If there is ever a wine region that embraces a person’s dream of owning a small winery, it is Oregon’s Willamette Valley. More than 560 family owned wineries are churning out wonderful pinot noirs, chardonnays and other wines every year, and 70 percent of them are making less than 5,000 cases a year. Managing quantities this small has its challenges, but these challenges can be profitably managed if the overhead is low and the sales goals are reasonable.
Tom Fitzpatrick, owner and winemaker of Alloro Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains AVA said he doesn’t have the luxury of having staff help. “I wear many hats. There is no team of specialists in marketing, sales or production. I have fewer resources and can’t spend the attention” on some aspects of the business.
He is not alone. However, small productions allow a winemaker – often the owner – to concentrate on making those special wines we love without fear of having a lot of it to sell. If you’ve been to the Willamette Valley or enjoy its pinot noirs, you understand the thrill of finding a producer who is largely unknown in the wine world.
Said Fitzpatrick, “We’re not a wine factory. We’re more like an artist who gives attention to detail. Folks who visit can talk to us and connect with who we are. It’s more than just a beverage.”
If you have visited a Willamette Valley winery you know what he means. Winemakers or a family member are often in the tasting rooms and the wines you taste can’t be bought anywhere else. You feel special and that’s the magic appeal of Willamette Valley wines, particularly its pinot noir.
So, how does a small producer survive in a competitive wine market dominated by large corporations?
Containing cost is imperative to survival, and the primary means to accomplish this task is to eliminate the high costs of distribution by selling directly to the consumer. In 2018 Oregon’s direct to consumer volume rose 19 percent – the second-best growth record in the country. Pinot noir represented more than half of Oregon’s shipments and the average price of a bottle of pinot noir was nearly $49. No state can compete with these numbers.
“I think a lot of (the small production) has to deal with pinot noir,” said Steve Lutz, owner and winemaker of Lenné Estate who has a 21-acre site in the Yamill-Carlton AVA. “Pinot noir doesn’t lend itself to mass production because it’s expensive to grow. And, our model is high quality.”
His annual production is less than 2,000 cases.
All but a handful of his cases are sold through his tasting room. He said that he has put more effort into his tasting room — additional flights of wine, more food, tours of the facility — to keep up with other wineries competing for the same crowd. Half of his wine is sold in state while the other half is shipped to customers in other states that allow alcohol shipments. He anticipates his wine will be on allocation in the next couple of years.
Fitzpatrick said he has seen tremendous growth in sales from his tasting room since he dropped many of his distributors in 2010. Direct-to-consumer sales in his tasting room rose from $50,000 in 2009 to $700,000 in 2018.
Large corporations can produce overnight blockbusters because they have massive production facilities, a vast distribution system and a marketing staff. Think of wines like The Prisoner, Apothic Red and Meomi which blossomed in short time. Oregon producers have only themselves to sell their wine, albeit less of it, to customers in faraway states.
Fitzpatrick said, “It takes more time to build recognition. The secret, however, is time. Growing the business organically, boots on the ground, good reviews, referrals. Improving your signage and hosting external events” will draw more customers to tasting rooms.
We can’t get enough of the small-lot pinot noirs from the Willamette. Each one we taste speaks of the unique soils, the appellations and most importantly the winemakers who spend inordinate effort into crafting wine.
Here are some we enjoyed and that can be purchased online through the producer’s web site:
Lenné LeNez Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2015 ($30). This is a great value in pinot noir. Lots of forward black cherry flavors and cherry, mocha aromas with a dash of spice. Medium body.
- Alloro Estate Pinot Noir 2015 ($40). The flagship wine of the estate, this pinot noir has a broad expression of fruit, good acidity and flavors of black cherries and spice.
- Youngberg Hill Aspen Chardonnay 2016 ($40). Apple and citrus flavors with a bit of mineral and a rich mouthfeel highlight this incredibly delicious chardonnay from the McMinnville AVA. It was very difficult to put a cork back in the bottle to save a bit for the next night. Hints of vanilla and coconut. If you’re looking for a place to stay, Youngberg Hill has a great inn where we’ve stayed.
Youngberg Hill Bailey Pinot Noir 2015 ($50). Big strawberry and garrigue aromas hand off to blackberry and black cherry flavors with hints of licorice and tobacco. Soft mouthfeel and elegance.
- Winderlea Chardonnay 2015 ($48). This chardonnay draws grapes from several AVAs to create a lush, balanced wine with pear, mineral and tropical fruit flavors.
- Winderlea Meredith Mitchell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2015 ($48). This single-vineyard pinot noir is one of several from this producer. It has black cherry and bay leaf aromas and ample plum, kirsch and blueberry pie flavors. Long in the finish.
- Dobbes Family Estate Grand Assemblage Pinot Noir 2017 ($28). Simple but elegant, this medium-bodied pinot noir has strawberry and raspberry notes with a floral aroma, a dash of rosemary and purity.
- Brooks Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2016 ($28). Reasonably priced, this simple pinot noir uses grapes from several regions of the Willamette Valley AVA. Blackberry and earthy aromas are folllowed by plum and red currant flavors.
Raeburn Winery Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2016 ($25). We are already fans of Raeburn’s chardonnay, so we were pleased to see that their pinot noir matches if not exceeds the chardonnay in quality. Raspberry and cherry notes are pleasantly matched with spice and vanilla notes. Very easy to drink.
- MacPhail Wines The Flier Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 ($50). This is a big style pinot noir that is jumping out of the glass with berry, cherry tastes and smells. Some smoke notes add an element of intrigue to this impressive mouthful of pinot noir.
- Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley 2014 ($35). This is a well-priced high quality cabernet sauvignon. Plenty of very expressive cherry/plum notes with a hint of mocha. A great package for the price.