Craft Wine Co is an innovative, pioneering company making an incredible array of unique, delicious and authentic wines. Craft is based in Carlton, Oregon in the heart of the Willamette Valley AVA. Winemaking practices across all three brands, Omero, Minimus and Origin, is intentional, minimalist and focused on small lots with little intervention. Craft uses native yeasts, minimal sulfur, no fining and no filtration when possible. Winemaking at Craft is done by Laura Kusak, Meredith Bell and Chad Stock. Charlie Garrell, owner of educational tour company Oregon Wine Guides, sat down with Chad Stock recently to talk about Craft Wine Co, Oregon and the amazing world of wine.
Do you have a mission statement as a winemaker and brand?
Our mission statement here is to contribute. What we are trying to contribute is putting our efforts into areas that are not being explored by others with the purpose of making where we live a more interesting and dynamic place. The chance to contribute is an exciting opportunity. There are all these varietals and techniques to explore!
I don’t want to pretend to be the next great Pinot Noir producer, although I hope people do enjoy the Pinots we are producing. I think Pinot Noir is already made pretty well here in Oregon and some people are really exceptional with it. I’ll make a Vermentino and trade with my friends. Craft did not start out as a contrarian and exploratory company but organically evolved that way because of who we are. Outside of family and friends, this is what we love the most! I just love it!
What is your take on the state of the Oregon wine industry?
The culture here is awesome. I love living here in Oregon! People with similar values are coming here from all over the world. Not just because of the wine quality, but because of the quality of the culture. Oregon attracts people of resonant ideology. The history of the Willamette Valley wine industry has primarily focused on one varietal and we are still planted over 75% Pinot Noir here. One varietal, despite its many styles, does not sound like an exciting drink culture to me. So, we will focus on things like Vermentino and then we can trade with our friends if we like. The Oregon wine industry needs to find a way to produce a good, affordable and otherwise compelling selection of wines. The majority of our industry is not dynamic and there is a lack of diversity. From a size standpoint, most Oregon wineries are operating on a similar niche model no matter what varietals they are producing.
What do you think of our approaches to winemaking in Oregon?
I think it’s about perspective. One person’s excessive is another person’s just right. I know people that make oakier styles of wine and the wines are really good. They can be delicious! The skill of the winemaker is essential. Yes, the farmer has to grow great fruit but the flavor profile that you get from that fruit has to be appropriately handled in the cellar. I’ve seen people use a small amount of new oak but in my opinion the flavor profile of the barrel does not work with the fruit so the wine is not as good as it could be and ultimately out of balance. Whereas another maker will use five times the amount of new oak but the flavor profiles work together and are complementary to the vineyard. They meet in a way that’s what we are after, compelling, delicious wines. I’ve seen great oaky things and great non oaky things, that’s only part of the consideration.
Do you liken barrel and other fermentation vessel usage to the way a chef uses seasoning?
Yes, and cooking technique. It the fish roasted? Grilled? Packed in salt and mud? Sashimi? The best way to cook a fish is to highlight what its qualities are. There are many ways of doing that as there are many ways of approaching Sauvignon Blanc, for example. You treat a rich and ripe fruit differently than an under ripe one. You have to understand your fruit; it determines your approach. The vineyard gives you the flavor profile and the right approach ties back to the terroir. Our job as winemakers is to make the wine even more delicious, through the use of the best approach for the fruit.
Tell me about Craft’s experimentation.
The more we can play in the cellar, the more it enhances our skill and provides more ideas to draw from based on experience. Experimentation feeds curiosity and energizes our work. We do things that are established. For example, we have found a great way to make Vermentino through experimenting and changing approach until we found what worked best for it. We kept experimenting until we got the flavor to pop and now it’s delicious. It’s the best it can be because the different components come together just right. It took six vintages of experimenting to find the right combination for the Vermentino.
Please comment on farming for and employing fermentation techniquest to amplify deliciousness and the purpose of wine.
We are hardwired for hedonism, that’s what drives us. We are seeking pleasure. What’s difficult in talking to the largest possible audience is that we’ve separated wine from food and really there’s no difference. It’s all about flavor. There are certain things that we take out of nature that are all about farming and there are certain things, like a raw oyster that need nothing but “farming”. Anything that is converted whether cooked, fermented or otherwise transformed is all about enhancing flavor. Farming and fermentation techniques are all aimed at creating deliciousness!
What are your thoughts of the role of wine balance and stylistic approach?
So called “food wines” are not necessarily by themselves balanced. You want conflict and tension in a wine when it’s consumed with food. Wines with high acidity and lower alcohol levels are more suited to foods. Our role as wine professionals is to share contextually appropriate usage of wines. Cocktail wines contrasted with food wines. Think of your wine as thin sauce for food if it is being consumed with food.
How do you see climate change impacting the Willamette Valley and how are you responding to it?
We are considering climate change and the likelihood that we will continue to get hotter here. The question is do we have the vines here with the ability to produce high quality wines if our average temperatures are five degrees warmer? A portion of our research and experimentation is aimed directly at the likelihood of warmer average temperatures.
I’m inspired by what’s known as cold climate amelioration theory, a concept promoted by Charles Coury and other early Willamette Valley wine pioneers. The idea is that the specific varietal of grape vine ideally ripens at the very end of a region’s growing season. Since our inception, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Semillon, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc were planted to coincide with ripening in our local climate. We see a general trend of warming, causing these cool climate varietal to ripen too early. We do not know if that will continue, but we need to plan for it.
Choice vineyard sites are now likely to be higher in elevation or planted on cooler hillsides. We can only go so high here in Oregon. Our hills top out at about 1,500 feet elevation. Changing micro climate will buy us some time, but we need to look at varietals that like warmer temperatures. Some of our vineyard sites are already too warm for Pinot Noir. By experimenting and finding successful varietals now, we will contribute to industry evolution.
We have already proved a lot of things are possible. Our neighbors can discover these successes and, for a substantial investment, graft their Pinot vineyards over to other varietals that we have shown can be successful here.. This is evolution of the wine industry. Sometimes it can be caused by climate, sometimes by the market. We saw the positive impact a Hollywood movie, Sideways, had on Pinot Noir while the same movie negatively affected the producers of Merlot.
Please comment on our sub-AVA’s.
The Willamette Valley is huge, 3,438,000 acres. There is a significant amount of viable unplanted land in the Willamette Valley and we are still exploring and learning about our sub regions. I imagine further delineations is likely as growers and winemakers strive to differentiate themselves from other producers. We are looking for truly distinct, consistent qualities from identifiable places. I think it’s a healthy thing to continue to identify special characteristics of smaller parts of our large region. It may not have much impact from a marketing point of view for a long time, but it is valuable for the producers.
Outside of enthusiasts, Oregon and the Willamette Valley are not well known in global wine drinking markets. It will take some time for us to become better known. Some of our bigger, more mass market brands have had very good success using just Oregon on their labels without referring to the Willamette Valley. There is an argument for featuring Oregon as a place for good wine, period, not just the Willamette Valley.
Winemaking style can override the sub-AVA designation, but generally the current sub-AVA’s do have genuine differences. Some, Dundee, Ribbon Ridge, Eola-Amity, are more readily identifiable than others. Experienced tasters can taste the difference.
What do you think of our current price points?
I think that price points are generally going down. There is a lot of back stock of local wines. Many people are still selling 2011 vintages and there is a tremendous amount of wine being stored just in our two largest local bonded warehouses.
The price range is growing. There is a glut of fruit. For five vintages, we have left of fruit hanging on the vine, unsold. The glut is worsening with the combination of large crops, more brands and more acreage producing every year. This may open a whole other sector of business here. Time will tell. One of our biggest recent innovations is the canned wine market and this fruit works well for that model. At the same time, there are a record number of local wines breaking the $100+ per bottle price point.
What can we do better in our tasting rooms?
Be human, engage people and create a dialog with the customer. People want intimacy. Data does not promote intimacy, wine bars do not create intimacy. Speak about wines articulately, passionately and emotionally. Emphasize true storytelling, not data.
Make connections to people’s passions. That’s where they put their time, caring and money. Ask people about their passions and create resonant opportunities with them. The best tastings inspire people!
The only way to get people to understand that what you are doing is real and to get them on your side is that you have to have intent and the ability to communicate it. People want to invest in a culture. I find many of the customers are not buying the wine just because they like it and the price point is good, but they buy it because they like what we are doing and who we are.
Give people the basics. Price, branding and varietal on the tasting menu, that’s it.
What is your advice for seasoned and novice wine drinkers?
Don’t stop drinking! Find your friends, the wines that are your regular favorites and drink them maybe 10% of the time. Be more explorative than consistent.
Avoid the commodity wines. Beware of wines presented as premium, but are either commodity of badly flawed products. Through research, you can find out who is doing quality work. Knowledge helpy you get better enjoyment.
What have you been drinking that has delighted you?l
I don’t tend to drink a lot, but I do taste a lot, especially at industry events where you get the opportunity to taste a tremendous number of wines in one place. Generally, I’m drinking more classic wines than I used to. We tend to take wines to the extremity at Craft with our explorations. I find there is great understanding and value to drinking the classic, benchmark European wines, particularly from older established producers. There’s an intellectual value to those types of wines. The classics are a separate category from the question of what do I want to make, try or simply drink right now.
I’m drinking more white wine and rose than I used to. I do like very rich styles of white wine, not necessarily big, but containing some tannins. I like flavor intensity in general, but it does need to be accompanied by freshness. There’s a difference between intensity and bigness. We turn the volume up on our wines at Craft. Delicacy is not the main point of our wines, but they are also not heavy. We are happy when they are nimble. That’s what we’re looking for.
I love Austrian white wines. Sepp wines stand out, they are some of the best white wines I’ve ever tasted. The Sauvignon Blanc was mind blowing and taught me that the varietal can exceed in expression the benchmarks for which it is known, mostly the Loire Valley in this case. This is exciting! Proof that you can do even better than anyone imagined you could with a classic grape in an unanticipated region. Possibilities!
I also love Schloss Gobelsburg, as Austrian winemaker. Their Riesling, in particular a bottling called Tradition, which uses older techniques such as skin maceration and stem inclusion, is truly exceptional and unexpected.
Informal interview conducted on 1.24.19 by Charlie Garrell of Oregon Wine Guides with one of Craft Wine Co’s exceptional winemakers, Chad Stock. Text is paraphrased from a two hour discussion - any inaccuracies are Charlie’s. Thanks to Chad and Craft for sharing your time, knowledge, enthusiasm and great wines!