Cristom Vineyards: Creating ‘Wines of Place’

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 By: Nan McCreary

Ask any winemaker the secret to making great wine, and almost everyone will say, “It all starts in the vineyard.” But to Tom Gerrie, second-generation owner of Cristom Vineyards in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills, this is more than just an answer to a question; it’s a way of life. From knowing the soil in each of Cristom’s estate vineyards to naming the sheep that maintain and nourish the plants, the staff at Cristom is intimately involved with the origin of their sustainably farmed grapes.  “We encourage a proliferation of diverse life in the soil by adding compost to the soil and spraying compost teas and seeding diverse crops, for a few examples.”

  And this passion extends to the winery, where winemakers use centuries-old techniques to create the fullest expression of what this land has given them, namely pinot noir and chardonnay. It is this commitment to a “sense of place” that has put Cristom Vineyards on the international wine map and distinguished its wines as among the best in the Willamette Valley.

  Since the beginning, soil and site have been the hallmarks of Cristom Vineyards, which was founded in 1992 by Paul Gerrie, a petroleum engineer who had a strong passion for wine, specifically pinot noir. Gerrie’s goal was to grow and craft exceptional wines of a place that honor individual sites and old-world techniques. His search for a perfect location led him to a run-down vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills appellation.

  “The site spoke to him,” according to Gerrie’s son, Tom, who took over the vineyard when his father retired. “It is geologically complex — the soil is mostly volcanic with some sedimentary and silt from the Missoula floods — and the elevation is similar to Burgundy, with a 500-foot in elevation change from our lowest vineyards to the top of our hillside at Cristom.  Our Vineyards rise from above 250 feet to 750 feet. Slopes are eastern-facing. My father was a visionary and could look past the untended vines and imagine a very, very special site.”

  When Paul and his wife, Eileen, purchased the vineyard, they named it Cristom after their two children, Chris and Tom. To achieve his goals, Gerrie hired Steve Doerner of Calera to be his winemaker. Not only was Calera one of Gerrie’s favorite producers, but the engineer and the biochemist also shared a deep-rooted respect for the land, the natural winemaking process and pinot noir. It was to be a collaboration that would last for decades.

  Since that inaugural vintage in 1992, the Gerries, along with winemaker Doerner, have constantly produced balanced, dynamic wines of intensity, structure and length. Besides pinot noir, they also make chardonnay (their flagship white wine), viognier and syrah. Cristom was the first to plant viognier in the Willamette Valley and the first to craft estate-grown wines and produced wines from viognier.

  Cristom grows grapes on 90 acres of vines across a total of 240 acres. Like Burgundy, their vineyards are definitely vineyards of place. The five estate vineyards – Eileen, Jessie, Louise, Marjorie and Paul Gerrie — are all named for members of the Gerrie family. Each vineyard is differentiated by the slopes, ranging in elevation from Louise at 290 feet and Eileen at 735 feet. In addition, each site is distinguished by natural variances in mineral-rich volcanic soils, with topsoils varying from 18 inches to 10 feet. This variation leads to diverse single-vineyard bottlings and harmonious cuvées that pull from each of the vineyard sites.

  Each Cristom vineyard is distinguished by climate. The Eola-Amity Hills AVA is defined by the roaring winds that funnel through the Van Duzer Corridor (a gap in the Pacific Coast range) that lowers vineyard temperature after warm summer days. The difference between daytime highs and nighttime lows can be 35 degrees or more, which helps preserve natural acids in the grapes and encourages them to ripen slowly.

  “Eileen, our highest vineyard, is defined by the wind,” Tom Gerrie told The Grapevine Magazine. “The grapevines can shut down if they get too much wind, and that preserves acidity. Skins get thicker, and tannins become more defined and complex. The grapes from Louise, which is at the bottom of the slope, are more protected because a large forest surrounds the vineyard. The wines are softer and plusher.”

  With top-notch fruit in hand — lovingly grown and picked by winegrowers who have more than 200 years of combined vineyard experience — the Cristom winemaking team, which consists of lead winemaker Daniel Estrin, assistant winemaker Chris Butler and veteran Doerner, strives to create wines that reflect both the vineyard and the vintage. The central tenets of the winemaking style include the use of natural yeasts and whole-cluster fermentation.

  “Using native yeasts can be risky,” Gerrie said, “but this gives a lot of diversity to our wines. One yeast may start the fermentation, then it dies out and another takes over, so we have different organisms driving the process the entire time. Different yeasts accentuate different terpenes and esters, which results in more complexity on the aromas and the palate.”

  Whole-cluster fermentation also adds complexity to the wine, Gerrie said. “We’re very passionate about whole-cluster fermentation,” he told The Grapevine Magazine. “By keeping whole berries intact longer, we get a long, slow fermentation. This gives us nice skin contact and extraction without maceration. The stems give a tremendous amount of complexity, with flavors of cinnamon, cardamom, clove and anise, or maybe black tea, herbal flavors or forest floor. Stems also provide additional levels of structure and complexity to the tannin profile, which balances well with acids and allows for greater age ability.”

  Typically, Gerrie added, Cristom destems roughly half of the fruit, depending on specific site, growing season, and the age of the vines. “Almost everything we do is based on the question, ‘Does this vineyard need this in this vintage?’” he said.

  Currently, Cristom vineyards produces around 20,000 cases of wine per vintage. They have distribution in 48 states and over 40 international markets. “We have some of the most widely distributed wines in the world,” Gerrie said. While Gerrie said Cristom would like to grow internationally, he is content to stay at current production levels. “It’s taken us 10 years to hit 20,000 cases, and we have finally found the right size for our business, our team and the land. We have hit a comfortable spot.”

  While growth is not on the horizon at Cristom, what is in the future — both short and long-term — is a commitment to organic and biodynamic farming. Tom Gerrie, who joined the Cristom Vineyards production team full-time in 2007 and became majority owner in 2012, began transitioning the estate to biodynamic farming in 2017. Today, using scientist Rudolf Steiner’s view of the integrated farm as a guide, Cristom has employed different farming methods — including agro-ecology, permaculture and integrative pest management — to enrich the soil and enhance the quality of fruit.

  “We believe and understand this place to be a whole eco-system that we are trying to elevate through the diversity of animals, soil health and cover crops,” Gerrie explained. “We want to showcase this piece of ground, make distinctive wines of place and empower people to know and understand that caring for something properly will help it last generations after we are gone.” At Cristom, sheep and chickens roam the grounds (and soon cows will join them), nourishing the vines with excrement and aerating the soil with their hooves and feet. Composting — made from vine cuttings, wood chips from fruit and oak trees, pomace from post-fermentation solids and mown cover crops — creates rich soils filled with microorganisms that enrich vineyards and gardens and even form the basis of a tea that can be sprayed on the canopy and underneath the vines. Employees give treats to the sheep — and even give them names — knowing that they are all part of something much bigger than any person, animal or plant on the property.

  Cristom’s current efforts in sustainability are all part of a 100-year plan of what the land will look like for generations to come. “What we’re doing on the property right now, for the company and for the brand, will put us in a stronger position 10 and 20 and 70 years from now,” Gerrie told The Grapevine Magazine. It’s a mindset that this team has taken on with tremendous responsibility, gusto and energy. The team knows they are stewards of a place and that we’re doing this together to create something distinctive, something that will carry on for years and years, when we expect them to be still naming the sheep.”

For more information on Cristom Vineyards, visit www.cristomvineyards.com

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