'I'm not shy," says David O'Reilly, co-owner/winemaker/vineyard manager of Owen Roe Winery in Willamette Valley, Oregon. He's talking about price -- Owen Roe wines have never been cheap. But, he says, "I think we're right there as far as price-quality ratio. I think three bottles of our $60 Cabernet versus one of the $180 Napa Valley wines..." O'Reilly trails off, but it's not out of shyness. Here he is on Owen Roe's Abbot's Table, a blended red which sells for around $20: "It's the first wine that I make every year, and I make sure that it's just flat-out gorgeous. I make sure that it's better than all comers at twice the price."
"All comers" includes more than the rest of the Pacific Northwest, from which Owen Roe draws its fruit. It includes California; it includes Napa. "I kind of liken the difference between the Pacific Northwest and Napa Valley to the difference between Napa Valley and the Central Valley in California," says O'Reilly. "The Central Valley is much hotter, and you'll find that those wines are a lot more bland than the Napa Valley wines." The unspoken conclusion: Napa is hotter than the Pacific Northwest, so its wines suffer by comparison.
O'Reilly isn't making a blanket statement; he's quick to point out that he is "working with grapes that love this cooler climate. In warmer growing areas, the delicate esters of, say, Cabernet Franc or Syrah -- they're gone." (Esters are flavor compounds, often volatile.) "The grape is so busy making sugar that when it's time for harvest, I personally feel that you end up with less flavor. Here, those wines have big berry flavor, but they also have herbal notes. I heard from a guy in Napa who makes Cabernet Franc." The winemaker wanted to try some of the Owen Roe version; O'Reilly proposed a swap. "Then he asked me some questions about what I was doing." O'Reilly went to the numbers. "I said, 'Well what I shoot for is full flavors -- if I can get 25, 26 Brix and still get a pH of 3.3 and a titratable acidity of .7, that's ideal.' He e-mailed back and said, 'That's not possible.' It's like, 'Okay; you're that familiar with the Pacific Northwest to say to me that it's impossible?' I tasted his wine, and it tasted like it was dead. And it was two years younger than ours."
And he's got an explanation. "The purpose of the grapevine is to ripen the seed. When the seed is brown, the vine has done its job, and it's ready to shut down. And when the vine feels it starting to get cold, photosynthesis basically stops. Your last ripening on the grapes is done without sugar increase. I think that's just crucial -- all those delicate flavors stay in the grape. These 65-, 70-degree days and 35-degree nights" -- temperatures well below those you typically see in Napa at harvest time -- "are just ideal."
They also require an attention to vineyard location and management that borders on the fanatical, and O'Reilly is fine with that. "I don't do any grape manipulation. I don't add acid, I don't add sugar, I don't manipulate in any other way. What that does is it forces me to find vineyards that will give me balance. My Walla Walla Seven Hills Vineyard, for example, is 82 percent Cabernet. Cabernet ripens very late, and so in a hot growing area like Walla Walla, you want your wine to be Cabernet-dominant. But in the western Yakima Valley, the Cabernet almost ripens too late" -- the ripening heat starts to give out. "As a result, you can get Cabernet with very high acidity. You could end up with a wine that is lean, not quite as generous as you'd like it to be. So in my Yakima Valley blend, I'll have more Merlot and Cabernet Franc, which come in earlier with better pH and acidity."
His success or failure at getting the balance just so helps him to set his price. "I have a Pinot Noir with a suggested retail of $39. I think it's a $50 bottle, but we've had these hot vintages in Oregon, and I don't think the wine is going to age more than ten years. But I also have a Riesling that I would not be surprised to see age 50 to 70 years, and a Cabernet of the same stature."
Owen Roe is O'Reilly's second venture; the first was Sineann, which he co-founded with his friend Peter Rosback. "When we started Sineann, I told him that, at some point, I wanted to have my own label called Owen Roe -- Roe was an Irish patriot who died in the O'Reilly castle back in Ireland." O'Reilly ended up with a partner on that project as well -- "Jerry Owen. He's a farmer. One of our winery buildings is an old machine shed of his that we converted into a virtual gravity-flow facility" -- meaning that it's gravity, not pumps, that move the wine from here to there. "By 'virtual,' I mean that we have forklifts; if we need to rack the barrels, we just lift them up" and let the wine drain off the lees into the new barrel below.
The practice fits with his devotion to the fruit. "I don't crush our fruit. I could, in essence, make our wines without electricity. I used to say that our wines were made archaically." But however archaic his winemaking, it hasn't made him any more shy toward the Old World than he is toward the New. "I have the greatest respect for the Old World wines, but I can be the biggest critic of the Old World wines. I despise wines that are put into dirty barrels -- the way almost all Rhone wines are."
Them's fightin' words, but O'Reilly's ready for a scrap. "One of my favorite growing areas is Chateauneuf-du-Pape; I love the blends, and I love the fruit. Yet I did a tasting of ten Chateauneuf-du-Papes with a bunch of winemakers -- and a couple of them were French -- and we came to the conclusion that all ten were undrinkable. These were a lot of really, really nice wines, and we found that the winemaking was really poor. I'll challenge people on it. If your barrels are dirty and you have Brettanomyces, and you say that's your terroir, that it's a good thing, then that's like a chef burning his meal and having that be his signature. 'He burns every dish.' You can pick up some characteristics, but you still get the burned flavor -- and that's not necessarily a good thing."