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Philosophy blended into each bottle of wine at Westrey Wine Company

“A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world.” – Louis Pasteur

At Westrey Wine Company, philosophy is an integral ingredient in the making of each bottle of Oregon Pinot noir – a classic philosophy.

The ancient Greeks and Romans all had things to say about the pleasures and characteristics of wine. “In vino veritas (In wine is truth),” says Plato. Hippocrates said, “Wine is an appropriate article for mankind, both for the healthy body and for the ailing man.” In Homer’s Odyssey, he wrote, “Wine can of their wits the wise beguile, make the sage frolic, and the serious smile.

Winemakers Amy Wesselman and David Autrey (WESselman and AuTREY = Westrey) both have philosophy degrees from Reed College in Portland. Both were intrigued with the wine industry while studying at school and both wound up working at several wineries to earn extra cash for college.

Winemaking became a way of life for the couple after graduation. And following the winemakers to the winery were all the philosophers from their studies, consuming many nights from Austey and Wesselman, debating the various viewpoints.

“Philosophy came in right at the start of the winery,” said Wesselman, who recently moved on from her job as Director of the International Pinot Noir Celebration. “It folds into how we view wine and winemaking. It is a partnership all the way – all decisions that happen to the grapes are made by the both of us.”

Autrey agrees that the couple shares a love of philosophy and analytical thinking.

“Winemaking is like the balance of life – you blend different ways of thinking with creative ways,” said Autrey. “It’s also an ability to hold contradictory viewpoints. Wine creates a union between an individual set of tastes while creating something that appeals to a wider range.”

Living together, working together and creating wine together could be a strain for some young couples, but the training from philosophical studies prepared them for inevitable disagreements when couples work so closely together.

“Argument is an exercise,” Wesselman explained. “We can argue about what we’re doing without personalizing it. It is fundamental in philosophy and it helps when producing wine. Wine is subjective and there will be times when we don’t agree. We will listen to each other’s arguments.”

The Westrey Philosophy of Winemaking


As you might expect from two former philosophy students, the wine-making duo of Amy Wesselman and partner David Autrey are very-dare we say it?-philosophic about their vocation.

"One of the joys of winemaking," reflects David, "is that even though you can go back into your notes and trace every decision you made everywhere along the line, you never know exactly which decisions resulted in that great bottle of wine you have in your hand right now."

Amy feels similarly. "I know that I'm a control freak, and it is nice for me to be in a lifestyle where, as soon as I get my little piece of ego going that says 'I'm pretty much in control of things here,' Mother Nature comes along and says 'Yeah, right-why don't you just let go of all that because you're not going to get it.'"

And yet, to an outsider, it sure looks like Amy and David do "get it"-they continue to craft outstanding wines despite their lack of control over mother Nature.

"You gain experience over the years about what works and what doesn't," says Amy, "and in any given vintage you can combine whatever you've learned-but one of the great things about winemaking is that each year you face a different set of calamities that challenge what you think you know."

The Westrey Methods of Winemaking


Since 1993, when Amy and David started Westrey Wine Company, they have learned a great deal about the kind of winemaking they want to pursue. "I think one of the reasons we've been successful as a team," explains David, "is that we agree on a broad set of parameters that create the context for where we are going."

So, when it comes to making the day-to-day vineyard management and winemaking decisions, David and Amy are guided by their general principles.

"For instance," David continues, "we strongly believe in the notion of terroir-we really believe that each site will give you something unique." Amy agrees: "I think one of the most important things in our winemaking approach is to look at each vintage and each vineyard and work to bring out their positive aspects, let them express themselves to their best potential."

Another component of Westrey's style is the importance of balance in their wines-even to the point of going slightly out of the mainstream.

"We generally look for wines with higher acidity levels," says David, "certainly more than the general American wine press is willing to accept! We shy away from the American 'fruit bomb' style of Pinot noir. Wines with focus and acidity-reflected for instance, in our Abbey Ridge Pinot noir-are important to what we are trying to do."

Westrey also stands out in a third area of stylistic focus. "It is important for us to accentuate texture on the palate. We diverge here from the more general American style where aromatics are more important than texture," explains David. "Unfortunately, the American palate doesn't tend to care about mid-palate and length, but these are the things we want our wines to display."

The Westrey Chardonnay Style


An example of how this works can be seen in their Chardonnay program. Westrey produces both a Willamette Valley and a Reserve Chardonnay, but unlike many producers, the two wines are not diferentiated by the amount of barrel ageing-each gets the same wood profile (25 percent new oak, 25 percent 1-year old, and the remainder neutral)-but rather by their overall sensory characteristics.

The Reserve Chardonnay, then, is composed of individual barrels that David and Amy feel display the stylistic variables they are after. "We go through each individual barrel and try to think about the site and the terroir, and then choose for the Reserve those that show the best characteristics of terroir, structure, and balance, plus a little greater richness in the mid-palate and length," explains David.

To achieve these characteristics, David and Amy pay attention to crop yields and vineyard management first, and then modify their cellar decisions based on the individual circumstances they face.

For instance, they employ a variety of different yeasts for their Chardonnay fermentations, each designed to bring out what they see as the most desirable characteristic of the lot. Then they ferment in barrel for as long as possible, in order to achieve optimum texture.

"In order to preserve the wonderful spice that one vineyard tends to give up," explains Amy, "we'll use a yeast that complements that characteristic. Another site may tend to be fatter and bigger, and we'll use a different yeast that will perhaps accentuate the acidity."

Such willingness to experiment and vary their procedures depending upon individual circumstances, they feel, results in more delicious wines-and a more interesting winemaking experience for them.

The Westrey Oracle Vineyard


Westrey Wine Company, from their first year in business, bought fruit from some of the Willamette Valley's best vineyards. Their first release, in 1995, was in part comprised of grapes from Abbey Ridge, Bethel Heights Southeast Block, and Freedom Hill vineyards.

And while they still work with a variety of fruit sources, Westrey now has their own vineyard - just under 50 acres, next to Abbey Ridge Vineyard (a location they've worked with for years)-adding a new dimension to their winemaking challenge.

"Every winemaker dreams of having complete control of their own vineyard," says Amy. "It allows you that connection with a certain piece of property over a lifetime of winemaking, learning its idiosyncrasies, how it responds to different vintages and varietals, different locations within the vineyard, different harvesting situations-it just can't be matched."

David and Amy have spent a number of years developing their own estate vineyard, called Oracle Vineyard, in the Dundee Hills.

Finding acreage that contained an abandoned vineyard that had been planted in the 1970s, and which was located next door to one of their favorite vineyards to make wine from (Abbey Ridge), was a godsend for the pair. Starting in 2001, they dug right in and worked to renovate the old 7-acre chardonnay, pinot gris, and pinot noir vineyard and are now producing fruit from it for their Westrey label.

But they also added new plantings that together with the old should push their total production up to around 2,200 cases. “In 2007 we planted 1.3-acres of Pommard and 3.5-acres of clone 667, Pommard, and clone 777,” explains David.

Amy and David also planted a test block of many different varieties so that over successive vintages they can monitor how each grape grows at their site, matures, and tastes. What they learn from that experience will help them make more informed decisions as they plan the planting of the remaining 14 acres of their estate vineyard.

"Now we'll have the opportunity in the vineyard to experiment and learn what its unique terroir will be," comments Amy. "It's very exciting!"

"There really is something special about that property," agrees David. "We feel it will produce the kind of wine we're looking for."

Westrey on Past Vintages in the Willamette Valley


Of course, no matter how great the fruit is, each vintage puts its own stamp of character on the wine that gets made, and in the last few years Oregon’s vintages have been quite different.

2003 was definitely an unusual vintage,” notes Amy. The weather in the Willamette valley was unusually warm, and fruit ripening took place very rapidly, with unusually high sugars and tannins. “I think it was easy for people to panic in ’03—you had to pick at some pretty weird times and some pretty weird numbers in order to get balanced fruit.”

As two philosophy majors, David and Amy have formed some definite opinions on how to approach “tough” vintages. “I think you need to keep your eye on the prize,” says Amy, “which is to get the right flavors—not green and not overripe—and to get a wine that is structurally balanced between acids and tannins. I think we did a good job of that in ’03.”

The 2004 and 2005 vintages were a return to “normal” for Oregon, says David. “These are just classic, Oregon vintages. I see a lot of cool-climate flavors: raspberry, black raspberry, blueberry, great floral notes, very precise acids and balance, plus wonderful  vintage complexity. The wines have layer after layer after layer of fruit, and earth and floral and minerality. And tons of concentration! In ‘04 we averaged about 1.6 tons per acre and in ‘05 we were closer to 0.9 tons per acre.”

If having a lot of experience helped Amy and David make good wines in an odd year like 2003, it also helped them make better wine in a more “traditional” Oregon vintage.

“There are a lot of winemakers who have been working with Oregon fruit since 2000—they have plenty of experience—yet they’ve never seen a rainy harvest,” points out David. “But having been through previous years like this, we have the confidence that we can last through some rainy periods. We know what our vineyards can take and what they can give, so we can afford to be measured in how we pace our picking. Some others who haven’t been through a wet harvest might pick too soon—or too late.”

 

For Amy and David, the dichotomies inherent in the winemaking endeavor are endlessly fascinating. Winemaking feeds both their creative drive and their intellectual curiosity. For them, wine is truly at the intersection of art and science.

But beyond this, and clearly a key part of their success, is the just plain joy and excitement they find in winemaking.

"Why not do what you love to do best?" asks Amy. "We're not in this business to make piles of money or piles of fame either, we're in this business to have fun. If we have to compromise that, it wouldn't be fun anymore and we'd go be doctors and lawyers."

This article is an update and combination of articles written for Avalon Wine by Christina kelly and Cole Danehower



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