Oregon Garagiste

John Grochau's small winery in McMinnville, Oregon, packs a punch that resonates with those who value quality

Grochau's dream has paid off.

John Grochau is the classic impassioned winemaker. He makes around 5,000 cases out of his tiny Grochau Cellars winery in McMinnville, Oregon, just about enough to be a viable operation. He didn’t have the "cashout" or early retirement from a previous existence to get started, nor the cushion of family funding. He is literally one of those winemakers who put it all on his credit cards to pursue his dream. In his case, he spent 13 years waiting tables and serving wine as a waiter, bartender, and floor manager at Higgins in Portland. Then a part-time stint at Erath Winery and an intensive four-year apprenticeship at Brick House Wines as Doug Tunnel’s assistant substituted for formal training in winemaking. Since 2008 Grochau Cellars has been his full-time job. The results show today as polished winemaking skills and an uncompromising outlook on the style of wine he wants to make.

On a recent visit to Dallas we tasted some of his wines at Hibiscus restaurant alongside the cooking of chef (and fellow Higgins alumnus) Graham Dodds. Any Oregon winery stands or falls on the quality of its pinot noirs, the state’s go-to grape. Grochau’s expressions from Dundee Hills and Eola-Amity Hills showed his appreciation for qualities other than massive power, extraction, and concentration. The 2012 Dundee Hills, in particular, bore its diffused fruit through a soft fabric of forest floor, herbs, and black pepper. It was the diametric opposite of the primal rush of California Russian River pinot noir, but not one bit a lesser wine for it. One might describe this elegant style as feminine.

The 2012 Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir brought a more structured expression of firmer tannins and more dark fruit. Grochau considers this his wheelhouse. He also considers it a wine age-worthy for a decade. The grapes are grown in volcanic soil in the proximity of the Van Duzer corridor, which provides a channel for air to and from the coast. This allows a path for cool air from the coast each evening (temperatures drop from 90 degrees F to 60 degrees F and accounts for vibrant acidity in the fruit.

On arrival at the winery, the grapes are hand-sorted; including the removal of overripe (raisiny) grapes, put into the fermenter, and sulphur (50ppm) added. The cap is punched down during the cold soak but is covered with CO₂. Once fermentation starts, twice daily punch downs are initiated until brix (sugar) levels are down to about three to five degrees. Then punch downs are scaled back in order to prevent the emergence of bitterness due to over extraction. The wine is racked into all-French, 25 percent new, barrels; the cooper (barrel maker) determined by the vineyard that is being processed. The wine ages in barrel for about 18 months.

Neither Grochau wine will snag 100-point scores from magazines obsessed with tiring, fruit-forward monsters. Rather, they appeal to the wine lover who likely cherishes Premier Cru red Burgundies (the quality level unspoiled by nods to New World styles, bearing a refined distinction in its own right). I admit to admire powerful, intense wines as well. But what is best is a world where I have a choice.

The tasting did not confine itself to reds. Grochau also makes Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet) as both a dry monovarietal and blended with pinot blanc in a sweeter style. The dry version, in particular, had racy acids and precise fruit-acid balance that made it a well-tuned foil for Dodds’ oysters with gypsy pepper escabeche and lardo. Grochau believes there are likely only about 40 acres of Melon in Oregon. He gets his from the Stavig Vineyard due east of Portland in a very cool region closer to the Cascade Mountains than the Coast Range.[pullqote:right]

It is impossible not to regard the Melon de Bourgogne as an alternative to the ubiquitous pinot gris that flows like water out of Oregon wineries, and a welcome one at that. Also coming down the pike is a chardonnay from a 20-year-old vineyard in the south Salem Hills. The area has the same Jory soil found in the Dundee Hills AVA but is a little cooler. Grochau picks early for bright acids and then whole cluster presses. He settles the juice for only 24 hours before going to barrel for fermentation. The barrel treatment was 80 percent neutral and 20 percent in a new 500-liter puncheon. The lower surface area to size ratio versus standard 225-liter barrels results in a subtle new oak presence. I much anticipate its release in about a year.

One last question I put to John was when we could expect to see a "Marc d’Oregon." “I don’t have a still,” he dryly replied


Grochau Cellars’ individualistic wines are slowly making their way into distribution but may be best ordered directly from the winery website.