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.

Till We Meet Again

Isabella Grapes Photo Courtesy: Double-A Vineyards

In my last post, I explored the idea that you didn’t need to try wine from far away places to experience something new. There are plenty of grape varieties that were commonly found on kitchen tables and being made into everyday wines have fallen out of favor for a myriad of reasons can provide an interesting distraction from the predictable narrative of today’s offerings.

Isabella is a Vitis labrusca grape that was once prized for it’s ability to produce fruit that was marketable as table grapes, juice, and grapes for winemaking. Isabella is a large round grape with dark purple skin and a green-yellow flesh that is easily separated from its skin.

In many European countries, Isabella is still banned from being grown and it is illegal to make wine from its grapes. The importation of Isabella vines from North America was widely blamed for the phylloxera plague that ravaged vineyards across Europe in the mid-1800s. Despite it being outlawed in many European countries Isabella can still be found in vineyards and being made into various styles of wine, especially in Italy where the sweet dessert wine Fragolino is very popular. Isabella’s reputation as a desperado has necessitated it being known by more than fifty aliases. Those names range from Alexander and Fragola to Moschostaphylo and Kerkyraios but no matter what name you have known Isabella by it always displays that trademark “foxy” flavor that Vitis labrusca grapes are known for.

Homeward Bound

If you have followed this blog you know that I’m fascinated by uncommon wine grapes and where they are being grown by innovative vintners. I usually write about grapes that originated in other parts of the world but today I’m writing about a grape that was developed in the United States and is widely planted in my home state of Pennsylvania.

Traminette was created in 1965 at the University of Illinois by crossing the Vitis vinifera grape Gewürztraminer and the French-American hybrid grape Joannes Seyve 23.416. It was originally created as a white table grape but was then found to possess qualities that make it favorable for making wine. The result was a grape with a complex flavor profile, good productivity, resistance to cold temperatures, and versatility in the cellar. Traminette produces a straw-colored wine that has an enticing floral aroma and flavors of apricot, honey, and to a lesser extent, tropical fruit. I had the pleasure of tasting Traminette juice as it flowed from the press at Ripepi Wnery & Vineyard Monongahela, PA. It was bright and had a depth of sweetness with a flavor that is hard to describe. Traminette is most often made in a dry to off-dry style. I like both styles but prefer the off-dry wine when enjoying a day at the winery with my friends.

Traminette can be found throughout Pennsylvania but is most heavily concentrated in the southeastern and northcentral regions.

Australian & South African Winemakers Need Your Help

Winemakers in Australia and South Africa are facing a crisis. Australia is embroiled in a trade dispute with China in which China has halted the purchase of Australian barley, most beef, seafood, coal, and yes,wine. By early December 2020 Australian wineries had lost 1.2 billion in sales. South Africa has banned all alcohol sales as it battles a resurgence of Covid-19. You can help by buying a bottle or two of Australian and South African wine when you visit your wine shop. This is a perfect opportunity to revisit an old favorite from these countries or explore something new, either way it’s a win/win situation.

                                                                       


 

Star-Crossed Wine Lovers


Twelve bottles of Bordeaux and hundreds of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon canes made it back to Earth Wednesday night 1/13/2021 when they splash-downed in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida near Tampa. The wine was sent to the International Space Station by the Luxembourg startup Space Cargo Unlimited. The object of the experiment was to determine how aging in space would affect the wine. The wine will first be taste-tested by a panel of experts then subjected to chemical analysis to verify if any alterations in it’s aging occurred.

The vine clippings arrived at the space station aboard a different SpaceX mission in March 2020. The focus of the vine experiment was to observe how they respond to the stresses of weightlessness and use that information to develop hardier and more adaptable plants for use on earth and on future space missions.

As interesting as the experiments are what I find amazing is the restraint those astronauts showed being stuck in space with a case of Bordeaux for more than a year and not opening a single bottle! WOW! I salute their will power! LOL

SpaceX splashdown Photo Credit: NASA

A Wrinkle in Time

I just received an interesting email from my good friend Steve Casscles. You may recognize Steve from his many articles about wine grapes or his book “Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climate Regions of the U.S. and Canada” available on Amazon.com. Steve is a winemaker at Sabba Vineyard in New York’s Hudson Valley. He wanted me to share the exciting news with my readers that Sabba Vineyard has embarked on a new project and is offering a very limited quantity (about 20 gallons) of wine made from heritage wine grapes. Steve and Sabba Vineyard owner Abby Youghabi have worked tirelessly at preserving these and many other heritage grapes so they can be enjoyed by future generations. Anyone interested in purchasing these unique wines can go to sabbavineyard.com and click on “Order Now” to view the wines or use this link: http://sabbavineyard.com/s/order At this time they are offering:

 

-Baccchus Marion –  a Ricketts Red variety developed in the Hudson Valley in the 1870s  a flinty red variety, medium body, but a true wine grape developed in the 19th century (which was unique then) $25

– Baco Blanc – as steely and flinty white with fruits of soft lemons and green apples.  The variety is used a lot in Cognac and Armanac to make brandy. $25

– Pallmer Noir – a chance hybrid Steve found at his farm.  A big Malbec kind of wine.with lots of vinifera in its genetic makeup. $25

Invitation To My Latest Article

I would like to invite you to view my latest article that was just published on The Vintner Project website vintnerproject.com It is a candid look at the Saperavi being grown and made in the State of New York. It includes intimate and insightful commentary from four legendary N.Y. winemakers, Fred Frank, President of Dr. Frank’s Wine, son of Willy Frank and grandson of Dr. Konstantin Frank, John McGregor, Vice-President of McGregor Vineyard and son of the founder Bob McGregor, Martha (Marti) Macinski, the founder and former owner of Standing Stone Vineyards, and Jim Baker, the founder, owner, and winemaker of Chateau Niagara Winery. This piece offers a truly unique perspective into the mystique of American Saperavi like never before. A “must” read for anyone interested in the future of emerging winegrapes in North America. Photos Courtesy: Dr. Frank Winery, McGregor Vineyard, and Chateau Niagara Winery. If you like the article please share. Link to article: https://vintnerproject.com/wine/saperavi-the-next-cult-grape/

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Pandemic Thanksgiving Wine List 2020

This year has certainly been a stressful and unnerving time for everyone. Our dependable way of life has been thrown into chaos with no foreseeable return to normalcy anytime soon. Traditional Thanksgiving festivities will be adapted to conform to the pandemic protocols just like every other holiday or event had to do in 2020. Since our Thanksgiving dinners will hopefully be celebrated with a smaller gathering of friends and family then why shouldn’t we treat ourselves with good wine?

A Chardonnay with a touch of oak will stand up to all the flavor profiles of a family-style turkey dinner. My choice for a Chardonnay with all the right characteristics is Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay 2018. This California Chardonnay shows well in the glass with an alluring straw color and aromas of oak, apple, and vanilla. It has a good structure that supports flavors of apple, pear, melon, and, citrus that are accentuated by its medium acidity.

Often you need a red wine as a counterpoint to the white wine you are serving your guests. Saldo Zinfandel 2018 by the Prisoner Wine Company will accent your table with its beautiful ruby color and notes of oak. The flavors of dark fruit on a balanced bold body, supple tannins, and mouthwatering acidity are certain to please your red wine lovers. TIP: Decant before serving.

For me, no Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without a Riesling on the table. If you have read my blog then it is no secret that I like Finger Lakes Riesling but they can be hard to find. The two wines I have recommended are substantially above the price point I tend to cover so when I need to buy multiple bottles I have found this Washington State Riesling to be a great pick to fill that need. My go-to Washington Riesling for value and taste is Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling 2019. This Riesling is made in a very approachable style that can be enjoyed by just about anyone. It is easy to drink with crisp acidity and flavors of citrus, tropical fruit, and peach. The price point is in the $10-$14 range.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and please stay safe.

Saldo Zinfandel 2018
Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay
Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling 2019

White Russian

If you have visited this blog you know I am a big fan of the Georgian wine grape Saperavi. I have written about it often here and in print publications, websites, and online magazines. There’s another ancient Georgian white grape that is extremely widespread in that region whose wine I have also become fascinated with and that is Rkatsiteli. Rkatsiteli is a pale-skinned cold-hardy Vitis vinifera wine grape that can trace its origins as far back as Saperavi and like Saperavi it is considered to be one of the oldest wine-producing grapes in the world. Rkatsiteli is widely planted in the Caucasus Region, the area that connects Europe and Asia. While its acreage is considerable it is far less than it occupied during the Soviet-era when quantity was valued for the mass production of wine. The main reasons for the popularity of Rkatsiteli in that part of the world are that it has a strong resistance to cold temperatures while retaining a good level of acidity in hot growing conditions and versatility in the cellar where it can be made into anything from table wine to sparkling wine and everything in between. Rkatsiteli can be found outside of the Caucasus in China and the United States. You can find it being grown as Rkatsiteli in the northeastern U.S., mainly in the Finger Lakes Region of New York and also in Virginia. In China, it is being grown and produced as Baiyu.

Rkatsiteli is made in many styles and types of wine but it usually displays a light body and high acidity. Since Rkatsiteli is made into such a wide variety of wine by a diverse community of winemakers and cultures I will focus on the Rkatsiteli wine made on the East Coast of the United States where it is taking on the characteristics of each unique terroir it encounters. 

Like Saperavi, Rkatsiteli was first planted in the Finger Lakes Wine Region of New York by the legendary Dr. Konstantin Frank where it continues to be grown and made into a classic style of Rkatsiteli by his family at the Dr. Frank Winery in Hammondsport on Keuka Lake. When you taste Dr. Frank Rkatsiteli 2019 the first thing you will notice is Rkatsiteli’s signature acidity and a lean body upfront but the flavors tropical fruit and pear come out on the finish. This wine is a nice light-bodied white wine now but will improve with time in the bottle.

McGregor Vineyard is one of the two vineyards that grow Rkatsiteli in the Finger Lakes. McGregor is most recognized for its iconic Saperavi blend Black Russian Red but their Rkatsiteli is one of their most popular and exclusive wines with only 41 cases produced in 2019. McGregor Rkatsiteli 2019 is a light wine perfect to drink at a festive gathering or on a picnic with friends because it has refreshing acidity and a long finish filled with fruit flavors.

Horton Vineyards in Gordonville, Virginia began growing Rkatsiteli after losing vines to the bitter Winter of 1996. Horton Vineyards Rkatsiteli 2017 displays aromas of nectarines and Meyer lemon that when combined with its prominent minerality and acidity renders a fresh-tasting wine that you can enjoy alone or pair with lighter fare. 

As fall gives way to winter and our tastes turn to more full-bodied reds don’t forget about Rkatsiteli. My suggestion to you is to buy a couple of bottles to save for next summer because it will be here before you can say Rkatsiteli.           

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Today’s forecast for Western Pennsylvania was for sunshine and

Smoke from West Coast wildfires hazes Western Pennsylvania skies.

mild temperatures. The prospect of an extended period of sunshine and mild weather after a summer that set record high temps and a moderate drought was a welcome prospect. When I was outside doing some work around the house I suddenly noticed that while the temperature was in the ’70s the sky was not blue even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Later, a meteorologist on the local news gave me the explanation for the gray overcast conditions that had overspread the region. The reason was smoke from the wildfires on the West Coast. He said the smoke had risen and was swept eastward to the point that it was passing over the area at 30,000 feet. At that altitude, it didn’t affect our air quality but did filter out some sunlight leading to lower temperatures at the surface.

The smoke from the fires proved to be a curiosity for me but for the wine industry on the West Coast, it is presenting the possibility of being a disaster. The vineyards and wineries not directly impacted by the flames are subject to having their unharvested grapes damaged by “Smoke Taint”. Smoke taint is when grapes are exposed to smoke in the vineyard. Smoke in the vineyard doesn’t necessarily mean that the grapes will be damaged by contact with it. The grapes aren’t harmed by smokey soot settling on them but are injured because the smoke can be absorbed through their skin and goes directly into the grape’s sugars. It then gives the glycosides a smokey aroma, think what your clothes and hair smell like after you stood too close to a campfire. With that is in mind, growers aren’t finding much smoke damage from the wildfires, in fact, many are hopeful that any harm will be manageable. With the testing labs experiencing substantial backlogs of grapes for testing a definitive answer to the extent of the problem remains unknown. We will have to wait for the final judgment on the wine quality from the 2020 vintage in the affected regions.