Teutonic Wine Company winemaker Barnaby Tuttle picked a doozy of a site to plant his first vineyard. While in the process of launching Teutonic Wine Company with his wife, Olga Tuttle, in 2005, a friend offered him the opportunity to plant a vineyard on a 2-acre parcel in Alsea, Ore., a small community in the Coast Range.
“It was very foolhardy,” laughs Barnaby. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea where Alsea was. I said, ‘Can you ripen tomatoes there?’ And she said, ‘Most years.’”
Despite his lack of winegrowing experience (aside from the 70 Chardonnay vines he’d planted in his Portland yard a few years previous), Barnaby leaped into the opportunity with enthusiasm. “It happened so fast,” he says. “I called Olga at work and asked what credit card I should use. She said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘We’re buying $3,000 worth of grape vines.’ And that created a situation where I had to learn to make wine.”
The unirrigated site is on the west side of the Coast Range summit, placing it outside the boundaries of the Willamette Valley AVA. Previously used to grow garlic, the gently south-facing slope receives heavy rain during the winter, desiccating ocean winds during the summer, and lower temperatures than the valley floor.
While others might have deemed the site too marginal, cool-climate wines had always been a major source of inspiration for Barnaby. Early on in his wine education he fell in love with German and Austrian wines, which are grown in cool, high-altitude regions and tend to be lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than grapes grown in warmer regions.
Barnaby planted and trellised all of the vines himself, choosing primarily Pinot noir as well as a bit of Pinot blanc and Pinot meunier. “I had three days to do it,” he remembers. “I just had beef jerky in my Carhartts and threw bottles of water in intervals. I would run the augur for so long I thought I would puke. I got it done, totally alone, except for the wires. The gloves were bloody, my legs were bruised, local farmers were coming by and giving me beer. For a city dude, I think they were impressed.”
The site is so cool that ripening takes longer. Last year, harvest was on Halloween. Barnaby says the 2011 vintage, which was exceptionally cold, was challenging.
“The fact that it got over 10 percent alcohol was a miracle,” he Barnaby. “We farmed at one cluster per shoot and we took wings, we did everything we could to speed it up. It was a challenge.”
While somewhat unconventional, Barnaby says the Alsea wines have been well-received.
“When we first released them, we were selling to the geek squad,” says Barnaby. “Sommeliers, wine buyers, restaurant people. But consumer tastes are a lot more daring and open-minded than they were 10 years ago. And if you taste the 2014, our current release, you’ll be surprised at how accessible it is from a warmer vintage.”
As the climate continues to warm and viticulture becomes more efficient, Barnaby thinks other winemakers may start looking to sites previously considered marginal as a way to bring character and variety into their wines, as well as manage overripe fruit and overly high alcohol.
“The same thing that makes it a difficult vineyard makes it an interesting vineyard,” says Barnaby.
“If you’re farming like your neighbor, with the same precipitation and soil as your neighbor, there’s a danger the wines will taste the same.”