2014 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year: Stoller Family Estate

Wine Press NorthwestMarch 12, 2014 

In just two decades, a former turkey farm has become one of the finest vineyards in Oregon and home to an exciting winery rooted to the land and a model for sustainability.

Bill Stoller has been involved in the Oregon wine industry for more than a quarter-century. He began planting his estate vineyard in the early 1990s, launched Stoller Family Estate less than 2 decades later and oversees our Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year for 2014.

Stoller was born on the farm and grew up nearby. He has fond memories of the land his father and uncle purchased in 1943.

“I was very attached to this all throughout my early years,” he said. “I played and grew up here. Now I work and take care of these hills.”

Stoller and his wife, Cathy, bought the land from his cousin in 1993, the same year they became co-owners of Chehalem Winery with founder Harry Peterson-Nedry. In 2001, they launched Stoller Family Estate, with Peterson-Nedry making the first two vintages. In 2003, Melissa Burr came to Stoller as head winemaker. She made the next two vintages at Chehalem while helping to design the state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly building at the vineyard, where crush took place in 2005.

Since then, Stoller has steadily increased production from a few hundred cases to nearly 17,000 today. And as the vines have aged and Burr, 38, has matured as a winemaker, Stoller wines have earned a reputation as some of the best in Oregon.

Burr, who grew up not far away in Salem, went to Mount Hood Community College, then Portland State University, where she earned a bachelor of science with the intention of getting into naturopathic medicine. But life turned toward wine when her in-laws purchased an old vineyard near the Columbia Gorge town of White Salmon, Wash. She and her husband became more interested in wine, and she decided to make that her passion and vocation.

After learning more about fermentation science at Oregon State University and taking enology classes at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Burr landed a harvest internship in 2001 at Cooper Mountain Vineyards in Beaverton. She figured it would be a nice, easy way to gain some hands-on knowledge of the business.

Little did she know.

A few days before harvest began, Cooper’s winemaker quit, and Burr suddenly was in charge of making about 16,000 cases of wine on her own.

“I was able to get hands-on everything!” she said with a smile. “Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay. It was a great experience.”

Thanks to consulting winemaker Rich Cushman — owner of Viento Wines in Hood River — Burr got through that first harvest relatively unscathed. She stayed on at Cooper through the 2002 vintage before being lured to Stoller.

During her tenure, the vineyard has expanded to 190 acres of vines, with about 30 more acres to be planted in the next few years. Burr keeps half for her production, and the rest of the fruit goes to such top wineries as Chehalem, Argyle, Adelsheim and Boedecker.

With 10 harvests at Stoller behind her, Burr sees her winemaking style maturing with the vineyard.

“When I started, the vines were 10 years younger,” she said. “Now I am seeing the maturity and complexity of our wines, thanks to these older vines. I feel fortunate to have been at the same place for 10 years. You only get one vintage per year, and you build on that. I’m confident in my winemaking, and now I can keep progressing and pushing the wines to the next level.”

Stoller, who co-founded Express Employment Professionals in 1983 and also owns Xenium, a human resources outsourcing company, brought in Gary Mortensen in early 2012 to run his winery in the newly created position of president.

Mortensen had spent more than a decade in the wine industry as vice president of Sokol Blosser, a two-generation winery just two miles from Stoller. There, Mortensen came up with a new wine for owner Susan Sokol Blosser that would change everything. In fact, it was downright revolutionary.

Mortensen, a certified Beatles fan, called the blend of nine grapes “Evolution No. 9” — naming it for the song “Revolution 9” on The Beatles’ White Album.

“It was cool because the baby boomers got it and the gen-x’ers got it,” he said. “The label was covered with cryptic White Album references. We dropped the “R” because we didn’t want to get sued by Yoko Ono.”

Mortensen left Sokol Blosser in 1999 and went into the tech startup world and also got into documentary filmmaking. He produced “This is War: Memories of Iraq” and “Shepherds of Helmand,” both about Oregonians who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But he missed the wine industry and was pining to return when he heard Stoller was looking for a leader. Mortensen was the final major piece of a team that is taking the winery to incredible heights.

Running the vineyard operation is Rob Schultz, who came to Stoller in 2011.

“Rob is a total character,” Mortensen said. “He is one of the most engaging people, and he takes great pride in being a farmer. He calls himself a wine farmer and loves the land. The maverick in him gives us the fruit we need.”

Mortensen, always quick to make a Beatles reference, sees parallels with his winemaker and vineyard manager.

“They’re like Lennon and McCartney writing a song,” he said. “There’s a healthy tension. These two come at it from different perspectives, and that’s why we’re getting such good fruit. They’re always respectful, but it’s fun to watch them. The bottom line is everybody here wants to make the best wine.”

Stoller, Burr and Mortensen are quick to praise Noah Bieszczad, their assistant winemaker for the past seven years.

“Noah is one of our unsung heroes,” Stoller said. “He’s responsible for production and bottling, and he deserves a lot of credit for our quality.”

Mortensen agrees and is excited with the direction the winery is going.

“This team is so committed,” he said. “It’s the greatest team I’ve worked with, regardless of industry. They’re tremendous from top to bottom, a great organization.”

Equally important is the winery’s facilities. The winemaking building is certified LEED gold, meaning it is sustainably built and environmentally friendly. The new tasting room is equally impressive. Thanks to being run 100 percent on solar power in the oft-cloudy Willamette Valley, the tasting room is energy neutral.

“I’ve always had the belief that when you build something, you build it sustainably,” Stoller said. “It starts with the land, which you want taken care of for centuries to come, and you want to make the buildings part of the land.”

His deep respect for this land drives Stoller to continued excellence. His new tasting room offers a 180-degree view that includes Mount Hood and the Willamette Valley to the west, but the focus is on the vineyards.

“When you see our land, it’s a rolling, undulating hill,” he said. “It puts you in a trance. It’s mesmerizing to just sit and look at. It’s a great portrait that has been there all along. All we had to do was put vines on it.”

One person missing from the team today is Cathy Stoller. In late 2011, she tragically died after a fall in their home.

“She will be remembered by everyone for the fun things she did with the winery and our people,” said Stoller, his voice softening as he thought about his wife and longtime partner.

Burr honors her memory with Cathy’s Pinot Noir, a $100 bottle that is distinctively different from her other wines. Cathy’s Pinot Noir combines elegance and power, highlighting earthy — dare we say “Burgundian” — notes over the high-toned red fruit more typical of Dundee Hills reds.

“I always feel a bit of pressure when making Cathy’s wine,” Burr said. “I don’t want to be too heavy-handed, but I want it to be focused. I know in my head what I want in the glass.”

Her efforts paid off last year, when the 2010 Cathy’s Pinot Noir earned best-in-class at the inaugural Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, held at the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River. And Burr’s 2010 Reserve Pinot Noir, which won gold at the same judging, ranked No. 6 in The Seattle Times’ top 50 Northwest wines of 2013 and No. 11 in Great Northwest Wine’s top 100 list. The 2009 SV Pinot Noir earned a double gold in the 2013 Great Northwest Wine Competition.

Mortensen expects no less.

“When you have 100 percent estate fruit, that means we control everything from pruning to bottling,” he said. “To me, that leads to the highest level of quality.”

That quality, he reiterated, starts at the top.

“Bill Stoller is one of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met,” he said. “We put ‘Family Estate’ on the label because that’s important to Bill. He makes everyone feel like family.”

Burr could not agree more.

“A big reason I’m here is because we all feel like we’re part of the family, not just employees. I’ve been really grateful for that.”

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-- Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine and wine columnist for The Seattle Times. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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