It’s rare to see a successful winemaker succeeding in the Napa Valley give up a sure thing to move to Oregon and start a new winery working with a completely different grape and climate. That’s exactly what Steve Girard did and the Willamette Valley is that much better for it.
Having been in the wine business his entire life, Steve very much embodies the “winemaker is a farmer” mentality. His manner is charming and lacking in any pretention while his sense of humour is subtle and self-effacing. But there is also a twinkle in his eye which indicates that beneath his engaging personality is a wealth of serious information stemming from a lifetime of experience spent in vineyards.
It was Pinot Noir, or what Steve refers to as the “Pinot kids” that brought him from Napa Valley to Monroe, Oregon, the southern part of the Willamette Valley. All of the grape varietals he grows are descendants of Pinot Noir: Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Pinot Chardonnay you ask? He explains, “Chardonnay is actually the child of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. Thanks to DNA testing we now know that these two varietals crossed the fence back in the dark ages.” (Gouais Blanc being the heavy producer of poor quality grapes for the serfs and Pinot Noir being the very small producer of high quality grapes for nobility). He continues, “They were grown close together and over the centuries they crossed the fence and gave birth to Chardonnay.” And so our education with Steve Girard begins.
While Steve was making what he affectionately refers to as “chocolate and vanilla” (Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay) in the Napa Valley, it is Steve’s wife Carol that is credited with introducing Pinot Noir to him as she fell in love with the varietal first while they were still living in California. “She would put these glasses of wine in front of me that looked funny as I could see right through them. It was Pinot Noir from the Northwest and I quickly fell in love with them too.”
As a result of this new found love, Steve had the desire to make Pinot Noir but knew he couldn’t grow it on his dirt in Napa Valley. Cue the self-effacing humour: “I had this really bad idea to come up to Oregon, get some grapes, put them in a tank and drive like hell to Napa which of course didn’t work. I didn’t know that at the time so I ended up making dreadful wines of which 1 out of 4 was drinkable.” The learning for him was that if he really wanted to grow Pinot Noir, he’d have to invest in the land, grow the fruit and process it from a cool climate area. He spent the next 7 years deciding where that would be and considered everywhere from Burgundy, to Tasmania, to New Zealand, to California’s Central Coast, before finally settling on Oregon.
Over that 7 years, he studied books and maps of soil structure, temperature degree days, wind direction, and solar strength and came to the conclusion that the southern part of the Willamette Valley made the most sense. “Within Oregon most of my friends were up North but it didn’t make sense to me as the weather is harsher around Portland than it is here. Not so much in winter but when people are trying to pull the fruit off their vines in October. And when the ridge of high pressure starts to conk out in early October, it does so in the North much sooner than here.”
The story of how he settled on this particular property required a similar kind of research and patience. He knew that grapes grew in Oregon in exactly the same place as Christmas trees. Both like an east-facing slope and neither like frost. When he arrived in the area in 1982, Christmas trees covered most of the area, but he was wary of investing in any property that had grown trees, given tree-growers used a powerful herbicide called Atrazine that didn’t breakdown in the soil. The property he fell in love with, which is now home to Benton-Lane, spent 100 years as a sheep ranch. As a result, it had perfect organic buildup because of the sheep manure and was never used to grow trees. The problem was it was too big. While Steve was looking for 20-40 acres, this property was 2,000 acres! It was owned by a bank that had foreclosed on the previous owner and Steve ended up knocking on the bank’s door for 2 years. “I’d call them every couple of months and they’d say ‘hey Steve, don’t call us anymore—you don’t have any money and you’re pretty flaky’. And I said, ‘that’s true but I’m the only guy that wants it and I’ll make it work.” After 2 years, he decided to give up pursuing it and by the 4th year the bank started calling him. “This was in the 1980’s which was a dismal slope of never ending decreasing values of property and rising interest rates. It was clear no one else was going to buy this ranch except me so I finally purchased it in 1988, 6 years after I first laid eyes on it.”
When he first began to plant, his excitement for the property only increased. Its east-facing, gently sloping hills were made up of the renowned Jory soil—the bright orange soil prevalent in the Willamette Valley that is ideal for the production of Oregon wine. Fast forward to today and Benton-Lane has 142 acres planted to vine with 85% Pinot Noir, followed by Chardonnay making up the 2nd largest block, as well as some small amounts of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Steve’s excitement about Oregon Chardonnay is palpable and echoes what we have been discovering on recent trips to Oregon wine country, “I love this varietal because it expresses beautifully wherever it’s grown.” He just planted the 72 clone Chardonnay which is the first time it’s been planted in the State and is the clone used exclusively by renowned Chardonnay producers Kistler, Flowers and Marcassin Wineries.
With the exception of their Pinot Gris, Benton-Lane grows 100% of everything that they produce. Why is this so important to Steve? “I do things in my vineyard that will make the wine better that I wouldn’t do if I were selling the grapes and I know when I’m out buying grapes that they’re not going to do those things either. Qualitatively we had a roller coaster here in Oregon. The best way I could mitigate that was to own my own dirt.”
This relentless pursuit of quality combined with his experience and patience has resulted in more “Top 100 Wines of the World” awards for still wine production since 2005. We were thoroughly impressed by the lineup we tasted (see tasting notes below) and believe the accolades are easily justified. A lifetime of work in the vineyards is certainly paying off for the winery and Steve’s commitment to the southern Willamette Valley 30 years ago has helped shape a region that is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves.
2015 Pinot Gris
Pale gold with a green hue, this wine provides an alluring nose of green apple with citrus hints. On the palate the medium body delivers notes of honeydew melon and apples with a crisp minerality. Lees stirring adds to the texture. The finish is crisp and refreshing.
Very Good + US $18 at the winery
2015 Pinot Blanc
Pear and apple flavours are presented in a medium body style that has a lovely texture. It is slightly Alsatian in its fullness. Barrel influence is present but only just. This wine remains about finesse.
Very Good + US $23 at the winery
2012 Chardonnay Reserve
We have recently been developing more and more affection for the Chardonnay coming out of Oregon and this wine demonstrates exactly why. Apple and pear flavours sit on a medium + frame that offers up supporting notes of caramel to match off against the citrus and mineral infused finish. The result of all of this going on is a sensation of excellent balance and great complexity. Not Burgundy, not California, just uniquely and deliciously Oregon!
Excellent US $28 at the winery (this is particularly good value for this quality level)
Made using methode saignee (pronounced “son-yay”) where the juice is bled off after a few hours of skin contact. The result is a lovely pink colour with a spicy, strawberry scent. The palate shows a medium body redolent of cherry and cranberry punctuated with hints of baking spices. The finish is juicy and mineral infused. More than just a summer sipper, this will go great with food (think white meats from turkey to fish!) 100% Pinot Noir.
Very Good + US $18 at the winery
2015 Pinot Noir Estate
Here we definitely picked up aromas and flavours from the dark end of the spectrum. Dark cherry, mocha and blueberry dominate while pepper and floral notes take a back seat. Medium + body with enough tannin to allow further development. The balance is precise.
Very Good + US $27 at the winery (wines at a similar quality level from the northern end of the Valley were going for $40 +)
2014 Pinot Noir First-Class
This is their Reserve Pinot Noir that is only made in special years, from the best barrels from the best plots. Clearly 2014 was a special year! Red and black cherry flavours receive support from notes of earth and dark chocolate. There is a terrific intensity of flavour with this wine. Like most wines of elevated pedigree, this wine continually evolves in the glass. After some air notes of earth, forest floor and mushroom bring complexity to the palate. Judicious use of oak adds texture and hints of vanilla. First class in every way!
Excellent + US $65 at the winery
541.847.5792 | 23924 Territorial Hwy., Monroe, OR 97456