A relatively new winery, first started in 2013, Bells Up Winery in Newberg, Oregon was started by winemaker David Specter and his wife, Sara Pearson Specter. I was hugely impressed with the past two Pinot Noir releases from this estate as both wines had wonderful feminine characteristics, ripe red fruit flavors and tons of terroir. I had to sit down with Dave and talk wine. He was a delight to speak with, as he talked about how he initially caught the wine bug from his life as a Cincinnati attorney. I think you will really enjoy hearing his story in wine. Here is my interview with Dave Specter, winemaker and co-owner of Bells Up Winery.
WWB: How did you decide to start Bells Up?
DS: I started making wine as an amateur 11 years ago. When developing my own style I looked to other wines I liked, and what I really enjoyed was the elegance of certain wines. The only way to achieve that, I think, is to let the fruit do its thing and not try to manipulate it into something big, heavily extracted, or over the top. So on my wife Sara and my five-year wedding anniversary we started making wine together. We bought a box kit that comes with the juice and yeast. At the time, I was still an attorney, but what I loved about winemaking was that it gave me the opportunity to experiment and try different things. I could produce something physical and tangible—very different from my career as an attorney. Over time we transitioned into making wine from grapes, and I became associated with the Cincinnati Vintners’ Club. It’s an amazing group that sources from all over California, bringing in primarily Bordeaux varietals—mostly to make Cabernet- and Merlot-based blends. For white wine, I was able to get some local Seyval Blanc grapes in Ohio. It’s a
French hybrid that you see quite a bit in the Midwest, because it has been bred for cold weather hardiness. It has Sauvignon Blanc parentage and produces a dark yellow colored wine. This is the varietal that won my first amateur wine competition, so when we moved to Newberg, in the Willamette Valley, we decided to plant Seyval Blanc in our estate vineyard; it’s the only planting in the valley and we’re looking forward to having that in the tasting room when it comes online in a couple of years.
WWB: How did you decide to start a winery?
DS: In 2008 Sara and I had just returned from our first visit to Oregon wine country. We had fallen in love with the Willamette Valley and the feel of the place, particularly the concentration of small, craft-style wineries. These were folks who got into the business because they enjoyed making wine, not because they thought it would make them billionaires.
Upon returning from vacation, my firm started pushing me to go partner track, and Sara’s professional mentor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—having just turned 40—and she died a few months later. We were also new parents. We decided we didn’t want to continue on that corporate path, but instead to set an example for our daughter about following your passion. We were also in our mid-30s at the time and felt like we were still young enough to take a financial risk, yet still have the energy to pour into it.
I took a leave of absence from my law career, and spent three years interning at an urban winery in Cincinnati—Henke Winery—from 2009 to 2012. Joe Henke became my winemaking mentor. He makes 2,000 cases a year in the basement of a 100-year-old house with 8-foot ceilings. Nothing fancy, just a lot of attention to detail and to the basics. He makes a lot of different wines, but not Pinot Noir, even though that’s one of his favorites. I learned a ton from him.
During that learning process my own winemaking improved to the point that in 2011 I won a couple of national amateur winemaking competitions. We put the house in Cincinnati on the market, and when it sold in 2012 we moved to Newberg, rented a condo, and started networking and looking for properties. I did a harvest internship at Alexana in Dundee, Oregon, that fall, and Sara found the unlisted property that we own today.
WWB: Can you talk about your vineyard?
DS: We are located in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, on a 10-acre site that includes our house and the barn that we converted into the winery and tasting room. It has about 8.5 plantable acres; we have five acres planted now. We started by planting three acres in 2014 of Pinot Noir Pommard and Dijon Clone 667. In 2015 we added the Seyval Blanc, and in 2016 we planted three more Pinot Noir clones: 113, 943 and Wadenswil. We have a little more space to plant sometime in the future.
The vineyard is on Jory soil, a red-colored clay and loam and it rises from about 450 feet to 650 feet in elevation, facing fully south. It holds water wonderfully, so we have never had to irrigate, and the soil and elevation play well with the style of wine we are aiming to create. We’re excited to make our first estate Rosé of Pinot Noir from our own grapes this fall, in 2017.
WWB: Both the 2013 and 2014 releases of the “Titan” were excellent (WWB, 91) and showed marvelous poise, elegance and pretty red fruit flavors. Can you talk about the differences that you noticed between the 2013 and the 2014 vintage?
DS: What we personally love about Oregon Pinot Noir is that the grape itself is so expressive of each unique growing season. That allows us to bottle the story of a season in a very tangible way. In 2013, we had weather that was slightly warmer than average through the summer. But then September brought two separate rain events that dumped 8 to 10 inches of rain in the valley. Sara and I had a lot of “what the heck have we gotten ourselves into” moments. Especially when the valley was covered with vineyards that were overcome with mold and rot issues because of the rains.
However, because we are a micro-boutique winery making such incredibly small lots and limited quantities, we specifically try to work with micro-growers who have 5 acres or less under vine. Small growers, in our experience, are doing this because it’s a passion for them—not a profession—they just love tending a vineyard. Keeping up with the maintenance, thinning the fruit, and staying on the details is easier in a smaller acreage site, and it’s what makes the difference in a year like 2013. That meant our fruit was exceptionally clean, and we were able to pick after the rains, when we felt the flavors had developed to their maximum potential.
That said, most of the 2013s we’ve tasted have been lighter because of the rain influence. As a winemaker, you have to decide what you’re going to do with that. Some tried to bulk up flavor and color in their Pinot Noir through various extractive means. I decided to just run with it because our flavors were great and I don’t worry about color—it doesn’t make the wine taste better. I’m more interested in creating elegant Pinot Noir.
Then 2014 was completely different than 2013. I like to think Mother Nature owed us one after 2013. We had consistently warm daytime temperatures, some nice, cool nights that helped to round out the acids, and no September rains, so we could pick when we wanted. That brought out more berry flavors in the 2014 Titan than our 2013 Titan, in my opinion.
In general, I find that the warmer the year here in Oregon, the bigger the berry flavors are going to be in the finished wine. In the cooler years, it seems to be harder for those berry flavors to come out. Usually there are more floral elements in the cool vintages for Oregon, which we’ve noted in our 2013. Again, our 2014 Titan Pinot Noir is lighter in color than many other producers’, but I like to say that once the wine gets in your mouth, you aren’t going to care about color. Interestingly, the pick dates were just one day apart between 2013 and 2014.
Looking ahead to our 2015 Titan Pinot Noir, which we will be releasing later this year, it was definitely a hot vintage. It was the hottest year on record in Oregon, which produces bold wines. For me, that was a tremendous winemaking challenge because my personal style is to aim for balance and elegance.
WWB: When you are not enjoying Oregon Pinot Noir, what is typically in your glass?
DS: Sara and I have always loved the small, off-the- radar producers. I personally love Washington Reds. I taste a lot of the varietal characteristics in Washington wines across the board. That’s one reason we source Walla Walla Valley AVA Syrah fruit—from Milton-Freewater, Oregon—for our Firebird wine, as opposed to sourcing from California.
I spent time in the Prosser area when I did a distance enology program with Washington State University, and visited the local wineries, from larger producers like Hogue to smaller producers like Davenlore. Gordon Taylor at Davenlore is one of the coolest people I have met in the wine industry, and he makes some great wines. He’s built a winery brand that’s similar to ours, and he’s been a wonderful resource.