The doors glide open and I find myself suspended above a distant floor, staring into a room full of silver tanks the size and shape of missile silos. “This is my favourite part of the whole tour,” says Carrie Kalscheuer, direct sales manager for A to Z Wineworks and Rex Hill. I’m not surprised. The fermentation hall looks like a Bond villain’s lair. I scan the walls for countdown timers and glance up, half expecting to see the ceiling slide open.
Carrie is explaining what goes on in these giant cylinders: “A lot of people don’t know the difference between how red and white wine are made. They don’t even realise the inside of the grapes are the same and all the colour comes from the skin…. The whites we press out right away so [there’s] no skin contact. We can put them in a larger vessel [because] they don’t need to be pressed down or pumped over.”
She pushes open another door and leads the way downstairs to the floor of the fermentation hall. As she continues her detailed, enthusiastic account of the technical aspects of wine-making I realise this is the epicentre of a plan for world domination – albeit a peaceful one.
In 2002 two couples – Deb and Bill Hatcher, and Cheryl Francis and Sam Tannahill – whose winery experience includes Eyrie, Domaine Drouhin, Archery Summit and Chehalem respectively, banded together, bought grapes and blended their own Pinot Noir. A little more than a decade later A to Z Wineworks is Oregon’s biggest producer, making some 300,000 cases per year and shipping wine to every US state and 16 countries. They bought this property – the erstwhile Rex Hill vineyards, winery and tasting room – in 2007, and now produce about 10,000 cases per year of high-end wine under the Rex Hill label.
Outside, heavy machinery rumbles in the spring air. A to Z is expanding to accommodate its ever-growing production. Inside, everything in the winery is as big, solid and chrome-y as a classic Cadillac. We walk up a ramp leading the cool fermentation room that is guarded by yet another row of silver behemoths. “These are the blending tanks. A percentage of each fermentation goes into these to build the blend. They’re the biggest tanks in all of Oregon: 34,972 gallons.”
The number is so excruciatingly specific yet apparently random I have to ask, “Why?”
Carrie grins. “Because they are to the Nth degree the biggest thing you can put on the back of a semi-truck and take down I-5.”
There is something a little unsettling about this pedantic attention to detail that permeates every aspect of A to Z Wineworks. The industrial precision is impressive, but where are the earth-loving, fleece-wearing, back-to-nature vibes I’ve come to expect in Oregon?
We amble past the mobile bottling line – chosen because it allows for both precision and flexibility – towards a long slope covered in luxuriant vines. Carrie apologises for the smell: “We just did a biodynamic spray so it’s a little funky.”
Turns out all the vineyards A to Z owns or long-leases are farmed biodynamically. Growing grapes based on an esoteric system designed by an Austrian philosopher seems an odd choice for a business so invested in technology and efficiency.
“There’s a lot of hoodoo-voodoo that comes with it,” Carrie admits. “It’s difficult to understand how some of it works, but it definitely works.”
She tells me they they prune the vines based on the lunar cycle then segues into an analysis of the role of climate on their various vineyards. We’re standing on the foothills of the Chehalem Mountains whose 20 to 30 degree Fahrenheit diurnal temperature swing imparts certain qualities to its grapes while the Eola-Amity Hills are influenced by coastal winds from the Van Duzer corridor. Then Carrie veers back to biodynamics: “Deb, one of our founders, describes it like this: ‘Organic is don’t do anything bad to it; sustainable is leave it as you found it; and biodynamic is leave it better than you found it‘.”
Their zeal for improvement extends from its wine-making facilities and vineyards to its guests. Most tasting rooms are built to sell wine; A to Z/Rex Hill’s is designed to immerse you in the sensory experience of wine. It is dominated by a vast round table covered in glass ramekins holding things like citrus peel, peppercorns, vanilla pods and cinnamon sticks. The idea is to introduce visitors to wine’s flavor notes so instead of saying “that’s yummy” or “that’s yucky” they can describe what they are experiencing. In fact, the charming, exquisitely-trained staff don’t even pour A to Z wines, only Rex Hill. This is, in part, because A to Z sells itself but mostly it’s because they’re more interested in getting into your brain than your wallet.
“Education is our gig,” Carrie says. “It’s our best foot forward.” She is one of several sommeliers on staff and alternates sales manager duties with teaching classes and leading tasting sessions for professional and amateur wine buffs alike. “Our philosophy is to make wine approachable to everyone.”
Technology. Precision. Biodynamics. Progress. Education. It’s all fragments of a puzzle but there’s a missing piece. A to Z is too successful and too sophisticated to have sprung from a philosophical grab-bag but I can’t put my finger on what ties everything together.
“What do you want A to Z wines to say?”
Carrie doesn’t hesitate – she never hesitates: “We consider A to Z to be the essence of Oregon. We harvest and source from all around Oregon and blend for that complexity Oregon can give us. You’ll see ‘The Essence of Oregon’ on the bottles. That’s our primary thing. Our mission is to craft the best possible wine we can at the best possible price to the consumer.”
The “weird silver lining” is that Rex Hill was planning to have its tasting room closed for most of 2020, says Carrie Kalscheuer, CWE, its director of sales and education. Her voice is bright, early hour notwithstanding, and resonates with the same gracious cheeriness I recall from our last meeting in 2015. Five years tipping into six has changed a lot at Rex Hill/A to Z Wineworks, but not her delight in sharing the world of fine Willamette Valley wine.
Rex Hill’s new tasting room is more than an elegant space, it’s a portal for visitors to enter and immerse themselves in wine (just as soon as Covid restrictions ease). “We’ve long wanted to do renovations on the hospitality space. But we also wanted to put our profitability back into improving the wine quality each year,” Kalscheuer explains.
After a decade or so of discussion, planning began in earnest two years ago. “What started as a gentle refresher became a full-scale renovation,” with the putative tasting room part of a plan that included a new bottling line to handle the bumper crops that the sun-drenched Valley is producing.
“We’re picking earlier because of global warming, and we can’t put the wine in the barrel for less time, so we wind up bottling while harvesting which is a huge pressure on our team,” says Kalscheuer. The obverse of this phenomenon is that, “Oregon is… becoming and will be a premier region for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the world. As global warming pushes Burgundy into difficult harvests, ours are leveling out, they’re becoming better. The first 20 years of production in Oregon were a crap-shoot. One out of every four or five vintages was a rock star. Now, 2015 was beautiful and warm, 2016 was beautiful and warm… we’re making even more beautiful wines.”
Rex Hill is biodynamically farmed, so repeated minute adjustments in the vineyard are a matter of course. With Pinot and Chardonnay ripening predictably, and in abundance, its winemakers have started experimenting with smaller bottlings of ultra-premium wines. “We’re not interested in making more wine, we’re interested in making the best wine we can.”
On the other side of this clear, achievable goal is the great unknown of selling that wine in the time of Covid, and after (assuming a definable ‘after’). “The prediction is that 30% of restaurants won’t make it through the pandemic. Independent restaurants, where we sell, are likely to fail at a much higher rate,” Kalscheuer says. “That is scary for the premium wine sector.”
She envisions a future of adapting to the needs of a to-go food culture and jockeying for space in restaurants: “You’ll see five to ten wines carefully curated for a menu, which will also be smaller. Long wine lists will disappear.”
Consumers, meanwhile, are seeking familiarity: “This is not a time for experimentation. A tested brand is comforting.” Rex Hill, and to a greater extent A to Z Wineworks, are well-positioned for this. Having pioneered accessibly priced Willamette Valley wines, A to Z’s Pinot, Chardonnay, rosé and bubbles grace supermarket shelves from Florida to Alaska, Maine to New Mexico. Its success has spawned imitators, Kalscheuer notes. California wineries are buying Oregon grapes, making and bottling wine in California then selling it as an Oregon product.
“I worry about brand power. If you have ‘Willamette Valley’ wines on the shelf for $10, how does that reflect on the brand we’ve worked so hard to build?”
After a pause Kalscheuer answers her own question: “We need to focus our efforts on helping the industry. Need to find a way to gain excitement for those tiny producers that used to have restaurant outlets. [Making wine] is a lot of investment, a lot of overhead. It’s a tough proposition. Tiny wineries are the heart and soul of Oregon.”
It is impossible to say how many of Oregon’s 908 bonded wineries will survive the pandemic. It’s a matter of doing what you can, as you can. “We want to roll with the Covid regulation punches and welcome as many people as we can to the new tasting room,” says Kalscheuer. “We want to keep our people safe, keep our guests safe, and share our space in a safe way.”