When entering the hotly competitive arena of creating a line of Oregon Pinot Noirs specifically derived from just a single vineyard located in the county, a winemaker is going for the gold. It’s the Olympics of Oregon winemaking—where only the top talents earn the right to play and where champions maintain a stronghold for a long time but are always challenged by a wave of new, rising talent.
Ken Wright, Beaux Frères, Evening Land, Penner-Ash, WillaKenzie—these are some of the longstanding single-vineyard champs, but keeping a close eye on the upstarts is all part of the fun and fascination of watching the explosive growth of Oregon Pinot Noir today. One of the most interesting new voices to the scene is winemaker Sarah Cabot.
MEET THE WINEMAKER
Sarah makes wines for Battle Creek Cellars, a wine label owned by Seattle’s Precept Wines, the leading and largest wine company in the Pacific Northwest.
THE CORKSCREWER REPORT (TCR): Would you explain the structure of the winery? Who owns the land and who owns the winery, for example? What’s the relationship between you, Precept Wines and Battle Creek Cellars?
SARAH CABOT (SC): Precept is owned by two people. For all intents and purposes, it’s a family run company. I think of it as a small company in real big boy pants. The company does a lot of production but has a pretty skeletal infrastructure. The majority owner, the guy who started it all, is Dan Baty. He owns everything—the vineyards, the winery, and Precept. Within all of that, we are a few different companies. Precept is the company that owns Battle Creek Cellars, which pays my check, and they own the Yamhela Vineyard [one of the vineyard sources of Sarah’s three single-vineyard Pinots]. 12th & Maple is a custom crush facility, where my operations, for the most part, are executed by their staff. When it comes to my single-vineyard stuff, though, I try to be as hands-on as possible.
Okay, so you might think: female winemaker, small wine label in Oregon—there’s probably several people like her around. You would be wrong.
SC: I also do a lot of private labels—10,000 cases here, 5,000 cases there. As a winemaker I’m responsible for the production of about 80,000-100,000 cases annually. It’s actually more than any other female winemaker in Oregon is responsible for.
Sarah’s background is primarily in small production, high-end wines, and the fact that a large wine company in the Northwest chose her as winemaker after an exhaustive search in 2014 speaks to the direction Precept wants to go with the Battle Creek Cellars wine label.
SC: Before Precept, the price point of the entry-level wine I made was $28. I make a sub-$20 Pinot now, the Battle Creek ‘Unconditional’ [currently 6,000-case production], which I think is getting better every year. The ethos isn’t any different—it’s that the cost of goods is different since we do have that family relationship, where we own the vineyards and the winery. We’re able to keep the front-end costs down enough to put something in bottle that we can sell to people for $17.
It’s pretty cool, man. I never thought I’d be able to make an Oregon Pinot Noir at that price point before. You know, a lot of my friends couldn’t afford my wines. Although the single-vineyards are definitely my wheelhouse—high-end, low yield, hand-picked, hand-sorted, small open-top fermentation, long time in barrel—that whole thing is where I come from. In a way, those are the easy wines. It’s a lot harder to make a really top-notch wine from machine harvested fruit that’s cropped out at 4½ tons per acre.
The challenge with single vineyard Pinots lies in farming directives… convincing the farming team that they need to drop more fruit and staying on top of what is actually a reasonable yield to get the quality I’m looking for. And fighting over picking dates. I’m not the only winery sourcing from those vineyards.
The nice thing is technology these days. The newest harvesters are really incredible. There’s optical sorting. It’s not like it used to be, say, 15 years ago. These days you actually get a bin full of whole berries, and you get really high quality wine off it.
Sarah explains in layperson’s terms her approach to making wine, and, we should add, with a note of sincere modesty—considering how terrific her single-vineyard Pinot Noirs are.
TCR: What’s your winemaking philosophy?
SC: It’s very detailed. Pretty much, here it is: don’t fuck it up.
TCR: Stay out of the way, in other words.
SC: If I just keep it healthy, basically, then it does it on its own. I wish I could take more credit for the wines.
THE VINEYARDS AND THE WINES
Sarah currently makes three single-vineyard Oregon Pinot Noirs, from 1) Battle Creek Vineyard, in the northwest part of the renowned Willamette Valley, 2) Roe Vineyard, from the much lesser-known Ribbon Ridge AVA, and 3) Yamhela Vineyard, in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, which is fast gaining prominence as a sub-region of the Willamette Valley.
In our opinion, the brand new 2015 vintage releases represent a tremendous leap forward from the prior 2014 vintage. If great wine is all in the details, the nuances contained in these beautifully-detailed wines are what make for a standout set of Pinots under the Battle Creek label.
SC: When I came on board in June 2014, I had the 2013s which I had to bottle, but I didn’t ferment them or anything. So, it was like—here’s these ‘13s, do something with them! I did my best. Then, in the 2014 vintage, I was able to harvest and ferment. My first year, it took me some time to do a lot of trials and figure out how I could use the machine-harvested fruit and the larger tanks to still produce something where I was happy with the quality. But, after all the testing of the first year, I figured it out. In ’14 I was a little nervous, I didn’t know my sites that well.
Battle Creek Vineyard
Battle Creek Cellars’ single-vineyard program started with Battle Creek Vineyard, a single south-facing slope right above the I-5 Freeway corridor.
SC: It’s not very picturesque or anything—you get a stunning view of the highway. But, the vineyard was planted in 1998, it’s got real thick trunks, and it’s got that Columbia River basalt which is our oldest soil type here in the Willamette Valley. There’s just something about it. My six blocks are at the very top of the ridge. They’re totally exposed. There’s no screen from the wind up there, because the wind sucks right down the I-5 corridor right there.
The clusters are small. They’re prone to a little bit of sunburn. What doesn’t go into the single-vineyard bottling goes into the Battle Creek Reserve Pinot Noir—2014 was the first vintage of that. So, the single-vineyard and the Reserve happened because I called Seattle and was, like, ‘Hey, I have this juice, man. It’s really good shit and I don’t want to throw it all into the Unconditional [Battle Creek Cellars’ entry-level Pinot Noir at $17]. We have the product here to make some other wines.’ And, hence, the birth of the Battle Creek Cellars brand as a virtual winery, which will eventually be an actual winery with a tasting room, which we’re in the process of building.
The 2015 Battle Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir is an attractively vivid wine, considering its non-picturesque locale. It’s got loads of personality which evolves the longer it’s in the glass.
SC: The Battle Creek vineyard—with its deep roots and all this wind and the sunburn and the tiny berries—it gives you this dark blue and black fruit, cigar factory, masculine, stark, savory, linear, acid-driven Pinot. It’s actually my favorite. It changes the most in the glass.
The 2015 Roe Vineyard Pinot Noir is round and fleshy, sexy and provocative. It’s the obvious crowd-pleaser among the trio of Sarah’s single-vineyard Pinots.
SC: I had worked with Roe Vineyard as far back in 2011, when I was working with Omero Cellars, where I had been winemaker for a number of years. So, I knew it was an ultra-premium vineyard… the Roe Vineyard Pinot is the one with the snake on the label—it’s definitely the crowd-pleaser. It’s pretty slutty. It’s how that vineyard is. Especially the one block that always comprises about 80% of the blend. It’s the Chalone clone, isolated from the Chalone Vineyard down in California. It’s a weird looking cluster every year. They just can’t get more than 3 tons per acre, no matter how hard they try. Which for me is great, because I don’t have to yell at the vineyard team to thin the vines.
Down here in Oregon, it’s the mecca, right? You can grow anything. To get down to these 2.5-3 ton per acre yields you have to thin fruit. That’s just standard protocol. You just drop fruit and drop fruit until you get to your target.
Those vineyards I work with—they just speak for themselves. They’re very communicative. Roe is just ridiculous in fruit quality.
The 2015 Yamhela Vineyard Pinot Noir is the grandest of the three, with luxurious textures, feminine strength and a touch of that Burgundian earth and mineral complexity.
SC: In 2014, Precept had just bought Yamhela Vineyard. Based on where it sits, it became obvious to me that it’s not a production vineyard—it’s an ultra-premium site. It sits right next to Shea and is the next ridge over from WillaKenzie, where I had been assistant winemaker for three years.
It’s the showstopper vineyard visually. It’s a stunning site. It’s a combination of marine sediment and sedimentary soils that were eroded off of the hills. The marine sediment that’s there was pushed up from the ocean floor during the Continental Subduction. And then there’s a lot of soil that was deposited during the Missoula Floods. It’s a very fine dust, blackish. It becomes a dense clay when it’s wet—you could mold a sculpture out of it. In the summertime, it’ll make cracks, chasms down the rows. The poor water infiltration can cause some serious drought stress, depending on how old your vines are. Even with irrigation it can be a challenge, because the water infiltration is shit. You have to drip 5 gallons onto a vine just to get 1 gallon in. It’s a pretty steep vineyard, so it’ll just drip-drip-drip and roll down the hill. Consequently, the vines at the bottom are really, really vigorous.
Everything Sarah describes about the vineyard you can truly taste in the wine.
SC: If I do it right, and I don’t add anything to it and just let it have its slow ferment—and I’m like a hawk on the temperature in the gas exchange—it’ll have this long, cool ferment, which is why the wine tends to be a little on the girly side. It’ll be really red, never super-duper concentrated… it’s a lot more elegant.
THE ART OF THE WINE LABELS
Striking wines need equally striking wine labels, and the illustrations of a ram’s skull (an allusion to Georgia O’Keeffe?), snake and moth that adorn the labels for the Battle Creek Vineyard, Roe Vineyard and Yamhela Vineyard Pinots, respectively, are very eye-catching and evocative (see below). When discerning consumers become more familiar with these wines over time, the higher the potential that these wine labels become iconic. There exists a strong legacy of iconic wine labels for Oregon single-vineyard Pinot Noirs (e.g. Ken Wright Cellars, Chehalem, Beaux Frères).
TCR: What was the concept behind your wine labels?
SC: Precept gives me total creative autonomy when it comes to making the wines, and they were very cooperative with me and my input in the development of these labels. I love them. I talked to the brand manager, and we decided to shop out the design for these bottles. We sat down with the designer, and I described how I felt about each of the wines—more about the character of the wines. She, the designer, produced three concepts, and one of them was the beginnings of what they are now. I was just, ‘Oh my god, yes!’ I tend to anthropomorphize my wines. So, Yamhela was Audrey Hepburn. Roe was Marilyn Monroe, and Battle Creek was Katherine Hepburn.
The designs that she made—the ram’s skull, the snake and the moth—were tied into my original descriptions. We polished them up and then brought them to our in-house design team, and they added detail, depth, shading and outline and the simple, handwritten wine names and vintage, and everything that goes on the back label.
It’s very important to me to use these single-vineyards to define the upper end of the Battle Creek Cellars wine brand. I’m not looking for personal glory, but I definitely want my top-of-the-line stuff to have a strong identity.
When I finally saw them on the bottles, I was so freakin’ ecstatic. We went with big, ridiculously heavy bottles— just like many of my peers around Willamette Valley. That’s where I come from. All my background in Oregon is tiny production, super expensive, low-yield fruit and sexy packaging. I’m glad it all came together the way it did.
INSPIRATIONS AND SHOUT-OUTS
TCR: What other wine varieties are you interested in making other than Pinot Noir?
SC: Chardonnay! We planted some at Yamhela. The Chardonnay we planted is about 4 acres. It’s on this very steep north-facing slope. The baby vines looked pretty good at the last harvest, as far as having vigor. But, I don’t know that they’re going to put enough fruit out for 2018, but they definitely will in 2019. The plan for the Chardonnay, because I insisted, is all going to be small production, handpicked, gentle press, and it’ll be fermented in barrel-type vessels—some wood, some stainless steel, and some clay.
TCR: What are some of the wines that had the most impact on you?
SC: As far as Pinot here in Oregon—Steve Doerner, at Cristom, is my hero. Their wines really changed my perspective a lot. Because of his amazing wines of 10-15 years ago and continuing now, it made me want to play around with whole cluster. I went and hunted him down and nagged the shit out of him until he would answer some questions for me. He helped me understand how to determine whether my vineyard, my block, my stems are appropriate for doing whole cluster. Because you don’t just say, ‘Hey, let’s do whole cluster!’ It has to be in the right shape, it has to taste the right way—otherwise you’re just going to end up with something vegetal and high pH.
I love how age-worthy those Cristom wines are. A lot of Pinots will just fade after 5-6 years in bottle. I know most people don’t hang onto their wines that long, but I’d like to think that they could.
TCR: What wine would you choose to drink to celebrate the greatest moment of your life—not one you’ve necessarily had?
SC: Gravner. It’s an oxidized white, Ribolla Gialla, from Fruili-Venezia in northern Italy. Fuck yeah. Or a Vin Jaune from Arbois. I like the weird shit. But if the moment to celebrate was going to be with meat, I’d have a Morgon [a cru Beaujolais]. Oh Gamay…
TCR: Gamay is sort of the hipster thing now.
SC: That’s annoying. I liked it a lot before all the fucking mustache-y &!*@ got into it. I’ve made some Gamay here in Oregon, but it doesn’t have what a Morgon has, or a Moulin-a-Vent. And I love Rieslings. If it were easier to sell, I’d love to make Riesling again. I love, love old German, JJ Prum, 20-year-old Spätlese Rieslings.
TCR: It’s time for German Riesling to make a comeback.
SC: I agree. And they go with everything!
Photo credit: portraits of Sarah Cabot by Carolyn Kramer, Wine Country Photography
BATTLE CREEK CELLARS
Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA
Owned by: Precept Wines, Seattle, Washington
Winemaker: Sarah Cabot
Battle Creek Cellars Pinot Noir, Battle Creek Vineyard 2015
With a color of scarlet and a nose of energetic, dark red berry notes, red currants, earth and spice, you know you’re in for a Pinot Noir of discreet charm and personality. Sit with this in the glass for 20 minutes as it evolves, and you’ll be wondering if you truly know the one you’re with. On the palate is young, fresh blackberry with the attractive acidity of dark raspberries and a note of Mediterranean herbs—delivered in a strong, linear fashion so alive, scintillating and alluring. You’re drawn to this personality… forward in a brash, masculine manner while balanced like the sensitive type… clean-cut and vibrant, possessing silky, super-fine tannins. Is the wine’s character an evolved masculinity, or is it woke femininity? You’ll never know. Such is the mystery of great Pinot Noir.
Battle Creek Cellars Pinot Noir, Roe Vineyard 2015
With an illustration of a snake on the label and a wine that the winemaker herself describes as “slutty,” the appropriate sexual metaphors you could attach to this Pinot Noir are boundless. Sure enough, this is round and fleshy Pinot of dark plum, dark cherry and black tea notes that slither around the palate in a sexy and provocative fashion. With textures smooth, suave and velvety and good weight to the body, there’s lovely balance and lift to the wine—a combination of elegance and succulence of fruit. Marilyn Monroe if she were a sultry brunette. Oh, a crowd pleaser for sure. Irresistible and, thankfully, highly drinkable now.
Battle Creek Cellars Pinot Noir, Yamhela Vineyard 2015
This is the grand-mama of the Battle Creek single-vineyard Pinots. There’s a grand elegance to the wine’s exterior—powerful and evocative—while possessing a Virginia Woolf feminine, inner strength and complexity. The wine is somewhat rugged yet poetic. Its very long, intense finish is something that will not go quietly into the night. The Yamhela’s depth of expression begins with a nose of rich cranberry, red currant and dark pomegranate notes which carry forward onto the palate with additional notes of Burgundian earth and minerality. Like a moth to a flame, there’s an instinctive force that compels us closer to this wine. Give this until about 2020 to more fully integrate, though. This kind of beauty takes time.