James Michael's Review of Oregon Pinot Noirs

James Michael, Wine Expert
James Michael, Wine Expert

Oregon is one of the up and coming Pinot Noir regions, and LoveToKnow was recently able to receive Oregon Pinot Noir reviews during an interview with James Michael of Washington State's Three Wilson's Vineyard. James, who has family roots deep in the soil of Washington and Oregon's wine countries, has a special affinity for Oregon Pinot Noir.

About James Michael

James Michael was raised on his family vineyard in Prosser, Washington. A part of the farming operations from a young age, he left for Oregon and worked with several Pinot Noir-focused wineries in sales and marketing. Leaving Oregon to return to the family vineyard in 2007, James continues to provide marketing and logistics work for several wineries in Washington and Oregon when not on a tractor or walking their dog around the vineyard. From behind a retail counter to foreign marketing, James has followed the path of a grape from the ground to the table. With this background he is better able to understand and improve the "roadblocks" a wine encounters on its way to the consumer. It's his goal to help remove all of the roadblocks that he can.

Oregon Pinot Noir Reviews - An Interview with James Michael

LoveToKnow (LTK): Please talk a little bit about yourself and share your experience with wine.

James Michael (JM): I grew up on our family's 3rd generation vineyard in Prosser, Washington, where we grow Pinot Noir for sparkling wine. Familiar with our Pinot, I was drawn to Oregon to work with it in another form in order to learn more about the grape. From retail sales to export marketing, Pinot has always been the most fun to share with the world. Though maybe longer in developing, Pinot fans are some of the most dedicated.

LTK: Pinot Noir is a notoriously persnickety grape. What is it about Oregon that allows Pinot Noir grapes to grow so well?

JM: Thanks to geology, Oregon is loaded with great growing sites, located to the west of the Cascade mountain range. This location retains the ocean-derived, long, cool growing season that thin-skinned Pinot grapes need to fully ripen. The soils are rich, the water is there, but most importantly, Oregon Pinot draws the people willing to invest their lives and labor to meticulously care for the vines and coax a good vintage out of whatever mother nature throws at them.

LTK: What differentiates Oregon Pinot Noir from other well-known Pinot Noir regions like Burgundy?

JM: While the growing regions share a similar climate, the geological history is quite different. It's impossible to truly characterize a world wine region into a "style" breakdown without neglecting loads of contrary examples. In general however, wines from Burgundy are more earthy in nature on the palate, while Oregon showcases a more delineated fruit note. Especially in recent years, it's a bit like an ongoing friendly rivalry between artists. One would release a painting, and the other would paint a response, taking the original style, materials and technique into consideration. You see that with some wine trends too, especially with wines which amplify minimalist artistic touches like Pinot. Winemakers from both regions will say they grow the best grapes and stay out of nature's way. But don't kid yourself, it takes lots of training, patience, and talent to guide Pinot into a great wine.

Oregon's Deux Vert Vineyard

Vintage Recommendations

LTK: Are there some recent vintages of Oregon Pinot Noir that are "sure things" for wine purchasers? Any vintages to avoid?

JM: Anything since '98 has been good; '08 is looking to be a great vintage with lots of fruit and nice acidity from the growing season. "Expect these Pinots to be a party from start to finish," is a direct quote from a winemaker friend of mine. When a grape is as delicate and expressive as Pinot Noir, you'll notice the expression of the growing season perhaps more readily than with other varieties. That's one of the many wonderful characteristics of it, but like art, ultimate expression can lead to a wide range of opinions. Overall however, the combined pool of world-class talented winemakers and generally fantastic weather have delivered great Oregon vintages for over a decade.

Personal Favorites

LTK: If someone is new to trying Pinot Noir, are there some particular wines that you would recommend for them?

JM: The absolute best recommendation I can make is to try several Pinots from different producers and maybe even several vintages. Pinot Noirs are storyteller wines; they can vary widely in style and length, but their uniqueness and composition is what earns them fans. Pinots can range from jammy and dark to delicate and fruity, but most that you will find have good acidity and a nice, medium weight to the wine. With something so expressive as Pinot Noir, it takes some experimenting to learn which styles one prefers.

LTK: Can you give us some Oregon Pinot Noir reviews? What are your personal favorite Oregon Pinot Noirs? Why?

JM: Biggio-Hamina: 2008 Zenith vineyard or 2008 Deux Vert Vineyard - Todd Hamina is a winemaker to watch in the Willamette Valley. After working for several top Pinot houses, he started his own winery in 2007. Vintage after vintage Todd turns out solid, highly drinkable and very expressive Pinots from several vineyard sources. He also makes a handful of well-balanced, mineral-driven whites that shouldn't be missed.

Retour - A newer winery that's taken off like a rocket. The owner, Lindsay Woodard, set out to create a wine expressive of Oregon's old vines. Working with the very talented winemaker Eric Hamacher, Retour has consistently delivered knock-out wines since their first release.

The McMinnville AVA - Nestled in the middle of the Willamette Valley, the McMinnville AVA is producing some of Oregon's most exciting fruit each vintage. Heavily shaped by the Missoula floods, the hillsides in this AVA range from terra cotta red, volcanic soils at the top of the hills to dark chocolate brown, marine sedimentry soils under the lower elevation plantings.

Scott Paul - Scott is a vineyard whiz who also runs a burgundy import company. His tasting room in Carlton is a great opportunity to taste the two regions side by side and discover the differences with one's own palate.

For more information on Oregon Pinot Noir wines, check out these other articles here on LoveToKnow Wine:

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James Michael's Review of Oregon Pinot Noirs