It’s a moment that happens often in the life of a wine lover. You taste a bottle of Pinot Noir that might be called life-changing, and you decide to set out on a new path: seeking out nano-wineries, those smaller, harder-to-access producers who are making something truly exceptional.
In Oregon, that’s where you encounter your first problem. Of the 545 registered wineries in the state, roughly half of those could be considered nano-wineries, or wineries producing fewer than 350 to 400 cases annually. Where do you even start?
“It’s not that small batches of wine are better,” says Jeff Woodard, a wine consultant for the industry and proprietor of Woodard Wines, an independent wine boutique in McMinnville. “It’s more about the people making these wines, the ones who are doing it out of passion.”
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Indeed, people make wine in small batches for different reasons. For some, the limitations are financial. For many, it’s time constraints — they have full-time jobs, families and other commitments. But the wine bug doesn’t let up when you have a vision. Here, we’re talking about the winemaker as an artist, not necessarily tailoring a wine to fit a market but adjusting the inputs to wine-making based on what is interesting to them. For this subsection of winemakers, it’s more helpful to seek out the higher-level winemakers who are doing wines as a side project, developing their own labels alongside their careers in the industry, or who are small-batch by choice, because it’s the best way to oversee the process.
“There’s not any money in wine at this level,” Woodard says. “These people are doing it out of sheer passion for wine.”
Smaller producers face a number of challenges in finding you. For one, the finances are not always there to advertise. Access to customers is difficult. Very few have tasting rooms. And then there are the numbers. Distributors often won’t touch them — it’s generally not worth the time to put smaller productions on their list.
So the answer is to go to them. Here are seven Oregon nano-wineries that are making dynamite wine, especially Pinot Noir. These are wine-makers well worth tracking down.
If there is anything such as Slow Wine, Antiquum Farm is it. Farmed in Junction City by Stephen Hagen, who uses old-school farming methods, the vineyard’s grapes are processed by Drew Voit, an associate winemaker at Domaine Serene. The result is a Pinot Noir that is rigidly lively and intense, with a character that is completely its own thing, neither of California nor Oregon.
Matzinger Davies is a wine about a marriage of two great winemakers: Anna Matzinger, the longtime winemaker and co-manager who helped bring Archery Summit’s Pinot Noirs to the top of every wine list, and her husband Michael Davies, the winemaker for A to Z Wineworks and for Rex Hill. Seeking to make wines with vibrancy, authenticity and integrity, the couple sources exceptional fruit from the Eola Hills to make an outstanding Pinot Noir.
Éleveé Winegrowers brings place-driven wines from a handful of micro-sites in the Willamette Valley. Married team Tom and France Fitzpatrick epitomize the ideals of the artist winemaker, growing grapes and embracing many of the unknowns of a changing climate in winemaking to create Pinot Noir known for its exceptional expression of terroir.
Thomas Bachelder is perhaps unique in the industry — a winemaker with his fingerprint in three grape-growing regions: Burgundy, Oregon and Niagara. In Oregon, where he worked for both Ponzi Wines and Lemelson Vineyards, Bachelder makes a lacy, densely textured Chardonnay with great minerality and tang.
Founded in 2005, Retour, a project of Lindsay Woodard, has been winning accolades through its hands-on approach to working with 40-year-old vines, with winemakers taking a meticulous approach, often choosing exact times of day to the minute to pluck grape clusters, sometimes with tweezers. The result is a Pinot Noir of the highest echelon, hailed for its explosive palate and succulent mouth-feel.
Isabelle Dutarte had a career in the French wine industry before she started commuting between Oregon and France in 1993. She released her first wines under her 1789 label, a nod to the French Revolution, in 2007. Her Pinot Noir vintages frequently score high for their expressive red berries and delicately perfumed noses, as well as their ability to evoke a feminine harmony in terroir.
Copper Belt Wines
Originally called MotherLode Cellars, Copper Belt Wines, is a rare eastern Oregon winery based in Baker City, one that sources its much of its estate grapes from the highest elevated vineyard in Oregon, Keating Valley Vineyards. Its winemaker, Travis Cook, who works for Advanced Vineyard Systems, a vineyard management company in the Willamette Valley, makes standout big, bold reds.
Main photo: Small independent wine merchants, such as Jeff Woodard of Woodard Wines, in McMinnville, Ore., offer small batches of high-quality wine. Credit: Emily Grosvenor