Newberg is a small village in the Willamette valley southwest of Portland. The winding road to there is going through a scenic farming landscape of gentle hills with woods, barns, prairies with horses, orchards and vineyards. This is the area of the Ribbon Ridge AVA, an appellation part of the Willamette valley appellation.
Doug Tunnell turned to winemaking after another career as a CBS foreign correspondant. After studying International Affairs at Lewis & Clark University in Portland, he travelled extensively for CBS, covering world events in Europe and the Middle East from 1975 to 1992. But he eventually decided to dig roots in his native Newberg, plant vines there, buying a 40-acre farm near Newberg and founding the Brick House winery, named from the brick farm in the middle of the property (quite rare in the region).
The vineyards of Brick House, which were certified organic very early in 1990 (by Oregon Tilth), are also certified biodynamic (Demeter USA) since 2005. They make just under 30 acres which makes 12 hectares.
Biodynamic certification in the United States is stricter than in other countries as it doesn't only take into account the vineyard management, but also the cellar practices : you can't add acid, sugar, you can't use enzymes or other additives when certified biodynamic. Check this Demeter USA document (page 38 to 42) for the rules : no concentration of must, no micro-ox, no lab yeast, no, pasteurization of juice, no yeast nutrients, no acid or sugar adjustment, no enzymes, tannin, casein, silica dioxide, isinglass, blood, gelatin, gum arabic, carbon, copper, sulfate etc...Reading these rules tells a lot about the extent of corrections elsewhere in the conventional wineries.
Doug Tunnell adds that the organic certification which is Federal also requires the respect of cellar-practice rules. He says though that very few consumers seem to understand the value of that.
This tasting room is very simple and homey, there a nice Vermont Castings stove on the side (as a stove geek, I spotted it immediately) and the terrace is so welcoming you'd spend hours sipping wine in the shade...
__ Brick House Chardonnay 2011. Barrel fermentation on indigenous yeast, barrel aged in neutral oak and on its lees the whole time, full malolactic.
__ Brick House Gamay Noir 2011 Ribbon Ridge. Alan says that they aged this in the most neutral barrels they have. With the pinot noir they use lioke 20 % new oak for cool years like 2011 and 30 % in the warm vintages. The wine has a bright, clear color. The nose is very appealing, gourmand. Very enjoyable wine, some pepper aromas, very gentle wine. Easy drinking, nice fruit, very pleasurable.
Then Doug Tunnell joins us and explains about the gamay vinification, he says that it's even more simple than the one of the pinot noir : open top fermentation, they bring the gamay in, the grapes coming from 3 blocks around the facility on the hill, they destem the grapes entirely before loading them in the fermenters, and they just walk away, essentially... Usually they pick in october (in 2013 it will be in september), so they don't need temperature control, but they have panels in case they need to. Doug says that fermentation wise, he likes to not exceed 28 ° C if he can, 26 ° C being even better, with longer fermentation time. And this is valid for the pinot too, you get this way esters yielding beautiful aromatics. Asked about the gentle lightness of this gamay, he says that the vintage is there, and the 2012 is much darker, almost like syrah, even with the same vinification. The gamay spends a shorter time in the tank, as the pinot spends 30 days there, and whole-clustered.
This Gamay is unfiltered, Doug says that they don't filter any wines here. They may occasionally fine pinot, but only when they taste too much tannins. This Gamay makes 12,3 ° in alcohol, he says. 2011 was a cool year with rains and late harvest, gamay being picked the 28th of october, he says (this year should be before the end of september). Gamay is a rare variety around here, and few growers or wineries have some, somehow the variety is still shunned by the consumers like pinot noir was 40 years ago. Asked who makes gamay around here, he says WillaKenzie has some, Evening Land too, Amity has just planted some, there may be 7 growers/wineries doing some, that's all. In california he knows about Edmunds St. John in the Sierra Foothills but its fairly rare. Doug is often asked by people why did he plant gamay here instead of "noble grapes" like pinot noir or chardonnay, with which he could make more money, but he likes the grapes and the wines, he doesn't regret it at all. He has almost 5 acres of gamay here, the first rows dating from 1992 and the last planting dating from 2008.
Doug says that gamay is perfectly stable in terms of ph, they can leave the grapes out and harvest them in october and it will still come in at a ph of 3,24, while i,n september it will still be about 3,24... so, he never touches the acidity of the wine, just leaving the grapes out for the right sugar, and almost every year they label it as a biodynamic wine because it's unaldurated.
As I don't see the usual black tubes running under the rows, I ask Doug about the irrigation issue and he says that it's dry farmed at Brick House, there is no irrigation. tHey just put a drip system for one year for the new plantings and after a year they take the system away and the vines are on their own. He says that here in Oregon there are a number like him who do without irrigation, but with the new acrage being planted since the last 15 years by people coming with California training and expertise, irrigated surface has grown, because in California there's a common reliance on irrigation for comfort factor and new growers brought this mindset with them. Doug Tunnel is btw part of the DRC (for "Deep Roots Coalition" or "Dry Roots Coalition") gathering 20 or 30 Oregon wineries/growers who don't use irrigation. [it wasn't planned but it happens that all the wineries using Oregon grapes that I visited during this trip are members of DRC...]. Some of them are young, virtual wineries who buy the fruits from dry-farming growers, so this is very positive because there's the understanding of the value of working with non irrigated vines.
Recently he had his staff take the wing off, the wing being an almost separate part at the base of the cluster, and which we call the rachis in French if I'm right. This wing is always late to ripen compared to the primary, and so they take it off to make the clusters more evenly riped at the end. It's a costly operation because the crew needs lots of time to do that.
Every other row is left with grass, the other being plowed, but if there was serious rain they would mow the grass. This way, they can also keep the tractor running for the spring sprayings (it can be very muddy when it rains and the grass is tractor friendly). Speaking of spraying, they spray sulfur but no copper. Instead of copper they use good alternatives like herb teas and so on. What helps is that here in Oregon they don't have downy mildew which is the problem in Burgundy and the reason they use lots of copper-based products. He uses here sulfur against powdery mildew, which is also named known as oidium.
There are lots of Queen Ann Lace which is also a wild carrot, and it's good because beyond its nice flowers and insect help, when it dies, it yields good aeration in the ground.
We passed at one point along some of the rows of gamay, this is ungrafted gamay as well and Doug says that they're very healthy, they haven't been affected. The grafted/ungrafted ration on the property is roughly 50 % each. The high proportion of ungrafted is because they did much of the planting in 1990 before they knew there was some phylloxera here. He's happy to have had 20 to 22 good harvests with these vines and when phylloxera will show up they will replant progessively, as happilly, this disease is a slow phenomenon. All new plantings are now on rootstock.
They had a green harvest recently here, not only the wings (or shoulders, or ears, it has many names) but also whole clusters, because these clones of gamay give lots of fruit. Doug says that it's a lot of work to take off fruit : they have overall 40 000 vines here which makes a total of 560 000 clusters, so it makes a lot of wings (rachis) to check and put down...
At the time of our visit, Veraison hadn't started yet but it was supposed to come soon. On the pinot noir, or at least in a parcel where we walked, they took 33 % of the load off, they do this early in the season so that not to have the vine work for nothing. In this parcel of pinot where the vines are more distanced from each other, he changed the trellising last year from single guyot to double guyot, with 5 shoots on each and no more than 2 clusters on each shoot.
Shortly afterwards we passed the area where the biodynamic compost is laid to rest (pic on left), these heaps were made in the spring of 2012, with the preperations inside. They use cow manure from an organic dairy (milk farm). He gets a good manure, dry but not run through a dryer which is how compost manure is often made. In the big dairies they sometimes accelerate the drying mechanicly, and it takes away lots of the life force of the manure.
We passed as well the barn with the farming tools, including an interesting Yanmar tractor on caterpillars (on right).
We walk back to the facility after this short walk around, everything is so close to each other here, it's amazing. The chardonnay for example is just 35 feet from its end destination, they may pass the refrigerated truck here...
That's not the 1st time I came here actually, we came once in 2006 with B. and our friend from Canada as we were driving through the region; I was supposed to make a visit but I hadn't called ahead and when we dropped there the house and facility were empty, nobody around. This time I had a phone (thank you Walmart for these prepaid phones with unlimited talk !) and my friend Deborah helped too... Whatever, better late than never, here I am. Doug says that the winery hadn't found its name at the beginning and as the workers who did the planting kept speaking of the brick house as meeting point, Doug and his wife knew this was it...
Alan is outside with visitors when we come back, there seems to be a steady stream of visitors and individual buyers here. 50 % of the wine is sold to distributors and about 500 % directly, including on the Internet, shey ship directly almost everywhere except Massachussets.
__ Brick House Chardonnay 2012, from a cask. The grapes come from the "barn" parcel, these are the ungrafted vines right near the facility, the ones we were saying were only 35 feet from the barn. This is one of the 2 new barrels that they have with the chardonnay, otherwise they use older wood. 2012 was a season where they had 126 days without any rain, pretty nice weather, and the crop was small in volume. The wine has more richness than the 2011 that we tasted when we arrived.
__ Brick House Gamay Noir 2012. Less pepper than in the 2011, Deborah notes. There is more concentration and color, but the vinification was the same as well as the ph, there's just more sugar because of the weather. The tannins are nice here, I like it too even though it's bigger than the 2011.
__ Brick House, Pinot Noir 2012, new oak (from the forêt de Jupilles in France). He rotates the casks and when they're too old for the pinot, he uses them for the gamay because he doesn't want any oaky side on the gamay. For the gamay he just want a long oxidation through neutral casks.
The pinot doesn't taste very oaky to me, Doug says that the type of oak from Jupy plays a role, it's a very tight grain and it doesn't leak much wood taste in the wine. The pinot stays about 15 or 16 months in casks and the gamay 12. Then there's an élevage in bottles, 2 or 3 years. Bottling is made by hand, using two 6-spout fillers, just by gravity. I think that this plays a role in the end quality of the wine, no filtration and a simple gravity filling. The SO2 is added in the casks just before the final blend, but there's no adding at bottling.
__ Brick House Pinot Noir 2011, they call it Cuvée du Tonnellier as a reminder that his name Tonnell, comes from the French word tonnellier or cooper. Quite appropriate for Doug's embraced carrer... They don't do this cuvée every year, but that's the case for the other cuvées too, the vintage has to allow it. More or less, he makes 5 different cuvées of pinot, usually one of cgardonnay and one of gamay, that's all. The nose is lovely here, I really have a crush for this vintage. There's something vibrant in this wine. Very enjoyable to drink.
We taste another few bottles now :
__ Brick House Pinot Noir Les Dijonnais 2011. These are grafted vines. Also relatively clear color, reflecting the lighter vintage 2011. Doug says that this color illustrates ther fact that color means nothing for pinot, in the sense for esxample that if you see a pinot 2011 with a dark, purple and inky color, it means that it's been probably been manipulated, and the lack of color is not bad at all actually. People will alas often shy away when looking at the color of this wine (2011) because they have the preconception that red wine needs to be dark to be good... Doug says that this wine will take back color by itself and look much darker in another 3 to 5 years. It happens all the time and he doesn't know how it works exactly. Lovely wine indeed, easy drinking, very elegant.
__ Brick House, Pinot Noir Evelyn's 2011. This is the top cuvée, Named from his mother's 1st name. from what I understand. Very nice color, clear red again, looking lightly turbid. tHe mouth is more demonstrative, more intense feel. The wine will be even better Doug says, in 3 or 4 years for a better integration. He says that there's more whole-clustered, more oak in this wine. The whole-clustered part is 50 % compared to 20 % in 2012. The reason is that harvest in 2011 was november 2nd which was very late compared to 2012 (oct 8 and 9) and not only the fruit, but the stems had had time to ripen perfectly, lignifying nicely. He checks the stem with their color or even by chewing them. Usually he picks a bit earlier than his colleagues, he targets wines that are more delicate and can complement food, rather than high alcohol. One of his neighbors pick before him though. The time of the picking has to do with the character of the fermentation; in the early season, the fruit has still lots of nitrogen in it, and the longer you leave it out, the more that nitrogen is used, and when you bring the grapes in you may have more chance to get stinky fermentations because of low nitrogen. By picking earlier you have more natural food for those yeasts, you get more floral aromas.
As we were speaking of these picking-time issues and Doug told us about this relation between picking time and yeast nutrients, I ask if when winemakers use enzymes it's for that purpose ? Doug say no, it's primarily to extract color, and also, as advertised by additives companies, to extract certain aromas like blueberry, strawberry aromas. But lots of people do it for color extraction and he's very suspicious again when he sees an inky pinot noir from 2011 with a dark color, because there's a good chance the color was extracted through additives. The problem with enzymes is you don't only extract color or strawberry aromas but also other things like tannin, they get a harder edge, and you can taste it in the wine.
Doug has been taking part to the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) since 1994, every other year. This event has become a major wine event in the U.S. with lots of good food prepared by renowned chefs from the region to go with the international selection of pinot noir wines. Guest speakers are invited at the IPNC every year, people like Lalou Bize-Leroy, Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker, Christophe Roumier, Dominique Lafon, Comte Georges de Vogüé or Eric Asimov.
Jamie Goode's profile of Brick House
Featured American wineries at IPNC (including Brick House)
NY Times Story about organic Oregon wineries, beginning with Brick House (by Bonnie Tsui)
Read Voodoo Vintners by Katherine Cole, about Oregon's astonishing biodynamic winegrowers. You can also buy the book at Powell's, the unique and huge bookstore of Portland, an institution by itself (I bought it there). See the pictures related with this book here.