It is easy to think of wineries as fixed, very permanent things. They are, after all, often expressed in very concrete (no pun intended) forms — wood, glass, stone, steel — and even the vines they include are rooted deep in the soil, conveying a staunch resilience as much as anything manmade. These, of course, are an illusion. When we speak of a winery and what it is capable of, what we are really talking about is a performance that is conducted each year by humans, playing on a stage of concrete and steel and wood and coaxing music of various tunes from the living vines that they work.
Which is why it is possible for a winery which has for a long time made unremarkable wine, suddenly to turn around and start making fantastic wine. It isn’t the place (although it certainly has to have the right raw materials, or at least access to them), it is the talents and vision of the folks involved that make the difference between good wine and bad.
There once was a winery named Chateau Benoit in the Yamhill-Carlton district of the Willamette Valley. Perched high on a hill off of Mineral Springs Road, this winery made solid wines, but was more often known for its views than its wines. But then it was purchased in 1999 by Dr. Robert Pamplin, one of Oregon’s most successful entrepreneurs. He had a single mission in purchasing the property, which was to make it the future source of some of the best Pinot Noir in Oregon.
Like all good businessmen, Pamplin knew how to delegate, bringing in the right people to make sure his vision took root and flourished. He didn’t have to look far for his winemaker. Scott Huffman has lived in the area nearly all his life. He grew up planting vines in the hills of Yamhill county, and has probably tramped through nearly every vineyard within fifty miles. His education as a winemaker began with such vineyard jobs as a teenager, developed legs as an assistant winemaker at Rex Hill vineyards, was supplemented by several years working for a vineyard management company, formalized through classes in Oenology from U.C. Davis, and then grounded through several years of directing the winemaking operations of Chateau Benoit before its purchase by Pamplin. With a new owner focused on quality rather than quantity, it hasn’t taken long for Scott’s deep experience with the individual vineyards of the area to begin to shine through the wines.
Scott’s leadership in winemaking is complemented by general manager Craig Camp, who seems to have a hand in just about everything but the winemaking at Anne Amie, from vineyard management to running the winery’s blog. Camp seems to have held nearly every job in the winery business at one time or another, and each in several countries.
Huffman and Camp have jointly reinvented a winery. The Chateau Benoit name was dropped in favor of Anne Amie Vineyards, a name that derives from the two first names of Pamplin’s two daughters, and pretty much everything was changed about how the winery operated — from distribution to sales to winegrowing to winemaking.
Anne Amie is now focused on Pinot Noir primarily, and its core wines are all single vineyard designates from its estate and contract vineyards in the area. For all intents and purposes 2002 was the first vintage under the new label, new management, and new winemaking philosophy.
That philosophy, not surprisingly for folks who are fanatic about Pinot Noir, is extremely non-interventionalist. Low yield, sustainable farming practices provide small quantities of meticulously hand-harvested fruit. Vineyard blocks are vinified separately (with both wild and commercial yeasts) throughout the fermentation and aging process. Only minimal (25%) new oak is used, and barrels are rotated out over four years. No fining or filtration is done at any time.
The 2003 vintage, which made up the bulk of what I tasted a couple of weeks ago on my trip to the Willamette Valley, was not a great one for the region. The summer, as in many parts of Europe, was unusually hot, and many producers, even good ones, had a hard time keeping their grapes from getting over-ripe. Despite this fact (and certainly a testament to Huffman and Camp) Anne Amie had some wonderful wines to offer, and if they are this good after just a couple of years under the new ownership and vision, I shudder to think what they will be cranking out in a few more. This is a winery to watch when it comes to Oregon Pinot Noir. Mark my words.
2005 Anne Amie Pinot Gris
An unusual smoky peach color in the glass, this wine has an equally interesting nose of wet leaves, and poached pears. In the mouth it is slightly sweet with primarily pear flavors and a light green woodiness that integrates nicely with some vanilla flavors that remain the as a final impression of the wine in the mouth. Distinctive as a wine, but not gripping in complexity. Score: 8.5. Cost: $19. Where to buy?.
2003 Anne Amie “Winemakers Selection” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a pleasant nose of dried cranberries, dried herbs and a hint of spice. In the mouth those spices persist in a rich mouthfeel that delivers a core of strong cranberry fruit and a balanced character that leans towards the extracted without (thankfully) crossing a line into jammy. One of the better 2003 Pinots from the area. Score: 9. Cost: $30. Where to buy?.
2003 Anne Amie “Deux Vert Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a strong red fruit nose of cranberry and cherry. In the mouth it possesses a weight more typical of some California Pinot Noirs, with dark cherry and cranberry flavors that lean towards the overripe, perhaps to be expected in this unusually hot year. The wine maintains its poise through the finish however, never stooping to raisin character and leaving with its head held high. Score: 8.5/9. Cost: $45. Where to buy?.
2003 Anne Amie “Belle Rouge” Bordeaux Blend
Medium to dark garnet in the glass this wine smells of violets and wet earth. In the mouth it is velvety with a nice balance and a core of cherry fruit wrapped in a surprising minerality. This stony quality remains in the finish and helps make this more than just a simple Cabernet. Score: 8.5/9. Cost: $35. Where to buy?.
2004 Anne Amie “Cuvee A” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a classic cool-climate nose of cranberry and pomegranate aromas with hints of herbaceousness. In the mouth it is soft and round, with a core of red fruit that resolves in the direction of cranberry as well as cherry. The wine is balanced, but fruit driven, pleasant but not profound. A well made Pinot Noir that delivers as it should. Score: 8.5. Cost: $20. Where to buy?.
2003 Anne Amie “Laurel Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass and slightly cloudy, this wine has a mysterious nose that floats between floral characteristics and a slight nuttiness, as if someone had crushed walnuts under your nose. In the mouth it is lively and juicy with silky smooth cranberry fruit that commands attention as the primary face of the wine. The flavor profile begins strong, but fades a little quickly at the finish, keeping this wine (perhaps at this point in its evolution) from singing as clearly as it might. Score: 9. Cost: $65. Where to buy?.
2003 Anne Amie “Yamhill Springs Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium to dark garnet in color with a light cloudiness, this wine has a lively nose of dried cherries and cranberries, the sort that makes your mouth start to water in anticipation. In the mouth it is rich and full — silky on the tongue — and full of interesting fruit flavors, some even leaning towards blueberry in their character. Certainly black raspberry is a dominant character, but also cherry, and just a hint of earthiness as this wine runs towards a pleasant finish. The tannic structure is very light, almost unnoticeable, but is providing structural support, along with decent (but not fantastic) acidity that promises better things with some age. Of the current vintage, this is my favorite bottling from this producer. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $45. Where to buy?.
2003 Anne Amie “Hawk’s View Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass and slightly cloudy, this wine has a sweeter nose than its brethren, smelling of vanilla and cranberry. In the mouth it has a great mouthfeel and an exceptional texture on which flavors of cranberry and hints of vanilla and other floral flavors coast to a very nice finish with a touch of fresh herbal character adding a final layer of complexity. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $45. Where to buy?.
2003 Anne Amie “La Colina Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium to dark garnet in color with a light cloudiness, this wine has a darker nose of rich cherry and even plum aromas in the glass. In the mouth it is full and round with slightly lighter fruit than its nose might suggest resting more in the zone of pomegranate and raspberry, though some cherry character sneaks in on the finish. A good acid balance and imperceptible tannins make this a well formed wine that seems like it has something held in reserve that may later express itself. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $75. Where to buy?.
2004 Anne Amie “La Colina Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light garnet in color with a fine haziness, right off the bat this wine is a striking comparison to the ’03 which was a difficult and hot year for the region. The 2003 was good, but seems positively brutish compared to the aromatics of this wine, which are floral and perfumed with raspberry and redcurrant aromas mixed with a light nuttiness. In the mouth it is poised and elegant, with excellent, brighter acidity than the previous year and flavors of raspberry and various floral qualities that linger into a finish that has a savory, umeboshi quality that is luxurious. This is a young wine that already has the qualities of an accomplished diplomat. Over time we will see a statesman. Score: 9.5. Cost: $TBD. Not yet available for purchase.
2002 Anne Amie “Hawk’s View Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color and slightly clearer than its fellow wines, perhaps due to more bottle age, this wine has a lovely floral nose that surprisingly smells like violets to me along with cool red fruits and a whiff of rainwater. In the mouth it is satiny and cool, with a gorgeous taut balance between an earthy minerality and cool cranberry and pomegranate flavors that have been polished with a little time to gleaming detail and richness. As a measure of what this vineyard can do and what the style of this producer is shooting for, this is a tremendous signpost to great things to come. One of the better Oregon Pinot Noirs I have had. Score: 9.5/10. Cost: $65. Tough to find online.
2002 Anne Amie “Winemakers Selection” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color with lightly suspended sediment, this wine has a nose of cranberry and cherry aromas with light touches of fresh herbs. In the mouth it is silky smooth and classically cool climate Pinot Noir all the way down, with a dominant cranberry core, a touch of wet dirt, and a bit of spice that lasts into a lovely finish. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $45. Tough to find online.
2005 Anne Amie “Winemakers Selection” Barrel Sample
Cloudy bright purple in the glass, this wine has a strong cherry and plum character to its nose, along with a striking fresh green anise quality to its aroma. In the mouth it has a very nice texture and a dominant, fantastic raspberry character that seems like it is resolving itself into an elegant form, though it is clearly still in process. But what a process! Tasty as hell at the moment. Score: 9.5?. Cost: $TBD. Not yet available for purchase