The most rewarding aspect of working in the Oregon wine community is having the opportunity to support its growth, to help discover the voices that will shape its future.
One incredibly promising voice is that of Anneka Miller, whose Burton Bittman Pinot noir is a truly distinct wine, a voice that speaks with authority and experience as well as youth and dynamism. Her voice, and her wine represents and honors multiple generations; it speaks of the deep familial relationship she holds with the vines she grew up with. It's a voice you need to know.
Burton Bittman is named for Anneka's grandmothers who gave her inspiration and strength. The Miller family's Tukwilla Vineyards, celebrating its 27th anniversary in 2017, is contiguous with Eyrie's Three Sister's Vineyard (there's no fence line). Anneka works with a special small block of her family's estate vineyard, a few rows from the original 1990 planting.
We featured Burton Bittman 2010 in our September 2013 Reserve Pinot noir Club. It was a huge hit, so much so that we didn't have enough to offer our larger mailing list (there were only 50 cases made). A whopping 80 cases of 2012 were produced, which meant we were fortunate to be able to share Anneka's wine and story. In 2013, only one special barrel (25 cases) was made. And in 2014, a whopping 94 cases!
The first vintage
Burton Bittman is a story of inspiration and mentorship. Like Jason Lett's father, David "Papa Pinot" Lett, mentored so many developing winemakers, Jason mentored Anneka Miller, whose first Burton Bittman Pinot we are honored to feature. It is a parallel story from a decade ago, when we helped launch Jason's Black Cap Pinot.
Anneka spent formative years in the Eyrie cellar, and you can see influential elements in her wine, like the grace and elegance of Jason's wines. And you can see stylistic differences, such as greater inclusion of whole clusters in fermentation.
I asked Anneka for her toughest on how she came to make wine in 2010: "My thoughts... Well, as a young winemaker, they are not many. I have not begun to develop a grand philosophy of winemaking, nor do I have many opinions on the philosophies of others. I don't believe I have the experience, or the authority, to have either at this point. So, all I have is my story.
Thus far, all my lessons in winemaking have taken place in the cellar of Jason Lett. He took me on in 2007, as a high school senior who needed to meet her graduation requirement. At that point, I had little inkling that winemaking might be a career path, but I loved my internship that winter. I declared a journalism and communications major at the University of Oregon because I loved to write, and in the summers I worked at Eyrie.
I spent the next five years split, somewhat, between two career paths, but I began to feel a strong pull towards one over the other. In 2010, Jason started to really lean on me to try making some wine with my parents' fruit. We had discussed the idea on a couple of occasions, and now I was finally old enough to drink the stuff, so why not make some?
Harvest got closer, and Jason leaned harder. I broke. I was a commuting winemaker. On October 22, at 7:45 in the morning, with my knees buried in the mud and the sun just beginning to burn off the mist, I found my bliss. Total and complete peace in a space that most people would find uncomfortable and exhausting. Then, I knew I wanted the vineyard and wine to be my vocation.
With no formal training, I felt my way through the 2010 vintage. Jason and Jeremy Saville, Eyrie's production manager, guided me in the best way possible. They asked questions, presented me with options and their opinions, but the final choice was mine. I think decision-making in the cellar is part science and part art. The knowledge that you have one shot at this particular vintage is so immense, it can be paralyzing. I hope what I gain from my experiences in Burgundy will help me arrive at a better decision-making process. In time, with many more vintages, I hope I will also develop my own sense of the art.
I am humbled to be working with Jason and to be offered the opportunity to make wine alongside him. I'm so glad he leaned on me in 2010 and that he gave me the chance to continue for the 2011 and 2012 vintages. I appreciate the time and the energy it can take to mentor a person, and Jason has been very generous with his."
Jason Lett's reflections on mentoring Anneka
"In my late 20s, a winemaker scared the hell out of me. It was at a tasting at a friend’s house in Burgundy, after which we dispersed onto the shaggy sheep pasture that passed as a lawn. The afternoon moved to drinking, not tasting. Roman made a beeline towards me, and he started asking pointed questions: “when will you take over the domaine? Is your father ready for that? What will you do if he doesn’t 'rendre' (surrender!)?
I can’t remember how I answered, but I remember the statement that all his questions had been leading up to. “If a son does not take the domaine before he is 35, then he will never be a great winemaker. After 35, he is too soft, he will listen too much to his father. The domaine will never move ahead.
I knew my father (whose veins ran with Pinot) would not happily 'render,' nor would I ask him to. As I moved into my thirties, Roman’s deadline of 35 loomed closer, and I turned away from winemaking altogether.
Then my friend John Davidson gave me an unexpected gift: he asked me to make wine any way I wished, with any Pinot I wished, at his winery and from his vines. He believed I had potential but he offered no advice, just a space and a blank slate. The wine turned out better than I could have believed. That first vintage became the 2002 BlackCap Pinot noir.
I learned most of what I know about winemaking from my dad, but John taught me to trust what I learned.
The only way to repay that kind of gift is to pay it forward. When Anneka Miller started working for us I saw the same kind of potential that John must have seen in me.
A good brain and a willingness to roll up her sleeves were a very good place to start, but Anneka, like me, had that deep familial relationship with the vines that she grew up with on her family’s land.
Anneka worked for us for years in her summers off from college, and as graduation approached I began slyly to ask if she had any interest in making wine.
In 2010 she committed to making wine from her family’s vines at our winery, and talked her mom and dad out of a few hundred pounds of Pinot noir. She came up on the train from school in Eugene to manage her fermentations (or ordered us around over the phone when she couldn’t). She developed a style radically different from anything I’ve done, blanketing the bottom of the fermenter with whole clusters in a secret arrangement I don’t quite understand but which I imagine will become a signature in future years.
The result is certainly no shrinking violet. Elegant? Yes. Structured? Oh certainly. Ageable? Um, you better.
But more than that, for Anneka and the few people lucky enough to share this first vintage of Burton Bittman, this wine will always capture that moment when youth, hope, pluck, and a little push in the right direction can lead to a revelation."