Left Coast Estate Then and Now

Photo courtesy Left Coast Estate

Then

When Left Coast Estate vineyard manager Luke McCollom was six years old he helped his father dig a wine cellar and prune grapes. The die was cast. “I’ve always been into grapes. Even the generic flavor,” he says, voice as unhurried as a sunset. “I liked the grape sodas in the glass bottles, and Bubblicious gum.”

Luke got his first job in a winery age 15. He spent most of his time there polishing its collection of vintage cars but when it got busy he’d help pick grapes, barrel or work the bottling line. The Southern California native went to San Luis Obispo for college. Before long he swapped environmental engineering for a degree in fruit science, with a minor in wine and viticulture. He also helped found the Central Coast Vineyard Team (now Vineyard Team) – a sustainable agriculture group.

“I’ve always been into sustainability. Growing up in California I saw how fast freeways and housing tracts developed. I knew the environment was important.”

We’re sitting in Left Coast Cellar’s country-cottage style tasting room and café, surrounded by evidence of Luke’s fascination with agriculture and sustainability. Visitors can buy honey produced in the 50-plus beehives that dot the vineyard, jam from its berry patches, fresh-laid eggs, and of course wine. Lupines and purple roses over-spill rustic vases. A white-tail deer waltzes onto the adjoining lawn and stops to graze between two barrel-thick oaks.

Luke is largely responsible for shaping this bucolic scene. When he arrived from California there was just one building on the land and 25 acres of grapes. “Where we’re sitting was blackberries and poison oak.” He has had a hand in everything for the past 11 years: from the road which he helped tar one Labor Day weekend, to the buildings, vegetable patches, herb gardens, hives and the vineyard which has expanded to 130 acres – 75 of Pinot Noir, 20 of Pinot Gris, 11 of Chardonnay and smaller plantings of Pinot Blanc, Viongnier, and Syrah. The total property is 356 acres that includes wetlands, fields and forests.

Photo courtesy Left Coast

With a growing estate to manage, Luke passed head winemaker duties to Joe Wright in 2011. Another Californian with a passion for Pinot, Joe grew up in Burbank, the heart of LA’s wonderful world of make-believe. He started to take wine seriously in his early 20s in Aspen, CO, where he supported himself between snowboard seasons by working in a wine shop. “My boss was a huge fan of employee education,” Joe says. “He kept pushing me into the wine scene. Ultimately I realized I wanted to make it.”

A sales dinner with the Oregon Wine Advisory Board nudged him towards the left coast. “I fell in love with Oregon Pinot. Two months later I moved to Oregon with this directory they’d given me. I sat down and called every single winery, starting at the As.” He got all the way to W – beginning his career at Willamette Valley Vineyards.

Joe still has a syrupy SoCal drawl, but he is dedicated to Oregon and its wine. “I’m here for a reason and it’s that,” he says, gesturing to the vineyards unspooling in the lee of the winery. “The dirt these vines are growing on.” For the record, Left Coast Cellar’s dirt is marine sedimentary soil. “When we excavated [to build] the winery the ground was loaded with seashells. It was a great confirmation of what we taste – this mineral-y, slate-y foundation for all our wines.”

Everything Joe knows about wine and wine-making he learned on the job and he combines the autodidact’s insatiable desire for knowledge with imperturbable patience. “My job used to be, like, ‘move these thousand pallets, sweep underneath, then put them back.’ Learning to make wine takes a long time. You gotta slow down, allow time to pass, get the experience.”

In a more predictable climate experience means figuring out how to do something once, then repeating yourself. Not so in the Willamette Valley. “We essentially have six different vineyards. We’re working with different root stocks, orientations, row composition, soil composition. There is a lot of opportunity to make different wines. We make five Pinot Noirs; they are unique, distinct from one another,” Joe says. “There hasn’t been one vintage like another in the last 18. You have to shoot from the hip.”

Joe’s handiwork has garnered numerous 90+ point ratings from Wine Spectator. Asked how that feels, he looks into the middle distance and elongates “Sure” into: “shuuuuurrrrr”. Long pause. “Scores are great, I suppose. But I don’t think about them that often.” His mission is to produce wine that expresses its origin, the rest is none of his business.

Photo courtesy Left Coast Estate

Now

Some things have changed at Left Coast. Luke McCollom returned to California, where he manages the Fallbrook Winery vineyards. Taylor Pfaff, the son of founders Bob E Pfaff and Suzanne Larson, is CEO and general manager; his landscape architect sister Cali (for whom the marvelous Cali’s Cuvee is named) is the winery’s creative director. Joe Wright remains head wine maker. One thing that hasn’t changed is Wright’s chronic self-effacement: “Taylor tells me what [wine] they need, by when and I make sure it’s grown, produced and available.”

When asked if it isn’t more complicated than that, he doubles down: “I have spread sheets: vines per acre, shoots per vine, clusters per shoot.” He pauses: “We get pretty close every year, barring gnarly weather.”

Barring, say, freak wildfires?

Left Coast Cellars, like so many Willamette Valley wineries, fell under a funereal smoke shroud in September 2020. “It was disgusting. There was nowhere to go. The fire was from central California to British Columbia, inland all the way to the Rockies. Really gross.”

Wright and the team opted to make wine regardless.“The fires affected how we made them, trying to mediate smoke taint,” Wright says. “The wines are not my usual style, so they feel a little alien but, smoke aside, it was an incredible vintage.” An early crop contributed to “low yields, wonderful concentration; stunning, electric wines.”

Still, 30% less volume than in 2019, plus the minor matter of Covid. “In March, April [2020] we had no idea what was happening,” Taylor Pfaff says. “We had throw our budget out the window. It’s been triage planning.”

Two catastrophes in a 12 months is beyond the reach of planning. But Left Coast has two long-term projects propelling it forward. First, restoring 40 acres of old oak savanna; second, purchasing and planting a new vineyard.

I recall the sentinel oaks around the tasting room, a deer grazing between them, pretty as a Disney scene. “We always appreciated the trees but didn’t understand how ecologically important they are,” says Pfaff. “Only three percent of the Willamette Valley’s historic oak forest remains, and we have a big section of it.”

These acres had been overrun by “a 16-foot tall wall”, as Wright puts it, of invasive species like hawthorn, blackberries, Scotch broom and poison oak. “The Natives would burn, let things burn,” he adds. “The trees would survive but the under-story would get cleared out. That’s the regenerative effect of fire.”

These days, people are more concerned with fire’s destructive effect and indigenous-style land management is prohibited. Clearing the savanna was a slog of cutting, digging and hauling followed by seeding native grasses and flowers to create a “gorgeous, open, wild space.”

It was to this space Left Coast turned when Covid restrictions hit indoor operations. The tasting room became reservation-only and the oak savanna bloomed as a picnic spot. Guests could roll up with chairs, blankets, snacks and glasses, buy a bottle of wine and retreat to the leaf-dappled grass. “We wanted people to go out and enjoy the beautiful, quiet corners of the property and Covid kind of forced that,” Pfaff says. “Customers started to spread out and utilize the land. We are excited to see people enjoy the outdoor spaces.”

Run for the Oaks 5k/10k at Left Coast

With its woods, bees, flowers, ponds, grasslands and vineyards, the estate would be a bucolic fantasy, if it weren’t real. The adjacent farm Left Coast bought weaves another thread into the tapestry: “It’s one of the original Oregon Trail properties,” Pfaff says. “Some settler was assigned it when they arrived here. There is a barn that has original, hand-hewn beams and an abandoned, falling-down Victorian house.”

Much of the 115-acre property will remain wild. Wright has planted about 20 acres, perhaps another 40 are suitable for vines. The rest will become “a green buffer to support more wild species,” says Pfaff. “[Animals] need a lot of range, five acres in the middle of a vineyard won’t do it. If there is more space around it makes a difference.”

Pfaff’s concern for the land is integral to the estate’s wine-making style and philosophy. “Terroir is a big concept. Having a forest full of native life, not just animals but plant and grass species, affects the ecology of the site.”

The ecology of the Willamette Valley is evolving in response to development and climate change. A vineyard, however consciously managed, imposes on native flora and fauna, asserts itself on the rhythm of life and growth. Protecting unfettered spaces and using holistic methods like sheep instead of mechanical mowers helps redress the balance, and infuses Left Coast wines with subtle earthiness.

Its wines are also shaped by the marine influence channeled by the Van Duzer Corridor. Wright’s voice is warm with appreciation as he describes how cool ocean air slows the temperature shifts in the vineyards. The grapes take longer to ripen, which creates concentrated fruit with less sugar. The push and pull of air streaming through the Corridor increases evaporation. “You get a really concentrated berry with more skin, more solid to juice. More tannic wines. Less fruit-driven wines. More spice, more earth. More aging potential.”

Preserving and enhancing these natural qualities is the collective priority. Left Coast, which is LIVE certified, is culling inputs on its way to 100% organic farming. “It’s a lot of work to adhere to,” Wright says, with relish.

He likes exacting standards, a taste shared by Pfaff: “People are more interested than ever in the products they are drinking, the stories behind them. They are interested in authenticity.”

This aligns with the family philosophy, and Wright’s bent as a wine-maker, but Left Coast has never waited on fashion to dictate its principles. Like the hand-hewn beams of that old barn, its work is beautiful and enduring because form follows function.

Photo courtesy Left Coast Estate

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