Interview: Jeff Vejr Owner/Winemaker Golden Cluster

While scrolling through my Instagram recently I came across a mention of

an Oregon-made Saperavi. It piqued my interest because I wasn’t aware of any Saperavi being made, let alone grown further west than a few newly planted vineyards in Southwestern Pennsylvania. After a quick internet search, I located Golden Cluster and its owner/winemaker Jeff Vejr in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. I contacted Jeff to find out if he and Golden Cluster were as unique and cutting edge as they appeared at first glance. The short answer is “YES” plus so much more than meets the eye when you realize what he is accomplishing.

Jeff Vejr, Owner/Winemaker Golden Cluster Photo Credit: Laura Domela

The Golden Cluster website goldencluster.com is packed with fascinating information ranging from the uncommon grapes they use in their wine, the wine they make, the history of the area, and Jeff’s story and winemaking philosophy. There is so much information that it can be confusing so I asked Jeff to clarify the structure of his operation. He told me all of his wines are made under the Golden Cluster umbrella but there are some individual wineries that have different themes or points of view. He is the winemaker of all the wine and he makes all of his wine at the David Hill Winery which was originally the Charles Coury Vineyard & Winery. His Saperavi is not grown at the David Hill Vineyards but is grown in the Columbia Gorge AVA of Oregon. The uncommon grapes he sources from David Hill Vineyards were planted between 1966-1972 by Charles Coury. Those grape varieties are Semillon, Savagnin Rose, Flora, Melon de Bourgogne, Sylvaner, Perle of Csaba, and Gouges Blanc (aka Pinot Gouges).

If you find this prelude to my interview with Jeff Vejr owner/winemaker Golden Cluster interesting please read on for my conversation with Jeff. I didn’t believe I could convey Jeff’s passion and vision for his winery better than he did so I am publishing our interview “In his own words”.   Enjoy!

1) Why did you choose to make wine from uncommon grapes?

The Semillon grape holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first white wine that brought me out of my “I only drink red wine” ignorance.

In early Spring of 2013, I was visiting the historic David Hill Vineyard with fellow winemaker Barnaby Tuttle of Teutonic Wine Company.  We walked around the vineyard looking at some of the rows of Sylvaner and Riesling grapes that he contracted for. At the end of our walk, we came across these vines that were much larger than anything else we were looking at, so we asked the vineyard manager what they were. We couldn’t believe our ears when he told us that they were Semillon planted in the mid-1960’s.Upon further questioning, we came to find out that the Semillon was picked with the “other” mixed white grapes on the property and blended away. This news brought Barnaby and I considerable pain. On the drive back to Portland, we decided that Barnaby would call up to the winery the next day and ask about the availability of the Semillon for the upcoming harvest. Barnaby made the call to inquire and they agreed to sell him the Semillon.Their only question was why he wanted to even bother with it.

The original Charles Coury Vineyard (now called David Hill Vineyard) is one of the first vineyards planted in the Willamette Valley after Prohibition. For Barnaby and myself, it was a travesty that these historic grapes were not made into a single varietal bottling. To know that these grapes had been here for nearly 50 years without anyone making a stand-alone wine from them was unbelievable to us. Once I received this news, I was keenly aware of the rare opportunity and the responsibility involved.  What I did not realize was that this chance encounter of Semillon grapes planted in 1966 would expand into a wider untold story about the famous pre-prohibition Reuter Vineyard and the man who planted these original Semillon vines, both originating on the exact same piece of land.

It was as if Dionysus was sending a message and a mission. It was at this time when opportunity and duty converged and Golden Cluster was born.  

In proceeding vintages, I was able to source and make wine from other uncommon grapes from the original Charles Coury Vineyard. Grapes such as Flora and Savagnin Rose. Flora was one of the first American wine grapes to be developed after Prohibition, by the famous grape breeder, Dr. Harold Olmo at UC-Davis. The Savagnin Rose was a grape that had been misidentified for 50 years as Gewurztraminer in the David Hill Vineyard. After trips to Alsace, extensive research, DNA analysis, and most importantly visual identification, I was comfortable in correcting the record in 2016. To my knowledge, it is the oldest known Savagnin Rose in the U.S.A.

In the past 3 years, I have been afforded the opportunity to source other grapes that are not common in Oregon. Grapes such as Saperavi, Bon Noir, Sagrantino, Fiano, Alvarinho, Vignoles, Garanoir, Regent, and Agria, just to name a few. Some of these grapes are the first plantings of these grapes in our state. Oregon is a far more dynamic wine region than what our industry touts and than what the general public is led to believe. From a grape-growing perspective, Oregon is just as diverse as France, Italy, or Spain. Many of our vineyards can be grown non-irrigated, which is the standard in Europe. While most of the attention that Oregon receives is directed towards one grape and one of our wine regions, the most exciting work and resulting wines are coming from grapes that are not “typical” for Oregon. It is within this framework, where Oregon can be appreciated in a wider sense. We are operating with the same commitment, sacrifice, spirit, and hard work that it took the Somer, Lett, Coury, Erath, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser, Adelshiem, Vuylsteke, and Campbell families to reestablish Oregon wine after prohibition. We have a strong foundation to launch from, thanks in part to their work. The story of Oregon wine continues. 

2) Tell me about your wine journey and how it has brought you to where you are today?

I am the stereotypical wine lover who left their previous profession to throw themselves into the wine business I started at the bottom, working in every facet of the wine industry from vineyard work, cellar work, harvest intern, wine buyer, importer, wine educator, and wine delivery driver.

At every step in this journey, I have stayed hungry to learn more. For those that are intellectually curious, the wine world is an incredible place to reside. It encompasses so many other professions; geology, chemistry, language, history, botany, meteorology, biology, music, anthropology, business, art, economics, religion, politics, etc….This is part of the beauty and curse of wine, as it is a galaxy of knowledge that never ceases.The minute you think you know something, you quickly realize that you know nothing. Wine is far more than just an alcoholic beverage.

For me, I have been guided by my own taste. As my palate has changed and as I have learned more, I have come to appreciate diving deeper and deeper into the proverbial rabbit hole. 

I am not classically trained as a winemaker or sommelier. I have not taken any classes, nor earned any certificates or credentials in any area of the wine business. This has provided me with an uncluttered headspace to discover my own palate organically. I did not enter the wine world framed by institutional biases.  

3) What are your plans for the future both near term and long-range? 

My plan has been consistent since I humbly entered the wine industry. The plan is to never quit, never stop learning, never stop exploring, and accept opportunities as they arise. The commitment remains the same because this is more than a profession to me, it is a lifestyle.  What is also important to me is to continue to research, unravel, and learn from the twin stories of the Reuter Vineyard and the Charles Coury Vineyard. To unify the histories of the Oregon wines that were grown and made on this hill behind Forest Grove, in the northern reaches of the Willamette Valley.

Photo of Reuter daughter in the original Reuter Vineyard circa 1904 Photo Credit: David Hill Vineyard

The story Jeff is writing with his forward-thinking view of winemaking is absolutely just the beginning and where it takes him and Golden Cluster will be thought-provoking to watch as it unfolds vintage after vintage.

A to Z Rose

Photo Courtesy: A to Z WineWorks

Photo Courtesy: A to Z WineWorks

     With summer fast approaching I have decided to revisit a recommendation I made last year for my favorite summertime wine Rosé.  This wine is a perfect fit for an idyllic afternoon spent sitting on a blanket spread out on a lush green lawn under a shade tree with a picnic basket full of artisan cheeses, fresh fruit and a loaf of hard-crusted bread.  I like this Rosé because it is full of flavor and made to please with a slightly complex mid-palate that remains bright and juicy while filled with a virtual produce stand of red fruit flavors.  A to Z Rosé first catches your eye with its beautiful magenta color then tickles your nose with the aromas of strawberries, red currants, raspberries, peach and watermelon while finally winding it all up with a crisp clean finish.  There is no wine as closely associated with summer as Rosé, so when you pull out the shorts and sandals add in a bottle of Oregon-made A to Z Wineworks Rosé, you won’t be sorry you did! 

Argyle Pinot Noir Spirithouse $39.99?

Argyle Winery, Dundee, Oregon

Argyle Winery, Dundee, Oregon (Photo credit: PnP!)

 We often complain about the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board that regulates alcohol sales here but there are times when they get it right.  I have to say the Chairman Selection offering of 2007 Argyle Pinot Noir Spirithouse for $39.99 (a savings of $ 35.01 from its quoted price of $75 ) is one of those times.  This Oregon Pinot Noir was produced by the Knudson Vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA of the Williamette Valley.  It is currently listed as Sold Out by the winery but that should be no surprise after Wine Advocate rated it 93 pts and Wine Spectator gave it a 90 pt rating in 2009 which means it has only gotten better since then.  Spirithouse exhibits plenty of ripe fruit flavors especially raspberry and red cherry and just enough tannins with a smooth textured finished.  This is a very good quality Pinot Noir that has more than sufficient acidity and the hint of pepper that is the signature of a good Pinot.  I will tip my hat to the PLCB on this one and say  “Job well done”.   PLCB Code 32593

Back UP The Truck!

English: Wine on the wall.

     I hope that I have given you some motivation to get out and about this summer so you can make some fantastic new memories.  Keeping with my theory that you do not have to spend a lot of money to get good wine, I would like to make some suggestions that will make for a well stocked cooler. 

     Let’s start with some reds!

1.  Albeno Munari Tempranillo Calaveras County 2007   WE/88 $13.99    

2.  A to Z Wineworks Rosé Oregon 2011 $11.99

     And now three highly rated proprietary Red Blends!

3.  Bodegas Dios Ares Crianza 2008  WA/90  $12.99

4.  Bodegas y Vined Luna Beberide Fincala Questa 2007 WA/90 $11.99

 5.  Boutari Elios Mediterranean Red Peloponnese 2009 WS/87 $12.99

     Now it’s time to give these tasty white wines their time in the sun!

1.  Alomos Torrontes 2007  WS/87   $10.99

2.  Boutari Moschofilero Matinia 2010  WS/88   $12.99

3.  Breemerton Verdelho  WA/89   $12.99

4.  Adegas Gran Vinum Nessa Albarino Rias Baixas 2008  WA/88   $12.99

     These are just an example of the rated wines that are available at a reasonable price.  I think you will enjoy any of these selections and know that you will find many others in your journeys.

Keeping Score

     I usually only recommend rated wines because to put it simply I see no reason to reinvent the wheel by trying to rate wines myself.  When a wine is rated you can check its rating against the rating opinion of several other reviewers to see if it deserves your further consideration.  The scale is a 100 point scale with the two most important ranges to me being 85-89 for a very good wine with special qualities and 90-94 for an outstanding wine that has superior character and style.  

     Pinot Noir is a popular wine that can be expensive but if you do your research some good examples can be purchased at a reasonable price. Louis Latour Volnay 2007 is Wine Spectator rated at 89 and can be found as a Chairman’s Selection at PA L.C.B. stores for $19.99, a sizable discount from its quoted price of $55.oo.  This Pinot Noir is broad and sweet with a juicy ripe fruit body that offers cherry and raspberry flavors plus a silky texture.  Look for it with the product code 13223 in the store or online. 

Pinot noir Grapes

Pinot noir Grapes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)