Today we have an awesome feature from one of the best out of Oregon. A hugely talented winemaker, Trisaetum co-founder, James Frey, was a former photographer from Santa Cruz who had a passion for wine. He is now a winemaker, business owner, and abstract expressionist artist. James has been making wine for the past 13 years since first planting a vineyard in his backyard. His new release wines were very impressive. I recently had the chance to sit down with him and chat wine. He talked about the recent run of warm vintages, as well as how he approaches his gorgeous Riesling and Chardonnay wines. I think you will really enjoy hearing more about him. Here is my interview with James Frey, winemaker of Trisaetum Winery.
WWB: How did you decide to start Trisaetum?
JF: I wish I could say there was some grand plan that led to this point, some brilliant business plan, but in reality it was lots of little things and a bit of persistence. It started with a backyard acre of dead ice plant upon which I decided plant a vineyard. That led to me turning our home into a winery every fall…which eventually led to us purchasing a piece of land in the Willamette Valley back in 2003 (so as my wife says I would stop making wine in the house). My wife and I, along with our two young children, moved to the site and planted what would become the Coast Range estate. Then came an opportunity to buy a piece of land on Ribbon Ridge, where we planted our second vineyard and built our winery. It’s been 10 vintages now for Trisaetum in our winery with our own fruit. Had we known everything we know now, maybe we wouldn’t have started the journey; but in hindsight, throwing away some caution and taking the risk has fortunately worked out for us. It probably goes without saying it’s hard work building something from scratch, but it’s the best job in the world.
WWB: Your 2016 Trisaetum Riesling releases were some of the highest rated and most compelling bottlings in North America that I have reviewed in the past year. Can you talk about creating the right combination of extraction and tension in those awesome wines?
JF: Thank you for the kinds words. Given we release eight different Rieslings each year, it’s something we’re particularly passionate about. My family is originally from Alsace, so I suspect there’s Riesling coursing through my veins. With that said, I did not go to wine school but instead learned by doing. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, and some of the time I’m smart enough notto repeat them year after year. For Riesling, I only do small vessel fermentations. Each vintage I have roughly 100 oak barrel, stainless steel drum and concrete eggferments. While it’s logistically much more complicated, it does provide me plenty of options from which to achieve the right balance; the right extraction and tension you’re talking about. I don’t really follow a recipe. I like to experiment a lot and I taste even more. In the end, the goal is to produce Rieslings that have a soul, that reflect a sense of place; so ultimately you really have to be married to your sites. With the amazing soil diversity we have in the Willamette Valley, and the significant variation from site to site; I think we can produce some pretty special single vineyard Riesling.
WWB: Your Chardonnay new release wines from the 2015 vintage were gorgeous. Can you talk about how you craft your style of Chardonnay which shows both elegance and opulence?
JF: My favorite bottles of Chardonnay are those that have depth without being heavy…and have electricity without being austere. As with any wine, it’s ultimately about balance. Just like with Riesling, I only do small vessel ferments with Chardonnay choosing mostly to use a mix of new and neutral French oak barrels from the forests of Nevers and Allier (and occasionally mix in some concrete eggs). I’ve been immensely fortunate the past four vintages to work alongside Jacques Lardiére as Louis Jadot vinifies their Oregon wines at Trisaetum. Jacques spent forty-twoyears making great white burgundy for Jadot, so picking his brain every day is life changing. It’s safe to say Jacques has had a major influence on how I approach making Chardonnay here in the Willamette Valley. It’s hard not to be inspired tasting each day along-side someone whose made wine from well over one hundred vineyards in Burgundy.
WWB: Oregon has enjoyed a recent run of downright awesome vintages. How excited are you about the 2015 and 2016 vintages? What are some of the differences you see between 2015 and 2016?
JF: The running joke in the Willamette Valley is if you’re wearing a t-shirt during harvest it’s a good year because some years it’s only long underwear and rain gear. So yes, the past two vintages in Oregon have been warm and dry whereclusters were ripe and flavors well-developed. Surprisingly though, acidity didn’t drop as quickly as expected(especially in 2016), leaving us with great energy in the wines. While plentiful, I find the tannins to be more fine-grained in 2016. As with any warmer vintage in Oregon, the key is retaining elegance and nuance despite the ripeness. That may mean picking a little earlier, doing more whole-cluster or keeping fermentation temperatures lower. It’s still early, but it’s hard not to like what Mother Nature gave us in both 2015 and 2016.
WWB: When you are not enjoying Oregon wines, what are some of your favorite wines of the world? What is your cellar like?
JF: Given winemakers here are quite collaborative and we like to trade wine with each other on a regular basis, my cellar has an abundance of Oregon bottles. Some of these are my most prized. But since you asked about wines beyond Oregon, sections of my cellar I find myself going to most often would be Alsace, Wachauand the Saar for Riesling; all things Walla Walla; Beaujolais; Pouilly-Fuissé; Jura; and not surprisingly Burgundy. These happen to correspond to the winemaking regions I most often visit, so it’s probably not surprising. Because we are about to release our first sparkling wines at Trisaetum, I do seem to have a larger number of grower champagnes on hand recently; which is surprising since these don’t typically hang around the cellar very long. My cellar master and I like to do whiskey and scotch tastings on a regular basis as well. When someone asks me how to become a successfulwinemaker, the answer is simple. You must taste. And taste a lot. And taste different styles of wine from around the world. The more you taste, the better your palate becomes; the better winemaker you become.