By: Becky Garrison
While many winemakers in the Willamette Valley wondered how they could survive during this ongoing global pandemic, Domaine Nicolas-Jay opened their new winery and tasting room in April 2021. When asked about the unique characteristics of this sustainability-focused winery situated on 53 acres in the Dundee Hills AVA, co-founder Jay Boberg mentions the Tolix benches from France. These benches gracing the deck of their tasting room situated in Newberg, Oregon represent a nod to the winery’s French influences courtesy of winemaker and co-founder Jean-Nicolas Méo.
Upon initial glance, one may wonder why when asked, Boberg focused on the architecture and not their wines in describing his winery. But for Boberg, one cannot separate the experience of drinking wine from the wines themselves.
In curating their winery’s ambiance, Boberg and Méo worked together to meld Burgundian and Oregonian influences. Inspired by a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, they sought to provide their visitors with a similar immersive experience. The end result is a welcoming space with a European country flair that distinguishes itself from the rustic or industrial architectural styles that define many Pacific Northwest wineries’ tasting rooms.
Guests sit at a kitchen island near the fireplaces as they savor a rotating selection of wines. These wine tastings are paired with locally sourced food served in dishes from New York City-based Lucy Park Ceramics. The tasting room’s wooden floor and two long modern tables were crafted out of the seventeen trees they had to knock down in order to plant their vineyard. Also, Boberg sourced and refurbished the mid-century modern chairs from a local Portland restaurant. Other homey touches include Gold records and other artifacts from Boberg’s decades as a music entrepreneur, a career that included cofounding I.R.S Records and serving as President for MCA/Universal Records for more than ten years. Boberg reflects, “We wanted our tasting room to feel like you’re coming into our living room and so we have lots of personal effects in there.”
The Intersection of Wine and Music
Boberg began exploring music when he was seven, and later developed his passion for wine when he was in college. His college roommate worked for a wine distributor, a connection that enabled him to taste wines from Napa Valley at a time when his peers were consuming Jack Daniels and Budweiser. Then he met Méo in 1988 courtesy of his sister as both his sister and Méo were attending Penn State.
In his journey exploring wines, Boberg met importers Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal, and noted their approach to wines paralleled his interests in music. “Just as these men were championing original wines, I was trying to find artists who were creating music that was truly unique and extraordinary.”
Boberg finds many parallels between creating music and creating wine. Each year they begin their season in the vineyard with a new canvas. Factors such as weather combined with the particular vines they’ve planted, crop load, canopy management, harvest time, and other winery practices will inform how each particular wine will turn out.
During his travels as a music executive, Boberg had ample opportunities to connect with such luminary winemakers as Henri Jayer, who is considered the “Godfather of Burgundy,” and known for the quality of his Pinot Noir. Also, Boberg continued his friendship with Méo. As owner and winemaker of the Côte d’Or’s Domaine Méo-Camuzet, Méo spent nearly 30 years making wines from vineyards like Richebourg, Clos de Vougeot, Corton Clos Rognet, and Échezeaux.
Applying Burgundian Influences to Willamette Valley Vines
Both Méo and Boberg became entranced by the potential and quality of Oregon’s Pinot Noirs. They decided to combine their respective backgrounds in winemaking and marketing to a new region replete with new vineyards, new soils, and a new climate. In this quest, Boberg took the same approach to creating wine that he did when signing artists. “I never signed a band because I thought they were going to be a big hit. I signed them because their music touched me emotionally,” Bobeg reflected. In the same vein, Boberg and Méo wanted to make a wine they wanted to drink in the hopes there were enough people out there who had similar palates.
In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, they found the kind of balanced, terroir-driven wines they like to drink. In addition, they were drawn to the wine community that considers other winemakers to be collaborators not competitors. Also, the economics of Oregon enabled them to start a viable business compared to launching a winery in California.
After visiting over two hundred Oregon wineries over a two year span, they learned to recognize the vineyards they loved, as well as the practices in the vineyards and wineries that produced the wines that best suited their palettes. In 2014 they purchased Bishop Creek, an organic vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA planted in the 1980s. This north-facing site provides cooler temperatures that allow for later ripening Pinot Noir and Chardonnay along with Jory volcanic soils. In 2016, they launched their first release, a 2014 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir that was selected as one of Wine Spectator Magazine’s Top 100 Wines of the year.
While their initial focus was on Pinot Noir, they expanded their offerings to include limited releases of Chardonnay and Rosé. In addition to the Bishop Creek vineyard, they planted three acres of Pinot Noir on their Dundee Hills property. They will also plant vines that were imported from Méo-Camuzet, which need to be quarantined for a year. Eventually, they plan on having 25 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in all. Also, they select grapes from other Willamette Valley vineyards including Nysa, Momtazi, Hyland, and La Colina.
Applying Burgundian Winemaking Techniques to Oregon Pinot Noir
Even though Méo is based in France, he communicates with Associate Winemaker Tracy Kendall and Boberg to collaborate on all aspects of winemaking from harvest to elevage to bottling. In Kendall’s estimation the biggest difference between Nicolas-Jay and other wineries she’s worked with in New Zealand, Australia, Washington, and Oregon is Nicolas-Jay’s refusal to accept the status quo. “Because we’ve always done it that way is never an acceptable explanation for why we do what we do,” Kendall notes. Also, another big difference she found is Nicolas-Jay’s focus on structure and texture in the wines rather than flavor. As she states, “The flavor of Pinot Noir develops if the grapes are picked for texture and weight and if fermentation is handled in such a way as to create the desired textural outcome. This to me is an old world approach to winemaking and I’ve been excited to see the success it has with Oregon Pinot Noir.”
A key difference they noticed between Méo’s wines produced in Burgundy versus Oregon is the amount of new oak used. While Méo uses somewhere between 50% and 100% new oak in his Burgundian wines, they found the terroir of Oregon meant they needed to use 30% new oak in order to get the taste they desired for their Oregon wines.
According to Kendall, Nicolas-Jay’s use of a gravity flow passive winery means that from the time the grapes reach the winery to the time they get to their fermentation vat they are not pumped anywhere or mechanically moved from location to location. “This allows for a gentle, reductive process that keeps the grapes and juice protected prior to fermentation,” she observes. Their winery is designed appropriately with an upper deck where the fruit is received and sent down the sorting line where it drops into the destemmer and then into the fermentation vat in a seamless manner.
Moving Forward Post Covid
When Covid-19 began impacting Oregon businesses in 2020, Nicolas-Jay began offering virtual wine tastings. Initially, they focused on Méo who led masterclass tastings on topics such as winemaking techniques and soil types. Then they pivoted to joint community tastings with other Pinot Noir winemakers.
Like some other local vintners, they chose not to release a red Pinot Noir in 2020 due to the smoke caused by multiple Oregon wildfires. However, they did take their Pinot Noir grapes and crush them immediately and not give them any skin contact, which resulted in a white Pinot Noir. Also, in 2020 they produced a Chardonnay and a Rosé.
According to Kendall, they harvested earlier in 2021 than they did historically to fight the cumulative heat that caused the grapes to ripen sooner than usual. “We always strive to make a wine with lower alcohol, higher acidity and more overall balance and in this new climate that often means starting harvest at the end of August or early September.” Also, they left more leaf canopy in the vineyard to protect the grapes from sun and heat, which helps to delay ripening as much as possible.
As part of their commitment to farming their vineyards using organic and sustainable means, they will be introducing Oregon’s first electric self-driving tractor from Monarch. In addition to reducing their fossil fuel consumption, this tractor brings a software system into play that will enable them to have more control and precision in terms of their farming practices.
In 2021, Nicolas-Jay produced over 4,000 cases. The winery can make up to 7,500 cases, a goal Boberg thinks they might reach in five years. However, they do not intend to expand their winemaking production beyond this capacity, choosing instead to remain a boutique winery catering to those who share Boberg and Méo’s tastes in wine.