Driving up the road to Brick House Vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley is a journey away from people and into civilization. As you approach the winery you notice the land becomes more rural which accounts for the wonderful feeling of seclusion you feel when you are on the property. Paradoxically, it feels very civilized to be away from the crowds and cars and noises and just take in the calm of this beautiful farm.
As we enter the property and pass by the beautiful old brick house that gives the winery its name we see the old barn which has been converted into the winery. Proprietor Doug Tunnell is there finishing up the day’s work, putting ice around some tanks to control the speed of the fermentation. He greets us with a warm smile and once the ice is in place he takes us to a different part of the barn that has been converted to his office. Comfy old couches and leather chairs adjacent to wine barrels give the impression of serious man-cave! We later realize that the building is very much an extension of Doug’s personality: eclectic, thoughtful, and very authentic.
We sit out on the deck just off his office with a glass of his delicious Chardonnay to taste with him and hear his story. Doug’s journey into winemaking is an unusual one. For 18 years he was a TV newscaster with CBS. As we listen to him speak we can clearly tell why he originally chose that career path: he has the perfect broadcasters voice. We wondered how a career in journalism, in front of the cameras and moving around the world lead to making artisanal wines in a remote part of the Dundee Hills. “I was hired in Beirut, moved from there to London, from London to Bonne West Germany, from Germany to Paris and then from Paris to Miami (my most foreign post!) and then back home to Oregon where I grew up. During that time, I saw lots of changes going on (in broadcasting) and in the last year or two, I was fairly disenchanted. It was great while it lasted, but the business was going much more toward entertainment and a softer line toward news. I was hired by hard news guys and I was a pretty hard news guy myself—that’s what I knew how to do. Concurrently, in about 1989, I saw this farm and agreed to buy it while I still had 2 more years on my contract. When my contract was up in 1992, I began working here (the farm). Actually, 1992 was our very first harvest so it synched up really nicely.”
The farm that he bought is 40 acres, of which 30 are under vine. 21 of those acres are planted to Pinot Noir and the balance to Chardonnay and Gamay. The very quaint looking turn-of the-century brick house is now his home. When Doug bought this farm it had been a chestnut orchard and had been farmed with plenty of chemicals (fertilizers, weed killers and the like).
But that all changed in January of 1990 when Doug moved to certified organic farming. The following decade he took the next step and became Demeter certified Biodynamic. “One of the principles of biodynamic farming that I think is really attractive is the notion of the farm as a living organism. We live here and we do feel part of that organism. The interactions of everything in the environment of the farm is what Biodynamic farming is all about. We have no livestock, which is fairly unusual for biodynamic farming, but we kind of get a hall pass from Demeter who certifies us because my wife and I don’t eat meat or poultry. But we manage to get by because I trade Pinot Noir for cow manure with my friend Dan who has an organic dairy farm.” (We definitely think Dan got the better of that trade!)
As we walked among the vines Doug told us about the clones he has selected for his vineyard. “There’s no question different clones provide distinctly different flavor profiles. The Pommard clone (UCD 4 or 3) in a nutshell offers a more earthy, underbrush kind of style of Pinot Noir and for that reason we’ll often do a large percentage of whole cluster fermentation with the Pommard—the stem contributes to that earthiness. But the Dijon clone is much more floral to my palate and much more bright spice (Chinese 5 spice), lots of dark cherry, more fruit and flower. This is basically a full south facing slope and I always think of it in terms of meadow flowers whereas I think of the Pommard much more as a dark bramble.
In terms of specifics, I think the whole clonal discussion is really a generational discussion, I think (of the Dijon clones) 777 is quite distinct but 667 and 114 less so and in terms of what is most appropriate for Oregon. I think it’s really a long-terms discussion because of all the variables. There is the difference in soils, the difference in aspects, the difference in elevations, the difference in root stocks, and more so it is very hard to generalize. “
In the winery Doug only does what he needs to so the vineyard can speak. ”For all of the wine, since we made the first wine in this old barn in 1994, we’ve never used or even opened a can of cultured yeast, so all of the yeasts are native. 3 years ago, we decided to invest and learn more about them, so we started DNA fingerprinting and what we discovered in the first year was that there was a strain that was finishing all of the fermentations that wasn’t identifiable in a database of 185 well known commercial yeasts. So that inspired us to look carefully at it. We’re now in 3rd year of samples – we sample the fermenter juice coming in, pre-ferment, then mid-fermentation, and then near the finish of fermentation because the yeast populations shift during that time. What you really want to know is which is the yeast that finishes because that’s the yeast that dominates. And that yeast strain for the last 2 years is something truly unique which I believe has been there all along, something indigenous to our farm here.”
“Once the grapes come into the winery: generally, we give it a 4-day cold soak. This year we did a little bit of an experiment: no cold soak, 2-day cold soak & 4-day standard cold soak just to see if we’re getting anything interesting from cold soaking (rather than just out of habit). Then we start to warm the fermenters up a little & that yeast goes to work and they start to ferment. We leave them for 10-12 days of active fermentation, sometimes a little longer. Then we do a long post fermentation maceration, some for over a month. I think the post maceration is critical because it allows the tannins to kind of settle into longer chains and integrate and become more attractive. Immediately after fermentation, I’ve heard it described as the riot of tannins, the tannin molecules are all over the place. After some settling in the tank they begin to really change – we taste every day during that period and it’s really interesting to see how the wine changes from one day to the next. So we don’t rush it into barrel. Then it goes into wood and through full malolactic in the cellar then in the wood for at least 15 months for the Pinot Noir. Gamay is a little bit different in that everything is de-stemmed. No recipes, every year is different.”
Doug is a fascinating man to have a conversation about wine with. He is truly passionate about his vineyards and his winemaking technique is all about deferring to the vineyard. Just listening to him speak you can easily tell he is a man of great intellect. That intelligence is confirmed when you realize that he is making these delicious and award-winning wines as a self-taught vine farmer and winemaker. Brick House remains an artisanal, limited production winery. But their wines are among the very top tier coming out of Oregon and are well worth seeking out. It is a wonderful and very educational winery to visit.
2015 Brick House Cascadia Chardonnay
Apple-lime and pear get support from the wet stone and slightly earthy secondary notes that work together to create a wonderfully complex wine. Doug told us he loves to drink white Burgundy and the influence is definitely on display in this wine. Full malo gives richness as does the year spent on the lees. The back end acidity assures precise balance. A very detailed and complete Chardonnay.
Excellent (US$36 at the winery)
2017 Brick House Gamay
We don’t drink much Gamay but this experience is likely to change that. Strawberry notes are joined by violets and a good minerally streak. Medium body and medium acidity give just enough structure to balance the fruit. Great versatility, this made for a great aperitif but would also compliment many seafood dishes.
Very Good/Excellent (US$30 at the winery)
2016 Brick House Les Dijonnais Pinot Noir
Red cherry flavours sit atop a medium body that has lots of floral notes that give a surprising amount of complexity to such a young wine. With some air we pick up hints of vanilla and baking spices alongside dusty/earthy notes. Ripe tannins are present but integrated. This is only likely to improve in the cellar and is just the sort of wine to hold on to, to see the development that age will bring to it.
Excellent+ (US$52 at the winery)
2015 Brick House Evelyn’s Pinot Noir
Named after Doug’s mother this wine is a 50/50 selection of the best blocks of Pommard and Dijon clones. By now the signature elegance and finesse of the Brick House wines was well established to us. Red and black cherry are joined by subtle notes of forest floor with hints of dried herbs. We detect more body than with the Dijonnais bottling but there is a lovely softness to this wine. Referring to good new world wines as Burgundian has become trite and we avoid the comparison. But here we cannot avoid using it.
Excellent+ (US$60 at the winery)
Brick House Vineyards
18200 Lewis Rogers Lane
Newberg, OR 97132
*Visitors are received by appointment only