Meet Ken Wright, a legend and pioneer in the Willamette Valley working with Pinot Noir in Oregon, USA at Ken Wright Cellars. A lover of fine wine, Ken craves a great adventure. As an avid golfer, snowboarder, entrepreneur and perpetual risk-taker Ken has put Willamette Valley on the world stage for finely crafted Pinot Noir. Crafting 13 unique Pinot Noir wines at three different tiers he is a master of his craft and a global icon for premium Pinot Noir.
Ken has been making wine and wine history for over 40 years. He has dedicated his life to mastering Pinot Noir and making Oregon Pinot Noir world-renowned. In 2014 he was featured as the first Oregon winemaker on the cover of the Wine Spectator and branded as the “Master of Pinot Noir in Oregon.” Ken’s signature achievement is the creation of six distinct sub-appellations of the northern Willamette Valley, which is known as the prime growing region for Oregon Pinot Noir. Instrumental in organizing the six new American Viticultural Areas (AVA)in the Northern Willamette Valley that define in detail the distinct growing areas within the region. He wrote the proposition for the Yamhill-Carlton AVA one of the most well-known areas in Oregon. He also has over 100 wines that have received over 90 points from Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator. Wright and his wife Karen are committed to philanthropy in their community on many levels.
About Wright’s winemaking approach
Wright’s philosophy is one of stewardship rather than manipulation in both the vineyard and winemaking. He uses organic-certified practices as a base for leveraging advanced nutrition-based farming. By analyzing both the soil profile and vines, maintaining proper crop levels, personally sampling each vineyard, and hand-sorting each cluster, Wright ensures that the inherent character in the fruit is revealed in the finished wine. Minimal handling of wine is essential to preserve the origin and natural character of the wine, and his vineyards are also organic certified. Each of his wines is marked with an ‘Oregon Promise’ that ensures that there is 100% Pinot Noir on every label and that each bottle is also 100% from where it says it’s from. The winery also uses techniques like falconry as natural pest management. His philosophy is about harnessing the power of microbiology, regenerative agriculture and detail-oriented plot-based farming to craft the best wines in Oregon.
Pinot Noir is a complex grape
“Think of Pinot Noir as a blank canvas,” says Wright. “There is no other wine variety that can connect you to a place with the detail and complexity Pinot Noir can provide. As a young winemaker, I would have thought that at 68 I would have experienced most of the challenges that Mother Nature can throw at you. The reality is that my team and I see something new every year. We love that we are made to face a new challenge, react to it with the experience and judgment we have developed, and learn from that challenge. You must be light on your feet and aware. Mother Nature has more curveballs than we have years to live. Farming is never boring.”
Pinot is one of – if not the most – complex and world-renowned grapes. Its original home is in Bourgogne, France, where small lots and exceptional terroir create the most coveted, allocated and revered wines in the world. Tight clusters, sensitive in nature, and delicate and challenging to produce perfectly, enthusiasts, sommeliers and winemakers everywhere know the challenge and crave perfection. Pinot Noir in Oregon accounts for 59% of what is planted in the entire state, and 69% in Willamette Valley – making it the region’s most important grape.
When it comes to Pinot Noir, everything from aroma to the palate is about a strong connection to the place the vines are grown. “There is no other wine variety that can connect you to a place with the detail and complexity Pinot Noir can provide. Pinot Noir from the northern Willamette Valley displays outstanding harmony and balance. Texturally the wines are seamless with bright acidity that marries so well with a wide variety of foods. In fact, I can’t think of anything we consume, food or beverage, that matches Pinot Noir in this way. Most other wine varieties have an inherent aromatic or flavour profile that is strongly influential in the ultimate wine no matter where it is grown,” says Wright.
He works only with the Pinot Noir Grape. He makes 13 Pinot Noir wines from his vineyards in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, USA. He is not superstitious and no two wines are alike. All of his wines at his three tiers are priced the same so that consumer preference is not price driven. Wright wants Pinot lovers to find their ideal style of wine and base their preferences purely on taste. Ken Wright Cellars wine has received 111 scores of 90 and above in the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, and they continue to year after year. In 2014, Wright’s 2012 Abbott Claim Vineyard Pinot Noir was ranked the number-one wine in the world, by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
The ideal climate
Willamette Valley is one of the coolest wine-growing regions in North America. Northerly latitude provides extended hours of crucial sunlight during the growing season to ensure ripeness. The largest influences contributing to the production of incredible Pinot in Oregon are the ancient soils and the mother rock from volcanic history and the incredibly cold Pacific Ocean that dominates the region. Wright grows his Pinot Noir vines successfully between 250 feet and 800 feet of elevation and cares for each and every plot distinctly and differently based on both what is above ground – including climate, sun, wind, etc – and also below ground. Above 800 feet the air becomes cooler from elevation and the limited heat makes it difficult to achieve full ripening. “Should climate change temperatures rise enough to allow planting above 800 feet there will be a massive opportunity for new vineyard plantings. But no one has gone there just yet,” explains Wright.
Complex soils with great diversity in composition and depth yield endless possibilities for site-specific wines. The predominant soils exist as a result of millions of years of geological history. From Marine sedimentary to volcanic basalt to windblown Loess, geology plays a very important role in crafting world-class wines. Rich in volcanic history, Oregon is located in the ‘Ring of Fire’, an area in the basin of the Pacific Ocean that is home to 75% of the world’s volcanoes and 90% of the world’s earthquakes. Vines are tenacious and deeply rooted plants often grow 25 to 30 feet in depth at maturity. “In the early years of a vine, when the root system is shallow and only in soil, the wine produced will be muddled and simple, lacking in detail. When the roots extend beyond the soil into the original geology of the site the connection to trace elements (such as potassium, phosphorus, zinc, copper or iron) begins. It is the uptake of those trace elements through the activity of microbiology that creates complex aromas and flavour. Every site will be different in its mix of minerals and therefore different from its neighbour in its aromatic and flavour profile. Some sites are fruit driven, some are spicy, some are floral or savoury,” shares Wright.
Bright Future Ahead
When Wright thinks of the future he is positive. “We are too small to compete with other regions in either marketing dollars or volume. We have understood tacitly that our success lies in ensuring that the highest quality wine is consistently produced. In 1995 we met as an industry to discuss identifying the world-class regions within the Willamette Valley. It was increasingly important that we create a roadmap for those investing in our region that clearly outlined where Pinot Noir was producing compelling and complex wine. Those investments were coming from all over the planet. We spent 10 years on that project with the result that six new American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) were identified. I was one of the six captains who wrote federal petitions to create the AVA’s (mine was for the Yamhill-Carlton AVA). That roadmap has served us well as almost all of the investment since has been within these areas. As our vines become older and root systems deeper the quality of our wine will continue to improve. The future looks extremely bright and we are excited for what it holds for Oregon Pinot Noir,” says Wright.
Wright and his wife Karen have devoted themselves to the community for four decades helping to grow and support the local families and children. The two have extremely large hearts and do whatever they can to make Oregon and their community a better place. “When you give your time and energy to your community it always comes back to you in amazing ways that you could not have foreseen,” he shares. Karen created a soccer club 15 years ago that has 700 children and adults playing year-round and both serve on a number of non-profit boards including their own which was created in 2003. The two have created community programs over the years including preschool and afterschool child programming, countless sports programs, summer work experiences for teens, and works with the local fire department. The local food bank operates under their non-profit umbrella and ten years ago they created a viticulture program at the local high school that includes a 1.5 acre vineyard on school property. The project has been completely funded privately and the in-field teaching is provided by professionals in the industry. The two have also taken the lead in saving our meaningful historical buildings and repurposing them – such as their historical train station that is now their winery tasting room.
Wright is a new world icon and his world-class Pinot Noir wines hold international acclaim, for any wine enthusiast, sommelier or collector they are bottles you must absolutely sip, savour and share. In Ontario, Ken Wright’s wines can be found with the Gibson Family Group.