Welcome to the Red Thread™…stories about wine makers, and the red thread that binds us all….wine.
By: L.M. Archer, FWS | Bourgogne ML
I first discovered artisan winemaker Byron Dooley of 7 of Hearts | ™Luminous Hills in 2012, and immediately recognized a true alchemist of the vine.
Byron represents a host of ‘quiet hero’ winemakers throughout the Willamette Valley – the ones ‘gettin’ ‘er done’ from field to fermentation room to finished wine.
A proponent of sustainability, Byron’s wines disproves the old adage “Cheap pinot ain’t good, and good pinot ain’t cheap.”
While not cheap, Seven of Hearts and Luminous Hills deliver high-quality wines of exceptional character at an affordable price point.
RT ™: Who or what brought you to wine making?
BD: My love of wine as a consumer started when I was in college at Oregon State University and was first introduced in a serious way to Pinot Noir, and expanded while I was pursuing a career in computer science over the following two decades. The passion for wine finally overtook my enjoyment of the technology industry, and the final push to explore winemaking as a second career came when the dot.com bubble burst in the early 2000’s.
My wife Dana and I sold our house in the south San Francisco Bay Area, moved up to a small property on Howell Mountain and began the transformation process. I pursued a degree in Viticulture and Enology from Napa Valley College, planted a small vineyard on Howell Mountain (in Bordeaux varietals), and interned at Williams-Selyem in Healdsburg. After graduating, and with the first harvest and wines made from our Howell Mountain Vineyard, it was clear that a career in wine was indeed what I wanted to do when I grew up.
To do it on a larger scale, in a place we could afford, and with an estate vineyard we could build our wineries foundation upon the signature varietal for a region, we decided to move back to Oregon to set up shop in the place where we experienced such memorable Pinot Noirs in the early 1980’s
RT ™: Tell readers a bit about the history of Seven of Hearts and Luminous Hills – what’s the distinction? You truly take the notion of terroir to heart, no pun intended.
BD: Luminous Hills is all estate grown Pinot Noir from our vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA of the Willamette Valley. In contrast, Seven of Hearts is made from sourced fruit and is about exploring other vineyards, appellations and varietals. There’s no qualitative difference between the two brands — I work with my growers to make sure specific rows are farmed to my specifications — they just have a different focus.
RT ™: Let’s talk terroir. You utilize about fifteen varying vineyards throughout the Willamette and Columbia Valleys. What criteria do you use when choosing sites? What excites you most about the vineyards you work with? Do you have a favorite site or region?
BD: The criteria for using different sites include a number of factors:
- What is the character and quality of wine made from the site?
- Does it deliver something distinctive and interesting relative to the other sites I work with? (e.g., varietals, clones, age of vines, or soil type.)
- Is it planted in appropriate varietals and clones for the site?
- What is the level of input and control the grower will allow me to have in the farming of the fruit? (i.e., is the grower responsive and a good partner in the production of quality fruit?)
- Is it well farmed, in particular, is it farmed sustainably and / or organically?
What excites me about the vineyards I work with is the variety and distinctions they each provide. I can honestly say I don’t have a favorite site or region – the reason I make so many wines from different areas is that I love the variety and distinctions.
RT ™: You don’t just work with Pinot Noir. You also experiment with a broad spectrum of varietals with equal facility, like an alchemist constantly transmuting grapes into gold. Do you favor any one varietal over another? What keeps you so curious?
BD: I do work with a lot of different varietals and it is truly the thing I love most about winemaking: the opportunity to work with so many varietals, vineyards and sub-regions of the Willamette Valley and the Columbia Valley, and then with the array of distinctive lots and barrels that can be assembled into a compelling set of wines.
As much as I love Pinot Noir, I don’t just drink Pinot Noir. I’m equally interested in and inspired by the many other varietals I enjoy. As far as I’m concerned – whether it is Grenache, Roussanne, Tannat, Riesling, or whatever – each is an essential food group, and different essential companions for a wide variety of foods.
What keeps me curious are the endless possibilities that come with each site and vintage. If I’m doing my job properly, I will never make the same wine twice. If I do, it means I have failed to let something distinctive about the site and vintage shine through.
RT ™: Talk about working with Pinot – do you have a favorite producer that inspires you? What about a favorite clone? Do you have a favorite Pinot of your own that continually surprises and amazes you each time you open it?
BD: For Pinot Noir, many of my favorite producers that inspire me are from Burgundy (Dujac, Ramonet, Comte de Vogüe, Jacques Carillon, to name a few), but there are also domestic producers that I regard as highly (Steve Doerner, Russ Rainey, Brian O’Donnell, among many others.)
A significant part of what excites me about a particular clone is dependent on where it is grown and how it’s farmed, but in general, I favor Pommard for the non-Dijon clones and 114 among the many Dijon clones. I seek these clones on different sites and soils to capture their many varied expressions.
The wine, or rather wines, that have continually surprised me and continued to educate me about my approach, are the 2007 Pinot Noirs. In particular, I made one from a small vineyard in the southern Eola-Amity Hills on volcanic basalt Nekkia soil. The fruit was all clone 114 and it was the first vintage I employed whole cluster fermentation. The wine was not well received, perceived as too thin, light and high-strung. Even though it was only a two-barrel quantity and a meager 49 case production, it took a very long time to sell.
As we’ve opened library wines of this bottling over the last few years, the wine has gained weight, color, beautiful aromatics, rich fruit and has become a favorite among our staff and wine club members that we have shared it with.
RT ™: Talk about your collaboration with your wife Dana – she’s an accomplished chocolatier. How does she come up with the well-crafted wine-pairing chocolates she offers? Could either of you ever imagine a life without wine or chocolate?
BD: Our businesses are independent of one another and fully occupy our time (as Dana likes to say, I don’t tell her how to make chocolate and she doesn’t tell me how to make wine). That said, we provide a daily sounding board and support system for each other, and the opportunity for collaboration comes where the glass meets the plate in the tasting room where we will pair one or two wines at the end of the flight with chocolates specifically designed to pair with the wines. Most of the credit for the successful wine and chocolate pairings we do goes to Dana.
For a wine we want to feature with a chocolate pairing, we discuss its characteristics and flavor profile and Dana will design a chocolate that will compliment it, either by highlighting a particular characteristic of the wine, or providing a contrast that is different enough that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Of course, she does this with many other wineries as well, so this is a something she has a great deal of experience with.
I absolutely cannot imagine a life without wine or chocolate. While I don’t see them as essential together, I have at least a little of each almost every day.
RT ™: What do you consider your greatest challenges at Seven of Hearts? Luminous Hills?
BD: National sales. It’s a substantially smaller percentage of our business than direct sales, but it is still an important channel to participate in. While we have a good core of distributors that we have a great connection with, perform well, pay on time, and have a genuine passion for the wines, there are a number around the edges that are too big to have bandwidth for our relatively small production, or are too small to sustain themselves in competitive environments. Even though Oregon Pinot Noirs have considerable respect across the country, finding just that right fit for distribution partners is still very challenging.
RT ™: What motivates you to keep going?
BD: The same thing that got me started: the adventure, the fact that there is a something new to learn with every vintage, every lot, and every bottle of wine — and, equally, the opportunity to share the experience and the pleasures with our customers.
RT ™: Anything else you care to share?
Since we produced and released our first Oregon wines with the 2006 vintage, we’ve maintained a philosophy of pricing for our wines that is about fairness and accessibility. While we strive for the highest quality at every price point, we maintain modest margins with the belief that there is a fair and reasonable profit beyond what it costs to make the wine and after that you are paying for something else.
RT ™: Finally, “If wine making has taught me anything, it’s taught me…”
BD: It’s taught me to relax. It’s a little counterintuitive, with the uncertainties of vintages, the details of logistics, and the myriad and sheer number of decisions that are involved, but in the end you can only control what you can control and you work to adapt to what happens and make the best with what you’re dealt. That’s the challenge and the pleasure of winemaking.
Copyrighted binNotes 2015. All Rights Reserved.
Byron & Dana Dooley
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