Hand Picked, Horse Drawn (Illahe Vineyards And Pinot For Pinot’s Sake)

Vinted on November 8, 2012 binned in overachiever wines, wine review

Today, I could be writing any number of travel-related wine pieces from the large number of jaunts I took in the first three quarters of 2012 (how large is that number? let’s just say I’ve had to visit the doctor to treat complications from my ass having spent so much time sitting in airplane seats).

But I’m not going to do that. Not today. Those stories can wait.

Instead, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is, and give some long-overdue attention back to a long-time friend of 1WD. Of course, if his wine sucked he wouldn’t be getting the attention here; but it doesn’t, so he will.

Gabe Jagle is a long-time commenter on these virtual pages, often adding insightful points and taking the conversation in the comments field into fascinating wine geek territory, areas that we might not otherwise have explored even on posts that see dozens of interesting comments. Gabe doesn’t just do that here – he also does it on several other wine blogs, and he generally seems to enjoy the geeky discourse. In fact, he’s prolific enough and so imbued with the power wine-geeky that it was several months in to our blogger/commenter relationship before I even knew that he was an assistant winemaker to Brad Ford at a small Oregon producer, Illahe Vineyards in the Willamette Valley.

That genuine love for the grape and for its discourse is what lead me to finally meet Gabe in “real” life earlier this year, after the 2012 Wine Bloggers Conference in Portland. Gabe is a likeable guy, mild-mannered and with a lanky appearance that to city-slickers like me just screams “Pacific NW Farmer” – kind of Shaggy meets lumberjack (he’s probably going to hate that, but it’s the best I could come up with between writing interruptions from my toddler daughter).

I was interested enough in Illahe’s wines after tasting one of the Pinots during my Portland visit that Gabe and I loosely agreed to try to get me samples, which arrived recently. And while they’re not going to set any concentration-loving palates on their ears, those Illahe wines are in possession of a quality that seems to come along rarely in wines these days: authenticity

Gabe is fond of commenting here (and elsewhere) that he views one of the key benefits of the better wine blogs as being their ability to expose interesting producers and wines to the public; or, put another way, telling stories about wines that deserve to have their stories told, but otherwise might never be told by traditional wine media.

We’ve seen a good number of those stories here. Matthiasson, now the darlings of many well-regarded critics, is one of those stories. Portuguese producer Quevedo is one of those stories. I think Illahe is another.

It’s not that all of the wines Gabe sent me were profound; they weren’t. But they were delicious, and they were distinctive, and I got the sense that was what Illahe was shooting for with their wines. And you’ve got to love the honest, no-nonsense winemaking approach; the back label of the 2010 Illahe Pinot Noir reads

“Hand picked, small lot, horse drawn, basket pressed, barrel aged”

The horse drawn part is, as my daughter likes to say, “for real!”: Illahe uses Percheron drafts – named Doc and Bea – to mow cover crop on the property and for transporting grapes from the vineyard to the winery during harvest. What impact that has on the wine I don’t know, but it’s probably one less gas tank in operation which likely can’t hurt when it comes to the local environment.

Illahe Owner Lowell Ford cut his winegrowing teeth in the 1980s with an acre of müller-thurgau, selling grapes to the likes of Eyrie before buying a an 80-acre pasture in 1999 that would eventually become Illahe’s estate vineyard. It was in 1983 that Lowell planted eight Grüner Veltliner vines in his backyard, from which he made bottlings of GV wines for about twenty years until finally planting 1.5 acres of it at Illahe. The 2011 Illahe Grüner Veltliner ($15) is an intellectually stimulating wine. A very cold vintage (one of the coldest on record for Willamette Valley) pushed the harvest into November and resulted in a wine that clocks in at under 12% abv, but it it doesn’t lack for lime-like zing, pithiness, or minerality (though it does lack for spiciness). There are melon undertones, but it’s the vibrancy rather than the fruitiness that makes the wine compelling.

Illahe has a lineup of Pinot Noirs (as you’d expect from Willamette… dammit…), of which Gabe sent me two. The first was the simpler of the two, the 2010 Illahe Pinot Noir ($20), which head winemaker Brad Ford describes as “wine that my neighbors can drink.” I found it pretty sturdy for an “entry-level” Pinot; there’s a good deal of tannic development here, with grit and smoke and and earth and leather combining with spices, bright red berries and an overall light body.

It was with the second Pinot that things really got interesting, though…

2010 Illahe Bon Sauvage Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley)
Price: $26
(if you can find it – only 85 cases were made)
Rating: B+

Interestingly, the only thing accounting for the Bon Sauvage’s additional complexity over the 2010 Illahe Pinot Noir (they’re sourced from the same site) is the 100% native yeast fermentation treatment. A lot of words could be used to describe this Pinot , but “authentic” and “honest” are the two that most came to mind for me when I tasted it. There are signature OR elements here, like earth and truffle notes, but it could be a Catholic altar boy with all the incense aromas it’s carrying around. There’s a great juxtaposition of contrasting elements, too; dark berry fruit with a light touch; thickness of structure with vivacity. In other words, this is Pinot for Pinot’s sake. This is Pinot that won’t be mistaken for Syrah. This is Pinot that wears its heritage and its parentage on its sleeve. Fans of forest floor Pinot will love it, fruit-bombers will not, but those with more catholic (little “c” this time!) tastes can probably enjoy this as a nice break from the proliferation of weighty West Coast Pinot Noir out there right now.






  • Todd - VT Wine Media

    It's very cool that you made the Illahe connection. We met Brad and Bethany a couple of years ago when they were on an east cost juant in 2010. It was a freaking cold night in December, and they and Steve Lutz from Lenne were warming the pinots from the car trunk with their bodies to bring the temps up. The wines were great, they were good sports and warm company. http://www.vtwinemedia.com/vt_wine_press/?p=1187
    Brad also makes a pretty tasty Viognier sourced from other local vineyards.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Todd! I am getting the sense that the authenticity runs deep there.

  • gabe

    Holy cow! Thanks for the profile Joe!

    I'm flattered and humbled, and will probably read this a dozen more times. It seems like you really understood and explained what we are about. Native fermentation is one step we are taking in the direction of making wines with a soul. That expands to wood tank fermentation, pigeage, unfiltered bottling, and a dozen more things that would only prove my status as a total wine geek.

    As for the horses – people often ask about how that effects wine quality. I usually tell them that it might not affect the quality of the wine, but they definitely improve the quality of life at the winery. Most people talk about the "romance" of winemaking as a grand illusion. Winemaking is indeed a lot of work. But when we are waist deep in a wooden fermenter listening to old records while horses bring grapes up the hill…well…it's something special. We're trying to create wines that reflect that experience. I'm glad you are picking up on what we are doing.

    Thanks again for the write-up. Next time we'll get you out to the winery, maybe we can even take your daughter for a horse-ride. ;-) cheers!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Gabe – as I said, if the wines didn't have soul I wouldn't be writing about them. But they do, and I'm glad that you shared them!

  • Dana Estep

    A year or so ago, I found the '09 Illahe basic pinot noir on the shelves of a PA wine store in Pittsburgh. Always on the lookout for reasonably priced OR pinot, I picked up a bottle to try. I found it very enjoyable and accumulated 7 or 8 bottles before it disappeared from Allegheny county. Our daughter lives in Portland so I had her bring me a bottle of each of their pinot gris and gruner veltliner when she visited this summer. Haven't cracked them yet. Plan to do that when she is in town for Thanksgiving. I traded a few emails with Beth to see about joining their wine club, but of course shipping to PA is an issue. Maybe someday. In the meantime, I'm hoping to make a visit to the winery when we make our next trip to Portland. Thanks for writing about and supporting these smaller producers.

    • gabe

      Thanks for the support Dana!

      The 2011 gruner might be my favorite wine from that vintage…it is loaded with fruit while retaining a backbone of acidity and minerality.
      The pinot gris recently sold out, and is one of our most popular wines. We ferment it in a giant (1,600 gallon) oak barrel, which gives it a richer texture, as well as some hints of baking spice. We do stop fermentation before ML, so it retains it's freshness and acidity. I bet it will be a great Thanksgiving wine.

      Our wines are still being distributed in PA, and hopefully you can find our '11 pinot out there soon – it is darker than the 09, but it still has great fruit flavors, and hides a little more complexity. And of course, it is still a great value.

      I hope that you can make it out to the winery one of these days! We have about six holiday events a year, with food and (weather permitting) horse-drawn vineyard tours. We are also happy to do a private tour and tasting if you give us a little advanced notice.


      -Gabriel Jagle
      Assistant Winemaker

      • Dana Estep

        thanks Gabe I'll keep an eye out for the '11. at the moment a search of the PLCB's web site doesn't show anything for 2011 available in the state.

      • Dana Estep

        Gabe – did open the pinot gris on Thanksgiving and it was a hit with all who tried it. Looking forward to trying the gruner. Dana

  • fredric koeppel

    i want some of these wines right now…

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