One of the best descriptions of a well-made wine is when it is said to be in balance. At Youngberg Hill in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, this description holds true not only for the finished product, but also in their approach to the entire farming and winemaking process. Fully organic and biodynamic, they are solely focused on finding harmony with Mother Nature and the results definitely speak for themselves.
Winemaker Wayne Bailey proudly states that he’s a farmer first. He grew up on a farm in Iowa where his family raised corn and pigs. However, after getting an engineering degree, he ended up about as far as possible from rural America consulting in the food and beverage industry based out of Chicago. His work ultimately took him to France, where he discovered Burgundy, “I grew up around California wine, where it had largely been about the celebrity winemakers and what they do in the winery, there was rarely talk about the vineyards. It was really refreshing to go to Burgundy and have the Vignerons always referring to themselves as farmers.”
Wayne ended up staying in France for two years, learned how to grow grapes, and came away from that experience knowing he wanted to go back to farming. In 2003, he and his wife Nicolette acquired the 50-acre property in McMinnville, along with the building on it, which had been a working family farm since the mid 1800’s. The building which houses the tasting room and 9-room Inn was built in 1988, and they chose the property largely because 2 blocks of vines already existed that were planted in 1989. The fruit from those vines were originally sold to Panther Creek Cellars and today are known as the Jordan and Natasha blocks.
Of the 50 acres, 20 acres are under vine and 3 more acres are currently being planted. As you drive up from the gate entrance to the top of the property where the main building stands, the elevation ranges from 500 feet to 800 feet. When you reach the top of the southeast facing Hill, you are rewarded with stunning views of the entire Willamette Valley including the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, and Mount Hood. The Willamette Valley is about 80 miles wide from here and just 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean that sits just on the other side of the mountain range. You might also catch a glimpse of their two Scottish Highland Cows, Woolly Bully and Beast, which make up part of the livestock on the farm.
Wayne’s farming philosophy at Youngberg Hill is about working with what Mother Nature gives them, “I grew up during the chemical revolution when after World War 2, companies were looking for places to dump all the chemicals that they had made during the war, and agriculture was it. Suddenly, you started seeing all sorts of insecticides and weed sprays to the point where a rotation of crops started to go away. If you visit much of the farmland in the United States today, it’s wall-to-wall corn and beans—there are no farm animals, and no balance of farm life. Having grown up with that and then having the experience of Burgundy, the first thing I did here was say no more conventional farming, we’re going back to organic farming.”
A few years later with the help of a couple of other growers Wayne then transitioned to biodynamic farming. “We are totally natural, in balance, and in sync with Nature. In fact, that’s why we have the cows, they are very much in balance with Nature plus they help propagate a diversity of plant life which in turn enhances the diversity of insect life. And the more diversity you have, it allows nature to stay in balance so you don’t have to worry about any intrusive insects coming in and overwhelming things.” Wayne’s dedication to the land lies in his belief that you can’t make the quality of wine better than the quality of the fruit that you harvest, “you can make good wine out of good grapes, you can make bad wine out of good grapes, but you can’t make good wine from bad grapes.”
We asked Wayne about the cost of being Organic as it would suggest a more expensive way of farming. He firmly believes that Organic and Biodynamic farming can actually be less expensive if you do it right, “you’re not making as many passes through the vineyards, you’re not spending near as much on fuel, and you’re not buying chemicals. It’s all legwork.” He adds that one of the things he has learned over time is that less is more, “we as humans tend to think we have to fix everything but most of the time we just end up messing with Nature. The less we do, and the more we allow Nature to do what it does best, the better off the plants are going to be and the better off the soil is going to be—that’s the way I practice.”
Youngberg Hill produces a total of 3,000 cases made up of three different wines: Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. They produce four estate Pinot Noirs, an estate Pinot Gris and an estate Chardonnay. The youngest vines on the property are the Bailey Block which sit on the southwest corner of the property, and to the west is the Jordan Block which is close to 30 years old. The Aspen Block was planted in 2006, and the Natasha block, which is broken up into 3 sections, make up the oldest vines on the property at 30 years old. The winery also produces a Pinot Blanc and a Pinot Noir from non-estate fruit.
Chardonnay is the newest wine being produced and something Wayne had been wanting to make for several years. About five years ago he determined he would have to grow his own grapes and in 2014 made the decision to graft over half of the Pinot Gris Aspen Block to Chardonnay, “one of the benefits of grafting over planting new vines means the difference of one vintage versus 5-6 before getting enough full fruit to produce.” He makes Chardonnay with the same purpose and intent that he’s producing with the Pinot Noir—to make world-class wine.
The Jordan, Aspen and Natasha blocks are named for Wayne and Nicolette’s three daughters. A very appropriate gesture given he uses the analogy of growing grapes to raising children, “we start pruning in January and we don’t harvest until October, similar to the baby in the womb that you nurse 9-10 months before birth. That child is unique just like each vintage and then you start all over again with raising that child up in terms of the wine going into the bottle. When the vines are young (3-4 years), they’re not producing and you have to look after them. Then the teenage years hit from about year 4-10 when the fruit coming off those vines are different every year—their roots are in a different place so they’re drawing up different nutrients and still trying to figure themselves out. Then once you get to 10 years old or so, they start to hit maturity and start producing consistent fruit that you can depend on. They’re more stable and their root structure is set.”
The Youngberg Hill Inn has 9 guest rooms and operates as a Bed & Breakfast. They bring the same philosophy of being connected to nature for people whether they’re visiting for a tasting or staying overnight. There are no televisions in the rooms and guests are encouraged to disconnect from technology and wander around the vineyards at their leisure. An event space was built two years ago to house weddings, wine club events and various wine dinners and its location on the property takes full advantage of the expansive views—it’s no wonder they are virtually sold out from March through to Thanksgiving!
Most of the wineries in the Willamette Valley are family-owned making between 3,000-10,000 cases of wine. Because Wayne is raising his family on the vineyards, how he grows is extremely important to him, “I want to make decisions that are the right thing to do by my family, the land, and my customers. It may not always be the best thing in terms of dollars, but it’s what is most important to me.” Spoken like a true farmer.
2017 Youngberg Hill Aspen Pinot Gris
As Wayne Bailey told us “Pinot Gris tends to stop fermenting when it is ready”. Though there is a tiny bit of residual sugar, it could not really be detected. This medium body wine showed refreshing notes of grapefruit and green apple. The medium acid was present enough to give the wine structure without being tart. A perfect foil for that tiny bit of residual sugar.
Very Good+ (sold to winery club members only)
2016 Youngberg Hill Aspen Chardonnay
Medium gold in colour. Floral notes mix with apple and pear on this already complex wine. The medium+ body gives a lovely richness to this wine that is kept in check by good back end acidity. Grapefruit and citrus notes come through on the long finish. There is great intensity to the fruit, indicating a long life ahead and one to stash away in the cellar.
Excellent (US $36 at the winery)
2015 Youngberg Hill Cuvée Pinot Noir
This wine is a blend of estate fruit from the Bailey Block as well as purchased fruit from Bjornson Vineyards and Yamhill Vineyards. Bright red cherry blends with earth notes and black pepper on the finish. Definitely enough heft in this wine to develop further but already very approachable. Very good value.
Very Good+ (US $35 at the winery)
2015 Youngberg Hill Bailey Pinot Noir
Here the dials are turned up from the Cuvee. A mix of dark cherry and blackfruit flavours meld with subtle notes of vanilla and baking spice. The medium/full body is balanced by medium+ acidity. The finish goes on and on! Power and elegance combined.
Excellent (US$50 at the winery)
2015 Youngberg Hill Jordan Pinot Noir
Fruit for this wine comes from volcanic rock located at the highest elevation on the vineyard. The blend is 60% Pommard Clone and 40% Wadenswil Clone. Dark cherry and blueberry come through with an earthy component. There is juicy back end acidity and a hint of pepper on the finish.
Excellent (US$50 at the winery)
2015 Youngberg Hill Natasha Pinot Noir
This block sits about 200 feet below the Jordan block. The soil here is a mix of sandy and clay. The wine is just beautiful: a full body delivering ample notes of black cherry, blueberry and raspberry with plenty of structure. Though gorgeous now, this is likely to develop for at least another decade. Hard to keep your hands off of, but very likely to reward patience!
Excellent+ (US$50 at the winery)
2015 Youngberg Hill Nicolette’s Select
Made from five of the best barrels of the vintage this beautiful wine delivers the goods in an impressive way. The dark cherry marries seamlessly with subtle notes of baking spice, cracked pepper and earth. Medium/full body with a long, flavour-packed finish.
Excellent (US$50 at the winery)
Tasting Room open daily 10am-4pm
*Private seating tasting room by appointment only