It takes a special place and a brave dream to make two nomads finally stop moving and, quite literally, put down roots.
Ximena Orrego and Guy Insley of Atticus Estate Vineyard & Winery were both born abroad and have lived in (and travelled to) multiple countries. Their aspiration to own a vineyard when they retired became a reality sooner than expected, and in a place quite unexpected.
In the Willamette Valley’s Yamhill-Carlton AVA (American Viticultural Area), sits a beautifully designed home on a 50-acre property.
Behind the home is a neatly planted 6-acre vineyard of Pinot Noir. This is Ximena and Guy’s home, and it is where all guests are greeted for a personalized wine tasting similar to what one would experience in France, and one of the few in the region to do so.
Ximena was born in Peru and has lived in countries as contrasting as Venezuela and Canada. Guy was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Paris, and lived in Bordeaux and Buenos Aires, among other places. They met in Florida and while living there started making a plan for the rest of their lives. “We tasted our first Oregon Pinot Noir in 2004 and we came that very same year on vacation,” Ximena tells us. “We ended up putting a bid on this property which had nothing on it at the time. When we visited, we immediately thought we could easily settle here, have our children grow up in this beautiful environment, and we could become farmers—oh how naïve we were!”.
They purchased the property in 2004 and started planting the vineyard in 2005.
At the same time, they worked with an architect to design their home which was constructed in 2007. When they moved in, Ximena was on maternity leave from her corporate job and ended up taking a sabbatical for 18 months. She spent that time studying winemaking and did her first harvest as an intern. While she initially thought Guy would end up making the wine, she was the one that ended up falling in love with that piece of the wine business.
They started to make wine commercially in 2005 thanks to meeting Scott Shull of Raptor Ridge winery who later became her mentor.
It was Scott that suggested they not wait for their own estate grapes to be producing (which can take several years) and offered to help them source fruit to start making wine and establish their brand. “He’s an amazing person that we still consult with, along with his winemaker Shannon Gustafson. I feel so privileged to continue to work with them both…they provide wonderful advice with all their years of experience and play devil’s advocate when I need it.”
Ximena retired from the corporate world in 2017 and is now fully dedicated to Atticus.
She continues to make her wine at Raptor Ridge but at some point when their two kids are older, she and Guy plan to build a small winery on their property and plan to remain small. Atticus’ current production is 500-600 cases, 100% of which is sold to their wine club members and direct to consumer.
When they first started their wine project, they were told by many that to get into the business they needed to be making 2500-5000 cases and that a distribution component was essential.
“We were headed in that direction with a plan for 1/3 national distribution, 1/3 restaurant distribution and 1/3 direct. But we soon realized that wasn’t what we wanted to do. We wanted something smaller and more intimate where I could have a relationship with every single barrel and that’s ultimately where we’ve landed.”
Atticus Vineyard consists of 6 planted acres with another 19 acres that are plantable. The land has been farmed sustainably since the start and is LIVE-certified (an internationally accredited organization in the Pacific northwest that supports environmentally and socially responsible winegrowing).
Yield management becomes a priority for Ximena because even with just 6 acres, each block reacts very differently to the terroir.
The original vines planted in 2005 (which are made up of 3 blocks of Pommard) all set differently so are all treated differently in terms of how much hang time they require resulting in 3 different harvest dates.
The rain we experienced on the day we visited was a very welcome sight for Ximena as they dry farm their vineyard and the spring showers help them get through those dry summer months. During that time, they work on the canopy depending on which direction the vines are facing. For example, on the east-facing side they pull a lot of leaves to ensure aeration so that moisture doesn’t get trapped, while on the west side they leave more cover given the strong afternoon sun.
The vineyard benefits from well-drained soils which is ideal for growing Pinot Noir. We have learned on this trip that the Yamhill-Carlton AVA is the oldest in terms of geological formations, with the parent material being made up of ancient marine sedimentary soil dating back more than 50 million years. “Little by little we’ve gotten to know our vineyard more. In the earlier days, this vineyard was known for its power and presence. With time it’s been about how can we always achieve a balance between the power and the elegance which, for me, is really important.”
Ximena’s approach to winemaking is one based on curiosity and ongoing experimentation with the goal of producing a wine that will age nicely but is approachable when it’s a bit younger.
“With everything I try to do, I always try to bring some complexity and have balance. After testing whole cluster fermentation, it’s now an important component. We use puncheons (larger format barrels) which have a more delicate touch of oak on the wine. Free run versus lot separation is also critical for us. One of the reasons is not only because of the supple texture you get from free run juice, but it’s often the only way I can have individual lots per block, per clone. We make such small amounts of wine that I often have to press together to make a barrel. By doing free run I’m actually able to individually capture those and carry them all through secondary fermentation.”
Atticus is a literary reference to Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Ximena and Guy both fell in love with the character and vowed that if they ever had a vineyard they would call it ‘Atticus’. How incredibly appropriate given he’s a character adored for his courage and integrity. It takes a brave person to follow their dream in any vocation, particularly in a business as challenging as wine. Lucky for all of us that Ximena and Guy have followed theirs to Oregon and we get to enjoy the superb fruits of their labour.
2019 Atticus Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir
This wine is a selection from throughout the vineyard and is their best representation of the entire estate. The marine sedimentary soils play host to Pommard and Dijon 667 and 777 clones which marry very well together. The result is a medium bodied red wine show casing dark cherry fruit with a soft and polished mouthfeel. About 2/3 of the barrels went through whole cluster fermentation which provides a nice savoury element. Baking spices infuse the long finish and add complexity.
Excellent (USD$30 – particularly good value for this quality)
2018 Atticus Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir
As a comparison, Ximena poured us a taste of the 2018 vintage of the same wine. The 2018 is slightly more textured and perhaps a bit fuller whereas the savoury notes stick out more on the 2019. Both are delicious wines and provide tasters with an interesting contrast to the facets of these two excellent but very different vintages.
Very Good+/Excellent (USD$35 – particularly good value for this quality)
2019 Atticus Vineyard Pinot Noir
Made largely from whole cluster lots, the clonal selection for this cuvée was largely Pommard and Dijon 667.
Pommard (along with Wadenswil) were the original clones to come to Oregon from Europe. The Dijon clones became more popular at the turn of the century and were valued in Oregon’s cool and often damp climate for their early ripening. But to our palates, in the current string of warm vintages the Pommard clone really shines, bringing body and power to the blend. Dark red fruit, black cherry and earth delivered on a medium+ body showing muscle and grace too; this we have come to learn is what the Pommard Clone can deliver. With this wine notes of earth and minerals add to the complexity. Still youthful, this wine is likely to continue to develop for another decade or more. Delicious!
Excellent (USD $55 at the winery)
2012 Atticus Atticus Vineyard Pinot Noir
To finish our tasting, this 10 year old was pulled out for us from their library. This wine was truly something and shows why people have cellars and age wine.
2012 was a great vintage, much to the relief of Oregon winemakers who had to suffer through a cold 2010 and an even colder 2011. The vintage conditions show through in this wine with its ripe, black cherry flavours, and big impact. A decade of ageing has brought out terrific complexity: mushroom, forest floor and earthy notes mix with the fruit to create a complex panoply of flavours that are very enticing. With age has come smoothness that makes it very seductive. This wine was a great education about what Atticus’ Wines are like a decade from harvest. It is worth it to experience this evolution by hiding a few bottles of the 2019 Atticus in the back of your cellar. Keep your hands off them…if you can!
20501 NW Russell Creek Rd
Yamhill, OR 97148
*Tastings by appointment only