I arrived at Willamette Valley Vineyards’ tasting room on a picturesque and sun filled afternoon. Before I got out of the car, I was already in awe of the scenery. The tasting room sits nestled within gorgeous rolling hills, and there were beautiful vines everywhere holding bunches of grapes nearly ready for harvest. Before entering the tasting room, I paused to appreciate the moment, the warmth of the sun, and the heaven that is Oregon wine country. The tasting room itself is impressive. It’s large, it’s open, and has views of the Willamette Valley that are perhaps unmatched. My friend Kyle (Stilwell – who also periodically writes for thebarrelcellar.com) and I wandered up to the tasting room bar and ordered a couple of tasting flights complimented by a charcuterie plate. We next chose a spot just inside the large windows where we could enjoy the fantastic view of the valley and people watch those taking advantage of the beautiful day on the porch. Unfortunately, I was unable to schedule time that day to speak to head wine maker Joe Ibrahim, but I was able to speak to him via phone a few short days later.
“2019 marks my fourth harvest with Willamette Valley Vineyards,” Joe begins. Joe held multiple internships and other full-time winemaker roles before being hired at Willamette Valley Vineyards by the founder and “winegrower” Jim Bernau. Jim is no longer making wine there and has fully ceded head-winemaking duties to Joe. “The great thing about working for Jim is that he has given me full reign of the wines. I appreciate that he had trust in me to make me Willamette Valley Vineyard’s head winemaker, and to make great wine. He is really supportive, which helps the creative process that comes with wine making. He doesn’t try to push, sway, or convince me to do something that would seem uncomfortable or out of character, I am able to make the wines I’d like to make. There is however a kind of a house style that people have come to know and love about Willamette Valley Vineyards and I try to stay within the bounds of that. I don’t get too edgy with the winemaking, that’s when you can get into trouble creating things that people aren’t going to like. I also think there is a cohesion where it just happens to be that the wines I like to make work well with what Willamette Valley Vineyards does. Winemaking here has been a lot of fun, it’s a balance of process and art.”
Childhood experimenting is what led Joe to winemaking. “My parents were both physicians, so I was left to my own devices a lot as a child. I was kind of a nerdy kid; I thought it was really fun to mix things from around the house together. I would mix just about anything that I could find in the absence of a grown up. So, anything from a mix of shampoo and spices, to whatever I could find in my dad’s garage. One day I mixed baking yeast and juice together and it started bubbling. I just thought that was the coolest thing. It was later that I came to learn that the bubbling was due to fermentation that was happening; I was just fascinated by it. My parents ended up getting me a home winemaking kit and a little book called the Home Wine-Maker’s Recipe Guide. The book contained instructions and recipes on how to ferment just about anything, from turnips, to tomatoes, to dandelions, and that’s what I would do. I would ferment these things, never to consume them (of course). I was way too young to understand what consumption meant or what imbibing a fermented beverage meant. The end fermentations weren’t palatable, but I had great fun with the fermentation process, doing the analysis, putting it in a bottle, corking the bottle, making labels, and then giving it away as gifts to family members. So, that’s kind of how it started.”
“As I got older, I was thinking about what to do in college. I always had a fascination with the natural world and plants. I went to the University of Vermont, studied plant and soil science, and got a bachelor’s degree. My first semester, I was so bored with the classes, I went to my advisor and said, “this is not what I was expecting, I was hoping to get more hands-on learning.” He recommended I do an internship and gave me a binder that listed available internships in the state of Vermont. It happened that one of them was a small winery in northern Vermont. It was a small 5-acre place called Snow Farm Vineyard and Winery. I went and talked to them, and they offered me the internship. I worked there off and on throughout college, it’s where I really fell in love with growing grapes and making wine in a professional setting. The operation was small enough that I was able to gain well rounded and valuable experience in many aspects of winemaking. It’s where I first gained experience with what I call the four seasons of the winemaker. In the winter, you have to bury the grape vines in the northern climate because it’s so cold and snowy. Then in the springtime you unearth them, you cut back anything that died, put the vines back on the trellises and focus on growing. In the summer, you take care of the vines and vineyard. The fall of course brings harvest, making wine, cold stabilizing, and bottling. The four seasons of the wine maker is perhaps the thing I love most about winemaking.”
Interning as a winemaker allowed Joe to learn some valuable lessons that would prevent disasters from occurring later in his career. “There are always those experiences with equipment failure that have resulted in a large wine loss. When I was an intern and was just starting, our wine volumes weren’t high. Towards the end of a day, trying to multi-task, I was cleaning up while we were transferring wine from one tank to another tank. I took a squeegee and started cleaning the area near a pump that was running. I gently lifted the hose and it popped off the pump. It shot wine across the winery. The wine maker ran to the tank and closed the valve, but in the end we lost a ton of wine. I didn’t get yelled at, though I could tell by the look on the winemaker’s face, he wasn’t happy. I’ve learned from those experiences, and I now try to remind young people in the cellar that mistakes happen; it’s part of the growing process.”
“When I graduated college, there weren’t really any jobs in winemaking in Vermont. At the time, my brother was finishing up his medical degree at the University of Washington, he said “why don’t you come up to Washington, we have a great wine industry here.” So, I did just that. It took some time, but I eventually got a job working for Chateau Ste Michelle and then Columbia Crest. Those jobs were my first foray into large scale winemaking. Initially I was hired to work in the vineyards at Chateau Ste Michelle as an intern. That season finished with me helping to scout the vineyards. I worked with the winemakers and viticulturist. Once the season ended, I asked what are we going to do now? They told me the plan would be to review data we had collected, which I thought sounded terribly boring. Fortunately, it happened that another internship became available at Columbia Crest, so I applied, and they accepted me. I had a wonderful experience working at Columbia Crest that harvest, and then, at the end of the harvest they hired me as their knowledgist; I was working with the winemaker essentially. That was my first full time job, making red wines for Columbia Crest.”
Joe’s true passion, as stated in his bio on Willamette Valley Vineyard’s website, is crafting premium cool climate wine varietals. “Knowing your grapes and how to get what you want out of them is important. I mean, to me that’s really the point in being in the industry. A good winemaker is someone who can anticipate how to make wines of depth from the grapes of a vintage. A good wine maker should have a unique ability and perception. They aren’t missing things and can accurately assess the steps necessary to make a wine and pull it all together at the end. It’s not just tossing some grapes in the tank, mashing them down, packaging them up and shipping them out. I like to see some intention there. I really have a hard time when a wine lacks focus. For instance, good wine to me, doesn’t have off aromas or poor balance of tannin and acid. Wine that is out of balance can be awkward or seem disjointed. You don’t want one aspect sticking out, for example, a one-dimensional aroma or a single overwhelming flavor characteristic. Personally, I tend to like wines that are fruit first and full bodied. I like them to have multiple underlying elements that complement each-other, those elements could be oak or other complexity and character notes. So, when I drink wine, those are some things that I notice, but for the most part I really just enjoy exploring wine and the world of wine. For me wine is about the whole experience, different regions, winemakers, styles, and varieties. In the end, a good winemaker will put focus and thought on producing something, given the style, that the end consumer will really enjoy; that’s what’s probably most important.”
“I describe winemaking as kind of a decision tree. Of course, from the time a vine is planted, there are a lot of things that happen, some in a winemaker’s control and some not. The decision tree however really starts off when you pick the grapes. You pick, of course, on a day when you think the grapes look well developed and the chemistry looks good. Then, when you get into the winery, you start exposing the grapes to a series of decisions. Will you de-stem, go whole cluster, or utilize a stainless-steel tank? What temperature will you ferment at and how many punch downs or pump overs will you perform? When it comes to aging, what type of barrels will you use, how old are the barrels, how long are you going to age the wine, are you willing to make adjustments to it while it ages? The end wine is dependent on the paths you choose along the way. If you are making a blended wine, hopefully you’ve given yourself enough options to successfully make a quality wine blend with the character you had intended. Wrong choices result in the wine never reaching the potential that you thought it had when you picked it, conversely sometimes you are pleasantly surprised at the end. Planning, foresight, and experience give you a better chance of having enough options to achieve your goal with a wine, but you are constantly revising the plan to shape a wine into what you initially envisioned when you first picked. Part of being a wine maker is just reflexing and responding to the wine and making changes on the fly. After all, the goal is to make something the consumer will enjoy and appreciate.”
“We make 28 different varieties and almost 50 individual wine blends. So, the process with our wines is different across the board. With each wine I try to do the best I can while staying true to myself. You have to decide early on what type of wine maker you want to be. Do you want to be a winemaker who does extensive calculations and measures things down to the tenth of a fraction on ingredients, or do you want to rely on your intuition a little bit more and wing it -to an extent? Some winemakers tend to be very precise and others are very intuitive, they don’t worry about the minutia. I tend to gravitate towards broad strokes rather than fine details. That’s the way I’ve always been; I don’t really get hung up on the really small decisions. I taste the wine, smell the wine, look at the wine, use intuition, and decide what it needs. I’m not afraid to add yeast. I think it makes a better wine in the end. I don’t really mess around with wild fermentations that much. I really can’t afford for something to go wrong or risk having a diminished quality of a vintage when compared to it’s potential. Also, the amount of time it can take to nurse something back to health takes away from time I could be spending on other wines that need attention. Additionally, I tend to ignore marketing when it comes to different yeast strains. Marketers love to tell you that their new strain offers a specific profile perfectly suited for this or that. A joke of mine that I use around the cellar is that my favorite kind of yeast is the one that gets the job done. In truth I tend to rely on introducing yeast to ensure our wine is the best it can be. I’ve read some reports that say often, wild fermentations end up being some commercial yeast that’s living in the winery, and often the wild yeast is not the one that finishes the fermentation. It’s either died off or has been out competed by the most robust yeast in that environment. I think that’s really telling so you either paid for a something, or you didn’t pay for something and then in the end the strong survived anyway.”
Of all the wines he’s made in his career to date, if Joe were to choose one to introduce himself with, he would choose Willamette Valley Vineyard’s Bernau Block Pinot Noir. “I love our Bernau Block Pinot Noir. It’s one of my favorites. It’s an estate wine, grown from the first 15 acres of Pinot Noir vines planted on this property. If you are sitting in our tasting room and looking west, you would see the block. It is definitely one of the wines that I feel most closely connected to. I feel it most closely matches the style of wine that I like to make. Vintage after vintage, regardless if it’s a particularly good vintage or a bad one. The wine has good color, richness, and earthiness to it. There are layers of complexity and character; it’s the very essence of Pinot Noir. I just can’t get enough of it. I put a lot of effort and focus into getting that one right.” The 2016 Vintage of Willamette Valley Vineyards received 93 points from James Suckling.
How does Joe know that he has a particularly special vintage in the making? “It’s one of those things that you just start to pick up on over time. Gabi Prefontaine, the assistant winemaker and I taste the wines together as they are fermenting and as they are being pressed off; we taste them every day. It wasn’t long into the vintage last year before we knew it was going to be something special; last year as a whole was an outstanding vintage. When you start fermenting and you’re tasting consistently you can start to see how things are going. It’s great when you are part way through fermentation and the white wines start to taste really fresh and fruit forward, you just look at each other and say, “man this is really good.” So, with a good vintage, when that continues from day to day and tasting to tasting, you start realizing that a wine or multiple wines are really amazing. I mean they’re good when raw, they’re good when you’re pressing them off, they’re good when going through malolactic fermentation. You just get giddy at the quality of the wines.”
How is 2019 looking from a quality of vintage perspective? “That’s a tough question. I’ve been preaching the 2018 vintage is probably going to be the best vintage that Oregon has ever experienced, although it had some heat spikes. This year, if you look at the weather trends, it’s almost identical to 2018 but without the heat spikes and no forest fires or smoke. The thing is, we’ve had these sporadic little spurts of precipitation throughout the growing season – which have continued up until right now (early September). So, this leaves me with a bit of uncertainty. I hope the weather turns dry through the rest of September so we can have nice even ripening and pick without the threat of rain. If it goes that way, it looks to be another outstanding vintage. Yields look very good; not too heavy not too light. Knock on wood for dry weather and everything else should be perfectly fine.”
Joe, having worked in multiple wine regions across the country has a unique perspective on what is unique among the winemakers of the Willamette Valley. “There is definitely a camaraderie among Willamette Valley winemakers, it really feels like we are part of a club. From a career standpoint we want to help each other succeed. We share our experiences when it comes to terroir as well as what works and what doesn’t. We make a point to share details of our successes and failures so others can benefit from them. We really are in it together. My experience in the California scene was that it is more of an us vs them atmosphere. They have a lot of big players and big operations; it is definitely more competitive there. I really feel there is a connection between the winemakers here. We know each other, we like each other, we like to get together and talk and learn and help each other out. I really appreciate that. We as a team recognize that and we talk about it a lot. Mark (from St. Innocent – who is neighbors with WVV) and us do what we can to help each other, and it goes the same for other winemakers across the valley. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Joe would like to express his hope that readers of http://www.thebarrelcellar.com give Willamette Valley Vineyards a try or pay a visit to the tasting room. I recommend you do both. “We have a beautiful tasting room and hospitality is what we do best. We want to share our wines and we really want to show people a good time. We love to take care of people and our restaurant is fantastic.” A visit to the tasting room will be a great opportunity to experience their new sparkling wine program. “It’s something that we started when we released our first sparkling wine in 2017 – a 2014 brut. We did a 2015 brut and then in 2016 we did both a brut and a brut rose, which we’re going to release in October 2019. Further down the road, a blanc du blanc will be released as part of the 2017 vintage (2020 release). To date, the program has been very highly regarded. People like it, I’m excited about it. Sparkling wine is a lot of fun to make and it will be essentially the foundation of a new facility we are building, which will be the Bernau Estate in Dundee. We’ve broken ground on it, sparkling wine will be a focus. All of our sparkling and high-end wines from the Willamette Valley and our project in eastern Oregon will be sold out of there. We are very excited about it.”