Jim Prosser loves his work. He'd tell you so himself, but right now he's catching up on some sleep--like two or three months' worth. The passing of the Thanksgiving weekend marks the beginning of a time when, for a little while at least, local winemakers can finally breathe a sigh of relief. The harvest is in, the wine is in the barrel, and, hopefully, they've just banked some much-needed cash on the heels of an open-house weekend. But for an emerging new guard of Oregon winemakers, including J.K. Carriere's Prosser, Brooks Winery's Jimi Brooks and J. Christopher's Jay Somers, there's little time to rest and always more to do.
Passionate, opinionated and committed to making wine that shows off the stellar fruits of Oregon, any one of these young winemakers could be held up as an example of the next wave of Willamette Valley vintners. All three have released their first bottling in recent years--J. Christopher in 1996, Brooks in 1998 and J.K. Carriere in 1999--and they all have a special place in their hearts for the Willamette Valley's fickle queen, pinot noir, which is all J.K. Carriere produces. Both Brooks and J. Christopher also produce a couple of white varietals, including a fine riesling (Brooks) and a sauvignon blanc/pinot gris blend (J. Christopher).
The challenge of carrying on the tradition of people like Dick Erath and David Lett is no small affair, but these vintners show signs of being around for the long haul. Says Harry Peterson-Nedry, Chehalem Wines' head winemaker, "The Oregon wine industry is entering one of its most exciting waves yet, one in which a number of technically astute apprentices are striking out on their own. These three winemakers are leading that wave."
Far from brash, they have done their time at larger Willamette Valley vineyards, listening to their teachers along the way, and the quality of their first efforts shows what a lot of hard work can yield.
And it doesn't come easily. Without the massive amounts of capital boasted by such vineyard standouts as Archery Summit and Domaine Drouhin Oregon (DDO) or the cachet of Oregon wine-industry founders such as Erath, the amount of sweat equity involved is much higher. Putting in long hours to learn the nuances of the trade is par for the course, but paying attention takes on new meaning when you're planning to make your own wine in the near future. Prosser did his time with such notable producers as Erath Vineyards, DDO and Brick House, and his first vintage, the 1999 J.K. Carriere, is just about sold out. He makes no bones about the progression, saying wryly, "Working at Erath was essentially long hours of wet, cold, crappy work for shitty pay. And every day I left with a huge grin."
The grin is the most important thing, since even now, as all three make wine for themselves, there is more than enough cold, wet, crappy work to go around. The common theme the three share is a love of what good wine can inspire in people, including themselves. But their collective résumé looks like an exercise in career experimentation. Brooks has a degree in literature and fell in love with wine in Beaujolais while traveling. Somers, who released his first J. Christopher wines five years ago, got into wine through brewing beer at McMenamins after college, followed by some time in the vineyards of New Zealand and a long stint with Cameron Winery's mad professor of enology, John Paul. Meanwhile, Prosser was working at Xerox until he succumbed to his desire to be "an architect, a chef or a winemaker" and headed to Yamhill County to get things started.
Central to all of their approaches to the craft is the belief that good wine starts in the vineyard, even if none of them has his own at this point. Relying instead on close relationships with area grape producers, they all have a lot to say about what happens to "their" fruit. "I spend a lot of time with my growers, working closely with them," says Brooks, adding with a laugh, "pestering them, really." This hands-on approach to the whole process is but another example of their desire to create a product that reflects a connection to the land and the spirit of the area.
Winemaking, like any labor of love and sweat, is serious business and requires equal parts farming knowledge, comfort with chemistry and an obsessive attention to detail. In spite of this, none of these three takes himself all that seriously. When asked after the harvest about the philosophy behind his wine, Somers laughed and said, "At this point, it's pretty hard to think about it as philosophical. I just want to sit down and have a beer." All three of them are generous with their commentary on the subtleties of wine and the people who make it, and they are quick to agree on the blessings of making wine in the Willamette Valley. It's no small privilege to benefit from the reputation that the first generation of Oregon winemakers created, something that is not lost on these upstarts. "We get to build on the work of the pioneering Oregon winemakers, and because of them, when we put 'Willamette Valley' on our bottles, we don't have to explain where that is," Prosser offers. "There's a covenant in that, as well as a responsibility to the future."
You can find these wines in better wine shops around the Portland area, including, but not limited to, E&R Wine Merchants, Liner & Elsen, Great Wine Buys, New Seasons Markets, Nature's, Lamb's Thriftway, Portland Wine Merchants and Mount Tabor Fine Wines.
J. Christopher and Brooks wines range in price from $15 to $48. J.K. Carriere pinot noir is $36.
Lisa Shara Hall's recently published
is chock-full of information about the history of Oregon's wine industry.