Julia Crowley, EDN
As I drove out to Oregon’s beautiful wine country just northwest of Junction City to visit Benton-Lane Winery Oct. 21, good timing just happened to be on my side.
Benton-Lane’s first day of the 2011 harvest had started just hours before my arrival, and I was lucky enough to catch up with Steve Girard, owner of Benton-Lane, as he was hauling in a large bin of freshly picked Pinot Noir grapes. After his forklift successfully lifted a large bin of grapes up to the destemmer machine, Steve jumped off the forklift and headed my way with a grin that reflected his excitement and happiness about the harvest finally arriving.
“This is a challenging harvest, and it’s the second challenging harvest we’ve had recently, we had one last year as well,” Girard said. He explained that the challenges are due to the fact that the season began late, so there was late bud break followed with a late bloom. The result of a late season is larger clusters, and the larger clusters are not as easy to ripen up as the smaller clusters are.
“The good news is that the forecast is cooperative,” Girard said. “our fruit is spanking clean (meaning there is no botrytis or fruit rot), and the even better news is that the birds aren’t bothering us as much as they did last year.”
In 2010, yields were much lower than usual because of an unexplained phenomenon of an infestation of grape-devouring birds. As if it were straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary horror film “The Birds”, flocks of starlings, jays, and robins swooped down on the clusters that hadn’t ripened enough for picking. The result was devastating to smaller production wineries because their yields were taken down, in some cases, by more than half of what they would usually harvest.
The only explanation that was merely an assumption by vineyard owners was that the indulging birds homed in on their grapes because of the late season; therefore, many vintners this year were wondering if the late season would again bring the feasting flocks back to their vineyards. Thankfully, the birds have, for the most part, left the majority of the grapes alone.
Regardless of the challenges that Benton-Lane has faced, Girard and his crew consistently produce award-winning wines year after year. In fact, Girard said 2010 was a better season for them than the highly regarded 2008 vintage was.
According to Wine Spectator, Oregon’s 2008 vintages were, “The best that Oregon has ever produced.” In 2006, Benton-Lane was recognized by Wine Spectator as having two of the “Top 100 Wines of the World”.
Their 2004 vintage Pinot Noir and 2005 vintage Pinot Gris were both on the list, and Girard had just recently found out that his 2010 Pinot Gris is on the list of the Top 100 Wines of the World for 2011. Wine Spectator won’t be revealing their Top 100 for 2011 until Nov. 14, so I felt pretty lucky to have received this privileged information before the rest of the worlds wine enthusiasts.
One of the reasons why his Pinot Gris has been chosen numerous times for this prestigious award is that they ferment their Gris for six weeks which results in a very floral wine.
“If you make Pinot Gris, you can ferment it in three days, run it through a filter, bottle it and sell it in a month from when the fruit comes down,” Girard said.
Benton-Lane ferments their Gris for six weeks, and they control the temperature of the ferment, so instead of seeing big bubbles like in a cauldron, they get their’s to percolate little tiny bubbles just once in a while.
“The yeast are there, they’re alive, but they’re just barely working, and when that happens, you get this release from the Pinot Gris of these floral notes, and that’s what Pinot Gris is all about, the floral characters,” Girard explained. The longer fermentation process results in outstanding Pinot Gris that doesn’t go unnoticed.
There are two good reasons for the attention that Benton-Lane receives for their stellar wines, and one of them is their unique location that Girard considers to be very special.
In the early 80’s, Girard was a winemaker in California and yearned to make exceptional Pinot Noir. Knowing that California’s warmer weather causes Pinot to build up sugar in the grape faster than it builds up the flavor, Girard looked towards Oregon because of its cooler climate. He knew that the climate and soil in Oregon was ideal for growing Pinot grapes, so he began to do extensive research on premier Pinot locations.
Girard started researching Oregon’s climate data and studying soil maps, weather maps, sun maps and wind maps along with days of sunlight and degree days, which was information he found in the library. This was, of course, before the days and convenience of surfing the World Wide Web. After intense research, he concluded that the ideal location for him would be from about eight miles north of where Benton-Lane now sits and about eight miles south of it, in between Eugene and Corvallis along the western foothills.
“The weather data showed that it’s warmer in this area, and more benevolent weather with less wind and less storms,” Girard said. He believes now that the reason for the better weather is because Prairie Mountain, that’s due west of the Benton-Lane property, protects that area and actually drives the storms around the property. There are many times that Girard has stood at the top of the vineyard and seen rain in Eugene and rain in Albany while the sun was beaming down on Benton-Lane.
One hundred years ago, the Benton-Lane property was a sheep ranch appropriately named Sunnymount Ranch, and luckily for Girard, the Sunnymount Ranch was for sale when he was looking for the perfect Pinot property.
Girard noted that the second reason why Benton-Lane wines have been categorized in the Top 100 Wines of the World more than any other winery in Oregon is because of the dedication and diligence of his crew. He’s a firm believer in the 80/20 rule.
“For any endeavor, you’ll get 80 percent of the quality with 20 percent of the effort and that last 20 percent of the quality is 80 percent of the effort,” Girard said.
Girard has managed to achieve that last 20 percent of the quality by hiring people who are fanatic about what they do. Not only does their ideal location allow them to produce fruit that is more complete, but he also has employees that have a true passion for wine while displaying the utmost pride in what they do.
Benton-Lane makes all of the Pinot sisters: Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Chardonnay, which used to be the real name of Chardonnay. All four varieties have the same parentage. they all grow beautifully in the Willamette Valley, and Girard believes that Oregon is growing and producing some of the best Chardonnay in the world.
I’ve had the Benton-Lane Chardonnay, and I believe that they’ve set the bar very high for future vintages of this wine. With that said, I admit I never knew Chardonnay was related to Pinot until my conversation with Girard.
I followed Girard out to the vineyard, and we tasted the Pinot Noir right off the vine. Divinely sweet, he explained that the brix (the sugars) had reached their optimal level in just the last week alone. Along with being beautifully ripened and optimally sweetened, today was the perfect day to begin harvesting the grapes for their First Class Pinot Noir and their Pinot Gris.
The harvested grapes go into large labeled bins that get hauled to Benton-Lane’s state of the art crush pad. I noticed the Pinot Noir grapes were sorted by hand to remove leaves and immature clusters while they rode on a conveyer belt. The belt led them to a machine that diligently removed whole berries from their stems and the stems came out of one chute while the whole berries were dropped out of another chute.
The berries were directly dropped into a large white bin that is called a pot. Then the Pinot Noir grapes ferment in these 1 1/4 ton open top pots while the skins, pulp and seeds float to the top. Those are then “punched down” by hand to acquire optimum extraction of flavor and color of the skins, and once a pot passes the fermentation inspection, the juice goes into barrels.
The First Class Pinot Noir has its own barrel room with a specially designed system that allows the wine in the barrels to be stirred without getting air into the barrel. This system holds each barrel on a set of wheels, so the juice gets stirred by rotating the barrel, it’s pure ingenuity.
The freshly harvested Pinot Gris whole grape clusters were loaded into a press, stems and all. The presser forced the juice from the grapes, and the juice dripped down into a large tray which ensured minimal contact with the skins because they have a bitter compound that can effect the quality of the wine. The stems, skins and seeds were released into a different tray.
Girard noted that nothing gets wasted at Benton-Lane.
Everything is put into a compost pile and is worked back into the soil on the property. The juice from the tray then gets gently sucked through a hose into one of their temperature controlled stainless steel fermenting tanks. The temperature is kept at a very cool level so the fresh flavors and aromas of the fruit are maintained.
To add complexity and depth to the finished product, a small portion of the fruit is barrel fermented. Only a little is used so it doesn’t overpower the fresh fruit flavors. Their highly regarded 2010 Pinot Gris is a crisp refreshing wine with apple blossom and lime aromas, melon, peach and apple flavors on the palate, and a smooth lingering finish. Well deserving of the award from Wine Spectator as one of the Top 100 wines in 2011, and a 93-point rating from Wine & Spirits.
The 2011 harvest has been challenging for sure, but the excitement in Girard’s voice and the smile on his face translated good news, and I have no doubt that the 2011 vintage from Benton-Lane will be nothing short of spectacular. Girard and his crew work hard at growing, maintaining, harvesting and producing wines from the Pinot varietal, they are what I like to call, “Pinot Perfectionists”.
Benton-Lane’s beautiful tasting room is open daily from March up to Christmas from 11 am to 5 pm. In January and February, they are open Monday through Friday from 11 am to 5 pm.
The winery’s address is:
23924 Territorial Highway
Monroe, OR 97456