Talking to Ken Wright, one could easily get the
feeling that there is very little he doesn't know about grape growing
His conversation ranges authoritatively over such diverse subjects as:
plant botany and its implications on the production of phenols in wine,
geologic history and soil classifications and their impact on flavors
in wine, how vacuum extraction technology can remove excess water from
grape juice without impacting quality, the pluses and minuses of soil
amendments in encouraging microbial life, and the economics of acreage
contracts and the resultant win-win scenario for grower and winemaker.
Which is not to say that Ken Wright is a know-it-all-quite the contrary!
Equally common in his conversation are phrases like: "I don't know,"
"we're experimenting to try and find out," and "you'd have
to ask an expert about that."
What definitely can be said about Ken Wright,
is that he is passionate about his vines and his wines, and that he has
an abiding thirst for any tidbit of knowledge that will help him produce
wines that better express their site.
For Ken, the drama of wine revolves around working with nature to facilitate
the expression of fruit and place in a glass. "Human beings are not
for the qualities we enjoy in wine," he says, "the qualities
that the fruit possesses are inherent-we don't inject them into the berries."
But, he goes on, "we can get in the way." Ken believes, then,
that "the grower's and winemaker's true job is to learn how to be
an aid in helping the fruit get to where it wants to go, on its own."
He views his role as "simply to try and have the purest expression
that the fruit is capable of, brought all the way to the bottle and evident
in a glass of wine."
Given this philosophy, it is no mystery why Ken works so extensively with
Pinot noir. "Pinot noir has a far greater ability than any other
variety to express the qualities of place-and that's magical! Our whole
goal with this winery," he declares, "is to find great sites
and work with each site to try and find out what we can do to help that
fruit best express itself."
To help achieve this goal, Ken and his staff concentrate on two fundamentals:
site specific vineyard management-to get the healthiest and ripest fruit
possible; and winemaking integrity-to capture and bring out the most powerful
expression of the fruit.
Early in his Oregon career, Ken realized that one of the keys to producing
better fruit was managing crop yields in the vineyard. Even at 3 tons
per acre-a crop level considered low in the late 1980s-he noticed that
in those vintages where flowering hadn't gone as well and the vines carried
a naturally smaller crop, the grapes ripened sooner.
"It became apparent," he recalls, "that whatever we could
do to influence having the fruit as ripe as possible, as soon as possible,
was a critical element of being successful in Oregon. My realization was
that if we got down to yields of around 2- to 2.25-tons per acre, we had
a greater chance of being successful far more years than not."
Accomplishing this in the late 1980s was difficult. Ken didn't then own
or lease any vineyard property and worked exclusively with purchased grapes-from
growers who were traditionally paid by the ton.
To gain control over the crop yield, Ken helped introduce a new business
concept: acreage contracts. By paying growers a full price for a full
crop per acre, Ken could gain control over how the vines were managed,
and could crop them to his desired, small yields. It was far more expensive,
but it delivered higher quality fruit and, says Ken "was really worth
it" to do.
"With acreage contracts we created a partnership with the grower,"
explains Ken. "It gave the grower consistency of income so they could
start looking at longer term investments in their vineyard, and it gave
us the right to reduce crop to whatever we wished."
The introduction of acreage contracts in 1988, believes Ken, helped start
a process of elevating the quality of Oregon's fruit, and ultimately wine.
"Since then," he says, "I think what's happened, especially
in the last 4-5 years, has been a greater focus on canopy management-trying
to most efficiently capture light in the vineyard-because light, pure
and simple, is sugar."
In the vineyard, Ken essentially spares no expense
to accomplish two things: keep the crop size very low to reduce the load
on the vine, and create as big an engine for the creation of sugar as
possible. "You want a lot of power," he explains, "and
that means efficient leaf surface to capture more light, and little fruit
weight to bog down the vine."
The result, he says is that the fruit will ripen faster. "You'll
be in the barn with dry, fully ripened fruit while others with larger
crop loads will still be out there hanging in the wind . . . or rain."
To this end, Ken and his crew do extensive shoot thinning, pinning, and
placement in the vineyard. He and his crew go each vine in each vineyard
and, by hand, reduce the number of young vine shoots, place them for optimum
sun exposure, and pin them on the trellis to grow in a way that prevents
leaf shading-which reduces light capture.
"We want all the leaves capturing light," he says, "so
we start off by creating the best framework for the plant to generate
sugar. It's a huge amount of work it's extremely expensive, but it really
pays off-you may gain 4 or 5 days of ripening-and ultimately the fruit
seems more intense."
Dropping fruit is another place where Ken is innovating. Traditionally,
excessive fruit is cut from the vine at the point in the growing season
when color changes. But Ken, in association with other wineries and vineyards,
has been experimenting with dropping fruit as early as possible, so the
vine doesn't put any extra energy into growing fruit that ultimately would
be cut away.
So far results of tests indicate that thinning fruit within a certain
early window of time seems to result in earlier maturing of tannins. That
means riper fruit, with less green tannins at harvest.
Of course, the vineyard isn't the only place where better practices result
in better wine. Ken pays equal attention to his winemaking.
"When you've gone through the whole season in the vineyard spending
a lot of money to harvest perfectly ripe fruit," he says, "to
do anything less than making sure that nothing but that high quality fruit
gets in your fermenter, to me is insane."
Consequently, Ken was one of the first to make hand sorting of fruit standard
practice. "You just can't sort it all in the field," he explains.
"You have to get it in on a conveyer under good lighting and you
have to sort out everything that isn't perfectly ripe fruit."
A sorting crew, usually of ten people, goes over every bin that arrives
from the field, picking out bugs, twigs, rot, leaves-anything that would
harm the ultimate wine-before the fruit goes to the destemmer. "It's
astounding how much we throw away-it makes a big difference."
Another process innovation that Ken pioneered was cold soaking the fruit
before fermentation to extract character. It used to be that winemakers,
if they did any maceration* at all, did it after fermentation, when alcohol
was present. Ken wasn't satisfied with this method.
"By doing the cold soak on the front end, without alcohol, just juice,
you can get all the color you want, all the aroma and flavor you want,
but because no alcohol is present you do not break down seed tannin and
you don't get a lot of bitter compounds that compromise mouth feel,"
explains Ken. Today, cold soaking Pinot noir before fermentation is common.
In keeping to his goal of finding great sites with which to make expressive
wines, Ken Wright has helped popularize the concept of single vineyard
designations in Oregon. So, for instance, in 2000 Ken Wright Cellars will
release Pinot noirs from 12 different Oregon vineyards-and each will be
a very different wine with its own distinct character.
"Each site is different," he explains. "You need to walk
into a site as if it were a fresh canvas and be observant and open to
what you sense in the behavior of the vines and the qualities of the wine.
If you do that, then you will begin to understand what might be a proper
direction for you to help these vines be healthier and more expressive."
Another step in that process is paying attention to the soil and its characteristics.
"What's below ground is terribly important," he says. "We
think it has everything to do with the qualities of the wines."
Assuming a healthy microbial life in the soil (as you would expect, an
area where Ken is doing a lot of-if you'll excuse the expression-groundbreaking
work), Ken is looking for vine roots to grow deep enough to contact the
Over time, he says, "you're waiting for a vineyard to reach a point
where the roots are in contact with the mother rock. Then the root system
is going to have an opportunity to pull that mineral up into the vine-this
is where we see vineyards achieve clarity of expression; they seem to
Ken is working with vineyards that provide him a variety of site expressions.
"We have basically two simple forms of soil in our area: you are
either sedimentary or you are volcanic. These two soil types really define
the basic qualities of our wine."
The vineyards Ken works with in the Dundee Hills (Abbey Ridge, Arcus,
Nysa) are on deep clay-rich volcanic soils. Ken feels these sites deliver
fruit that is "very focused, light-to-medium red fruits generally;
you tend to get a lot of raspberry, lighter cherry, strawberry."
In the Eola Hills, his vineyards (Canary Hill, Carter, Elton) are on shallower
volcanic soils with less clay. Here the "fruits are quite a bit darker;
you have a lot of cassis, plum, blackberry, blueberry."
In the Yamhill Foothills (Guadalupe, McCrone, Shea, Wahle, Whistling Ridge)
and the Coast Range (Freedom Hill), the vineyards are on sedimentary soils.
"In these areas you get a lot more spice; more anise, a lot of dark
chocolate, cedar, freshly turned earth-a lot of fruit, but they aren't
simply focused on the fruit."
By now, though, it should be clear that Ken is, simply focused on the
fruit. Everything that he does-including many things not described here-whether
it is in testing the soil for chemical composition, or in finding innovative
ways to clean barrels prior to filling, is done to improve the quality
of the wine.
"I don't know how people view us outside of this winery; I really
have no idea-people will tell you anything. All I can do is know what
it means to me," he says. "When you have a great site and you're
successful in staying out of the way-assuming a high level of quality
work-and you allow the expression that came out of the fruit to be in
the glass . . . then anyone tasting that wine senses it-and that is the
magic of wine."
"Wine is a gift," concludes Ken, "a wonderful gift of nature
that we can enjoy. It offers a simple but very interesting pleasure in
our lives; it's no more than that, but it is wonderful for that!"
Ken Wright Cellars
makes consistently excellent Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc at
the winery in Carlton, Oregon. Known for careful blending of cuvees from
small single vineyard sites, Ken Wright Cellars produces rich, sophisticated,
elegant wines that are sold out a year before they are released.
Ken Wright Cellars recently moved into a new 8400
square foot facility, a sign of the success of their wines. Current production
levels are at 7500 cases of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc. All
wines are vineyard designated, made with careful attention to vineyard
management. Isn't it remarkable that this winery has developed a national
and international reputation for Pinot Noir given that the total vineyard
acreage from which they purchase grapes is only 50 acres!
Ken Wright and his associates select vineyard sites
that they then personally supervise, culminating in a three week period
during harvest when they seem to stay up 24 hours a day, cell phones to
ears, running from site to site, watching for just the right moment to
harvest. Then, as Ken puts it, he tries to stay out of the way of the
wine, and let it become what it is meant to be.
Ken Wright Cellars has made sites such as Canary
Hill, Croft, Guadalupe, and Youngberg famous for the wines the winery
has made from them. Currently, Ken Wright Cellars makes wines from over
ten different small plots, and has purchased land and planted vineyards
of his own.
Wright Cellars was founded in 1993, and its first vintage was produced
in 1994. Previous to founding Ken Wright Cellars, Ken Wright founded Panther
Creek Winery in 1986 and made wines there from 1986 through 1994. In 1993
Panther Creek was purchased by Ron and Linda Kaplan, the current owners.Ken
Wright Cellars' first building was an old brick building, a former glove
factory, which the winery shared with Domaine Serene Winery. The1993 through
1996 vintages of Domaine Serene wines were made by Ken Wright Cellars
for Domaine Serene.
Ken Wright Cellars Pinot noir
Given perfect cellaring conditions:
Constant 55-degree temperature & 70% humidity,
and a dark environment.
broad spans of drinkability: earlier in the range will exhibit fresh,
vibrant fruit; for people who prefer a mature pinot – look toward the
latter half of the time span.
The 1994 Vintage
Poor weather at bloom gave
extremely reduced crop levels. Temperatures soared at harvest, which caused
a rapid rise in sugars. The wines are quite ripe, but have little acidity.
These are plush wines though not terribly complex.
The 1995 Vintage
Significant rainfall at
harvest caused some dilution and a percentage of rot. Intensive sorting
helped us to create clean and pleasant wines. They are not intense, but
are currently showing a measure of elegance and finesse.
The 1996 Vintage
Higher acids than usual
in this vintage. Aromas have been rather subdued because of the acidity
levels; i.e. tight. Many are just now beginning to open up. These should
generally be long-lived wines.
The 1997 Vintage
Very high natural crop levels
required heavy thinning. Wines from the Yamhill Foothill Area are quite
ripe. Those from the volcanic sites tend to be more feminine: pretty aromas
& subtle textures. This vintage contains higher than usual amounts
of sediment. Decanting is recommended.
The 1998 Vintage
Extremely low crop levels
in the Dundee Hills & Yamhill Foothills, and normal crop levels in
the Eola Hills. Very ripe fruit from all sites w/ slightly lower than
usual acidity levels. These will be pleasing wines in their youth &
they should all have moderate ability to age.
The 1999 Vintage
One of the finest vintages in Oregon’s winegrowing
history. We had clear sunny days though the end of October without excessive
heat. This gave us tremendous hang time without the loss of acidity. Across
the board, the wines are extremely ripe w/ excellent structure and layers