binNotes | a food, wine & travel blog
by L.M. Archer, FWS | Bourgogne ML
“Don’t push the river.”
So states gentle giant Rudy Marchesi of Montinore Estate in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Owner of the United State’s largest Biodynamic® certified vineyard, Rudy imbues heart and soul into his vines, wines, and the workers under his care.
The insatiably curious, patient, quietly driven Rudy moved out west to pursue his dream to grow the purest fruit possible, and craft unique, authentic wines from that fruit.
Fruit that include local favorites like Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, as well as unusual suspects like Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Teroldego and Lagrein.
Recently, the Red Thread™ caught up with Rudy Marchesi and his red wine maker Ben Thomas at Montinore Estate to talk terroir, biodynamics, and family.
RT ™: Who or what brought you to wine making in the Willamette Valley?
RUDY MARCHESI: “I had been growing grapes and making wine at our winery on the East Coast for about ten (10) years when I discovered Oregon wine, and recognized the potential. That was in 1992 when I was visiting my daughter, who was attending Reed College in Portland.
I was able to get a variety of Oregon wines into distribution in New York and New Jersey, including Montinore. I eventually became a consultant for Montinore in 1998, and President of the winery in 2002.”
BEN THOMAS: “I came to Oregon for two reasons. One was to make Pinot Noir, the other was to absorb the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of Portland. On both counts, my experience far exceeded expectations.”
RT ™: Tell readers a bit about the history of Montinore Estate. Rudy, it seems you’ve touched just about every corner of the wine industry, from distribution to vineyard management to wine making.
RUDY MARCHESI: “Montinore Estate was established in 1982 by the Graham family, who produced their first wine in 1987. They started with over 350 acres of different grape varietals, and eventually eliminated those that did not perform well, finally settling at about 240 acres.
Distribution was primarily in the northwest, until I began a push for national distribution in 1998. In 2001, I started the transition to organic viticulture, and expanded to biodynamic in 2003.
At the end of 2005, I purchased the winery and became sole proprietor, allowing me to take the winery in a new direction, based upon the premise that organic/biodynamic viticulture produces the highest quality grapes and subsequently, wine.
A great deal of emphasis was placed on improving the health of the farm and vineyards, and within a few years we saw the result in the wines, which became more expressive and of better quality.
I have been growing grapes and making wine for almost forty years, but there was a time when both my daughters were in college that I needed additional income, so I spent seven (7) years working for Allied Beverage Group in New Jersey, a large import/distribution company.
There, I became Vice President of Brand Development, and had a great opportunity meeting growers and producers from around the world, visiting most of the major wine regions, and tasting and evaluating wines from almost every wine region imaginable. It was a great experience, and gave me a broader perspective later, when I returned to the vineyard and cellar.”
RT ™: Talk a bit about your distinctive heritage. Rudy, you grew up in an Italian ‘farm-to-table’ culture long before such a concept existed, learning about the beauty and importance of wine as a part of life – a lesson you’ve passed along to your own family, including General Manager Kristen Marchesi and her children.
RUDY MARCHESI: “My father was born in the southern end of the province of Lombardy in northern Italy. He and his family lived in a rural district just above the Oltrepo Pavese, an important wine growing region. They were subsistence farmers, which included growing grapes and making wine.
My grandfather moved to the United States as a teenager. My grandparents later moved to the Bronx in New York, and had a big house with a large garden and many fruit trees and vines. My fondest memories of my childhood are of family dinners with my grandparents and all my aunts, uncles and cousins at my grandparents home. Everything was homemade, out of the garden, or from my uncle’s butcher shop. The wine was made in the basement. I had my first garden at age seven (7), and learned to make wine from my grandfather, who was very talented.
My father was successful in his business ventures and loved to take us to good restaurants in New York City, where my mother would silently analyze the dishes and try to recreate them at home. The summer of my 16th year, we made trip as a family to Italy via France and spent the summer visiting family and seeing the sights. By the end of that trip I had eaten in some of the best restaurants in Paris, Rome and New York, along with exploring the wines of each region. While the great meals at restaurants were memorable, we especially enjoyed sharing local dishes with family and friends when visiting their homes. That was a formative experience for me that I am sure influenced the paths I have chosen throughout my life.”
RT ™: Ben, you enjoyed a fairly unconventional upbringing. How has this shaped the way you grow and craft your wines?
BEN THOMAS: “My mother is a wine and cider maker, and it’s her lead that I followed into world of winemaking. I grew up both on a commercial fishing boat that trolled the waters of Alaska and off the coast of Washington and a homestead on the Olympic Peninsula. This upbringing strongly influenced my relationship to food and drink. I learned the importance and satisfaction in self-sustenance. At almost every opportunity, we made, grew and caught our own.”
RT ™ : Talk a bit about Montinore’s Biodynamic® certification from Demeter USA. People may not realize that Montinore Estate is the largest Biodynamic® certified vineyard in the United States. Why jump through all the costly and time-consuming hoops necessary to achieve the Biodynamic® certification from Demeter USA?
RUDY MARCHESI: “The Biodynamic® certification was the end point of a long process. I had first heard of biodynamic farming back in the late 1970’s, when a friend came to help me in my new vineyard. He had gone to Scotland to work on a biodynamic farm called Findhorn. His stories and descriptions were fascinating, but I had trouble finding much information on the farming methods.
Later, when I was working at Allied Beverage Group, I was responsible for the Burgundy portfolio and much of the French selections, where I started to notice that some of the wines I liked best were biodynamic. I was determined to find out more.
Through a friend, I found out about a 10-month course in biodynamic farming and gardening given at a small college in New York, which I was finally able to attend in 2003. At that time I was responsible for all the farming at Montinore, so I started experimenting with biodynamic practices with some great results.
I also recognized that many of the principles of the practices were similar to the way my grandparents gardened and made wine. I gradually expanded those practices, and in 2008, decided that we should be certified by Demeter USA. By the time we applied for certification, we had been engaged in biodynamics for five (5) years, so we didn’t need to do much to qualify.
I believe strongly in Biodynamic® certification primarily because it insures and preserves the integrity of the practices.”
BEN THOMAS: “We are the largest Biodynamic® winery in the United States, believe it or not. It is still seen by many to be a niche market and a quaint-yet-hip production gimmick. Not for us. We’ve come to the conclusion time and again that the results of Biodynamic® farming just makes sense, even if the reasoning behind it often doesn’t. It works for the land, us who work here, and the wines we produce.”
RT ™ Let’s talk a bit about terroir. What sorts of soils and microclimates inform the flavor profiles of your wines? Do you have a favorite block? If so, which one(s) and why?
RUDY MARCHESI: “Montinore Estate is located in the northwest portion of the Willamette Valley, and possesses a relatively unique set of soils compared to the rest of the valley.
Much of the vineyard land to the south and east of us is composed of either volcanic or marine sedimentary soils, each producing wines that reflect those soils. All of our soils are every young, and were deposited at the end of the last ice age by the Missoula floods.
On the east and northeast-facing blocks, the soils were brought in by the wind in between the floods, so intrinsically very fine in texture, mineral rich, and with enough clay to have good water-holding capacity.
On the southern end of the farm, the soils are from the Missoula floods by brought here by the flood waters themselves. What we find is that wines made from these vineyards, with their relatively unique soils, have distinctive character different from those of the valley to the south and east. Our Pinot Noir is more savory than sweet with a character of berries, rather than cherries, and with a distinctive herbal, spicy character in the finish.
Our Pinot Gris is more citrus and tropical than most, with a distinctive herbal character similar to Sauvignon Blanc, and our other whites are very aromatic. We have seen a great increase of these expressions since we converted to Biodynamic® practices.
I don’t have a favorite block since each one has its own appeal, and sometimes that will change with vintage. I am glad to have so many blocks to work with to make a wine representative of the entire estate.”
Note: General Manager adds: “I’m particularly excited about our Gewürztraminer block. It’s part of the original planting in 1982 so is starting to show some age, but Stephen makes the most expressive yet versatile Gewürztraminer from it. Every year I am blown away.”
BEN THOMAS: “Our vines grow primarily on wind-blown loess soils that resulted from the Missoula floods during the last ice age. These fine-particle soils create earthier, complex wines that have good structure and reasonably high acids. We don’t grow fruit bombs. Ours are wines that pair very well with a tremendous variety of foods.”
RT ™ Your white wine maker Stephen Webber flaunts his unabashed affinity for the cool varietals of Alsace. Your red wine maker Ben Thomas cut his chops on Bordeaux varietals, yet navigates the waters of Pinot Noir with skill. What’s it like coordinating with two wine makers, especially during crush?
RUDY MARCHESI: “Ben and Stephen work well together and have great respect for one another’s skills. I think of myself as the conductor of the orchestra. I don’t play an instrument but I know all the parts and step in when I see guidance is needed to get back on track.
Sometimes during the rush of harvest, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture and our goals for the vintage. Part of my job is to maintain the big perspective, and help everyone stay on track.
As for style, we all agree that our first goal is to make wines that best express the character of our estate. I let Ben and Stephen have creative license to achieve that in ways that they can do best.
During harvest I taste the wines daily and consult with our wine makers as needed. It’s an arrangement that works well for us.”
BEN THOMAS: “Stephen and I compliment each other quite well. In fact, having someone so solid and tradition-minded to work with side-by-side allows me to be a little bolder in my winemaking decisions. If I’m straying too far off the path, Stephen keeps me grounded. Likewise, I encourage Stephen to paint outside the lines at times – to go for something more ambitious.”
RT ™: What are your greatest challenges at Montinore Estates?
RUDY MARCHESI: “I see challenges on many fronts. In the vineyard I have to deal with aging vines and the need to keep all the vineyards healthy and in balance from year to year. The vines are alive, and we ask a lot from them, so they require a great degree of attention and care.
Here in Oregon, we can have wide variations in the conditions form one vintage to the next. There is no cookbook winemaking here! We have to be observant and alert to the nature of the grapes that each vintage brings us, and apply our winemaking skills accordingly.
Then, of course, there is sales and marketing. We need to make sure that our customers understand who we are, what we are doing, and how that is reflected in their glass of wine. There are thousands of wines to chose from so constant attention is needed to effectively communicate to our customers.”
Ben Thomas: “Driving to and from my house in Portland. I really can’t stand sitting in traffic. That’s why I have a trailer in the vineyard – for those longs days and nights of harvest. Plus, it’s simply fantastic to wake up to the sun rising across the vineyards. There’s nothing else quite like it.”
RT ™: What motivates you to keep going?
RUDY MARCHESI: “I love growing grapes and making wine. I love growing plants and having the freedom to creatively make a delicious product from them. I can’t think of any other way I would want to spend my time.”
BEN THOMAS: “That very same sunrise. Oh yeah, and wine.”
RT ™: Anything else you care to share?
RUDY MARCHESI: “I feel so fortunate to have chosen this career and to have had it turn out so well.”
BEN THOMAS: “It’s a rare opportunity that we have here to make wine a large estate encompassing such an intriguing range varietals, clones and micro-climates. My winemaking has improved in being able to focus on the subtle yet important distinctions between neighboring Pinot Noir vineyard blocks. It’s been a treat to get to know these vineyards year after year.”
RT ™: One final question: “If wine making has taught me anything, it’s taught me…”
RUDY MARCHESI: “Patience.
A great respect and appreciation for the beauty of life reflected in the annual cycle of grape growing, the magic of yeast and bacteria, and the complexity and beauty of the whole process of making wine from the ground up
Appreciation for the tradition of our craft.”
See what wine making has Montinore Estate owner and grape grower Rudy Marchesi, and red wine maker Ben Thomas in the video below…cheers!
Care to share? Feel free to leave your comments below.
Copyrighted binNotes 2015. All Rights Reserved.
Team Montinore Estate:
Kristen Marchesi – General Manager
Rudy Marchesi – Owner, Winegrower
Ben Thomas – Red Wine Maker
(Stephen Webber – White Wine Maker.)
Note: Trade samples were provided by the winery for this interview.