It’s no small feat to impress a master of wine or a master sommelier, and yet two of Joe Wright’s largest Pinot Noir bottlings for Left Coast Estate earned a gold medal from two competitions dominated by both types of luminaries.
First, the Left Coast Estate 2016 Estate Cali’s Cuvée Pinot Noir earned a gold medal at TEXSOM, the international judging in Texas. A few months later, the Left Coast 2018 White Pinot Noir merited a gold medal at the Oregon Wine Competition.
Both wines went on to merit a Platinum at Wine Press Northwest’s 20th annual year-end judging of gold medal wines, with the Cali’s Cuvée coming out as the No. 1 Pinot Noir in the Platinum. Combine all that with the 2015 Estate Brut Rosé of Pinot Meunier, which earned an “Outstanding!” during last summer’s regional tasting of sparkling wine, and it prompted Wine Press Northwest to name Left Coast Estate as the 2020 Oregon Winery of the Year.
“The Cali’s Cuvée is great wine at a great price, but it’s amazing what we’re able to do here,” Wright said. “It’s 100 percent estate-made production, and at $24 a bottle is pretty special. I’ve been known to buy some of that right off the shelf.”
In 2003, Robert Pfaff and Suzanne Larson, inspired after living in France as newlyweds, purchased 500 acres northwest of Salem. Much of the North Willamette Valley had not been sectioned off into more easily defined American Viticultural Areas, and the Eola-Amity Hills — literally just across Highway 99 from Left Coast from what would become their Latitude 45 Block — wouldn’t become an AVA until 2006.
“Yeah, we make good wine, but we’ve got great dirt and an incredible microclimate,” Wright said. “We cut into the earth often and poke around, and we're just on seashells. That soil and the microclimate is what makes our wines our wines.”
And yet, the family, with roots in Colorado, also saw an opportunity to be stewards of a 70-acre parcel of old-growth oak while introducing wine lovers to an emerging portion of the valley with Van Duzer Vineyards to the west and Firesteed to the south. On Jan. 14, 2019, Left Coast Estate became part of the Van Duzer Corridor AVA.
“Dad grew up in Wisconsin and didn’t have any background in wine, but he always dreamed of a winery,” said Taylor Pfaff, who received an MBA from the University of Bordeaux and moved into the role of CEO of the family operation in 2016. “The farm has a lot of biological diversity, which is kind of rare. Most vineyards have a monoculture, so ours is a cool model of what you can do with the property while being commercial.”
Under the direction of Pfaff and Wright, Left Coast Estate has added close to 30 acres of vines in the past three years for a total of 141 acres. There are plans to plant another 40 in the next few years, and just around the corner is Wright’s 25th anniversary of moving to Oregon.
“Holy crikes!” Wright exclaimed. “They are like dog years. Every seven feels like one. That’s how quickly it’s gone.”
His résumé includes six years at Willamette Valley Vineyards working for founder Jim Bernau and in the cellar with talents Joe Dobbes and the late Forrest Klaffke. Wright then spent nine years with Belle Vallée before the Pfaff family reached out to him in 2010.
Wright admits one of his most successful wines was inspired not by a classic vintage such as 2016. Instead, the White Pinot Noir program was spawned during the historically cool 2011.
“We had no summer,” he explained. “It was cold and wet, and it was short. We were really struggling. What do you do? Make a bunch of mediocre red wine? So we made more rosé that year, but we needed to diversify, too, so we thought, ‘Well, white Pinot Noir.’ And in those days, people weren’t talking about making sparkling wine. We needed to put this stuff somewhere.”
As a result, Left Coast Estate produced a few hundred cases of White Pinot Noir. This spring, Wright will offer 8,000 cases of White Pinot Noir from the 2019 vintage.
“And I need to make more,” Wright said. “I don't know anyone else in the valley who is making that much, and we're getting good at that. It’s super-transparent, which I like, and it makes a great backyard on-the-deck BBQ summer wine. But it’s still Pinot Noir with a lot of layers and complexity.”
Another rewarding project for Wright is the Queen Bee Bubbly, which uses estate honey in the tirage for the sparkling wine. Interest prompted him to boost its production to 200 cases.
Beyond the tasting room, there’s a remarkable assortment of features at Left Coast Estate. Cali, Taylor’s sister, is a landscape architect whose early works include the Left Coast hiking trail. Christina, Taylor’s wife, spearheads the annual Run for the Oaks fundraiser to create awareness and help preserve old-growth white oak. Left Coast is home to a community of 300-year-old trees.
In 2008, the family received what was billed at the time as the largest USDA grant in Oregon to go solar. As a result, much of Left Coast’s power comes from solar arrays installed throughout the estate. Both the winery and vineyards are LIVE certified and Salmon Safe. They are among the few involved in the state’s Carbon Neutral Challenge, and when customers return an empty bottle of Left Coast wine for recycling, they receive a $1 discount toward the purchase of a full bottle.
Left Coast Estate also partners with other Willamette Valley producers on ¡SALUD! which provides access to healthcare for seasonal vineyard workers and their families. As individuals, Left Coast employees get to select a nonprofit to support.
And because the winery is a 20-minute drive into town, Left Coast Estate offers lunch seven days a week, including Wood Fired Weekends. The culinary program is driven by Robert Pfaff, who is the head chef and a master gardener. There also are some Napaesque wine tasting experiences with prices to match. All combined, its popularity lifted Left Coast to a spot on USA Today’s 10Best tasting rooms in 2017, and it adds to the story Larson gets to share when she represents Left Coast across the country.
“Anyone could do what we're doing, and we all need to give thanks to Mother Earth, but the Pfaffs have made this place a real destination,” Wright said. “It’s cool, man. You roll up and they will hand you a plate of food, a couple of glasses and tell you to hit the hiking trail. It’s an amazing place to wander and explore.”
Over the years, they’ve transitioned from Left Coast Winery to Left Coast Cellars and settled on Left Coast Estate. Though “Left Coast” has acquired a much broader meaning, as a brand name, it’s a reference to the several family members who are left-handed.
There’s apparently a fair amount of synergy between Wright and his CEO. They have neighboring homes in Corvallis, and the family even retails his 500-case J. Wright Vintner brand on the Left Coast Estate website.
“I kick out approximately 20,000 cases for Left Coast, and we have a market for more of it,” Wright said. “We are current with our vintages, and all is good. We are growing every year, and Taylor has been great to work with. It’s an exciting time here.”
ERIC DEGERMAN is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
Left Coast Estate
4225 N. Pacific Hwy 99W
Rickreall, OR 97371