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Ronni LaCroute

WillaKenzie Estate
Terroir means More than Soil, for the Winery named After its Soil

by Cole Danehower Oregon Wine Report © OWR 2002

If Bernard and Ronni LaCroute are correct, then the intangible passion and commitment they and their winemaker, Laurent Montalieu, bring to WillaKenzie Estate will become tangible in their wines. After all, terroir at WillaKenzie Estate is as much about the character of its people as it is the character of its soil.

"People make a huge difference in the terroir," says Bernard, "because every decision that people make has an impact on the wine.-wine is made as much by people as by the soil and climate."

And with that philosophy in mind, every decision made by the people at WillaKenzie is taken with the goal of improving the overall quality of the wine in the bottle.

"That's really the whole point of what we do here," says Laurent, "to nurture the organic life of the soil." Because at WillaKenzie they believe that the health of the soil directly translates into the taste of the wine.

"There is a little capsule at the end of the vine's microscopic roots," explains Laurent, "that supports fungus and bacteria and microorganisms that have a sort of symbiotic relationship with the soil. The more you nurture and promote that life, the more diversity of microorganisms you are going to have and the greater diversity of minerals that are going to be extracted from the soil and then expressed in the wines through the vascular system of the vine."

To aid this natural process, natural farming-sustainable viticulture-is a vital part of WillaKenzie's approach to winegrowing.

"I tell you, some people think we're nuts the way we farm this vineyard," chuckles Bernard, "but in order to make great wines you have to have great grapes, and you can only get great grapes if you have very healthy vines. We are committed to organics because we believe it will make a difference in the wines," says Bernard.

So at WillaKenzie, there are no herbicides; fertilizers are only organic compost and fish emulsion; new vines are mulched to encourage early root development; in-row cultivation is done even on the steepest slopes; low yields are strictly managed, and as many farming practices as possible are done by hand.

Bernard and Laurent carefully use irrigation in the well-drained WillaKenzie soils to help manage the vine's ripening ability. "The vines are like human beings, a little stress is a good thing, a lot of stress is damaging," says Bernard. "We believe in irrigation, but for quality, not quantity."

Soil moisture is carefully monitored using ground probes that measure moisture content at different depths. Solar panels on each probe power radio transmitters that send the data every 15 minutes to a computer monitoring system. This enables remarkably precise management of water to encourage ripening.

For instance, last year some of the older blocks were given just enough water to increase hang time by a few more days. Or if the weather is dry after harvest, the vines will get a soak in order to help build a carbohydrate reserve for better buds at the beginning of the next year.

Once in the cellar, WillaKenzie's wines are subject to a different kind of human influence. "The same commitment we have in the vineyard is carried through to the winery," says Laurent, "and that is part of what creates a kind of WillaKenzie character in our wines."

Expressing the character of the soil is the ultimate goal of Laurent's winemaking.

"The winemaking here is very hands-off," he says, "in order to nurture the qualities of the grapes that we've worked so hard to grow. Any interference that I would have to do would be detrimental to the expression of the soil."

Willakenzie Estate Winery"There is a broad spectrum of flavors that come with WillaKenzie soil," he continues. "Our wines have all the darker fruit components typical of this soil, anywhere from cassis to the blackberries, to a kind of pruney component."

"What I think is a little more characteristic of WillaKenzie Estate," he explains, "tends to be the complexity of the nose. It's not an obvious nose where you can easily find all those aromas I just described. Rather it has things that are sort of melded inside, with kind of mushroomy, compost-like, earthy components."

Bringing these natural characteristics to a balanced fruition is the biggest challenge in producing WillaKenzie's Pinot noir.

"What we're trying to do with Pinot noir is very difficult," says Bernard. "We want to produce a powerful wine with a good tannin structure, but soft, round, supple, and silky."

Laurent describes it this way: "I think we're getting the structure, we're getting the power. How to make them approachable, early on-that is the challenge!"

Just as the vineyard is carefully measured and monitored in order to give better understanding of the vine, Laurent is equally attentive to studying the winemaking.

"We're trying to understand the phenols* better," says Laurent, "and especially trying to understand how the maturation of phenols is occurring. I think this is where new advances can be made"

Working with test-lots of fruit, Laurent is testing, measuring, and studying the progression of phenolic maturation and the effects of different extraction methods. The research work began three years ago, but will continue well into the future. "We're working with many variables and being highly experimental with our tests, trying to learn what works best."

This measured approach at WillaKenzie may be reflective of Bernard's background. Having spent many years in the technology world, Bernard and Ronni decided in the late 1980s that a vineyard and winery would be the perfect "retirement" project.

As a native burgundian, Bernard naturally wanted to grow Pinot noir, and quickly understood that Oregon offered great prospects. When they saw a 420 acre site that met their requirements, they purchased it at the beginning of 1991.

Planting began in 1992 and only finished this year. "We are really focusing on using the best areas of the property to plant," says Bernard. And in keeping with their naturalistic values, only 3 trees were removed during the entire process.

"We kept the trees and left the pasture," explains Ronni, "with the result that we don't have a monoculture. The natural cycle of predators remains intact. We have lots of hawks in the tall trees to help control the rodents, and coyotes and owls and other wildlife help keep the balance."

Recently, an additional vineyard in the Red Hills, on Jory soil, has been planted to the new burgundian clones of Pinot noir. "It will be a new challenge," says Ronni, "to see what this soil and the new clones gives us."




Willakenzie Vineyard September 16, 2003 - Red dots are roses planted at the ends of rows

 

For Pinot noir, WillaKenzie normally releases two premium bottlings: Aliette and Pierre Léon.

"Since 1995 the Aliette has been mostly from a specific area of the vineyard," explains Laurent, "so it is mostly a vineyard designation."

The wine has predominantly come from the oldest Pommard vines, though other sources are sometimes included, even adding a little less than 10% of Clone 777 for, as Laurent says, "a new twist."

The Pierre Léon offers Laurent a broader canvas on which he can paint his Pinot brush. "The Pierre Léon has been a blend from all the different components that I have to play with," he says. The result is a wine styled differently from Aliette.

"It's a bit more rugged, a little more muscular with the tannins," he says. "With those tannins it will probably need a little more time than the Aliette, to get that optimum balance we're striving for."

In addition to the normal releases, WillaKenzie has started doing small bottlings of single clone wines. "Each clone has different characteristics," says Ronni, "so what we now have is a whole variety of different wines, all out of the same Pinot noir grape."

Learning about the flavors of these clones is fun for Laurent and the LaCroutes, but also an essential part of their evolving education about what the site and the vine can offer.

"In Burgundy, they blend different clones all the time," says Bernard. "Having them here will add some complexity to the wines, there's no question about that."

Another aspect of their education is learning what the soil is giving them each year. "We don't have that many vintages behind us, but we are beginning to see more areas within the vineyard starting to have their own characteristics," explains Laurent.

As a result, in the 2000 vintage two new wines will be released in addition to the Aliette and Pierre Léon. These bottlings will come from specific vineyard areas, reflecting both the site and the clonal expressions.

Clearly, the energy, commitment to sustainable farming, to research and learning, plus the careful use of technology, reflect a shared passion for Pinot noir and the making of fine wine.

"We're always trying to improve everything that we're doing, looking for better ways, because we are doing this out of passion," says Ronni.
Bernard agrees. "My experience in other businesses is the same: if you are not passionate about something, don't bother-don't even do it; don't get involved."

The passion for WillaKenzie is clear. Ask Bernard why someone should pick WillaKenzie wines, and he doesn't hesitate: "Because I think we make the best Pinot noir that can be made!"

Ask Laurent the same question, and he nods in agreement. "We feel we are making the very best effort possible to produce the best Pinot noir possible- Period!" And, he adds proudly, "We're not limiting that to Oregon."



One of the many beautiful paintings, prints, posters and furniture that grace the Willakenzie tasting room

 

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