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13 December, 2021

Touring the Yamhill-Carlton Nesting AVA

Posted in : Bars and Tasting Rooms, Champagne / Champenoise Style, Chardonnay, muller gruner, Other Sparkling Wine Types, Pinot Noir, Red Wine, Sparkling Wine, Tasting Rooms in Yamhill-Carlton - OR, Wine, Wine Media Conference 2021 on by : The Gourmez

In August, I visited the Yamhill-Carlton, Oregon, subregion, also known as a nesting AVA, within the Willamette Valley American Viticulture Area (AVA). This day trip was part of the 2021 Wine Media Conference (WMC), one of several optional post-excursions that the conference offered. Pro tip: The WMC excursions are often the best value of the conference!

Yamhill-Carlton is a beautiful subregion, isn’t it? That video was taken at Abbey Roads Farm, which I’ll highlight in its own post soon.

If you’ve followed my wine writing for any period of time, you know that I’m not all that interested in terroir beyond how good of a wine it deposits in my glass. But I could not help but catch some of Ken Wright’s enthusiasm on the subject, as we began the day’s tastings and informational tours.

Ken Wright, ball cap on, using a marker on a large notepad

Wright illustrating his points, quite literally.

Wright is a local winemaker, vineyard owner, and most of all, a farmer who just happens to be one of the stars of Oregon wine. At Ken Wright Cellars, located in Carlton, OR, we began our tour with a talk from Ken on the local soils—or rather, as he quickly made clear, the more important “Mother Rock” that the oldest vines will reach about 30–35 feet down through the soil. According to Wright, the Mother Rock’s terroir results in an agricultural product that simply cannot exist anywhere else. He likened the region’s pinot noirs to the bamboo celebrated in Kyoto in late April, the perfect time and place to experience that particular delicacy.

Bottle shot of Shea Vineyards Ken Wright Pinot noir. Bold green and yellow art

The Kyoto Bamboo of Yamhill-Carlton: A 2017 Shea Vineyards Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir.

Wright made clear his unflattering thoughts on the pinot noir coming from other regions of the world (cough cough Napa Valley). He described such wines as a hammer that hits one over the head, while the pinot noirs of Yamhill-Carlton are as they should be: all about gracefulness.

I certainly found that the 2017 Shea Vineyards Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir gracefully lifted up its herbal elements, which can often be mere background noise. I tasted plenty of marjoram and oregano with bright and bouncy raspberry notes, Mexican chocolate, and a layered kumquat finish. The 2017 Ken Wright Cellars Savoya Vineyard Chardonnay was also a delight—and not just because we were served a glass and then encouraged to tour the Cellars’ flower garden in full bloom. The Cellars themselves are in a picturesque, converted train depot.

A glass of chardonnay held up to sunflowers

The chardonnay’s mild lime acidity matched beautifully with notes of cucumber, lilies, and white blossoms. It’s a delightfully gentle wine with a sprinkle of finishing salt at the end.

From Ken Wright Cellars, we headed over to the local high school, home to the only high-school based vineyard in the country. Students help tend the vineyard and make the wine, with Wright as a mentor, among other local wine professionals.

Grape vines below a blue sky with puffy clouds

Vineyards at Yamhill-Carlton High School

The proceeds from Tiger Vines wines go back into the school’s viticulture program, which provides a valuable service by helping local kids learn a potential future career they could enjoy in Yamhill-Carlton.

My friend Kelly Cohen, writer of Off the Beaten Glass, loved the 2016 Tiger Vines Pinot Noir we tried. I enjoyed listening to the agricultural teachers talk about their program and checking out the students’ work in the vines.

The teachers talking to the tour group near a tractor

We headed to Abbey Roads Farm for lunch. As already mentioned, I’m skipping over them for now. So we’ll jump ahead to the final destination of our Yamhill-Carlton excursion: Beacon Hill.

A two story white estate house behind a lawn and gardens

The lovely estate at Beacon Hill.

At this winery, we were able to taste more adventurous white wines from Beacon Hill and their neighboring Kramer Vineyards. While Ken Wright educated us on the prime grapes best suited to Yamhill-Carlton soils, Beacon Hill and Kramer Vineyards’ winemakers wield that experimental spirit that can keep a wine region feeling young and fresh. They shared with us mostly white wine grapes, and some that are not so familiar to an American palate: Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Albariño, and Müller-Thurgau.

Most of the eight wines we sampled tasted like a little more experimentation was in order—to me, the acidity was unbalanced. But I found a few quite delicious in their sparkling forms.

A family member with a bottle of the Kramer Vineyards sparkling wine

The Kramer Vineyards 2020 Sparkling Müller-Thurgau was a favorite of the afternoon. A velvety mouthfeel yielded honeysuckle, lemon cream, and white peach notes. The Kramer Vineyards 2020 Sparkling Grüner Veltliner is a great picnic wine. Easy to love; just kick back and enjoy!

Perhaps predictably, though not typical for my palate, I most preferred a more stalwart choice of grape varietal for this region: the Beacon Hill Vineyard 2019 Chardonnay.

Bottle shot of the Beacon hill chardonnay - gold foil on a cream label.

Lots of creaminess from its oak with pineapple notes, pie spices, crème brulee, ginger, and warm brown sugar sauce. That’s a lot going on in a chardonnay glass, and I appreciated that it offered the depth of an aged chardonnay while being fairly young. At $29, it’s a steal.

You can purchase any of the wines I’ve mentioned at their wineries’ websites, linked earlier in this post. My thanks go out to Play Nice PR for organizing the tour, Ken Wright, and all our hosts along the way for putting together this Wine Media Conference excursion. I enjoyed my introduction to Yamhill-Carlton wines, and the excuse to check out McMinnville, OR overnight afterward.

The Gourmez, Rebecca Gomez Farrell, with a Benjamin Franklin statue

Meeting the locals

A chalk drawing on the sidewalk that reads Love the Wine You're With

Enjoying McMinnville sidewalk art.

The excursions at the WMC continue to be the highlights of the whole trip, and a great deal from $20-$40 for the experiences. In addition to the warm and vibrant wine media community I’ve come to love, the WMC excursions are a big reason I’ve attended five times since my first conference in 2013. We’re still waiting to learn where 2022’s conference will be, but my hat goes off to Zephyr Adventures for managing to pull together a WMC at all in 2021.

Excursion enjoyed August 8, 2021.

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