Home Oregon Willamette Wine 6: Hiking Cristom Vineyards with Steve Doerner

Willamette Wine 6: Hiking Cristom Vineyards with Steve Doerner


Hiking to the Top of Cristom Vineyards

I was lucky enough to spend the morning visiting Cristom Vineyards, with wine maker Steve Doerner. He hiked me to the top of the Cristom property in the Eola-Amity hills so that from the crest of the hill we could look over both sides of the valley–one direction towards the coast, the other across Willamette facing East with a view of Mt Jefferson and Mt Hood. In doing so we were able to visit four vineyard sites as well–Louise, Marjorie, Eileen, and finally Jessie–all Pinot.

view from the bottom of the Marjorie Vineyard looking out over Willamette Valley, about 550 feet elevation. Marjorie hosts the oldest vines for Cristom, relying on original plants placed there in 1982 on own roots. The lower vineyards–the bottom portion of Louise, and the other non-Pinot based vineyards, are on sedimentary soil. The upper vineyards–Marjorie, Eileen, and Jessie–grow from volcanic soil. Cristom is almost entirely dry farmed, with only a few rows on the property set up for rarely used irrigation–the rows that receive extra water have the shallowest soils.

climb towards the top, hiking alongside the Marjorie Vineyard. Each of the four estate vineyards at Cristom are named for family matriarchs.

heading towards the Eileen Vineyard, the highest point for Cristom. The vineyards are surrounded by forest. Visible here are plantings from the Christmas tree farm the property used to host. A small portion of Cristom land is still leased for Christmas tree sales.

view from the top, Steve Doerner

Steve Doerner has been the wine maker at Cristom since its inception in 1992. Widely respected for his work, and person both, Doerner has helped establish Cristom as one of the best in the region. His willingness to do small lot experiments with other techniques have led him to a more hands off approach in the cellar. Through Doerner’s guidance, Cristom is known for its consistent use of whole cluster fermentation, its good aging potential, and its simultaneously earthy and elegant, great acidity wines. Cristom was also one of the first to introduce Viognier and Syrah to the Willamette Valley.

Walking down the Jessie Vineyard–the steepest at Cristom

forest surrounding the vineyard

Voluntary cherry trees border the Marjorie and Jessie vineyards, the fruit now all too high to reach.

It has been a long standing tradition to grow roses along the rows of a vineyard as the plant is susceptible to many of the same ailments vines are, though to a slightly higher degree. Roses, then, act as the canary in the mine alerting vineyard managers to when the grapes may be at risk of conditions like mildew or freeze. These roses were planted in preparation for a Cristom family wedding held earlier this summer.

Christine and Tom, the Cristom namesakes, and second generation participants in the family business.

Doerner utilizes about 50% whole cluster fermentation, putting the clusters into the fermenter first, with the destemmed fruit on top. Then, he waits for fermentation to begin. The fruit experiences no intentional cold soak at the start, and the fermentation happens entirely through wild microbes. While some doubt the use of wild, non inoculated, yeast, Doerner feels the practice adds complexity to the end result. He also prefers a long, slow fermentation allowing the yeast to break down the clusters at their own pace. Once fermentation is done, the barrels are filled directly from the press with free run and press juice blended immediately. The idea is to go to barrel as quickly as possible to avoid any settling. Years of wine making showed Doerner that he always reblended all the free run and press juice in the end, and so now he saves the step by doing it at the start. Also, by blending free run, and press juice in the beginning, the wine experiences less handling in the long run. Doerner explains that Pinot Noir responds well to low maintenance in the cellar.

We taste through multiple barrels from the 2011 vintage, the latest harvest on record. The first two barrels we taste from volcanic soils–they tend to offer more red fruit in comparison, and a light red dust component. We then move to sedimentary soil barrels where the darker fruits and more perfume begin to show more distinctly. Each barrel is marked with the vineyard and row, the percentage of whole cluster, and data from each time the barrel has been checked.

The Pinot Gris plantings are the lowest elevation on the Cristom property. It was made with completed malolactic, and tank fermentation. The 2010 offers a lightly waxy, light blossom nose with hints of white spice and anise. The palate carries with peach and pink grapefruit touches, powder fruit patina, and white pepper. 13.5% alcohol, with medium+ acidity, and a medium-long finish.

The Germaine vineyard hosts Chardonnay Dijon clones, producing 3 barrels with 33% new oak. The wine has a light lime powder, zest and blossom pucker, with a waxy finish, and white pepper after finish. The alcohol is 13.5% with medium acidity and medium finish.

Cristom sources fruit put into two Pinot Noir blends–the Sommers Reserve, and the Mt Jefferson Cuvée. The label made the decision not to use vineyard designates on wines made with fruit not supervised directly at Cristom. Still, the fruit is selected for its quality.

The 2008 Sommers Reserve has a focused movement of red and black fruit, spice and pepper with a smooth nose, and juicy palate. There is a medium long pepper pinch finish here. Cristom wines age beautifully, and with more time I expect the spice here to integrate into other secondary characteristics. Still, I consistently enjoy Cristom Pinot Noir.

Mt Jefferson Cuvée is named in honor of the Cristom vineyards orientation towards Mt Jefferson–part of the view from the top. The 2009 offers a juicy and lighter presentation of black fruit and spice, light stem and earth, with a drying finish and juicy after finish. This wine spends 1 year in barrel. It is the only cuvée made with a pre-determined barrel age regimen. The others are bottled based on how they are showing ranging from 18 to 24 months generally.

Eileen is the youngest, and highest elevation of the Cristom vineyards, named for Eileen Gerrie. Paul and Eileen Gerrie purchased the estate and founded Cristom.

Cristom Pinots offer good complexity from their beginning, deepening into a richer, smoother, often velvety while clean presentation with time.

The 2009 Eileen is both smooth and juicy in the mouth with a spiced nose of smooth dark and underlying red fruit. The palate offers dried oregano and thyme with the fruit, as well as earthy and light stem notes. There is a drying tannin finish that then stretches long into pepper. The wine carries very light red dust notes.

Steepest of the vineyards, Jessie offers incredibly shallow volcanic soils at the top, with deeper soils down the sides due to erosion. The vines on this vineyard must be maintained and harvested by hand as it is too steep for tractor.

The 2009 Jessie carries a vegetal, lightly stemmy nose with bramble, light cocoa, red fruit, an overall drying balance with juicy finish.

Louise is the lowest elevation of the Pinot Noir vineyards at Cristom, sitting just above the winery building in very rocky ground. As a result of its elevation, the lower portions of the Louise vineyard are picked first of all the property. The upper portions are shaded and in shallower soils, leading to them being the last vines harvested in all of Cristom property. The Louise vineyard, then, carries a book end effect of early and late characteristics in the wine.

The 2009 Louise has the widest, though still delicate push through the mouth. There is a strong line of acidic movement here with fruit characteristics spreading across the palate from that structural backbone. The wine is more black fruit and light bramble with a red fruit and long pepper finish. There are lightly metallic qualities here as well.

Marjorie carries the lowest production levels of the Cristom vineyards. The vines sit on their own root stalk, and have developed phylloxera. Cristom has chosen to allow plants their natural life span through the ailment, replacing individual vines only when necessary. As a result, there is a concentration in the fruit coming out of the older vines of this vineyard. Marjorie is also a close second to Jessie’s steepness.

The 2009 Marjorie gives a kind of percolation of flavors rising from a dark base of earthiness, the fruit, and perfumed notes lifting as the wine moves over the palate. There is a rose bush nose here showing both the bramble and the flower, with touches of green herb and red fruit. The palate offers a drying berry presentation with dust notes, and a velvety texture.


Thank you so much to Steve Doerner for taking time to bring me up the vineyard property. The view over both sides of the Valley is beautiful, even on a hazy day.

Thank you to Christine and Tom.

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  1. Cristom is one of my family’s favorite stops when we’re doing Willamette Valley wineries! Glad you got to get to this one on your trip!

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