On a ridiculously gorgeous Friday I had the privilege of sitting down with Jonathan Oberlander, winemaker and proprietor of J.Scott Cellars. I’ve been a fan of his wines for many years, after initially working winemaker dinners with him through the Heidi Tunnell Catering Company (now the delicious Creswell Bakery, just south of I-5). If you want to talk about diverse wineries, J.Scott has it all. He produces over 20 varietals, with grapes from all over Oregon. Officially launched in 2003, J.Scott Cellars truly has something for everyone to enjoy!
Jonathan didn’t start out his career here, but in California. He originally received a Bachelors Degree in Finance. He started out his wine career in San Diego doing wine sales. While visiting his now wife, Bonnie, at UC Davis he tried some Fetzer and Korbel wines. The scent of the wood, cedar and wine in the cellar really kick started a love of wine. It was at that time he thought to himself, “I could do this”. He then took the leap to going to UC Davis, and eventually transferred to Fresno State. After working in California for many years at Bernadus Vineyards and Winery as an Assistant Winemaker, then Associate Winemaker, both he and his wife needed a change. Eugene, Oregon was the perfect fit for their family.
The move to Oregon was pretty sudden for them. After applying to a position as Assistant Winemaker at Silvan Ridge, they sold their home in California in less than a week! The draw of Oregon truly was the fantastic wines, the lush green landscapes, and the friendly people. After being at Silvan Ridge for many years, Jonathan started his own label. J.Scott Cellars has high quality, delicious wines that truly have an Oregon spirit.
How would you describe your approach to making wines?
Really I’m looking to make a balanced wine out of each one and I want each wine to have its own personality. So I don’t want Pinot to taste like Syrah, you know. I want Pinot to be pretty and delicate and feminine. I want Syrah to be kind of meaty. And I want Cab or Petit to be kind of fat and manly. I try and let the grape express its typicity and natural characteristics and just build on those a little bit. The use of oak and what percentages.
How many varietals do you make?
Right now we currently have 22 in house. Sometimes we blend. Our sirens is a blend of Muscat and Gewurztraminer. We do a sweet Rosé that’s a blend. We do a red blend that’s always different every year. I think we have 22 different wines right now, and 16 of those are single varietals.
Do you think blends are catching on?
It’s tough. The blend category I notice in stores like Safeway and other places, it’s definitely growing. So there are more people looking for it.
[Speaking about his Avanté red blend] With the Avanté I try to hit a certain style every year. I want it to be an inky dark wine that’s got some muscle to it but not overly tannic. I find that sometimes blends sit because people don’t know what they are. Everyone knows what Cabernet is, everyone knows what Chardonnay but they don’t know what Avanté or Red Truck are. However, I think that acceptance of the blends is coming around more. People are tempted to experiment more, which is really nice. I like to say that there are only three kinds of wines out there wines you like, wines you don’t like, and wines you haven’t tried. So I want people to get out and experiment. So you haven’t ever tried a wine, Try it! If you don’t like it that’s okay. You aren’t going to hurt my feelings. But why not at least run it up the flagpole.
Do you have a favorite wine you like to make?
That is really, really, really hard. I honestly don’t have a favorite. It’s like asking which is your favorite kid! I love them equally but in different ways. I was super excited to get Grenache Blanc in, I’d been trying for a couple of years. I love Pinot, I love inky reds, I love Syrah and Petit Syrah, but I love playing around with new stuff. Just seeing what does well. Different wines stand out in different years. Which wine I’m in love with, it changes from year to year because some years you just hit it right on. It’s tough!
Have you seen any drastic changes in the wine industry since starting? Whether it be styles that are selling better, or the way wineries are operating?
I would say that one thing is that overall quality is gone up across the board, just in winemakers ability. The other thing is that it’s gotten a lot more competitive. It seems like everybody and his mother wants to own a winery. All the rock stars want to be winemakers, movie stars want to be winemakers. Everyone needs a wine brand. It was already a competitive business. Because unlike my wife who competes with only vets in Lane County, we compete with wines from California, Spain, France, New Zealand, and Australia. All of those wineries produce multiple things and everyone is competing for the same shelf space.
What are the benefits of an urban winery?
I find in the wintertime it is one of our busiest times because people don’t have to brave the icy roads. Because even if it doesn’t snow it’s cold enough that it can get slippery out there and it gets dark early. People who live in the south hills can drive down here and have a nice glass of wine, listen to some music, and be home in 5 minutes. It’s very practical.
Do you have a favorite wine or winery here in Oregon?
Boy, I have a lot. I like Elk Coves wine, they do a nice job. I love Willakenzie’s Pinot Blanc. I like Cowhorn Viognier down in Southern Oregon. I’m a big fan of Southern Oregon stuff. Red Lily, they do some spanish wines. They make a nice Tempranillo.
Do you have any regular or special events coming up at your winery?
We have a couple. This is our second year running it, the Block Party that we do. The block party is in the summertime and we basically block off the entire parking lot. Last year we had 800 people here. It is on July 18th from 2 to 10 pm this year. We will have a stage, live music, three food trucks, and red wagon creamery out. It’s a big party! We just crank the tunes.
We are also open every Friday from 4 – 9 and Saturday 1 – 8. Or longer, depends on the crowd. Fridays we always have live music and then some Saturdays we do if we are doing special events.
Where can we find your wines here in Eugene? Are there any around the $20 range?
Yeah, there are quite a few. We have one red, that’s the Avanté. It’s $22 right now. But I think you can probably find it less because different places have different mark ups. Market of Choice, there are three or four them in Eugene. They all have different stewards, all with different tastes. Some have some of our wines, and some have other wines. Sundance, Jiffy Market, those are good choices. Capella has a couple. Creswell Bakery has a good selection.
We’ve got a bunch of wines under $20. Mostly our whites. They don’t require barrel or extended aging so they are at a better price point. So right now we have a killer Pinot Gris out that’s a new wine for us, for $16. We’ve got the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc at $18. The 2013 Pinot Blanc is $17. We have a new sweet Rosé we are doing that is actually a blend. It’s got Viognier, Muscat, some Pinot Gris and a little Petit Syrah for color. That one is $14. Roussanne is $19. The Sirens song is $16, that’s a blend.
Do you have any predictions for the 2015 season?
It started out just as good [as 2014] , we had a super mild winter. An early bud break, which is good. Then it got a little cool, which there is a potential for frost. I think right now, my rule of thumb is usually once you make it to mothers day you are probably safe from frost so that’s coming up in a few days. You always have fall frost too. If you can get past the spring frost, those are the ones that will really damage your crop. Because it will reduce your yields. Spring frosts if they fry your leaves.
I think it’s going to be good though. It’s been beautiful. This is the mildest winter that I can even remember. I got to wear shorts all winter long. Normally in December, January, and February I have to wear pants. I don’t like that.
That must be the Californian in you.
I think so!