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Q & A: Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem Winery
By Tina Caputo
May 8, 2012
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When talking about the history of Oregon wines, certain names inevitably come up: Myron Redford of Amity Vineyards, David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyard, David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards and Dick Erath of Erath Winery.  These pioneering vintners -- among others -- laid the foundation in the late 1960s and `70s for the winemakers who followed. 

One such winemaker to benefit from the founders’ wisdom -- and mistakes -- was Harry Peterson-Nedry, founder of Chehalem winery (pronounced chuh-HAY-lum) in the Willamette Valley.  With degrees in chemistry and English, Harry’s first career was in high-tech manufacturing.  But as many before him have discovered, a wine hobby can have life-altering effects.  

In 1980 Harry founded Ridgecrest Vineyards, the first vineyard to be developed in Oregon’s newly designated Ribbon Ridge AVA, and in 1982 he began planting the site to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  After his first harvest in 1985, he began selling the grapes from his 55-acre vineyard to wineries including Yamhill Valley Vineyards and Adelsheim. 

Harry founded Chehalem winery in 1990, named for a local Calapooia Indian word meaning “gentle land" or "valley of flowers."  Within five years, he had expanded the winery’s estate holdings to include partnerships in Corral Creek Vineyards (adjacent to the winery) and Stoller Vineyards in the southern Dundee Hills, developed by his Chehalem partners, Bill and Cathy Stoller.  Chehalem’s first wine, the 1990 Ridgecrest Vineyards Pinot Noir, was released in late 1992.

Since then, Harry’s cool-climate wines -- both whites and reds -- have come to be recognized as being among the state’s best.  His whites include Pinot Gris -- modeled after the wines of Alsace -- as well as Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay.  His Pinot Noir wines are the vinous opposite of the dark, Syrah-like versions sometimes found south of the Oregon border.  The wines range from $19 for the 3 Vineyard Pinot Gris to $58 for the Reserve Pinot Noir.  Total production reached about 15,000 cases in 2010. 

I caught up with Harry in Oregon last week, at a dinner honoring some of the state’s founding vintners.  Although Harry says he considers himself to be among the “second wave” of Oregon vintners, it’s clear that he’s earned the respect and friendship of his predecessors.
Wine Review Online (WRO): How did you decide to make that leap from wine appreciator to winegrower and vintner?

Harry Peterson-Nedry (HPN): As a consumer, I loved wine -- I loved that it was technical and rigorous, but at the same time hedonistic and aesthetic.  I have degrees in chemistry and English, so I'm kind of schizophrenic.  At the time I had a very technical job, and that was OK.  It earned money, but the passion was not quite there.  It seemed like the wine industry provided everything that I needed.  I thought, “I grew up on a farm, I'm a chemist, I love the heck out of wine, I'm in a region where the wine industry is just barely starting.”  So in the late `70s I decided to dive in. 

WRO: As a first-time grapegrower, why did you decide to plant your vineyard in a place where it hadn’t been done before?

HPN: I began looking for vineyard land, and I had help from someone who had planted vineyards before and knew more than I did.  I knew enough to know what to look for, and they knew where to find it.  This piece of property was not far from the original vineyard that Dick Erath planted, and I just trusted that what others in the industry said was not going to be true.  They told me, "You're the farthest west going out this way, you don't plant grapes that far out." And I said, "Well, I will.”  It was good luck that it indeed turned out to be a very good site.

WRO: How did you learn to make wine?

HPN: I did what I do in other technical disciplines -- I read, I talked to people and then I experimented.  The experimentation was not the average garage style, it was pretty much full bore.  Part of my technical training, but also the main part of my work life for about 15 to 20 years, was using statistical methods.  Statistics are great for putting together experimental designs -- that was actually what I was working on in the high-tech industry at the time -- so it was somewhat fortuitous that I was able impose those same sorts of designs on the winemaking process, trying to identify the key variables. 

WRO: You’ve described your winemaking style as “transparent.” What does that mean?

HPN: We should be the messenger, but we shouldn't be the one writing the epistle -- the vineyard needs to be doing that.  Winemaking should be transparent to the vineyard and transparent to the vintage -- those are the key things, and they should show through.  It shouldn't be our massive use of oak, it shouldn't be over-extraction, it shouldn't be hyper-ripe fruit. 

WRO: What style are you shooting for?

HPN: I'm shooting for, number one, representing the cool climate of the Willamette Valley.  That means maintaining great acid levels, and it also means getting things ripe within those bounds and making the most elegant and texturally exciting Pinot Noirs or white wines.  Over half of what we do is white wine, so that's key to who we are.  We like elegance and refinement and great acidity, ripeness and ageability

WRO: How do you achieve that style?

HPN: Some of it's done in the vineyard, and we do have three different sites on three different soil types.  A lot of it is also understanding what to do and what not to do in the winery.  For example, some wines -- like Riesling or Pinot Gris -- that have screaming acidity in one vintage will have to be balanced with a small amount of residual sugar -- but not enough that you’d notice.  It’s extracting, but not over-extracting.  Harvesting ripe, but not over-ripe.  Everything needs to be seamless.

WRO: What does each of your estate vineyards bring to the table?

HPN: They are different soils and they are slightly different geographies.  They're all within eight miles of each other, but some are higher in elevation, some are closer to the coast range, some are closer to the valley floor where it's warmer.  They bring variations in different vintages.  In cool vintages, one of my warmest sites -- Stoller -- ends up excelling.  It also excels for white wines because of the soils that it has.  My coolest, highest-elevation site, which is the original vineyard I planted, excels for Pinot Noir.  The other one, Corral Creek, has glacial silt soil that gives perfect Riesling characteristics.  In a blend you can pull all of those and see what works best. 

WRO: Are you doing things differently today in the original Ridgecrest Vineyard from when you first planted it?

HPN: If we were to go on a tour, we'd start with the original acres that we planted.  Those initial plantings were 725 plants per acre, and we used certain clones.  If we fast-forward to the most recent vines we planted, those are more like 2,200 plants per acre.  They still have some of the original characteristics, but the spacing is different and some of the clones now are newer ones that have been brought in. 

WRO: Of your fellow Oregon vintners, whose wines do you particularly admire?

HPN: I love Christom's Pinot Noirs, I love the Chardonnays from Adelsheim and Domaine Serene, and the Pinot Noirs from Bethel Heights are great.  At home, we drink wines beside the usual Oregon varieties, just for experimentation.  And when we do drink those varieties, the wines won’t be our own because we want to see what the standards are. 

WRO: What are the biggest challenges for Oregon vintners today?

HPN: One of the biggest is the economic crisis that we're hopefully coming out of now.  We are all small businesses here, and small businesses have to make it on their own, without a lot of assistance from banks.  Banking for the wine industry here in Oregon really became available only about 15 to 20 years ago, and it pretty much dried up immediately after the economic downturn. 

The other challenge is in having a cohesive message, while at the same time respecting the differences between the regions of Oregon -- because we don't all just grow Pinot Noir.  We need to have a cohesive message so people understand where Oregon is -- many people still don't -- so it's still a message to get out to the greater marketplace. 

WRO: What advantages do Oregon vintners have?

HPN: The climate.  And, I think, a very collaborative population within the industry; there are very few people who are lone rangers.  There are a lot of people who like to work together here, and we do stupendous things working together.