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Best Case Scenario: Elegant OR Pinot


Style and Grace in OR Pinot:

The Proof Is In The Bottles

Best Case Scenario wines.

The wines comprising the “Best Case Scenario” represent a growing trend toward elegant, food-friendly Oregon pinot noirs.

What a clever wine marketing solution!

Here’s the situation: You’re a PR/Marketing company and you want to make the “case” to wine writers and influencers that Oregon pinot noir styles—including those from a client or two—are moving to a more elegant expression of the heartbreak grape. What’s a marketing firm to do?

You could go the hackneyed route of sending a press release (and we all know we need more of those) to all the wine bloggers and print pubs that still cover wine in some manner, touting the fact that your clients are “leading the charge” to more elegance in Oregon pinot noir (complete with quotes from the winemakers themselves. . . !)—and then follow up with an email or two from your intern (“Hi! Just circling back to see you received our notice about Oregon pinot noir . . .”) and hope you get some hits from the writers.

That kind of “campaign” happens all the time.

But the folks at Watershed Communications in Portland think different. To make their “case” that Oregon pinot noirs—including those from a client or two—are delivering elegance over power to consumers . . . they actually delivered a case of Oregon pinot noir wines to select media.

Rudy Marchesi of Montinore Estate

Rudy Marchesi helped inspire the Best Case Scenario program. He farms his vines at Montinore Estate biodynamically, which helps him achieve his stylistic goal of elegant Orepon pinot noirs that taste of the place where they were grown.

The proof, they felt, was in the bottle. They called the program “Best Case Scenario”.

It’s a brilliant, ingenious, and effective campaign.

The proof is in the bottles: the wine samples they sent make an open and shut case for elegance in Oregon pinot noir.

Katie Bray, Watershed’s Wine Division Director, spearheaded the project. She had spent a goodly stint at the Oregon Wine Board and has an intense interest in marketing Oregon’s wine brand, as well as the winery clients of Watershed.

The Best Case Scenario began when one of Watershed’s clients, Rudy Marchesi, owner/winemaker at Montinore Estate, became inspired by something he read in the New York Times.

What's In the Best Case Scenario?

Here are the wineries and wines that make up the “Best Case Scenario” of samples provided by Watershed Communications:

Amalie Robert, 2008 Oregon Pinot Noir, Estate Selection, Willamette Valley

Amity Vineyards, 2010 Pinot Noir, Estate, Eola-Amity Hills

Atticus Wine, 2010 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley

Brandborg Vineyard & Winery, 2009 Pinot Noir, Bench Lands, Umpqua Valley

Brooks, 2010 Pinot Noir, Janus, Willamette Valley

Carabella Vineyard, 2010 Pinot Noir, Carabella Vineyard, Chehalem Mountains

Cooper Mountain Vineyards, 2011 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley

Firesteed, 2010 Pinot Noir, Oregon

Johan Vineyards, 2009 Pinot Noir, Estate, Willamette Valley

Montinore Estate, 2010 Pinot Noir, Reserve, Willamette Valley

Patton Valley Vineyard, 2010 Pinot Noir, Estate, Willamette Valley

Union Wine Company, 2011 Kings Ridge Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley

Eric Asimov, the newspaper’s well-known wine critic, had named Montinore’s 2010 Estate Pinot Noir one of his “12 great American values.” That was wonderful for Rudy, but that wasn’t what really grabbed his attention—it was something else Asimov said that encapsulated what Rudy himself had been striving toward with his Montinore wines. Rudy quotes Asimov thusly:

“Once upon a time, American Pinot noirs were known as bridge wines, perfect for restaurant dinners because they were versatile to bridge diverse dishes. Then a powerfully fruity style became popular, which won high ratings but obliterated the dinnertime harmony. The 2010 Montinore reverts to a time when Pinot noir could be counted on as fresh, energetic, and subtle.”

Oregon’s Founding Pinot Style

In many ways, Asimov’s words, and Rudy’s convictions, have been a guiding philosophy for Willamette Valley’s pinot noir. The earliest Oregon practitioners of the pinot arts were committed to wines that expressed the place where they were grown, that showed the true character of the varietal, and which were graceful and stylish at the dinner table.

Ernie Pink and Dena Drews of Amalie Robert winery.

Owners of Amalie Robert, Ernie Pink and Dena Drews, inspect grapes at their estate vineyard. Amalie Robert is one of the producers represented in the Best Case Scenario samples.

But for awhile, a long while, actually, it seemed that this style of pinot noir had fallen from favor. Starting perhaps with the 1998 vintage of Willamette Valley pinot (arguably the beginning of a warmer trend of vintages in the Willamette Valley, and itself a vintage that produced highly concentrated—and high scoring—wines) a marked trend toward intensely concentrated, highly extracted, heavy oak influenced, and frequently high-alcohol styles seemed to garner critical raves.

Perhaps it had to do with the swelling number of pinot noirs from growing regions warmer than the Willamette Valley that emphasized concentration over balance, or possibly it was later picking and warmer vintages, or perhaps it had to do with an American predilection for big and bold flavors in wine.

Winemaker Gary Andrus.

Winemaker Gary Andrus (d. 2009) made excellent wines that helped establish a trend toward big-boned, highly concentrated Oregon pinot noirs.

It also had to do with some aggressive PR and high critical scores from a couple of high-profile Willamette Valley wineries. In particular, the late Gary Andrus, who created Archery Summit winery, was a persuasive and effective champion in the wine media and market of a more concentrated style of Oregon pinot. His use of 100% new French oak, combined with the undeniable quality of his vineyards and his own ebullient personality drew a lot of attention and critical raves to this bigger style of Oregon pinot noir.

Whatever all the reasons, through much of the 2000s it seemed that subtlety, grace, polish, and sophistication in Willamette Valley pinot noir had fallen out of favor.

What’s a Winemaker to Do?

This market trend put winemakers like Rudy in a bind. Their goal was to produce pinots that spoke of the land and the vintage, that had acidity and freshness, and that were intended to be consumed with fine food, not drunk as cocktails. But for many years those kinds of wines didn’t seem to sell as well as the fruit bomb bruisers.

Should winemakers working to achieve elegance give in on their stylistic goals in order to sell more wine (or possibly even stay in business), or should they brave it through and be true to their ambitions?

Of course, all these are pretty big generalizations. There were plenty of Oregon wineries who continued to make pinots full of finesse, and sell them well. Still, they definitely seemed to be a minority population, somewhat struggling to survive with the style that was true to their hearts.

But things have changed—or at least they seem to be in the process of changing. Appreciation for subtlety is resurgent, interest in style is back, graceful wines are once again being sought out by consumers. And the wineries that pride themselves on making balanced, transparent, food-friendly pinot noirs—whether stalwarts such as The Eyrie Vineyards or Amity Vineyards, or newer ventures such as Johan Vineyards or Crowley Wines—are finding new success.

This is borne out by a lot of very positive press that Willamette Valley pinots have been receiving recently from the major national wine press, from David Schildknecht’s positive reviews in The Wine Advocate, to Harvey Steiman in The Wine Spectator, and, of course, Eric Asimov in the New York Times, Jon Bonné at the San Francisco Chronicle. I could go on.

Enter Watershed’s Best Case Scenario

But reading about something as purely personal as wine style preferences is very different from actually tasting the stuff yourself. Hence the brilliance of Watershed’s Best Case Scenario: instead of just reading about “elegant Oregon pinot noir” it gives the media an actual taste-it-for-themselves experience of the wines. Best Case Scenario substantiates—makes real—what elegant Oregon pinot noirs are all about.

Watershed’s box of evidence proves the case: the pinot noirs provided, while each of a different character, cumulatively achieve a consistent expression of refined varietal fruit, lovely balance of acidity, and urbane personality that makes them a joy to drink.

For many in the media who don’t live in Oregon, it can be difficult to find out for themselves what Oregon pinot noir is all about. Most of the state’s wineries are small by nearly any standard, and very many of our boutique wines simply don’t make it out of the local market. One of the smart aspects of Watershed’s campaign was that it got Oregon pinot noirs into the mouths of media across the country who likely could not taste such wines without coming out to visit.

Also smart: Watershed didn’t just limit their samples to wines from their clients, they offered the opportunity to participate in the Best Case Scenario to other like-styled wineries. The result is a selection of 12 quite fine Oregon pinot noirs that represent the new wave of Northwest pinot stylings.

I’ll be publishing full ENW Report Cards of each of the wines over the next couple of days, so stay tuned. But in the meantime, you can check out the wineries and their websites (maybe even find some bottles for yourself) in the info bar above.

—Cole Danehower


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