New Terrain in the Heart of Willamette Valley

Colene Clemens delivers elegance in the 2013 vintage

Excerpted from the Feb. 29, 2016, issue

When he started his Colene Clemens winery in 2005, Joe Stark didn’t have any experience in wine, unless drinking it counts. He did know Willamette Valley, having grown up there, and after years of looking, he found a promising if untested site for a vineyard. Then he put his considerable resources as a prosperous cabinet manufacturer into developing his dream.

What might have been a long shot worked out for Colene Clemens, which after just a few vintages is producing impressive wines. Consider the focused and expressive Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains Adriane 2013 (90, $50) or the Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2013 (91, $28), a blend of estate fruit that’s sleek and polished.

The 122-acre estate, named for Stark’s mother-in-law, tumbles down a steep hillside where the Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge growing regions converge. The soil here is rocky and shallow, and when Stark and his wife, Vicki, bought the property 10 years ago, it was largely overgrown with blackberries and brush. “This property was pretty rough,” Stark says. “I just liked the challenge of taking it on.”

Stephen Goff came on board as winemaker and vineyard manager in 2008, after six years as Mike Etzel’s assistant winemaker at Beaux Frères. Today, there are 50 acres planted, mostly to Pinot Noir, with some Chardonnay. The vineyard has a southern exposure, ranging in elevation from 350 to 650 feet and averaging about 2.5 tons an acre.

There are four Pinots in the portfolio, with an annual case production of 6,500. The vineyard is organically farmed, though not certified, and Goff ferments with native yeasts. He uses 30 percent to 40 percent new French oak and ages the wines for about a year in the barrel. “I don’t want myriad flavors coming from my cooperage,” Goff says.

After the first small harvest in 2008, it became clear to Stark and Goff that the vineyard wasn’t going to produce the dark, densely built Pinots they expected. While the soil is mostly sedimentary, which produces darker fruit flavors with stronger tannins, it is also laced liberally with basalt rocks, whose volcanic influence lends more red fruit. The resulting wines blend both styles.

“We didn’t realize how big of an impact the rocks would have,” Goff says. But then that’s one of the appeals of making Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley—the varied and distinctive soils.