One of our favourite things about wine is that it brings people together. Big Table Farm has built their winery and farm on this concept as winemaker Brian Marcy and partner Clare Carver combine their passion for wine, food and art into a place that is one part winery, one part working farm and all parts impressive.
Up until last August we had never heard of Big Table Farm, but when it came highly recommended to us twice in the same week by two separate and trusted wine friends, we knew we’d have to visit the winery on our next trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The first thing we learned is that Big Table Farm is not your typical winery nor does it have a typical tasting room. In fact, there is no tasting room. They receive guests inside their house by appointment only (except for the Memorial Day and Thanksgiving weekends when they open to the public) and there is a minimum case purchase requirement per private tasting.
While that may seem extreme, even presumptuous, it is not without good reason. First, it is a working farm so they simply aren’t able to accommodate drop-ins. There are cows to feed, pigs to raise and bees to keep among the many daily chores such an operation requires. Second, they only produce 4,000 cases of wine per year (more than half of which is sold direct to consumer) and want to ensure that the private appointments are highly personalized.
It begins with where you taste. Their 70 acre working farm is on a remote site, not easy to find, south of Forest Grove and north of Yamhill in the northwest part of the Willamette Valley. You’re invited into the Farm House which has been standing there since 1890.
Given how remote the property is for 2017, it’s hard to imagine that it has been standing there that long. History and character seems to seep through its walls and it makes for a very welcoming atmosphere as the long table in the dining room can attest. You’ll quickly fall in love with Levi and Clementine, Brian and Clare’s dogs, both of whom will happily join you as you tour the property to see both the farm as well as the barn that was built to house the winery.
Brian’s winemaking journey started at UC Davis where he studied Fermentation Sciences with the original intention of being a Brewer. He transitioned into wine in 1996 and began working with Helen Turley (one of the most famous consulting winemakers in the world) and Ehren Jordan at Turley wine cellars and Neyers Vineyards in Napa Valley. He then went on to work with Helen at Marcassin Winery in Sonoma and Blankiet Estates in Napa. Marcassin is Helen’s own vineyard/winery started by her and her husband and fellow consultant, John Wetlaufer in the early 90s. It has received enormous praise from the wine press and as a result commands some of the highest prices of any Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in the state, if you are lucky enough to be on their mailing list (Lucky for our wallets, we are not!). Blankiet is one of the cult wineries of Napa Valley. Several years ago we tasted through their line-up with owner Claude Blankiet and can attest first-hand to why he has his cult status. Brian could hardly have been mentored by any greater winemakers.
Clare was working in graphic design doing wine labels when they bought their first house, a small fixer-upper in Napa which they spent several years renovating as their dream home. But a bigger dream was calling them and in 2005 they realized that by selling their home in Napa they would create their chance to have enough money to start their own business. They settled on Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the spring of 2006, purchased the property that is now Big Table Farm and continued working their day jobs while in the startup phase. In 2006, the Big Table Farm dream became a reality with the production of 150 cases in that first year. They made their wine at a leased facility where Brian was a consulting winemaker and Clare continued working as a graphic designer.
To this day, Clare designs all the winery labels which started out in letterpress art form as a temporary idea. Initially not crazy about the name Big Table Farm, Brian suggested that Clare design labels for the front of the bottle but put the name only on the back until the winery was renamed. They ended up keeping the name and now the unique labels have become as noteworthy as the wines. She specifically designed the labels so that each wine has a theme and that theme continues each year through a new label each vintage.
The downside of being both talented and detail oriented is that the process of designing, creating, producing and then finally labeling all the wines is extremely labour intensive. Each sheet is individually hand printed and when they are complete they hire 6 people, (along with Clare, Brian and cellar master/farm foreman Jeff Porth), and spend 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for 4 straight weeks, hand labelling and wrapping every single bottle. It’s this kind of detail that separates Big Table Farm from their counterparts. We’re sure that most wineries would think them crazy to put that much labour into the labels but on the upside, after a few years of this process, Clare says with a laugh, “I can wrap a bottle like a motherf*cker!”.
When it comes to the winemaking process, Brian’s wines are all native yeasts and native malolactic. He doesn’t inoculate for either of those fermentations, and nothing is fined or filtered. A basket press is used for all the fruits and everything is 100% whole cluster. Big Table Farm acquires their grapes from several different vineyards via acreage contracts as opposed to fruit contracts. This arrangement allows them to choose certain rows and pay by the acre rather than by purchasing based on tonnes of fruit. This provides Brian with the control and freedom regarding techniques such as dropping fruit, which often mean less production but results in higher quality.
With so much being written about the 2014 and 2015 vintages we were curious how they shaped up for Big Table Farm, “Both were warm vintages but the 2014 is presenting with much more tannin and more structure. The 2015’s are more conical and their aromatics are much more reminiscent of 2012 with softer tannins and more fruit driven. But both have similar alcohol and acid structure with the big difference for our wines being the structure and tannins.”
The obvious question is whether or not the wine is worth committing to the purchase of a case when you book an appointment. Our answer is an emphatic YES. The focus on the detail and quality that goes into making each bottle of Big Table Farm is obvious from the very first sip. Balance is the trademark of their wines and we rated the entire lineup we tasted as “Very Good +” or higher. So pull up a chair, take a seat at the big table and enjoy some outstanding Oregon wine in a truly unique environment—you won’t be disappointed.
This dry white blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris from the Wirtz Vineyard was barrel fermented in neutral oak and underwent malolactic fermentation. Medium gold colour, it offers plenty of apple with added notes of pear, peach and some lychee. The body is medium+ and has a slightly viscous texture, reminiscent of an Alsatian wine. Balance is created by the medium acid. Spicy notes complete the finish. Very refreshing.
Very Good+ US $28 at the winery
2014 Big Table Farm Chardonnay
Barrel fermented in neutral oak this wine showcases apple, pear and green apple notes on the juicy finish. The medium body produces a nice texture. Very much in keeping with other Oregon Chardonnay we tasted: a freshness to the fruit with good body but never the heaviness that turned people away from this variety.
Very Good+ US $45 at the winery
A similar elevage as was used in the preceding vintage. The apple and pear notes again dominate the profile but in this vintage we detect an almond note and a slightly fuller profile. Still retaining that Oregon signature, this vintage is slightly more textured. Mineral and citrus notes punctuate the finish.
Very Good+ US $45 at the winery
This is a blend from eight different vineyards from across the Northern Willamette Valley. Medium red in colour, the wine possesses a bright cherry profile with an earthy component. Medium body and medium acid, this easy drinking Pinot will have broad appeal to a wide range of palates. Fruit forward with complexity coming from earth and spice notes.
Very Good+ US $42 at the winery
Dark cherry fruit forms the attack which is followed up by earth and spice notes. With swirling we pick up notes of vanilla and confitured strawberry. There is an unmistakable elegance to this wine, it is very refined. Medium+ acid accentuates the pepper notes that we pick up on the finish.
Excellent US $48 at the winery
This wine shows broader shoulders and a more tannic structure than the Pelos Sandeberg but still carries the elegance that (we realize after tasting through the lineup) is a part of the house signature. Dark cherry and plum get added complexity from the earthy component. The Catteral Vineyard is in Eola-Amity Hills and grapes for this cuvee were all from the Wadenswil clone.
Very Good+ US $48 at the winery