2014 Oregon Winery to Watch: Leah Jorgensen Cellars

Wine Press NorthwestMarch 11, 2014 

Leah Jorgensen worked the U.S. wine industry on both coasts and lived in the Willamette Valley long enough to realize Oregon doesn’t need another boutique Pinot Noir producer.

So the spirited assistant coach for Jesuit High School’s girls lacrosse team is taking a shot at making Cabernet Franc the way she wants — in the style of France’s Loire Valley.

“Most of the vineyards in the United States plant Cabernet Franc so that it is a blending grape, but it has been a rock star in the Loire Valley,” Jorgensen said. “That is the style of Cabernet Franc I want. I’m not interested in one-dimensional bell pepper, stewed tomato or real heavy wines.”

This “Loiregonian” turned heads last year with her Leah Jorgensen Cellars 2012 Tour Rain Vin Rouge, a lithesome blend of two-thirds Cabernet Franc and one-third Gamay Noir that’s filled with fresh strawberries, raspberries, cherries and finesse. Production topped out a 86 cases, yet it ranked No. 33 on The Seattle Times’ Top 50 Northwest Wines of 2013 and begins to explain why Leah Jorgensen Cellars is Wine Press Northwest’s Oregon Winery to Watch for 2014.

“I’m still new at this in terms of production,” Jorgensen said. “To me, this is not second nature. It’s even weird for me to call myself a winemaker.”

And yet her career in wine comes with as many layers as her 2012 Flat Track Cabernet Franc, a tiny, 40-case production the self-described tomboy uses to help support the Rose City Rollers roller derby.

Soon after graduating from Sweet Briar College in Virginia, she managed Chrysalis Vineyards near Washington, D.C., before working for a distributor in the nation’s capital. Her portfolio featured wines of the Loire Valley, and her main customers were restaurants and embassies. Ironically, her sales of Pinot Noir made by Domaine Drouhin prompted the famed producer to invite Jorgensen to Oregon Pinot Camp in 2004. Her life changed forever, and her father — who grew up on a farm near Eugene — could understand.

“It took three hours before I called my parents and said, ‘I’m moving to Oregon,’ ” Jorgensen said.

Erath Winery hired her immediately for sales and marketing, and she worked for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates before joining Adelsheim Vineyard. By 2009, she’d given up full-time employment to study enology at the Northwest Viticulture Center in Salem.

Along the way she got harvest and cellar work, first at Anne Amie Vineyards and then at Shea Wine Cellars with Drew Voit, who left the famed Yamhill producer to focus on his Harper Voit wines at the newly re-occupied Beacon Hill Estate winery in Gaston. It is co-leased by a few friends and is where Leah Jorgensen Cellars wines are made.

“I do want people to know these wines were crafted by a woman,” she said. “I’’m proud of that.”

The third wine from her commercial second vintage was the 2012 Mae’s Vineyard Blanc de Cabernet Franc from the Applegate Valley, a 40-case white expression of Cab Franc that Jorgensen believes breaks ground in the United States. The vineyard is owned and operated by Rogue Valley winemaker Herb Quady, and they have plans to develop a block of Chenin Blanc — arguably the Loire Valley’s most famous variety.

“I am 100 percent committed to Cab Franc,” she said. “I want to make it as cherished in Oregon as Pinot Noir, but I don’t know if that’s possible.”

This year, Leah Jorgensen Cellars will grow beyond 400 cases. The wines are available at the Beacon Hill facility by appointment only, but she can be found three nights a week slinging wines and waxing poetics at Corkscrew Wine Bar in Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood.

“I went to a women’s college because in grade school the old gender-limiting messages were always reinforced — ‘girls are good in English and boys are good at science,’ ” she said. “Times have certainly changed, but there’s still a ways to go for women in wine in terms of getting the head winemaking jobs and competitive salaries.”

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Eric Degerman is co-owner of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information website. Go to www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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