Expressed briefly, making a great wine is rather quite simple. You find the right piece of ground; you put the right grapes in; you tend them well and harvest them at the right time; and then you smash them together and nudge the product gently away from its tendency towards vinegar.
For some people, the most important step is finding the right piece of ground, and for anyone looking to start a winery, it is certainly the first step. It’s really important. If you get it wrong, the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter.
At least, that’s the way that winemaker Robert Brittan approached it when he packed his bags and closed the chapter of his life that might have been entitled Man Meets Cabernet: 25 Years in Napa.
Brittan first started making wine for the same reason many do: to get chicks. He was a physics major at Oregon State University, and like many in the same situation, he couldn’t get a date. But one day he noticed that the guys across the hall had removed all of their furniture and replaced their couches and chairs with two important items: a Harley Davidson motorcycle and a still. They’d brew a batch of whiskey during the week, and on the weekends their room would be crawling with girls.
Brittan couldn’t afford to compete with free everclear and a Harley, but the envious and enterprising young man thought he might just do one better by going highbrow: he would make wine instead. So Brittan got a 2.5 gallon glass demijohn and started fermenting everything he could get his hands on, wrapping his electric blanket around the jug to keep the fermentation going. And wouldn’t you know it, the first time he actually managed to make something drinkable, he got a date.
Of course, then he had to take it to the next level. Thinking that if he made better wine, he might get better dates, Brittan took a job for a harvest in California’s Central Valley, and not only learned a thing or two about how to make real wine, but discovered, as he puts it, “an entire lifestyle that I immediately knew I wanted.”
It was 1974, and California wine was at an inflection point in its growth that would forever change the state, the country, and even the world. Some of the legendary winemakers of Napa were still plying their craft, and people like Robert Mondavi were busy convincing a generation of Americans to drink wine instead of martinis.
“It was just an exciting time to be in the wine business,” says Brittan. “There was the whole science aspect of it that appealed to my monkey mind, and then the creative component that felt very artistic, and then there was this lifestyle — a way of living that wasn’t about getting rich, but was about living really well.”
Brittan enrolled in U.C. Davis, and upon graduating, began his career as a winemaker, eventually ending up at St. Andrew’s winery at the very southern end of the Silverado Trail in Napa. When the winery was sold, Brittan agreed to stay on for the new owner, but his heart wasn’t in it. Brittan had passing fantasies of heading back north to Oregon. But then what was just going to be a casual conversation with Carl Doumani about a new vineyard that he had acquired turned into a job offer and a 16-year stint as the winemaker for Stag’s Leap Winery.
But after those 16 years, Brittan found himself wanting a new challenge, and decided that he wanted to try his hand at Pinot Noir, a grape that he had flirted briefly with in his career, but never fully explored.
So in 2004, after looking as far afield as France and California’s Central Coast Brittan and his wife Ellen returned to Oregon and fell in love with a windy, overgrown knoll in the McMinnville AVA (American Viticultural Area) of the Willamette Valley. There Brittan found an exposed, cold 128 acres with nutrient-poor soils that he thought would be perfect for Pinot Noir. An 18-acre vineyard had been planted, but only about nine acres was still alive and salvageable. Coddled, nurtured, and coaxed, those nine acres yielded their first wine in 2006.
The grapes are picked when Brittan thinks they’re ready. He believes in the concept of physiological ripeness, but is quick to admit that the phrase has been used to the point of cliché. He tastes, and when they taste ripe, he picks. Simple as that. The fact that his grapes are lower in sugar when he picks (compared to most of his neighbors) he simply chalks up to having found “the right piece of ground.” The grapes are crushed and given a five-day cold soak before fermentation is started. After the wines have fermented dry they are racked into French oak barrels, of which roughly 35% are new, and aged for approximately 9 months following the completion of a secondary fermentation.
The combination of lower sugar levels and relatively minimal exposure to new oak give the wines a more classically Burgundian complexion. The 2008 wines top out at around 13.5% alcohol, and are relatively pale, even for fine Oregon Pinot Noir. Perhaps most compelling, this lack of extraction and oak-driven facade means that the wines clearly show vintage variation — not in wild swings of quality or character, but in the subtle accents that show a little more sun here, a little less rain there. This kind of honesty and transparency in the wines makes them as endearing as they are delicious.
At first, Brittan struggled to come up with a name for his winery, and resisted his wife’s suggestion that he call it Brittan Vineyards. He’d been around the block enough times to know that putting someone’s name on the label was a no-no from a brand perspective because it makes the winery impossible to sell. “So you have plans to sell?” asked his wife. And that’s when Brittan realized he didn’t have to think like a businessman anymore. He could think like someone who makes it his life’s work to figure out a little patch of ground, and make the best wine he possibly can from it. And so the wine now bears his name, and Brittan is clearly well on the way to unraveling the puzzle of his little piece of earth.
2006 Brittan Vineyards “Basalt Block” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of sweet cherry-cranberry jam with a floral perfume and a hint of greenish bark. In the mouth it offers rich cherry and raspberry fruit with notes of cedar and a dark underlying earthiness. The wine has a piercing depth to it and a nice tanginess in the finish. 600 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. Click to buy.
2007 Brittan Vineyards “Basalt Block” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of wet redwood bark and raspberry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth it offers tart cherry and green willow bark flavors with a nice dark earthiness to it. Great acidity means this wine will age quite well. 780 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. Click to buy.
2007 Brittan Vineyards “Gestalt Block” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet bark and sour cherries with a deep earthiness under it all. In the mouth it is incredibly well balanced with a dark earthiness and plum and cherry flavors that narrow to a nice tartness that lingers in the finish. Great acidity and a wonderful stony mineral aspect leave a lasting impression. 312 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. Click to buy.
2008 Brittan Vineyards “Basalt Block” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine has a delicate nose of cherry and floral aromas. In the mouth it comes across as exceptionally delicate with a gorgeous silky texture and cherry and cranberry flavors that are airy in their dryness with a very nice perfume. Wonderfully light and, dare I say, Burgundian, with that gorgeous dusty earthiness that Willamette does well when it is firing on all cylinders. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. Not yet for sale.
2008 Brittan Vineyards “Gestalt Block” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells sweetly of cherry and bright raspberry aromaswith an incredible floral perfume that hangs in the background. Gorgeously silky in the mouth this wine has a really amazing presence and poise on the palate with cherry, raspberry, and redcurrant flavors swirled with a redwood duff undertone that is stunning. The wine is beautiful like a classic painting is beautiful. Captivating, through the entire long, long finish of cedar and freshly turned potting soil. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $45. Not yet for sale