An Interview With Founder, President, and Head Winemaker Mark Vlossak
I arrived about a half hour early for my 11:00 appointment to meet Mark Vlossak founder, president, and head winemaker of St. Innocent winery. I spent the time soaking in the beauty of the young vines growing on the surrounding rolling hills, the calm surface of the nearby farm pond, and the beautiful clear sky on what would be a warm Willamette Valley day. While gazing out from the porch of the gorgeous new tasting room, still about 15 minutes prior to my appointment, I was warmly greeted by assistant wine maker Alana Fontaine. She introduced herself, made me comfortable, and informed me that Mark would be out to visit shortly. I could hardly contain my excitement. Mark along with others has put Oregon wine on the map. He, his wines, and St. Innocent have been featured in major publications such as Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, Food and Wine, Wine Business, and many more. He was the first to receive a 94-point rating from Robert Parker and more importantly, his wines are just damn good. This was a day that Mark would not only be pouring me some of his wine, but also detailing the finer points of how they were made.
My first taste would be of a 2017 Pinot Noir named Villages Cuvée. It would be the only wine I would taste that morning made with grapes sourced from more than a single vineyard. This vintage deserved every one of the 91 points granted to it by Josh Reynolds of Vinous.com. It has well balanced tannins, fruit, and acidity. The body has a weight that is in perfect alignment with the slight “grippiness” of the tannins, and it has a fabulously smooth finish. Detailed tasting notes can be found at St. Innocent’s site here. “The Pinot Noir that we have here,” Mark begins, “was sourced from 6 different vineyards (Vitae Spring, Zenith, Freedom Hill, Temperance hill, Shea, and Momtazi). This is what I call a wine for all seasons. The vineyards that I work with make wines that are very complex and very nuanced but very broad in flavor. Before we started making Villages Cuvée, which was the first 14 years we made wine, every barrel we made was a single vineyard wine; there was nothing that got culled out. Then we had a Phylloxera issue and we had to replant. After replanting, we didn’t think the young vines were making wine that was very distinctive. The roots weren’t deep enough yet, so the plant hadn’t really interacted with its environment. That’s when we started declassifying; we started making the Villages Cuvée. In 2007, we no longer had any younger vineyards, but there was a huge demand for a wine at its price point of around $30, so we kept making it. At that point, we started tasting various lots with an intent to find the barrels that provided the best example of terroir. I used the other barrels to produce the Villages Cuvée, blended to be especially good with white meats and fish. Between 2017 and 2018 I dropped three of the six vineyards. One of which produced a large part of the grapes for the 2017 Cuvée, Vitae Springs Vineyard. So, this upcoming vintage (2018), we are actually making no Villages Cuvée and every barrel will actually be one of the single vineyard wines that we make.”
“In 2006, I made a deal with the second owners of Zenith Vineyards. It was called O’Connor Vineyard back then. I made Zenith from 1989 to 1998, before it was leased to Willamette Valley Vineyards for a decade. Eventually, the property was bought by a very good customer of mine. Four years after he had purchased it, he was looking for somebody to infuse some money into his project. He wanted to sell a minority interest in the vineyard as well as the rest of the property in order to build an events center. While I had been looking for a piece of land, my intentions were to plant a vineyard; nothing more. Everyplace that seemed to fit had something go wrong with the option to purchase it. While I hadn’t previously given it much consideration, one day it dawned on me that maybe I should be that person who would invest on the plan for Zenith. It would allow me to build a vineyard that wasn’t in a warehouse district and that was in the Eola-Amity hills AVA. Late in 2017, I decided to downsize significantly. My intent was to simplify the number of wines I was producing, plant my own vineyard (finally), and become a true “vigneron” in the French meaning of the word. To make this transformation, I sold my interest in Zenith and the winery I built there to my partners at Zenith Vineyard.”
“It’s never been in my plans to do what many have done, build a winery, sell it, make a bunch of money, and retire. I’d always wanted St. Innocent to be more of a Burgundian model where it would pass down through generations and continue to produce wine. The thought is that a hundred years from now, you will still find St. Innocent wine and it will be a brand that people recognize. I used the money from the sale to buy this 47-acre parcel. We started planting and we designed the winery. I designed and built the model for the new winery in two days and it’s exactly what we built. I used the contractor that I used to build Zenith. We bought the property on January 9th of 2017, started building in May, and got our permanent occupancy in June of this year (2018), so it took just a little more than a year to build this whole thing.” A lot of work would be necessary for the transition. “In the time between when we had sold Zenith and opened our new place, we needed a place to harvest. We ended up using a small tent outside of a barn on the new property. The barn was not insulated, it wasn’t heated, it had no power, and had gravel around it. To get the barn in working order, we had to pave the area, wire it, insulate it, heat it, and put in a kitchen as well. We moved the tasting room from Zenith at the end of April, and we opened an interim tasting room in the cabin on the new property 5 days later on Cinco de Mayo. Now that the tasting room is finished, we use the cabin as a special events space.”
Part of the goal of the move was to simplify, part of that was ending the contract with Zenith,” Mark explained as he poured me a bit of a 2015 Zenith Vineyard Pinot Noir. “Zenith was actually our largest source of grapes prior to that point. All of our current single vineyard wines are from 2015, so we’re going two years back. Zenith is sustainably certified; it has the LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) logo on the bottle. This vineyard sits in the middle of the Eola-Amity hills where there is a big valley that comes in from the east side. Zenith is at the end of that valley where there is a much bigger ridge just to the west. The vines are in a little bowl in that valley where it gets a lot of light but not a lot of heat. In Oregon, the hottest part of the day is at 5:00 in the afternoon, but the vineyard sits on the east side of a hill with a big ridge to the west. When the temperature gets hot, the heat stays on the other side of that hill but the vines still get nice light. Zenith for me is about brightness, it’s a potpourri of sorts. It has a relatively nice balance between light red and dark red fruits. It has nice floral components, it has nice spice components, and it has a little bit of an earthy component. This is the Spring wine in a program we call the Four Seasons of Pinot Noir. I was trying to find ways to make it easier for customers to remember the differences in taste of our wines. Spring is the most eccentric season of the year. If you’re in Florida the weather is already Summer like, if you’re in Maine the weather is still winter like. This bottle of wine is very flexible and will work with a lot of different types of foods.” Zenith, prior to their move was St. Innocent’s Estate wine. The 2015 vintage received a 92-point score from Wine Spectator. It’s unfortunate that it will be disappearing from their vintage portfolio soon, but there are still bottles available as of September 2019 (here), buy a few they should age well for up to 10 years.
“Three years ago, around the time that Wine Enthusiast picked the Willamette Valley as the wine region of the year. Paul Gregutt, who has more than 40 years of following the Oregon wine industry, wrote an article called 5 great Oregon Vineyards. The 5 Vineyards were Zenith, Shea, Momtazi, Freedom Hill, and Temperance Hill. The article recognized that I was the only one that made wine from all 5 of those vineyards. I still make wine from all of them except Zenith and will continue to do so. Actually, last harvest marked 25 years in a row of making single vineyard wine from 3 of them and 13 years from Momtazi, which didn’t exist then. The point of the article was, that like in Burgundy, most Pinot Noir in Oregon is not made from an estate, so being familiar with the source vineyards is important. In fact, when I started in 1988, 80% of the Pinot Noir that was produced in Oregon was made from purchased fruit. Nobody had enough money to plant a vineyard and build a big winery. They were all small family run operations started by people who were inspired to make good Pinot Noir in Oregon, which people were saying was impossible (at the time). What I focus on, is finding great sites and making consistent and high quality vintages from the sites I use. Most of the vineyards I use, I chose before anybody else knew what they could be. I was one of the first people to make wine from Seven Springs Vineyard when no one knew what it was. In 1998, I made the second 94-point Robert Parker Wine ever, it was from Seven Springs Vineyard. I produced the first ever 94-point Robert Parker wine from Shea vineyard in the first year that it had a crop; that happened to be the last year that Parker himself was a reviewer. Pierre-Antoine Rovani took over ratings at Robert Parker for the next 11 years. Now it’s been something like 5 people over 9 years. Currently, I think the media person who understands Oregon wine most, would either be Paul Gregutt, or Josh Reynolds from Vinous, I very highly respect both of them. These guys have been in the industry for many years and have known me and my wines since nearly the beginning.”
“I was brought up with wine, I grew up in Appleton Wisconsin – the Fox Valley. My dad started drinking wine when I was about 5, by the time I was about 7, he was drinking a whole lot of interesting wine. At dinner one night, he said to me, “you know, in Europe children get a glass of wine with dinner, wine is part of a healthy life.” Wine isn’t something you drink to get drunk; it’s something you drink to appreciate. He pushed a glass over at me, “here’s some wine,” he said before explaining to me how I should taste it. “You smell it, you look at it, you taste it, you think about the beginning, you swish it around in your mouth, you swallow it, and you think about the finish.” So, I did that and I said, “what is this shit? It’s terrible.” I looked over at him and said, “you’re not drinking this, I want to taste what you have.” What he had poured me was Mogen David. I was just a sugar baby, I spent all my allowance on candy, so he thought I’d like a wine that was sweet. He was drinking something probably bone dry. He pushed it across to me and I said, “oh I like this, this is really interesting.” My dad was just like, this kid actually likes wine! It became a father son kind of bonding thing. He didn’t play sports, and he worked a lot, but we shared an interest in wine.
“My mother started studying French cuisine about the time my father started drinking wine; she took a summer week course up in Door county at a place called The Clearing. A woman that was a very famous master chef from Le Cordon Bleu, was training chefs out of her house in Fond du Lac. If you were lucky enough to get a reservation 6 months in advance, you could even eat dinner on a Friday or Saturday night in the gigantic dining room of her big house. My mother ended up studying with her for ten years until Madame retired. My mother cooked fabulous French food every night, and we had wine every night as well. I drank incredible things. For example, in 1962, when the 1959 vintage was released, my dad bought all the Premier Grand Cru Bordeaux’s in half bottle, full bottle, and magnum. He wasn’t a rich guy. The 1959 vintage Lafite in a regular bottle was $7.40. He just liked wine, he collected it. He became a huge fan of Barolo and Châteauneuf du Pape in the early 60s. Way before Parker was doing anything. My dad forbade me to tell anybody about the wine we drank, because he was afraid that somebody would break into the house and steal wine out of his cellar. He set aside some amazing bottles for my birthyear wine including a 1952 single vineyard Châteauneuf du Pape and two bottles of 1952 Mercier Blanc du Blanc Champagne. I had this incredible education and a love for wine as a kid. My dad would tell me the story behind the wines; by the time I was barely a teenager I could blind taste wines and pick out vintages. I became good at it.”
“I had come to Oregon with a different career in 1980. I was trained as a physician’s assistant, I moved here and immediately got a job at a private pediatric office in Salem. I started drinking Oregon wine thinking that it was a wine region like Napa, Sonoma, or the Alexander Valley not understanding until much later, that I was actually drinking the first wines a lot of people had ever made. In 1980, David Adelsheim had never released a Pinot Noir; that’s how young the Oregon Wine industry was. It seems like Adelshiem’s been here forever, and Eyrie had only released 7 vintages when I moved here. I may not have known that Oregon wasn’t really a wine region yet, but I liked the wine they were making. So it was the early 1980’s, I had a good job, my previous wife was a nurse, and we had no kids, and we had money. I was drinking a lot of champagne and in 1983 out comes an article in Bon Appetit where Andre Tchelistcheff was quoted saying “the greatest sparkling wine in America will be made in Oregon not California. He stated that Oregon was the right place to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.” Andre was “Mr. Napa Valley” this is the guy that began the whole single vineyard, high end Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa (Georges de Lateur private Napa Reserves for Beaulieu Vineyard). Of course, that was a long time ago, in 1983 Domaine Chandon didn’t have a winery; they were making their wine in Trefethen Winery’s warehouse in Napa. When I read that article, something went off in my head. I decided I was going to do it; I became determined to make Oregon sparkling wine. It took a lot of time and effort trying to figure out how to do it. I learned I couldn’t start a winery that only made sparkling wine, because I would never get out of debt; with such a long tirage time, it’s like the opposite of venture capital. I then refocused my efforts and figured out that if I started a winery that made Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparkling wine, after 7 or 8 years I could start to make money. So, I went to my dad, some of his friends, and some of my friends from a wine group here in Oregon. I told them that I was going to start a company and I was going to sell stock. I gave them the prospectus and asked if they were interested? They said they were interested and were even enthusiastic about it. I warned them that they were going to lose all their money. The stories and jokes are true, I insisted, you can’t make any money in the wine business. They assured me that they had confidence that I was going to be ok, and they gave me money.”
“The whole idea of St. Innocent was to make Oregon Sparkling wine, at a time when no one else was really doing it. I actually had apprenticed for two years with Fred Arterberry, he died in 1990, so most people don’t know him, but he was the first guy to make sparkling wine here, and really the first guy to do what I’m most known for, which is to make small lot single vineyard vintages from vineyards that you don’t own. I opened St. Innocent in 1988. The first year I did 12 tons, I made a sparkling, a Pinot Noir, and a Chardonnay, and was off to the races. I made sparkling wine for 13 years before I got a bit frustrated; It wasn’t turning out how I thought it should, so I decided to quit making it in 2000. At that time, I was drinking the 1995 Vintage. For the 1998 vintage, I made a bunch of changes after visiting Champagne, Burgundy, the Rhone, and Piemonte. I spent 5 weeks wandering from winery to winery alone trying to ask a lot of questions. I didn’t get to see how the changes I made with the 1998, 1999, and 2000 vintages would turn out until 2003, 2004, and 2005. When I tasted the wine, I realized that maybe I wasn’t such a hack at it; the changes made a really big difference. There is a big learning curve when it comes to making sparkling wine. The production timeline is long as well. You spend a year on the base wine, 3 years on tirage, and then 4 months until we released. It’s almost 5 years from when you pick the base wine grapes until you sell a bottle; you won’t see how any changes you make work out for 5 years. With the improvement apparent, I started thinking about making sparkling wine again, and in 2016 I made one. In 2017, I went from making one to making three sparkling wines, and in 2018 we also made three.”
“Our first harvest at the new winery, was much smaller than what we had been making previously. Between 2009 and 2017 we made somewhere between 10,000 and 13,000 cases a year, we now make 6,200 cases. In our transition, we dropped our contracts with Zenith, Justice, and Vitae Springs vineyards. We went from six single vineyard Pinot Noirs to four. We also dropped our Pinot Gris, so we went from making three white wines to two, a Blanc and a Chardonnay. I’ll continue to source the 4 single vineyard Pinot’s from outside, but the changes will allow me to do some things that I had intended to do back when I first founded the winery, like putting some focus back on sparkling wine. Additionally, I’ve always wanted to be a real vigneron in the French sense, which means to grow grapes for winemaking; I now have my own vineyard to plant and farm myself. I’ll make up to four Chardonnays from our new vineyard. The Chardonnay is planted with the same clones, the same spacing, the same trellising, and I use the same basic methods. It’s planted across four different blocks on two different soil types. So you will really taste terroir differences, I’m excited to see what happens with it. The question will be, based on all factors, will the grapes be so different that they will need to be handled differently? There are all these questions that I have, and I’ll get my answers from listening to the terroir. That’s part of the fun of wine making.”
“A lot of the things that I do are based entirely on a devotion to making food focused wines. My wines are made to be eaten with. They don’t have a lot of wood in them because wood really narrows the range of food matches. They’re not primarily about fruit because big fruity wines also narrow your food matches. They’re made to have texture, which should be very different from site to site. In fact, texture is probably the most important factor in why terroir is terroir. Secondary characteristics are how terroir speaks in a wine. Things like herbs and spices, flowers, earth, mushrooms, different fruit notes and the balance of those fruit notes- rather than the amount of fruitiness. A vineyard may have raspberry, or cherry, or black raspberry, or black berry, but fruit flavor is not what really defines a vineyard. That’s not why Pommard Les Rugiens is different than Les Fremiers. It’s not that one has black berries and one has black cherries. It’s that the whole textural basis, the whole feel, the complete experience is different between two vineyards that are only 5km apart and at the same relative altitude and exposition. The Pommard is a little bit more south facing and the Fremiers is a little more east facing; that’s it.”
“When I’m making decisions about wine making, I’m making decisions about building texture. If I was interested in fruitiness, I would use whole clusters, do long and cold macerations, and I’d push that fruit component way up by focusing all my energy towards that dimension, but I’m not interested in that. Frankly, I find the cedar quality of whole cluster attractive, but the cedar quality has to do with stems, which don’t have any terroir. It’s essentially a flavor quality that’s put into wine for balance. Steve Doernor (Cristom Vineyards) is a fabulous guy with whole clusters, I buy his wine when I want to drink a whole cluster wine. When I want to taste the difference between Shea and Momtazi vineyards, I drink my own wine because I think it’s clear. So, I don’t use cold maceration, whole clusters, long post fermentation maceration, or big doses of oak in any of my wines. Additionally, I do not use any SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide) in any of the fermentations white or red until malolactic fermentation is done. When people claim to do all indigenous fermentations, the first question you should ask is, do you add SO2? If you add SO2, you’ve just killed 99.8% of the indigenous organisms. How can you say you have an indigenous fermentation when you just murdered 99.8% of the natural organisms, or made it impossible for them to grow? People claim that all the time, “oh I don’t add yeast, so I have an indigenous fermentation.” If you add SO2, you don’t truly have indigenous fermentation. By not adding SO2, I allow for very complex fermentations that benefit from interaction with multiple organisms. One indigenous yeast starts eating when there’s no alcohol, the next probably takes over at about 3% alcohol, the next probably takes over at about 5% alcohol, and by the time it gets to 6.5% or 7% you finally get to the only thing that would have been left by the SO2. I strive to build a complexity of character. True indigenous fermentation allows for a lot of interesting things to happen, complexity of character is the way that I choose to reveal terroir.”
The ripeness of the grapes at the time of harvest is vital. “Acidity is important to me. If grapes are picked under ripe or over ripe, they’re not as complex as they would be if they were picked perfectly ripe. So, I’m looking for this time in the middle of the grape’s development curve where there’s the largest variety of flavor and complexity available. This also helps me to bring out the expression of the terroir in my wines. You can pick on the unripe side, have great acidity, and make really good food wines. However, I don’t think they are as complex and revealing of terroir as if you pick when the complexity is at its peak. I have a really good taste memory, especially when it comes to grapes. I have trouble remembering people and faces, but I know when I go to a vineyard, what the grapes should taste like. I know if they’re close or not close. I can often predict with significant accuracy, even five or more days out, when they are going to be ripe. I always go back and check, but I kind of have this database in my head that I can’t explain. I know what effect an early vintage, a warm vintage, a cold vintage, or a rot vintage, will have on a wine. I can anticipate the way a wine will show its terroir depending on how that final couple of weeks went for the vines. Almost all the flavors that you associate with terroir, the wine, and texture don’t evolve until the last couple of weeks before veraison. Before that point, grapes are basically just a vegetable, they have like a really disgusting green flavor. Then during veraison things start to soften and the grapes start to develop complex flavors. At veraison, almost all the flavors are the green components, grass, bell pepper, asparagus, and those types of things. At the time of ripening those green flavors are disappearing, and in their place, you get berries, flowers, and fruit; it’s an evolution to all the things you think about in wine. The process of the good things showing up and the bad things going away is related to time; it’s not heat, sugar level, ph., or acid. If you are picking based on numbers, you’re sort of taking this time curve. If the sugars go up and the acid goes down, that is related to sun and heat. If it’s hot and really sunny the transition from higher acid to higher sugar can get compressed. What all this means is, it’s possible to be at a point where your grapes are at 24 brix and still have a lot of green flavors and not much interesting stuff. In a cold vintage by the time you get to 22 brix you may already be into sous maturité flavors, so the grapes would be way past the green flavors, past the peak of complexity, and into the later stages where now your wine tastes like compote, prunes, and jam rather than the kinds of things that I’m looking for.”
“This was confirmed in a study years ago at Oregon State University. They took several vineyard blocks and picked them at one point in the vineyards, then a week later they picked them at another point, then a week later they picked every fourth plant at four points a week apart. They made four wines and you had basically a 0,7,14, and 21-day window, next they made the wines using identical methods. They did this for three vintages in a row. Next, they ran the wine through a gas chromatograph so you could see which molecules where there. A person was placed at the gas chromatograph where the vapor exited. The person had a tape recorder and was trained to smell all these different aromas. They used a slider scale as well. As a particular aroma got more intense, they just pushed the slider up. These trials were replicated across the different vintages at each point. The information was documented and analyzed. At the end of all this the team was able to produce quantitative results. They proved that less complexity results in more green herbal nuances, more complexity results in the availability of the most various amount of flavor, texture, and aroma, and at the end of the curve, again less complexity (read grapes picked passed ideal ripeness) results in flavors like cherry compote, strawberry, jam, prunes, and things like that. Without all of that equipment, for me, taste is the only way to know if it’s time to harvest. This can be easier said that done, in a vintage it may just start raining at the wrong time. If it rains enough and the grapes start to get compromised and become soft, they must be picked. You can’t make good Pinot Noir out of rotten fruit. Different vintages ripen at different times, so it depends on where my grapes are along the ripening curve in regard to the complexity aspects I am aiming for. Some years I may be forced to pick before or after I want to.”
“What I’m aiming for with my terroir, is to have the largest number of various characteristics present in relative balance in my wine. This means that I’m very rigorous about tasting grapes at every point of development. I taste all of the blocks at the bottom and the top. I taste different rows, the top of the cluster, the bottom of the cluster; I taste the east side, west side, north side, south side, and the middle. I walk through every block and every section of the blocks. We’ll pick according to the way things are developing. I don’t do cold maceration, I try to pick the grapes cold, and add nothing for 3-4 days. After that I’ll add a little bit of the yeast. It acts sort of like a 7th inning pitcher that I bring in to take over to prevent things from going bad. This yeast addition is always put in a corner in a small dose. It turns out that indigenous yeast doesn’t like much over 13% alcohol. With the way I make my Pinot Noir, I sometimes have fermentations that are at risk to stop. I don’t care so much if white wine stops fermenting because it can sit there for a long time and nothing goes wrong. If Pinot Noir stops fermenting, it’s disaster on the horizon. It’s an extremely bad situation to have red wine stop at 2% sugar. There are too many things going on in red wine and you are more likely to have major spoilage problems. I learned to do this as a bit of an insurance policy after I had 3 important fermentations in a single vintage stick at 2% sugar. I freaked out major league and fortunately was able to get them all to start again, but I decided I didn’t really need that kind of terrorism in my life in the middle of harvest, so I put a yeast insurance policy in. I use a German white wine yeast. It’s a slow fermenter in Riesling and it’s temperature sensitive. So if you want your Riesling to stop at 1 or 2% you just cool the tank down and the yeast just says I give up. Of course, Pinot Noir fermentations are warm so temperature is not a factor. The important part is that it’s an extremely non-aggressive yeast and it doesn’t show up until everything else has given up eating, it eats what the indigenous yeast won’t.”
Mark picked up the next bottle from the table in front of us. “The next wine is Temperance Hill from 2015, it’s made with organically certified fruit. While it’s lovely year-round, I drink it almost exclusively in the summer. This wine was one of two (the other being Momtazi) that inspired the idea of the four seasons of Pinot Noir. It is our summertime wine. Temperance Hill is actually only a mile from Zenith vineyard. So, you are going from a sheltered valley to a very high ridge just to the north that runs for almost a mile across the top of the Eola-Amity hills. The vineyard is much colder, much higher, and is windier at night. The majority part of this block is on the east facing hill of the vineyard, so it gets more morning sun but not much heat in the afternoon. The vineyard also has a completely different soil type. The grapes have higher acidity, get picked later, mature later, and never get to the point that they are over ripe. My nickname for this is the no B.S. Pinot Noir because it’s so well focused. Regardless of what you say you taste or smell, you absolutely know what it is you’re tasting and smelling. This wine is easily identifiable, it stands out. During a tasting, if you’ve had Temperance Hill and five others, it will be the one that you could most easily find blind. It has a clarity of purpose, slightly higher acidity, and a smoky quality in the spice that makes it fabulously good with anything that you are grilling, especially non-meat items. It’s great with grilled vegetables, or grilled mushrooms, it’s fabulous if you take a piece of baguette or crusty bread, rub it with garlic and tomato, sprinkle with olive oil, and grill it. It’s versatile too, its great with fish, it’s the best grilled Salmon wine I make, and it’s also great with quail and petit filet. It can take a chill too; it tastes good at 55 degrees. It’s very lovely.”
I asked Mark how often he makes changes to a plan he has for his wine. “The reality is the wine changes even if I’m not intentionally making a change to it. In 2011, we were harvesting at 21 brix at the end of October, we were making barely 12% alcohol wines with fully mature grapes, the difference between balance in a wine that has 12% and 13% alcohol is significant. Then, in 2014, it was a hot summer; it broke all the records, you can’t make the same wine you made in 2011 with grapes from 2014. So, Mother Nature has already changed things before I pick the fruit. For me, it’s more about watching everything that happens in the vineyard through the growing season. If the set’s terrible in one clone, then you’re not going to get much of it. Maybe you have 3 or 4 clones in a vineyard then all of a sudden there’s like .8 tons an acre in the 115 clone at Momtazi and there’s 2.25 tons in the 777 clone, you know you’re not going to have much 115 character in that year’s vintage. So, at that point, when you pick that fruit, that’s the starting gate. Then I make decisions about what to do to that wine in order to make the vintage taste like Momtazi given what mother nature has given me. I never take the approach of an arrogant bastard who’s going to force a wine into something at the cost of terroir. I’ll never add extracts, I’ll never do a vacuum extraction to take out water; I don’t do any of those things. My wine has grapes in it, only grapes. All my wines are vegan, so I don’t have the luxury of saying “oh I have too much tannin, so I’ll take it out with gelatin, or milk, or something else. I don’t like fining agents and I don’t use them. My goal is to pay a lot of attention from beginning to end, to get the wine exactly where I want it to be. It’s like anything else in life, sometimes you are more successful than others.”
“The timing of pressing is always based on the texture of the wine. Have we got the tannin extraction and the phenolics we are looking for? Is the wine filling the palate or is it becoming bitter and green? Is it becoming a “donut wine” with a big hole in the middle? We taste every day and some days we aren’t sure what’s going on, so we taste in the morning then again afternoon. When the fermentations are getting close to finishing, we often arrive in the morning with no guarantees on what we are going to do that day. We punch the tanks down and taste the samples before we decide if we are going to press that day or not. There have been days we walked in expecting to press only to find nothing was ready, and other days where we thought it wasn’t going to be quite time to press and ended up working until 3:00 in the morning. When it’s the right time it’s the right time and one day makes a difference. I don’t like to press heavily. We have three set pressure settings that we use; very low, medium, and not high but as high as we go; it’s about two thirds of what the press will do. If I don’t like the results of the higher pressure, or I think it’s getting bitter and green I won’t use it; I turn it into compost. After press it goes into the tank and we let it settle for 3-5 days before it goes into the barrel. All the single vineyard wines spend 16 months in the same barrel. I determine when it’s ready to come out of the barrel by taste.”
This next wine is our fall wine Momtazi (2015), it’s made from biodynamically certified fruit. Heading out of the Eola-Amity hills, this vineyard is a little bit north and way west. The coastal range has a little break which is a pass called the Van Duzer corridor. As that pass opens into the valley, Momtazi is up on the north side of that opening and relatively close to it. The vines sit on the parts of Momtazi that are on a high dome way on the back of the vineyard, I have 8.1 acres there. You can’t see the grapes from the winery as they are too high up, you have to drive a 4-wheeler up to get there; it’s the steepest part of the vineyard. Momtazi has the thinnest soil of the source vineyards, and the lousiest soil as well. I have 4 different clones there that all face south. It’s so high that you can see the Cascades in one direction and the coastal range in the other, you can see 360 degrees and for 60 miles. These vines receive long hours of sun during the day and extreme wind at night; this results in thicker skins and relatively smaller grapes. One reviewer that reviewed this wine, commented that Momtazi is course and not as friendly as the other wines.” Mark’s passion for terroir really began to show here, as his voice raised. “It’s Momtazi! It had better not be like all the other wines. It’s supposed to be gutsy and raw, it’s a very stressed site. If you made a soft copy you wouldn’t be making wines of terroir. It’s like if you made Nuits-Saint-Georges taste like Volnay, would anybody in Burgundy say you were doing a really good job making these beautiful finesse wines? No! they’d say it doesn’t taste like Nuits-Saint-Georges. I have a problem with writers that have just a one dimensional idea of what Oregon Pinot Noir is. They rate wines based on how close you get to that paradigm, rather than like in Burgundy where you have a terroir driven paradigm and they say “this is what it is and it damn well better taste like it, or it’s not true to its place.” This vineyard produces very textural rich wines Why would you want to remove that from the wine? This wine is perfect to pair with game, mushrooms, or cassoulet and that kind of thing. It is my cassoulet wine. In the winter, I cook cassoulet, you can come into the tasting room, get a bowl of it, and get a glass of this to go with it. It’s not a bad way to spend a winter afternoon.” Momtazi has the boldest character of St. Innocent’s 2015 single vineyard line up. You can find a bottle here.
Mark next poured me a glass of the 2015 Freedom Hill Pinot Noir. “This is our feature winter season wine. I also refer to it as one of my steak wines; it goes well with a steak with a nice cook on the outside, and a rare or medium rare inside. It’s a steak wine not because I chose to make it a steak wine, but because this vineyard is essentially a kinder and gentler Momtazi. It’s 20 miles farther south of Momtazi. In the Van Duzer corridor towards the south opening. There is a whole series of little hills as it opens, and the terrain kind of curves around. Freedom Hill is tucked back in there, it doesn’t really get windy. There is no inter-valley hills there, so if you stand at Freedom Hill, which is essentially in the valley side of the coast range and you look east, you can see the Cascade mountains. There is nothing obscuring the light, so you also get long days of sunshine. The soil quality is relatively poor, but instead of having thin soil like Momtazi, the soil is quite deep. Any wind or breeze that comes in sort of tumbles over the coast range. The grapes have acidity and nice tannin development. The vines aren’t as abused as the ones at Momtazi, so you get more generosity in the fruit notes in the center of the wine. Ken Wright and I have probably made this longer than anybody, although there are many who have sourced grapes from Freedom Hill for a long time. It’s very consistent, in a wet vintage, the vineyard stays drier, in a cold vintage it’s warmer, in a warm vintage it’s colder, it seems like everything about this place moderates into balance just naturally. The wine is great for long term aging but it’s also lovely to drink now. One of the things about this wine is that we release it later. We are almost out of the 2015 Momtazi while we’re only three months into Freedom Hill. Momtazi, being as big as it is, shows well when it’s relatively young, it has a unique flavor profile and it sells like crazy, people love it. Freedom Hill isn’t ready for release without a winter. We will sell the 2015 all the way into this next winter, then we will release the 2016 in the spring. The wine ages very quietly and just kind of slowly develops. If you cellar it, it will evolve for another 10 years, it just keeps wandering in the bottle. We actually make this in half bottles too and price it accordingly.” You can find a bottle here.
“So, then there’s this wine, I’ve been sourcing the grapes for it for about 25 years, since its first real crop,” Mark explains as he poured me a glass of his 2015 Shea. “That first year was a crop failure year, so we only produced .6 tons an acre. Shea is my favorite vineyard, it’s very distinctive, it has a very clear profile. I’ve made wine from this vineyard longer than anybody, Ken Wright started making Shea the same year I did. This was the wine that broke Robert Parker’s 93-point barrier when awarded 94 points, Robert awarded it in the last vintage he was a reviewer. Eight years later, Pierre Rovani took over as the Robert Parker reviewer, I was the first person to receive 94-points from Pierre, which was also for the Shea. This is a great vineyard it’s extremely consistent, even in cold vintages it’s something I’m proud to have made. What makes a great vineyard in Burgundy? Consistency, that means that even in difficult years, it produces really good wine that ages well. The most important thing is complexity of flavor. Shea is probably the broadest wine with the most going on, and as you drink it, over the period of the bottle, it just keeps developing; it’s a fascinating bottle of wine, I adore it. It doesn’t see a lot of oak, it used to get the most oak but now it gets the smallest amount of oak out of my wines – depending on the vintage. The vineyard has always been farmed beautifully, In almost all of the vineyards that I don’t own, the vines that I source from were actually planted specifically for me. I’m the only one who’s ever made wine from those plants in those vineyards. I buy it specifically by the block, then they farm and handle it for me. I have currently about 6.3 acres at Shea, which will make about 900 cases.” This was my favorite of the days wines. You can find a bottle here.
If you are a wine connoisseur, you know that some vintages are particularly special. I wondered when in the process, Mark knows that he has a particularly special vintage. “I don’t know until probably about 6 months after I bottle it. I’ve had wines that I thought were beautiful in barrel and bottle that did nothing. I’ve had wines that I thought were just ok that 6 months later were fabulous. I don’t think you know until you get it in the bottle and give it time to get over bottle shock; that’s when you start to see what’s happening. With the 2015’s, I didn’t expect them to be the way they turned out; it turned out to be a very nice vintage. The 2014, 2015, and 2016 vintages had hot temperatures early, and the 2015 was the most moderate at harvest, but I thought they’d have more acid and be a little tougher. I just love these 2015 wines, if you don’t like my 2015 vintages, you don’t like my wines. I can’t do any better; they are beautiful, they are distinctive, and they are food friendly. One of the wisest things my dad said to me is, “you buy Cabernet by the vineyard, but you buy Pinot Noir by the person.” Truer words were never spoken. I drink the wines I drink and make the wines I make because I love their texture, their balance of flavor, the way they unfold in the glass, and the relatively even impact they present on your palate and in your nose. The flavors should keep coming. The best way to find your ideal Pinot Noir maker, is to ask a sommelier or a wine shop owner that knows his wines. Have them recommend one, then go back and provide them with a full rundown about what you liked and didn’t like about it, then have them recommend another one. If you do that over and over, you will find a Pinot Noir that you love, and you’ll no longer be spending money on wines you don’t like.”
So, what separates the Winemakers in the Willamette Valley from those that produce wines in other regions? “Willamette Valley Winemakers are unique in their cooperation, experimentation, and innovation. Essentially, from the very beginning, we were not arrogant at all. We knew that we didn’t know what we didn’t know and that the only way we were going to have a chance, was to talk to each other and to work together. The Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference is one of the early things that came out of that. The whole idea was to come and share. What did you do? How did it work? What did the wine taste like? What would you do differently next time? We listened to other people and shared our experiences when we had faced similar problems. After we worked through problems, we would communicate the results of the fixes. Oregon makes 1% of the wine of California and has 1.5% of the vineyards of California; our yields are much lower than California. We have a lot of experimental plantings. We replicate test plots in different vineyards, have different root stock trials, and different clone trials. Asking questions and thinking the process through is something we are good at. We’re always thinking about what we can do that’s different and then adjusting. For example, we originally planted like they did in California, then we planted like they did in parts of France, eventually we figured out that neither of those worked here. Now we are planting much like what’s planted in Alsace, not because we went to Alsace, but because it worked in Oregon. I’d say that the cooperation between us is the thing that people notice the most. We like each other and we get along, inter-reliance is important and we accept it as a way of doing business; that doesn’t happen other places.
For some, myself included, a perfect wine day might be spending an afternoon tasting wine in the Willamette Valley or another wine region. St. Innocent in particular would be a great place to spend some leisure time. Mark’s perfect wine day takes it to another level. “On my perfect wine day, I’m in southern France in the Minevois area. I go to my friend’s place Coupe Roses, which is small Minevois winery. We go to the weekend market in Narbonne, and we eat sea food and drink wine, then we go back to their place and we taste the new vintage that’s bottled. They have all these old grape vines and a little outdoor grill that’s very simple next to a little swimming pool. They grill lamb shoulder chops and we make a big salad. We eat crusty bread, a vegetable or something braised, and we sit with Pascal and Francoise and Mathias and others. We just drink wine watching the sunset and hang out into the evening at which point, my friend pulls out this liquor that he makes from young Walnut leaves called Nocino (or something like that). It’s an alcohol he makes with sugar extract from the baby walnut leaves and then ages. It’s a sort of digestif with kind of tannins and weird green stuff in it, but it tastes great. I’ve visited many times. If you’re ever in Southern France, you want to go to the weekend farmer’s market in Narbonne and you want to just pull up a chair with people, bring some food over and enjoy the time eating and drinking. As the shops close, the people in the shops come over and eat and drink too. It’s just this fabulous market. To sit in that part of Southern France and just grill some meat and have a really simple dish with fabulous olive oil and a rustic-not-fancy wine there is just nothing better in my world than that.”
Now that Mark and St. Innocent are settled into the new winery, there are a few things coming on the horizon that Mark is excited about. “I love Riesling, I’ve always wanted to make one. In 2015 and 2016 we planted Riesling at Temperance Hill, it’s at a high altitude and on an east facing hill with poor soil. It’s a project that I started six years ago. I first had to figure out what the plants were, then it took me two years to get the plants because there wasn’t very many of them available, and we had to get the roots right. Now finally we’re going to get the first grapes from it. We’re going to get maybe a barrel this year, probably about 24 cases, but eventually I’ll make a couple hundred cases. My intention is to make it in a really true Mosel Kabinett Trocken style. The plan is to pick at around 20 brix and leave it with somewhere between 8 and 12 grams of sugar. Hopefully, it will be in the range of about 10% alcohol with searing acidity. My Dad imported all of these wonderful Mosel Rieslings from vineyards way back in the 60’s. My favorite harvest was the year he came out and brought a case of Mosel single vineyard Riesling, all the bottles were at least 20 years old. We drank one every night; I don’t remember much about the harvest itself, but I remember drinking those Rieslings every night. I’m really hoping I can pull this off. Secondly, I’m excited to taste the Pinot Blanc sparkling wine that is almost ready. I’ve made Brut, Blanc du Noir, and Blanc du Blanc, but I’ve never made sparkling wine from Pinot Blanc. I’m hoping it will be a lot like Crémant d’Alsace. The Pinot Blanc in Alsace makes a really good sparkling wine because it is significantly warmer there than it is in Champagne and it’s slightly warmer than Burgundy. Alsace also has a much drier fall than Burgundy or Oregon. I think Alsace is a good base line for Oregon, I picked it with that in mind. We did a fermentation in thousand-liter Acacia casks, which is tradition. Acacia basically doesn’t give off any flavor, and it doesn’t really toast it; it’s basically neutral. It’s also certainly a more oxidative environment, even though its twice as thick as other barrels; you’ve got 1/4 of the penetration but you still get a little touch of air. We will release the first Crémant d’Innocent next spring (150 cases). I’m very excited next spring to pop some of those.”
Willamette Valley has no shortage of talented winemakers who make fantastic wines, but Mark Vlossak has a passion for wine making that left an impression on me. He is well versed in the finer points of making refined, balanced, and complex wines and his wines are exactly that. After decades in the business he continues to seek out new ways to improve upon his vintages and to blaze trails on producing new styles in Oregon. St. Innocent is producing wines you simply can’t miss. You can buy some here, or visit St. Innocent’s Vineyard and tasting room at 10052 Enchanted Way SE, in Jefferson Oregon.