Good stories have good beginnings. “Etiology”, the stories of origin, make great copy. Ovid, the Roman poet, dined out frequently on his stories about how things became what they became. In gathering stories about how wine businesses began, I found plenty of lore. A common theme is winery by accident. Someone buys property with vines, and next find themselves pouring their wares at summer festivals to people wearing perspiration and printed undershirts. Insouciance, yes, but the truth remains: buyers can usually tell the difference between Tempranillo plants and tennis courts.
So, when the determination to plant vines reflects consideration and desire, the story told may differ in detail, but a good tale surely spins just as readily. Such is the etiology of Iris Vineyards of Cottage Grove, with its coastal range foothills property called “Chalice Vineyard,” more Thomas Malory than Victor Mature. Surely, the first visitor center was the living room of the family home with the TV moved aside, but Iris, into its third decade, seems to have put some high seriousness into their winemaking approach.
This plot of land in southern Willamette Valley is a miracle of deliberate, even courteous uses of water for power generation and for making things grow, including grapes. This explains more than 70 wineries in middle distance, and how superb natural resources team with human ingenuity that isn’t just about winning at any cost.
Owners Richard Boyles and Pamela Frey grew up in the Eugene area with enough practical farm romance to remember homemade wines. They worked offshore after college and put their bets on the home field advantage. Enough here goes right to make one appreciate how a measured relationship to nature can let the good folks prevail. The Iris story fits this narrative. For me, this makes Oregon Oregon.
There is much back story, and for this we can thank the owners. Flowers immediately suggested the name, but we can also evoke Greek myth. They latched onto the floral moniker and to the concept supporting it. “Iris” is the libation server to the gods of Olympus. She travels by rainbow, the conduit between mere mortals and a not so always perfect race of gods. Rainbows resonate—think Wagner’s Ring cycle or Judy Garland’s umpteenth comeback variety show.
Iris Vineyards appreciates the mythology and the natural wonder of rainbows in its name and commitment to its surroundings. It’s like a good wine and food pairing. And its payoff is business success and community involvement that’s more than writing checks. You will find the owners associated with ongoing community, educational and wine tourism industry efforts.
The other bit of arcana comes from the concept of “arête,” the striving for excellence in the doing of things. Aristotle, much of whose work reads like an apartment lease, is associated with the term. “Arête” is a guiding principle, not simply a label stuck like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It represents the activities and character to produce excellence as process, not a post-it note with a slogan scribbled on it.
The wines are made in an immaculate facility in Cottage Grove, a non-faux Renaissance Palace cum Hunting Lodge in a light industrial park. The fruit comes from the vineyards located in the foothills of the coastal range, about 1,000 feet up, set as if in a cut out, surrounded by a forest environment the owners took on to nurture an array of trees affected by lumber cutting. The commitment is restoration, a recalibration of commerce within nature. That makes Iris not just another winery. Arête as a guiding practice works up and down the line, both in the vineyard operation and in Boyle’s manifold real estate projects, focused on hotel operations.
Indeed, there is no embarrassment about making money. Rather, as Boyles noted in a response to a questionnaire shared with me, each staff member in the different businesses works not merely to goals, but to sustaining the excellence principle. Do we taste it in the wine?
Well, we do notice the resonance of a judicious approach to winemaking that runs along very coherent and identifiable lines. Aaron Lieberman, winemaker, is frank: “When we find the need to improve our production capacity or quality, we go out to get what we need.” That suggests a tight ship. At one hotel property, the GM says, “The boss just asks us to justify ROI when we do want to improve something.” Everyone got this memo.
The estate wines from the more than 43 acres planted on the slopes provide a gloss on how higher altitudes affect grapes—slower ripening under varied sun exposures, better acid balance, and a kind of transparency between mineralogy and fruit. Varietal characteristics are easy to spot and to appreciate.
Lieberman’s style of making wine is reticent, even minimalist; that is, allowing the fruit to lead into wines that are fruit forward, acid balanced, and low alcohol. A degreed soil savant from OSU, Lieberman worked in the Peace Corps helping Guatemalans farm more productively. Then he began his winemaking journey at Amity Vineyards, and later at Owen Rowe prior to joining Iris in 2008. “I like the fact our elevations lead to long hang time and slow ripening,” he says, “because it allows me to guide what I sense the vintage will do rather than override what is already there.” Call it laissez-faire viticulture, drawing out from the fruit rather than inserting one’s ego and skill into the wine.
At a definite remove from the vines, the winery staff is content to leave vineyard property to the team charged with that responsibility. Accustomed to visitor centers amid rows of vines, we should remember that economies of logistics—financial and otherwise—very often segregate the grapes from the places they become bottles of wine. Focus and sound practices keep these connected.
The Iris portfolio is not exotic or expensive, so it is a good place to savor how this area of the Greater Willamette Valley makes good wine.
The two Pinot Noirs, 2016 and 2015 differ as the first is all estate grown. It’s an intense, full-throated expression of the varietal. We might call it a food soldier since it will pair well with grilled meats and with salmon steaks. The second, Willamette Valley version adds fruit from elsewhere and is very representative of wines of its ilk—more acidic yet still fruit forward, a solid feel in mid-palate and a finish that doesn’t leave until tomorrow’s breakfast. Its price point is attractive, too.
The estate Pinot Gris for 2016 is an incomplete pleasure; that is, the elements are present but one should let the wine get some oxygen before settling into its allure. On the other hand, the 2017 edition comes out of the chute ready to savor. The fruit/acid balances are dialed in and it is a wine to stock for serious quaffing or any number of pairings where brightness illuminates the dish at hand.
Chardonnay is another matter Last year NY Times wine maven Eric Asimov extolled Oregon chardonnay as if he were Columbus discovering Chinese take-out when he landed in the New World. Well, the art form eludes many Oregon winemakers still, trying as they do to produce a not-from-California wine that has sex appeal, like Far Niente or Cakebread, but is distinct. I have some favorite Oregon chardonnay examples that suggest rather than imitate Burgundian whites, and I think Lieberman is working towards such a felicitous outcome. You may see how he’s progressing.
Other wines in the portfolio also call for your respect. These include a 2017 Tempranillo and 2016 Syrah, both releases from Applegate Valley. Both have the heft and the depth I prefer in such wines with mouthfuls of flavor, good body, and layered aromas to tempt and to please. The Syrah, too, is just fun to view in your glass—regal color and hauteur.
In all, the winery produces about 12,500 cases as of this writing with a goal of doubling the output within three years. These folks mean business, and they carry on with care and purpose. Like any business into its third decade, Iris vineyard is worth watching both for its good farming practices and above all, the character of its wines that hold promise at each end of the rainbow.