bunch of nuts."

After college, Mitchell worked for a vineyard management company. He took the long route to his jobs so that he could spin by a property he suspected would be an ideal vineyard site. At the time - in 1993 - it was spotted with Christmas trees, but Mitchell could picture the rows of vines, the way the sun would shine on them just so, the way the fertile Bellpine soil would nurture the roots of the Pinot noir plants…

In 1998, Mitchell and his wife, April, learned that the site Mitchell had admired for so many years was for sale. They pounced on it, and before long Mitchell was planting Pinot in his own backyard. A few years later, Territorial had released its first vintage.


Territorial Vineyard

Importance of the Vineyard

 

The Territorial Wines

Territorial's focus is on traditional Oregon wines (Pinot noir, Pinot gris), but in the past couple of years they've added some fun extras to the mix, including a Rosé made from Pinot noir, and a Riesling.

Will we see Territorial branch out even further? They're not sure. Mitchell is most comfortable with varietals he knows will thrive under Oregon conditions and is skeptical of some of the recent trials with different types of vines. He says of things like the current interest in growing Tempranillo in Oregon, "It seems unnatural to me."

Here's what Territorial is bottling up these days:

The Territorial Pinot noir features the delicate fruit it is made from but has a distinct backbone. It pairs well with moderately rich foods - salmon or pork would be great complements - and is one of the best value Pinots around.

The Territorial Stone's Throw Pinot noir is their "mid-level red." Mitchell said this wine is, "a limited production wine, like the Capital T. And, like the Capital T, our 'reserve,' it may or may not happen every year, depending on how strong we think the vintage is. The name comes from our frustration with overused nomenclature like 'vintage select,' 'cellar select,' 'winemaker's reserve,' and on and on." They intentionally assigned a name to this wine that, like the wine, they just really liked. "Stone's Throw just has a nice ring to it," Mitchell said, "nothing more."

The team at Territorial is adamant about only making "Capital T", their reserve Pinot noir, when they have something in the barrels they agree is outstanding. On years when things taste great but not necessarily superb, they simply won't make it. In other words: Trust the "Capital T." This wine seems to be the essence of what Jarboe strives for - the richer, juicier Pinot, packed with dark cherry, a wine that unravels with each sip to reveal multiple layers of spicy flavor and gripping textures.

Territorial's Pinot gris has received lots of positive attention from the restaurant business and in the wine press. Their gris is known for a uniquely rich, subtly sweet mouthfeel and balanced acidity. It's crisp and refreshing with hints of pear, apple, and honey, and the complement of an intriguing ocean-scented minerality.

Being new to the delicate balance that is Riesling, Territorial's Riesling is an impressive, off-dry balancing act. It will grab your attention with its well-crafted subtlety but won't startle you with extremes in acidity, alcohol, or sweetness. Having spent quality time in Germany, Mitchell, in particular, had a clear vision for the Territorial Riesling: a refreshing, faintly sweet stand-alone wine that pairs impeccably with food. Vision achieved.

Territorial released its first Rose in 2001. It was a bit of a gamble at the time when, as Mitchell explained it, "Rosé was still largely ignored, if not outright loathed, because of all the crappy pink wine... on the market." The Territorial Rosé proved it was in a different league.

In an article in Gourmet, Territorial's first vintage of Rosé ranked number six out of fifty Rosés from around the world - a great success for Territorial and for Oregon Rosé. Theirs is at the head of the pack because of its refreshing aromas of grapefruit, tangerine, and rose petal. The Territorial Rosé tastes great on its own and is also a wonderful companion to food.

The fruit that makes up the Territorial wines is entirely estate grown. (To be precise, about 5% comes from their friend Matt Compton at Benton Lane and from Toad Hall, another vineyard Mitchell manages.) Mitchell and Wilson-Charles own Bellpine and Equinox vineyards, respectively, both of which are located on Oregon's Territorial Highway, just north of Eugene.

The winery is named for the location of the vineyards and is also intended to invoke the ring of the French word terroir, a nod to Territorial's dedication to maintaining excellent grape growing environments.

Each of Territorial's different estate vineyards brings its own unique characteristics to the wines. "Due to mesoclimate (mesoclimate is what people mean when they say microclimate)," Mitchell said, "each vineyard performs differently and each yields a different kind of site stamp in the wine. My vineyard, for example, wants to show a lot of cedar notes in the Pinots."

Managing estate vineyards allows Mitchell to farm the way he wants to - to know exactly what is going into the wines and, more importantly, what is not. Mitchell steers clear of using what he calls, "gnarly fungicides and herbicides," in the vineyards, using instead only those chemicals that are allowed by LIVE (Low Input Viticulture & Enology, Inc.). Even though Bellpine and Equinox have just recently been LIVE certified, the crops have always been managed organically. Mitchell doesn't think there's much to say about it, really. To him, it's just common sense to keep chemical treatment safe and to a minimum.

Mitchell's number one priority in the vineyards is soil fertility. This means, he said, "regaining and maintaining the primordial balance of the soil, trying to get the system to work the way it works in ecosystems whose balance has not been upset by the interference of the agricultural designs of man." Mitchell works to encourage the vineyards' soils to thrive naturally and to provide nourishment to the vines. While much of modern agriculture depends on fertilizers designed to feed plants, Mitchell sees more long-term benefits in nourishing the soil surrounding the plants so that, he said, "nutrients are available to the plants when the plants need them.

"Agronomists talk about the soil as being the stomach of the plant. When you think about nutrition this way, you see that the engineered plant food products and the approaches to fertility associated with them are really a crutch that address symptoms of depleted soils in a self-perpetuating and ultimately unsustainable downward spiral of decreasing returns."

Mitchell likes to keep his vines well-fed. "The plants need to undergo an amount of seasonal stress to ripen and accumulate sugars, but they need food to do it," he said. His goal is to keep the soil in balance by keeping the vines well-fed. Mitchell explained that, "With enough microbial fungi in the roots to help break down nutrients, the plants don't have to expend so much hydrogen to break down their food, thus the plants are not overtaxed."

From years of farming experience, Mitchell is familiar with what works for the sites he manages, and he functions instinctively, anticipating and reacting to the vineyards' annual cycles. "If you have your vision and philosophy, do it the same every year," said Mitchell. "Vineyards are like children; they like consistency."

In the Territorial tasting room, artists are free to experiment - to go to extremes. On the farm, Mitchell's treatment is even-keel. He finds what works, and he sticks with it, knowing that if the wine's base is high-quality fruit, that's at least half the battle.


Hands-on Winemaking with John Jarboe

The rest of the battle takes place downtown, in the large warehouse space attached to the tasting room. Like fresh-out-of-college Mitchell driving by his future vineyard, early discussions of a winery seemed like lofty dreaming. Mitchell remembers how fifteen years ago his friend John Jarboe, then a part-time winemaker/bartender, joked about making wine for Mitchell, should he ever decide to use the fruit he cultivated for his own winery.

Years later, the two got serious. Territorial's first vintage was 2001.

The winery's warehouse facility - formerly a coffee warehouse - provides space not only for all of Territorial's winemaking processes but also for an indoor crush pad, some of the Iris Hill wines, Ray Walsh's Capitello wines, and for Jarboe's side project, Opine Cellars. The facility - especially because of the, rather rare, indoor crush pad - makes the winery a popular place for winemakers to work. Often, they'll end up congregating, brainstorming, and barrel tasting, too.

Hang out long enough in the tasting room, and you're bound to see a few people emerge from the warehouse sporting rubber boots and purple hands. The one with the curly black hair and the intense look of concentration, a look that suggests he's contemplating the finishing moves to make on the Blend of the Century - this is Territorial's own Jarboe.

Jarboe learned the ropes of the trade working for McMenamins, a Northwest chain of pubs, hotels, and entertainment venues, mostly situated in historic buildings. For several years, Jarboe worked with Clarke McCoole and Rich Cushman (the talent behind Viento Wines) as winemaker for McMenamins' Edgefield brand of wine, which is created on the property of the McMenamins Edgefield Hotel in the Columbia River Gorge.


John and Alan in the winery

Like Mitchell, Jarboe's work at the winery is a labor of love. Once the fruit enters the winery, he single-handedly works it into wine. When asked if he'd consider hiring help, he says he's too dedicated to the winemaking process to worry about a helper, except during short periods of intensity, namely bottlings and harvests. Jarboe knows that if there's wine work to be done, he'll stay late - do whatever it takes - to complete it.

Below, Alan and John in the tasting room

Last summer, Jarboe, a devoted soccer fan, had tickets to the World Cup games in Germany. As his departure date grew near, it turned out there was still blending work to be done on the '05 Territorial wines. Jarboe did what he needed to do; he stayed home to work. Some may consider this a great sacrifice. To Jarboe, it's just the way of the life he loves - one that is defined by surprises and unpredictability.

The element of surprise in winemaking is Jarboe's favorite part of the job. "I learn something new every day about making wine - about new products and technologies," he said.

What's most exciting to Jarboe is discovering a new type of cultured yeast (often added to wines to enhance natural flavors and textures) or a new type of barrel. "Either one of those things will impart certain flavors on the wine," he said. These days, after several years of matching different yeasts and barrels to different blocks of fruit, Jarboe is more settled in his decisions, but he wouldn't hesitate to make a change if he felt confident that the change would lead to improvement.

Over the past few years, Jarboe has been keeping a close watch on what he calls, "closure issues," referring to the use of screw caps and synthetics over natural cork. He admitted, "Aesthetically, I hate them," but added that he realizes, "not one system is perfect." So far, Jarboe's not convinced that Territorial needs to make a move away from natural cork closures. He's heard of some synthetic closures having leakage problems, and he's concerned that there's not enough data - not enough time has passed to collect data - on the effectiveness of synthetics and screw tops. "PlumpJack has been putting a hundred-dollar wine in a screw cap," Jarboe said. "It's really hard to figure how that wine is going to develop over time."

While the possibility of innovation is exciting to Jarboe, he believes that, because wine is such a fragile substance, he should approach change with caution. "I'm flexible and open to new ideas," Jarboe said, "but I never compromise the quality of the wine for any reason whatsoever."

Jarboe says he was heavily influenced by Cushman and McCoole at McMenamins, his first teachers. He was impressed by the vast amount of quality wines they were able to produce, and has a lot of respect for high-production wineries. Ultimately, he learned that his personal preference is for a smaller operation.

Some of Jarboe's favorite wines come from California's Seghesio, a family run winery he was introduced to when he worked as a wine buyer for McMenamins' Black Rabbit Restaurant. "I like wines better from family-run, hands-on wineries," Jarboe said. He also loves the taste of wines from Australia's Turkey Flat winery and Alsace's Domaine Trimbach. From Oregon, Jarboe particularly likes the style of wines he's tasted coming out of St. Innocent and Chehalem wineries, which appeal to his preference for full, rich Pinot noir.


Territorial tasting Room at Christmas

Letting the Fruit Do Its Thing - and Other Aspects of the Wine

Being a "hands-on" winery is something the Territorial crew takes pride in. Lately, the trend is to stand back and let the fruit do its thing - to forgo, at all costs, procedures like filtering and fining - , but Jarboe, Mitchell, and Wilson-Charles all agree that if there is a problem, they are going to step in and see what they can do to preserve the quality of the wine. They are not opposed to filtering and fining if these procedures seem likely to improve the taste and texture of the final product.

Mitchell, who is "hands-on" in his vineyard work, spoke to the Territorial crew's attitude toward conscientious winemaking. "Interventionist techniques in the cellar are as old as winemaking itself," he said. "We don't use juice concentrators, but if a wine has a technical problem, are you really going to say, 'I'm not going to fix that?' If fining helps, who's not going to do that?"

A high priority at Territorial is keeping alcohol levels low. They'd like their wines to pack a flavorful punch, not a fierce dunk-you-under-the-table shove. They control this mostly by picking the fruit when they decide it is ripe - in other words, when they are pleased with the sucrose to water ratio in the grapes (in degrees brix). While other vineyards will allow for fruit to hang and ripen to its maximum capacity, Mitchell prefers to keep a close watch on the ripeness and pick the fruit just at the brink of its maturity. "Just because you can pick at twenty-six brix doesn't mean you should," Mitchell said. "The alcohol level [in the Territorial Pinots] will always be right around 13.5% because we pick at around twenty-four brix."

"The gris will be around thirteen [percent alcohol]," he added. "And the Rosé will be in the mid-twelves. While we shoot for specific harvest parameters in terms of fruit chemistry, alcohol conversion rates vary from year to year."

Also integral to Territorial's style are first-rate barrels for aging. "I don't skimp on the barrel program," Jarboe said. "If I did, the wine wouldn't be as good as it is."

They're committed to keeping the wine in barrels for nine months - longer than many wineries - which Mitchell explained works so that "the whole flavor spectrum is there, but you don't overdo it. With more, the wine just starts to taste like wood."

They use French oak, which Jarboe said has less vanilla and more spice flavor than American oak, on the Territorial Pinots. About 20% of the French oak is new wood. Mitchell described how Territorial tries to achieve a harmony with their barrel program: "From the handful of Coopers we use we will order from various forests and choose different levels of toast. This is a moving target and nothing is set in stone as we continually search for the perfect and perfectly elusive wood-clone-site match-up."

Jarboe has been experimenting with blended barrels. He explained that in a blended barrel, "each stave is a different wood from a different [French] forest." So far, he is pleased with the results. He explained that these barrels seem to make for a better-integrated flavor profile in the wines.

As far as blending is concerned, several palates are involved in the process, but Jarboe makes the final call. "We'll do trials together," Mitchell said. "Another set of taste buds and nostrils is very beneficial.... Sometimes there are blind spots - even with winemakers who are used to tasting." In Jarboe's case, he listens to and appreciates the support, but most of the time his preliminary instincts align with the most astute tasters. Put simply, Mitchell said, "John has an amazing palate."

"Blending is delicate," Jarboe added. "You can't just go stripping all the best barrels [of wine]... but this year we have so much good wine," he said and smiled.

A Community Winery

Whether you end up in the tasting room or you - say - bump into Mitchell on his route to hand deliver wine to Oregon shops and restaurants, you'll get the sense that the Territorial team is serious about making good wine and serious about encouraging anyone who is interested to give their wines a try. They decided to open an urban winery in order to invite the community - and not just the wine-touring crowd, though you'll often run into them at Territorial, too - to view wine tasting as interesting and enjoyable, not exclusive or intimidating.

It seems we owe the undeniably good vibe that emanates from the Territorial winery to the fact that the people involved are there because they're passionate about wine work.

After detailing some of the less romantic aspects of his job - long days of physical labor, machinery gone berserk, phones ringing off the hook, disappointing weather patterns - Mitchell said, "If this wasn't what I was doing as a livelihood, this would be my hobby. I've always loved it - I still do - , and I can't imagine not loving it anymore."



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