Stag Hollow Winery and Interview with Winemaker/Owner, Mark Huff
Stag Hollow is a boutique Oregon winery that produces world class Pinot Noir. Their wine is difficult to find in Washington but can be purchased online through their website. The winery is literally located in the middle of nowhere, as you follow a long gravel driveway to their spot on the hill. Steep slopes of vines line the winery. They have a by appointment tasting room, graciously hosted by the winery owners, Jill Zamowitz and Mark Huff, who started the winery more than 20 years ago. Here is my interview with Mark Huff, owner and winemaker of Stag Hollow Winery, followed by my review of his wines.
WWB: How did you decide to start the winery?-
Huff: Well, I started out as a home brewer and it didn’t take long to realize that brewing doesn’t provide as much challenges as wine does. Mother Nature gives you a lot of opportunity to deal with complexities because the grapes can substantially change from year to year. Beer making is all about recipes that are made over and over again. And as a scientist the idea of winemaking where Mother Nature is always generating new challenges each year appealed to me. And the complexities have been really challenging. I started with bringing in grapes from California in the mid-80s. Back then there was a company called Wine and the People based in Berkeley; during that era they had access to high quality grapes. Now it would be very difficult for a home wine maker to source high quality California grapes like Zinfandel and Cabernet.
I did that for two years and decided that there were bigger challenges ahead, and that was Pinot Noir. Beginning in 1986 I started purchasing grapes from the Whale family, which provided the opportunity to make wine from one of the oldest Pinot Noir clonal trials that was planted by Oregon State University in the early 70s--before Dijon Clones became available. I made many clonal wines from the Wahle Vineyard from 1986 through 1993 vintages, and that is before Dijon Clones became available. In 1989 my spouse and partner, Jill Zarnowitz, and I purchased the property next to Wahle Vineyard, began planting the first block in 1990, and released our first commercial wine from the 1994 vintage.
WWB: Can you talk a bit about your style of vineyard management?-
Huff: That is where my passion comes from crafting wines in the vineyard. Once the grapes move into the winemaking process the list gets shorter of what you can do with the wine. The goal is to bring in the best and most flavorful grapes that you I can and then stand back and do minimalist winemaking. There are key decisions that I you need to make in the winemaking, but I don’t fuss with it a lot. I am at the other end of the scale -- some winemakers are much more hands on during the winemaking process than I am. We were among the first to plant a high vine density vineyard, about the same time as Domaine Drouhin Oregon. We planted and decided that the goal here is to modestly stress the vines by creating root-to-root competition for resources among vines. There are flavor benefits that grapes provide by stressing the vines. Right at the get-go we planted our vineyard to three thousand plants per acre. The standard back then was far less, and we were tripling what most people had been doing. Then the next challenge became managing and a couple of things that I needed to look trellising the grapes. The model for this was Burgundy who had been planted at high density for hundreds of years. What did not attract me was the way that they managed their vines.
They used over the row tractors and that is not the option for the Oregon’s typical hillside plantings. In Burgundy, they trellis the grapes are fairly low to the ground. I didn’t want to be harvesting hunched over the vines and that means that it would be very expensive to harvest. Instead and I designed a new trellis system that would work for high density that we raised. I brought the fruiting wire up to about three and a half feet and rather than growing the grapes upright like in a normal vertical trellis, instead we force the shoots downward. There is some compelling literature out there that this can be beneficial in providing moderate vine stress. However, the approach is expensive because each vine shoot has to be tucked behind a wire, pointed downward instead of its natural desire to grow up. One or two canes are brought above the hedge canopy to and nurture for the following year. Like fruit trees and cane berries, production comes from second-year wood. The next year’s fruiting canes are grown above the hedge-canopy open fin above the sunshine and that provides buds with extra sun have exposure, increasing the bud fruitfulness. There’s a lot of literature to support the benefits of sun exposure on buds. Now during a really warm year this fruit exposure to sun during heat spells near or over 100 degrees can be problematic: the grape skins can get sunburn just like people do. With the right amount of sun exposure on the grapes skins, the skins provide develop complex flavor compounds that are expressed during the next process, fermentation. In addition, to moderately stress the vines we maintain a cover crop and that also to increase is competition with the vines for the water and nutrient resources. In a really hot year, I will do light tilling of the cover crop, but if the summer doesn’t look too stressful then the cover crop is left to compete with the vines. We also use a low vigor root stock since most grapes are on root stock and the reason that grape growers use that is there is a pest in the soil that can kill the vines and that actually can have an influence on the vigor of the vines.
WWB: I am particularly impressed with your reserve wines as the 2009 Reserve stands out a bit to me. Can you talk about that wine and the vintage?-
Huff: The 2009 vintage was a warm one. We had at the time record- breaking number of days over 90 degrees and anytime that Pinot Noir finds itself in a warm vintage it becomes a little problematic to figure out when to harvest. The reason for that is the sugars can be in advance and moving quicker than the development of the flavor compounds. As a result, there are some tough decisions that need to be made in hot-weather vintages. It is important to and taste the grapes every day to determine when sugar compounds and flavor compounds are optimally balanced for harvest. In a warm year, optimal flavors in grapes can occur and dissipate quickly. If missed, then the alcohol can be more prevalent on the palate. ’09 was a tough vintage to find that sweet spot and I think we hit it pretty good in terms of balancing out the flavors and the alcohol balance. The trick as a grower and winemaker was to make the right decision in the flavors in the finished wine and I was very fortunate that we hit it really nicely that year. Stylistically, with Pinot Noir drinkers there are those who love the fuller flavors and there are some who gravitate more towards the lighter styles. In most vintages, except the most temperature-cool ones, which Stag Hollow wines tend to be stylistically full-flavored, with plenty of complex layering of flavors. At the start of a vintage, we can’t predict the flavors of the finished wine, especially after aging 6 or more years. Flavors are contributed from barrels, yeast fermentation, and from the grapes juice and skins, and many more chemical reactions. The goal for a style in a warm year is conceptual in terms of making sure that the wine doesn’t go over the top with too much extraction. We keep the fermentation temperatures cool, less than 82 degrees
WWB: Can you talk about the 2011 vintage and how the wine turned out?-
Huff: 2011 was the coolest vintage weather-wise in last 20 or more years. We were fortunate in 2011 going into October. Oregon grape and wine producers were at high a great deal of risk of not having sufficiently ripe grapes to have a valid vintage: one that was flavorful and made good wine. Mother Nature cooperated at the end by giving a good window of drier weather rather than the Northwest monsoon season starting early. Through that we were able to harvest the grapes the last few days of October and into November; the results were impressive, given the situation. A remarkable, eye opening vintage for me, that the harvest brix levels that were around 21.8-22.2 and that the final wine flavors could still be very expressive. In 2011, we achieved vintage mature flavors were in the grapes but at a lower than normal sugar component. Jill and I are fond of 11s and we have received some good press.
WWB: Can you talk about the 2012 vintage and how the wine turned out?-
Huff: 2012s are the most concentrated wines that I have made in the past 20 years. They are intense wines. From my perspective, the reason why the wines have showed such intensity is goes back to our discussion on vineyard. Stress. What Mother Nature did in 2012, more so than any other vintage, is that she gave us an extended drought conditions of over 100 straight days of no rain straight into harvest. At harvest the grapes were dehydrated and concentrated by less water content in the grapes than normal. Thus the flavors got were magnified and that came expressed as intense flavor. We didn’t have any loss of fruit off character that might happen in with a sort of droughty situation, rather instead it got concentrated.
WWB: I think that 2008 was one of the classic vintages for Oregon Pinot Noir. Can you talk about your 2008 Reserve? –
Huff: 2008 was a vintage that happens about once or twice every decade in which growing conditions are truly optimal for extracting the inherent beauty of Pinot Noir. To best express a balanced wine, Pinot Noir prefers a mild summer -- not too hot and not too cold. 2008 was one of those vintages that allowed the vines to show fruit with nice richness and nothing over the top, well rounded. For our site, we probably harvested a little bit later than others. I thought that the flavor profiles weren’t developing as quickly as I wanted; by waiting, we got rich wine out of the 2008 vintage. What made the vintage really interesting is that I expected the 2008 Pinot Noirs to be more open in its youth than they were. There were many winemakers that felt that the 8s [2008s] went into a long stage of being tight and then they came back out again. For Stag Hollow, the ’08 Reserve only recently has started to reblossom. We had been tracking potential development by tasting how well the wine holds after being open several days--approximating the aging process through oxidation. Even though the wine had been in a closed down phase, we could taste the potential after being open for several days. Given that, this wine could be one of the longest lived that we have ever made. Owen, when you recently tasted the 2008 Reserve, it was in a stage of starting to reemerge, as a late bloomer. I don’t think I have ever had a vintage that tasted so good in its early youth and then went through a prolonged dumb stage like the 2008s. I shouldn’t be surprised by such behavior; this is Pinot Noir. The 7s [2007s] were different than the 2008s. 8s went into a dumb stage whereas the 7s were closed in from the very beginning and it has taken years for them to come around. I am convinced that the media missed out on the 2007s. I agree that they weren’t enjoyable in their youth. We are in an impatient society, however, where wines have to be peaking almost upon release. Unfortunately the media doesn’t look back or wait before jumping to conclusions. I am fortunate that I am small enough that if a vintage isn’t ready then I will hold it for a while. Unlike many of the Oregon Pinot Noirs that are emphasizing forward fruit, we are at the other end of the spectrum with Pinot Noirs that express lots of structure--which is trade-off of forward fruit. Our highly-structure style of Pinot Noir requires extra bottling aging, sometimes up to 5 years to unfold their complex flavor profiles.
Stag Hollow Field Blend- this is a non-vintage wine. Blend of their Pinot, Dolcetto, Chardonnay and Eastern Oregon Syrah. Slightly smoky nose with red raspberry, red cherry and oak. Palate has fruity character. Red cherry, strawberry, raspberry, clove and mushroom. Fruity and delicious. -88
2012 Stag Hollow Dolcetto- Nose has red currant and spicebox. Slightly Herbaceous. Palate has guava, strawberry, red cherry and a long finish. Impressive effort for this novel varietal. Drink now. -90
2011 Stag Hollow Pinot Noir- Translucent color. Nose has mushroom, raspberry and nice terroir. Palate has raspberry, guava, red cherry and nice minerality. Drink now. -89
2012 Stag Hollow Pinot Noir - This has mushroom, red cherry and cloves on the nose. Palate has nice smooth mouthfeel. Red cherry, guava, pomegranate and a long finish. Drink now. -91
2012 Stag Hollow Reserve Pinot Noir- Raspberry, lavender and mushroom on the nose. Palate has guava, pomegranate, raspberry and red cherry. Long finish with nice richness. Delicious. Drink now or cellar for 1-2 more years. -92
2008 Stag Hollow Reserve Pinot Noir- Black cherry, mushroom and cloves on the nose. Palate has mushroom, cran-cherry, anise and a long finish. Nice weight. Drink now. -93
2009 Stag Hollow Reserve Pinot Noir- Rich nose of mushroom, forest floor, raspberry and red cherry. Palate has vanilla, red cherry, guava, pomegranate and mushroom in a forward style. Drink now. -93