Argyle's Graig Eastman
Article By: Fred Bouchard
(Argyle's crisp and nutty 1997 Brut and plummy 2001 Pinot Noir would be gracing my festive sideboard of All-American entries.)
A visit to Argyle Winery, middle-aged by Oregon's youthful standards at 15 years, had brought home the notion that Oregon wine is not simply a matter of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Argyle has become a relatively successful producer of an array of excellent sparkling wines and bold chardonnays. Riesling, once planted and spurned, has had its reputation rise in the eyes of founder/winemaker Rollin Soles.
Argyle's offices are in a modest but attractively appointed 1920s farmhouse right on Highway 41, the route that runs southwesterly from Portland into the heart of Oregon wine country. There is ample evidence of wits at work here: restrooms are signed "Arguys" and "Argals". Behind stand the unprepossessing tin-roofed sheds of Argyle's sparkling wine 'caves'.
We skipped the
tour and went straight to the bright
laboratory-spotless tasting room with our host
Craig Eastman, Vice-President of Sales &
Marketing. Craig pulled out many stoppers during
our interview, as we tasted a wide range of
bubblies, whites, and pinot noirs - both current
vintages and library wines - and caught some of the
winery's rich and unusual history.
FRED BOUCHARD You're making at least 7 to 8 sparkling cuvees, even if only a few are available nationally. Does any Oregon winery have as extensive a sparkling wine program as Argyle's?
None comes near. The other two serious operations
are Tony Soter Vineyards and Domaine
FB Argyle has had time to grow the bubbly business.
Our first vintage was in 1987. (I've been here
since 1993.) We were founded and privately owned by
Brian Croser, an Australian, and Rollin Soles, our
original and still sole winemaker. He's also our
general manager and an important constant here, a
very talented guy. We're currently owned by
Lion-Nathan, an Australian beer company.
FB Are your production figures up?
We farm 450 acres of grapes; that's been on the
rise with recent Pinot Noir plantings. In 2002, we
crushed 650 tons of grapes. Let's see, figure 60
cases per ton, that's just shy of 40,000 cases. Of
that, about 2/3 is Pinot Noir, and the balance is
split between sparking wine and Chardonnay, with
our little bit of Riesling growing.
FB Does that put Argyle in Oregon's top ten?
We're about seventh or eighth largest, it's hard to
keep track. We're certainly not in the top
FB Your Pinot Noirs have been mainly rich and concentrated and the bubblies are invariably well balanced with Champagne-like nuttiness.
When Rollin Soles came to Oregon in 1985, he set
out to challenge himself with the trickiest job in
the wine business. He wanted to make the best
sparkling wines he could. It was thought that
Oregon could make first class sparklers because of
the climate, achieving optimal ripeness with high
acidity. Here the sparkling wine spends a minimum
of three years en tirage in our
temperature-controlled warehouse. We don't have any
fancy cellars and caves. Afterwards, it's riddling
to settle the yeast, disgorging to remove it, then
it's ready to go. We're selling our 1998 vintage
now, harvested 4.5 years ago, cellared until winter
2002, and disgorged on demand.
FB This means you're aging longer than most Champagne houses, right?
Most of them put out their bruts after 24 months.
What's more, we want to extend that 3 years by
cellaring our reserve brut 10 years.
FB That's a lot of work for a relatively small production.
Sparklers account for only about 15 to 20% of
sales; they're handcrafted and sold on demand, but
we're about passion as much as anything. Our cuvees
are strictly for consumers who appreciate
handcrafted sparkling wines at a good value. Nobody
else in the New World is even thinking about aging
sparkling wine ten years ago, and it's a steal at
FB Is Argyle's house style nearly a blanc de blanc?
Well, this '98 Brut is 85% Chardonnay, our highest
percentage ever. It's normally been more Chardonnay
than Pinot Noir since 1993, but typically it's 30
to 40% Pinot Noir. But that's what this vintage
FB Is marketing your Pinot Noirs a little more aggressively also a factor?
Not so much as what the blend tastes like. The
rising percentage of Chardonnay is paralleled by an
increased percentage of barrel fermentation -
nearly 100% now for the base wine - and 40 to 50%
malolactic fermentation. We're above the 45th
parallel, so it's very cool at night, as in
Champagne. Elevation is important: the difference
between 300 and 700 feet above sea level can mean 2
weeks difference in ripening. Our main Chardonnay
vineyard is Knudsen (named after Cal, Oregon
grape-growing pioneer, and one of Argyle's original
owners.) It rises from 300 to 900 feet, and you can
draw a line right at 550 or so - everything above
it is for sparkling and everything below it for
FB So, you've got a range of Northern France's microclimates right here in Willamette?
You could say that. Champagne up top, Chablis
below, and Alsace, too - we're replanting our
Riesling vineyards. The Chardonnay grape follows a
certain flavor profile as it ripens: citrus, green
apple, ripe apple, pear (we have a lot of the last
two). Then it transitions to melon and tropical
FB But the vintages don't follow so neatly.
Hardly! I like to use the baseball analogy for
ripening Chardonnay. In California, it's like a
young fastballer: fastball, fastball, fastball, a
curve once a decade. Up here, it's like an old pro:
curveball, slider, then a fastball, then a cutter,
a screwball. We get every pitch imaginable thrown
at us from year to year. We have to adjust our
yields accordingly so that fruit gets ripe no
matter what the weather. We do know that the
growing season will end around November 1, plus or
minus - you lose your heat and the rains come down.
The fruit sets around July 1, by August you've
studied the weather models and know how many heat
units you've had in order to calculate, or rather
speculate, how much to prune. In cool climates,
like Oregon and Burgundy, you want to err on the
conservative side so you don't get caught with your
hand in the cookie jar.
FB And the clone card is being played more and more here, too.
We're learning. Clones that bloom 10 days ahead of
others effectively lengthens your growing season on
the spring end. It gives you a head start. Smaller
clusters are easier to ripen - smaller diameter
berries, and fewer berries. Devigorated and
disease-resistant rootstocks are coming in,
FB This Knudsen Chardonnay is made from the Dijon clone.
Back in the mid-'80s some of Oregon's pioneers,
like David Adelsheim, noticed that Burgundy's
clusters were much smaller than ours, and ripened
at the same time as the Pinot Noir. Our people at
Oregon State joined forces with Dijon University
and we started bringing in the "Dijon clone".
FB What are the biggest challenges facing marketing Oregon wine nationally?
That's a bit complicated, but the main points would
be attracting more Pinot Noir consumers, and
competing against the over-abundance of inexpensive
Pinot Noir coming on the market (ours will be
high-end). It's not enough to shrug it off and say
that our viticulture is expensive - quality must be
in the profile. We have to continue to improve our
viticulture and to produce better and better wines
to justify our higher pricing structure. We have
expensive properties, very low yields, high labor
costs and labor-intensiveness with practically no
mechanization. Most of us plant 5' wide rows, which
increases viticultural costs per acre; Domaine
Drouhin brought in overhead tractors from France so
they could tighten rows to under 4'.
FB Are your "hand-sell" products attracting handfuls of loyal fans nationally?
The Reserve Brut, for example, is a popular pour at
The Phoenician Resort (Phoenix, AZ), and sales are
steady at Jungle Jim's (wineshop in Cincinnati,
OH). If you're detecting hazelnut notes in the
bruts, there's good reason for it: hazelnuts and
wine grapes are the only commercial agricultural
products grown in Willamette Valley. You also may
notice the pleasant texture and tannin of walnuts
in the bruts. As they age, the flavors move from
ripe apples and pears into golden yellow color and
pick up added notes of honey and walnuts.
FB How does Argyle maintain high standards?
CE Beyond what's in the bottle, we exercise rigid quality control. Last year when our team tasted the 1997 Reserve Pinot Noir, we decided that it was not up to our usual standard, so we declassified the entire lot, bottled it as our mid-priced "Willamette" Pinot Noir, and made a lot of friends with it at the price-point break ($15 versus $30).
We've been out of
the Riesling business since 1999 - we lost our old
vines in the Knudsen vineyard and we replanted. We
only make a tiny bit, and sell almost all of it
from the winery. Rollin loves the challenge of
making it in the dry style and we love to drink it.
We only have 3 acres, making at most 300 to 400
1997 Brut Appetizingly acidic, brisk lemon and mint hit the palate first, vanilla and nut in the oak later. Good mousse. Unusual. (20% Pinot Noir, 80% Chardonnay.)
1990 Extended Tirage Brut Leggy; fine mousse; rich and soft texture; caramel, honey notes underlie clean fruit with hazelnut, not yeast, notes. (70% Pinot Noir).
1991 Extended Tirage Brut Green apples and austerity! (80% Pinot Noir).
1998 Riesling (Knudsen) (1/2 ton per acre), grapefruit, cat-pee, vibrant acidity.
1989 Riesling (Knudsen) Green/gold, petrol, peach-pit, kabinett level (residual sugar: 1%), still plenty of acidity for food.
1999 Chardonnay Limpid green/gold, long clean acidity, good body and bright slightly tropical fruit. Well liked with turkey and gravy.
2000 Pinot Noir Reserve Tangy, lively, assertive. Wine Spectator called it "complex and detailed" and "kind of sneaks up on you."
2000 Nuthouse Pinot Noir Violet/purple, extracted, black pepper, brown spice, red cherry juiciness. Structured! Wine Spectator said of it: "Dark and spicy, a juicy mouthful of blackberry and currant fruit, shaded with black pepper and bittersweet chocolate notes as the flavors keep sailing on."
2001 Pinot Noir Fresh berry component pronounced. Later smoky, meaty notes emerge. Substantial body. Eventually evened up with and surpassed a 1996 Beaune (Savigny) Pinot Noir. Deliciously robust with dark meat and gravy; even faced down cranberry sauce with port.
Not tasted Knudsen Vineyard Brut, Knudsen Vineyard Blanc de Blanc, 2001 Chardonnay, 1999 Reserve Chardonnay, 2000 Spirithouse Chardonnay, 2000 Nuthouse Pinot Noir.