Ken Wright Cellars makes consistently excellent, highly regarded Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc at their winery in Carlton, Oregon. Known for single vineyard Pinot noirs, Ken Wright produces rich, sophisticated wines that are often sold out a year before they are released (on futures).
Ken Wright Cellars was founded in 1993, and its first vintage was produced in 1994. Previous to founding KWC, Ken founded Panther Creek Winery in 1986 and made wines there from 1986 through 1994. KWC's first winery was an old brick building, a former glove factory, which they winery shared with Domaine Serene. The 1993 through 1996 vintages of Domaine Serene wines were made by Ken.
Talking to Ken Wright, one could easily get the feeling that there is very little he doesn't know about grape growing and winemaking.
His conversation ranges authoritatively over such diverse subjects as: plant botany and its implications on the production of phenols in wine, geologic history and soil classifications and their impact on flavors in wine, how vacuum extraction technology can remove excess water from grape juice without impacting quality, the pluses and minuses of soil amendments in encouraging microbial life, and the economics of acreage contracts and the resultant win-win scenario for grower and winemaker.
For Ken, the drama of wine revolves around working with nature to facilitate the expression of fruit and place in a glass. "Human beings are not responsible for the qualities we enjoy in wine," he says, "the qualities that the fruit possesses are inherent-we don't inject them into the berries."
But, he goes on, "we can get in the way." Ken believes, then, that "the grower's and winemaker's true job is to learn how to be an aid in helping the fruit get to where it wants to go, on its own." He views his role as "simply to try and have the purest expression that the fruit is capable of, brought all the way to the bottle and evident in a glass of wine."
Given this philosophy, it is no mystery why Ken works so extensively with Pinot noir. "Pinot noir has a far greater ability than any other variety to express the qualities of place-and that's magical! Our whole goal with this winery," he declares, "is to find great sites and work with each site to try and find out what we can do to help that fruit best express itself."
To help achieve this goal, Ken and his staff concentrate on two fundamentals: site specific vineyard management - to get the healthiest and ripest fruit possible; and winemaking integrity - to capture and bring out the most powerful expression of the fruit.
Buy Fruit by the Acre, not the Pound
Early in his Oregon career, Ken realized that one of the keys to producing better fruit was managing crop yields in the vineyard. Even at 3 tons per acre-a crop level considered low in the late 1980s-he noticed that in those vintages where flowering hadn't gone as well and the vines carried a naturally smaller crop, the grapes ripened sooner.
"It became apparent," he recalls, "that whatever we could do to influence having the fruit as ripe as possible, as soon as possible, was a critical element of being successful in Oregon. My realization was that if we got down to yields of around 2- to 2.25-tons per acre, we had a greater chance of being successful far more years than not."
Accomplishing this in the late 1980s was difficult. Ken didn't then own or lease any vineyard property and worked exclusively with purchased grapes-from growers who were traditionally paid by the ton.
To gain control over the crop yield, Ken helped introduce a new business concept: acreage contracts. By paying growers a full price for a full crop per acre, Ken could gain control over how the vines were managed, and could crop them to his desired, small yields. It was far more expensive, but it delivered higher quality fruit and, says Ken "was really worth it" to do.
"With acreage contracts we created a partnership with the grower," explains Ken. "It gave the grower consistency of income so they could start looking at longer term investments in their vineyard, and it gave us the right to reduce crop to whatever we wished."
The introduction of acreage contracts in 1988, believes Ken, helped start a process of elevating the quality of Oregon's fruit, and ultimately wine.
"Since then," he says, "I think what's happened, especially in the last 4-5 years, has been a greater focus on canopy management-trying to most efficiently capture light in the vineyard-because light, pure and simple, is sugar."
Drop Fruit and Manage Canopy
In the vineyard, Ken essentially spares no expense to accomplish two things: keep the crop size very low to reduce the load on the vine, and create as big an engine for the creation of sugar as possible. "You want a lot of power," he explains, "and that means efficient leaf surface to capture more light, and little fruit weight to bog down the vine."
The result, he says is that the fruit will ripen faster. "You'll be in the barn with dry, fully ripened fruit while others with larger crop loads will still be out there hanging in the wind . . . or rain."
To this end, Ken and his crew do extensive shoot thinning, pinning, and placement in the vineyard. He and his crew go each vine in each vineyard and, by hand, reduce the number of young vine shoots, place them for optimum sun exposure, and pin them on the trellis to grow in a way that prevents leaf shading-which reduces light capture.
"We want all the leaves capturing light," he says, "so we start off by creating the best framework for the plant to generate sugar. It's a huge amount of work it's extremely expensive, but it really pays off-you may gain 4 or 5 days of ripening-and ultimately the fruit seems more intense."
Dropping fruit is another place where Ken is innovating. Traditionally, excessive fruit is cut from the vine at the point in the growing season when color changes. But Ken, in association with other wineries and vineyards, has been experimenting with dropping fruit as early as possible, so the vine doesn't put any extra energy into growing fruit that ultimately would be cut away.
So far results of tests indicate that thinning fruit within a certain early window of time seems to result in earlier maturing of tannins. That means riper fruit, with less green tannins at harvest.
Of course, the vineyard isn't the only place where better practices result in better wine. Ken pays equal attention to his winemaking.
"When you've gone through the whole season in the vineyard spending a lot of money to harvest perfectly ripe fruit," he says, "to do anything less than making sure that nothing but that high quality fruit gets in your fermenter, to me is insane."
Consequently, Ken was one of the first to make hand sorting of fruit standard practice. "You just can't sort it all in the field," he explains. "You have to get it in on a conveyer under good lighting and you have to sort out everything that isn't perfectly ripe fruit."
A sorting crew, usually of ten people, goes over every bin that arrives from the field, picking out bugs, twigs, rot, leaves-anything that would harm the ultimate wine-before the fruit goes to the destemmer. "It's astounding how much we throw away-it makes a big difference."
Another process innovation that Ken pioneered was cold soaking the fruit before fermentation to extract character. It used to be that winemakers, if they did any maceration* at all, did it after fermentation, when alcohol was present. Ken wasn't satisfied with this method.
"By doing the cold soak on the front end, without alcohol, just juice, you can get all the color you want, all the aroma and flavor you want, but because no alcohol is present you do not break down seed tannin and you don't get a lot of bitter compounds that compromise mouth feel," explains Ken. Today, cold soaking Pinot noir before fermentation is common.
In keeping to his goal of finding great sites with which to make expressive wines, Ken Wright has helped popularize the concept of single vineyard designations in Oregon.
"Each site is different," he explains. "You need to walk into a site as if it were a fresh canvas and be observant and open to what you sense in the behavior of the vines and the qualities of the wine. If you do that, then you will begin to understand what might be a proper direction for you to help these vines be healthier and more expressive."
Another step in that process is paying attention to the soil and its characteristics. "What's below ground is terribly important," he says. "We think it has everything to do with the qualities of the wines."
Assuming a healthy microbial life in the soil (as you would expect, an area where Ken is doing a lot of-if you'll excuse the expression-groundbreaking work), Ken is looking for vine roots to grow deep enough to contact the bedrock.
Over time, he says, "you're waiting for a vineyard to reach a point where the roots are in contact with the mother rock. Then the root system is going to have an opportunity to pull that mineral up into the vine-this is where we see vineyards achieve clarity of expression; they seem to blossom."
Ken is working with vineyards that provide him a variety of site expressions. "We have basically two simple forms of soil in our area: you are either sedimentary or you are volcanic. These two soil types really define the basic qualities of our wine."
The vineyards Ken works with in the Dundee Hills are on deep clay-rich volcanic soils. Ken feels these sites deliver fruit that is "very focused, light-to-medium red fruits generally; you tend to get a lot of raspberry, lighter cherry, strawberry."
In the Eola Hills, his vineyards are on shallower volcanic soils with less clay. Here the "fruits are quite a bit darker; you have a lot of cassis, plum, blackberry, blueberry."
In the Yamhill Foothills and the Coast Range, the vineyards are on sedimentary soils. "In these areas you get a lot more spice; more anise, a lot of dark chocolate, cedar, freshly turned earth-a lot of fruit, but they aren't simply focused on the fruit."
It's All About the Fruit
By now, though, it should be clear that Ken is, simply focused on the fruit. Everything that he does-including many things not described here-whether it is in testing the soil for chemical composition, or in finding innovative ways to clean barrels prior to filling, is done to improve the quality of the wine.
"I don't know how people view us outside of this winery; I really have no idea-people will tell you anything. All I can do is know what it means to me," he says. "When you have a great site and you're successful in staying out of the way-assuming a high level of quality work-and you allow the expression that came out of the fruit to be in the glass . . . then anyone tasting that wine senses it-and that is the magic of wine."
"Wine is a gift," concludes Ken, "a wonderful gift of nature that we can enjoy. It offers a simple but very interesting pleasure in our lives; it's no more than that, but it is wonderful for that!"