April 30, 2022
I love sitting down with a winemaker and tasting her wines, but only because opening bottles and filling glasses gives her something to do while I ask questions. If I want to actually taste the wines and to make good notes, I would much rather do that off in a corner by myself. The real reason I travel to Portugal or Bordeaux or Sicily is to talk with winemakers. I want to understand what they are doing, why they are doing it and, often, what their philosophy is. With rare exceptions, I don’t need to know what they think about the taste of their own wines.
Recently, I’ve been doing this talk-but-not-taste routine closer to home. Over the past two weeks, I had great times in New York, “tasting” one-on-one with the producers of Billecart-Salmon and with Bollinger. Next week, it’s with Krug (yeah, I know, but someone has to do it). I loved the Champagnes – I’m not adverse to savoring great wines – but the discussions were just as interesting.
And I’ve also been tasting really close to home – actually at home – with Zoom, as has been the case since March 2020 when the pandemic hit. I receive sample wines a few days in advance, taste them the day before the Zoom call, and then pretend to taste along while I and other Zoomers (there are usually 10 or so of us) ask questions.
Recently, I had two back-to-back Zooms which made me realize all over again why I enjoy this wine business so much after all these years. One day it was with Kathy Joseph, the delightful Fiddlehead-in-Chief, whose main contributions to the trade is being a talented vineyardist and winemaker of great Pinot Noirs from Sta. Rita Hills and from Oregon. The next day, it was with Cameron Hughes, who has spent the last 20 years buying orphaned lots of wines and selling them at low prices to wine lovers who also love to guess who real their mothers and fathers might be. With each Zoom, I had delivered in advance to my doorstep three bottles of their wines.
Joseph, whom I’ve talked with by phone a couple of times previously, loves to chat about making wines that “speak of a place,” but, hey, show me a winemaker with a vineyard who doesn’t say the say damned thing. What is really interesting is her winemaking style, no matter where the grapes birthplace is, in achieving Pinots that are so well-structured that you are as interested in the vehicle as you are in what it is carrying – in this case wines with excellent fruit that is kept under loving restraint.
And how can you not love a winemaker who says she wanted to make Pinots from both the Willamette Valley and the Central Coast because “I like to cross-pollinate myself?” Now, that is a winemaker who thinks before she acts. Also, “My love of French wines is how they feel in my mouth. So, I want to regulate my winemaking decision to make my wines less big than other winemakers might make theirs.” Tell us more! And she did.
Hughes’s latest venture – he has been at this for some time – is “de Négoce,” a direct-to-consumer négociant business where he buys individual lots of mostly highly regarded finished wines that established wineries want to get rid of as overstock or when a sales channel has been blocked. Hughes can tell the appellation (Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon) on the labels, but, of course, not the producer, and he sells these wines at dimes on the dollar. He does this in tranches to his online clientele – the first offer generally in the $10 range, the second at about $15 and, if any is left over, in the $20s or $30s. Delivery can be anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.
Someone asked the question: But how can the customer learn more about the wine? Hughes explains he can give only scant details which, he says, often results in online guessing games. “What our model sacrifices is the customer relationship with the winery. We also sacrifice consistency. What our customers want is something more exploratory, the journey.” And often very good wines they can afford to drink every day.
Then Hughes volunteered. “David Ramey called me a vulture in 2008. I think he meant it as a compliment.” Someone asked in a quick follow-up, “Do you buy any wine from David Ramey?” Hughes did not rise to the bait. “I know David Ramey,” he said with a smile.
In other words, “Shut up and drink your anonymous Russian River Pinot Noir.”
April 20, 2022
With only a 600-case annual total production, Bells Up is tiny, but their wines tell me their imprint will be huge. Bells Up is a musical term, and since I know little about music, I will quote from their website: “‘Bells Up’ refers to a dramatic moment in classical music where the composer instructs French horn players to lift the bells of the instruments up and project sound with maximum intensity. Bells Up’s winemaker and owner Dave Specter—a former French horn player—says the winery is his ‘Bells Up’ moment.”
The wines of Bells Up, all of which carry musical references on the label, project enormously, but they are not loud. They sing in a delicate yet persistent fashion.
Again, their website tells us that Specter, a burned-out corporate tax attorney, left that profession in 2009 and moved to the Willamette Valley from Cincinnati with his wife in 2012. They purchased an abandoned Christmas tree farm, started planting its nine acres, and established the winery a year later. Specter’s path from tax attorney to winemaker was untraditional, demonstrating the saying that, “where there’s a will there’s a way.” He was a “cellar rat” at a Cincinnati winery (who knew there was a winery in Cincinnati?), took an online enology course at Washington State University, worked a harvest at a winery in Dundee, and studied viticulture at Chemeketa Community College.
Bells Up’s mid-weight 2019 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, named “Titan” for Mahler’s Symphony #1, (93 pts; $44), is a delight, combining bright cherry notes and balancing savory elements. Weighing in at a modest 13.2 percent stated alcohol, it is not overdone or over extracted. Rather, it dances on the palate, displaying the charm and elegance Pinot Noir can deliver. It seems to expand in the glass. Each sip reveals new nuances, so don’t rush it. For now, Specter buys grapes to supplement the enterprise’s own plantings, which explains why roughly two-thirds of the blend for Titan comes from Yamhill-Carlton AVA and remainder from their vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains AVA.
Since Bells Up is in Newberg in the Willamette, you’d expect Pinot Noir. What was unexpected was the stature and poise of their Syrah, the grapes for which come from the Summit View Vineyard on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. Another graceful wine, the 2019 Syrah, dubbed “Firebird” as in Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (93 pts, $52) balances plumy dark red fruit with an invigorating saline-like minerality. Like Titan, the focus here is on elegance, not over-wrought power. Yet, its power is evident in the enjoyment it delivers.
Returning to the Willamette, we find a delightfully refreshing, but serious 2021 Pinot Blanc called “Rhapsody,” for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (91 pts, $32). Pinot Blanc can be disappointing because so many are vapid. Bells Up has avoided that pitfall with good weight, despite a 12.9 percent stated alcohol, riveting acidity, and a pleasing hint of bitterness in the finish.
Contrary to the composer’s instructions, Bells Up has turned down the volume of their wines so you can really appreciate the complexity of the music.
Currently, the wines are available only by calling (503-537-1328) or emailing the winery, firstname.lastname@example.org