Gary Horner has a long winemaking tradition. He has some impressive stops on his resume before coming to Erath in 2003. Gary has an eminent career in the Oregon wine industry, with previous tenures at Bethel Heights (where he first met Dick Erath) as well as Benton Lane, before coming to Erath more than a decade ago. Gary has a very large job as senior winemaker at one of Oregon’s largest wineries. HIs entry level bottling, the 2015 Erath Pinot Noir (WWB, 89) was one of the best value Pinot Noirs that I sampled over the past year and he has crafted an exciting new 2017 Chardonnay that was just released. Down to earth and highly knowledgable, I think you will enjoy hearing Gary Homer’s story in wine. Here is my exclusive interview with Gary Horner, winemaker at Erath.
WWB: How does your background in science connect with being interested in winemaking?
GH: I was trained as a clinical scientist. At UC Davis I was taking short courses to gain information about enology and viticulture. This was back in 1987. I had a friend in college who was a French guy, a wine collector and he got me interested in wine when we were in college. I wanted to learn more and attended Seattle Enological Society events, as I was living in Seattle at the time. In 1987 I decided to leave clinical pharmacology behind and take a stab at winemaking. I quit my job and worked for six dollars an hour to work at Bethel Heights to get my foot in the door. With my science background I figured there had to be an explanation for everything, and my mentors at Bethel Heights knew that things were not black and white and all the things in between. I learned that there were many things that you can’t read in a book but you have to learn from through experience and intuition. It took me around five to ten years to settle into that and I am now comfortable with the scientific aspect of winemaking but am even more comfortable with the art of winemaking now. What is intriguing is I have somewhat toned down my scientific approach and am now relying more on intuition and experience.
WWB: Can you talk about how you first became so enchanted with Oregon Pinot Noir? How did you decide to first come to Oregon?
GH: I looked at Oregon from my background with the Seattle Enological Society and wanted to make appointments with a lot of Oregon wineries. I went on a three week trip and slept in the back of my car. There wasn’t a lot of Oregon wine in the market at the time. I thought that Pinot kind of had this mystique in my mind. I was talking to the Pinot Noir producers in Sonoma and talked to professors at UC Davis. After speaking with them and their department chairs I decided that I needed to understand the hands on part to winemaking. That is one thing that UC Davis couldn’t offer me at the time. Driving back from Sonoma I was driving up I-5 and I stopped by Bethel Heights. Terry Castillo was in charge of Bethel Heights and I showed up there just as he was counting the cash and we had a discussion. He said that he didn’t have any positions for me at the time. I followed up with Terry six months later and he said that all he had a part time job in the bottling line. Following that job Terry said that he had harvest positions open. Then I worked in the vineyard for Bethel Heights and that is how it all started. I was with them for four years and they really are the people that had the strongest winemaking influence on me. I am not sure that I would have been in the same spot today if I hadn’t been with Bethel Heights.
WWB: What intrigued you with taking the winemaker position at Erath in 2003?
GH: Dick Erath was one of the first people that I met down in Oregon. Working for Bethel Heights, this tall guy saunters up to me and we struck up a conversation. Dick was a really knowledgable man. As the years went by I knew that Dick was interested in new things on the winemaking side. As I progressed in my winemaking career I started working on unique ways to manage red wine fermentations. Dick caught wind of that and then in 2003 he came to me and said that he liked what I was doing and he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was the winemaker at Benton Lane at the time and when Dick threw that up on the table I was hooked.
WWB: You have crafted a truly impressive entry level Pinot Noir bottling, the 2015 Erath Pinot Noir (WWB, 89) which is one of the great value Pinot Noirs out of Oregon. How challenging is it to make a well-made wine that is high production, particularly considering the winemaking challenges with Pinot Noir?
GH: It is a real challenge to make this Pinot Noir. We make sometimes more than 13 Pinot Noirs in a given vintage. The Oregon tiers Pinot Noir has to be good each year. You can’t miss a beat with the wine. That is one of the biggest challenges is making the Oregon tier Pinot Noir and keeping the price under 20 dollars. It is a huge challenge but we have been able to do that and continue to grow. I don’t want to say 2015 was an easy vintage and there are a lot of things behind the scenes in winemaking that made this vintage a bit more difficult. It was a warm vintage and the yields came in close to 20 to 25 percent above what we had anticipated. This is a challenge because there is only a fixed amount of winemaking capacity to accommodate the fruit that will come in. That creates a condition that you can only get so much wine through the pipeline at once. It cooled down towards the end in 2015 so that helped prevent some of the logjam which would have been more problematic had all of the harvest happened at once. The vintage saw excellent growing conditions and great weather. The fruit quality was really good. When you grow all around the Willamette Valley that really helps because all the fruit doesn’t all come in at the same time. The wine had good weight and good balance.
WWB: Can you talk about the new wine that you have made for the first time, sourced from your estate Willakia Vineyard, the 2017 Erath ‘Oregon’ Chardonnay?
GH: Dick Erath was making Chardonnay since he first started in Oregon. Chardonnay got off to a rough start and the clones that many producers were using at the time didn’t do so well in Oregon. Pinot Gris got some traction and left Chardonnay in the dust until people started working with the Dijon clones. Chardonnay is making an enormous comeback and quite frankly to get the best grapes you were paying the same amount of money for the top end Pinot Noir. In 2014 we purchased a vineyard around Amity, the Willakia Vineyard, that has 120 acres of planted vines including 19 acres of Chardonnay. The vineyard produces great Chardonnay. We started making the single vineyard ‘Willakia’ Chardonnay and we wanted to also produce a wine that wold be a good everyday Chardonnay. 2017 is the first vintage of our Erath ‘Oregon’ Chardonnay. The wine is entirely sourced from the Willakia property but we plan to expand its production the future as will look into sourcing from some other sites as well. The wine is roughly two-thirds stainless steel fermented and the balance is fermented in French oak barrels, (30% new) and then I assemble the blend and we bottle early to keep the freshness. I have a sweet tooth for Chablis and the Willakia Vineyard is very cool which faces the Van Duzer corridor so you don’t get overripe fruit and the site has a nice, long growing season. I am excited about the 2017 vintage for whites and reds. There is good acidity in the wine and we want to show good freshness but not get into that overripe cooked fruit profiles. It its a balance in the vineyard and I have some great people in the vineyard that work for me.
WWB: What are some of your favorite producers of Oregon Pinot Noir and your favorite wines of the world?
GH: Here in Oregon we tend to fall back to the old timers and some of the wineries of the second generation. Bethel Heights is insanely good Pinot and Chardonnay. Ponzi is really good and the kinds have taken over. Elk Cove are l long-timers and their kids have taken over. Chehalem and Sokol Blosser. Chehalem makes a great Riesling that I really enjoy. Adelsheim makes a variety of single vineyard Pinot Noirs that are very good. Domaine Drouhin ever since they have started they have been a very consistent producer and have contributed to the Oregon Wine industry. They have done a great job. There have been many large purchases in Oregon. When Ste. Michelle Wine Estates purchased Erath in 2006 some of my colleagues thought that the purchase would change everything at Erath. My buddies were worried and but Ste. Michelle told me specifically that they were going to help me make even better wine. They only focus on quality. Then, more recently, Jackson Family Wines has come in and bought up a lot of land creating a wave that has swept the industry. I know the Jackson Family people and they are as dedicated to Oregon as Ste. Michelle was and continues to be. There are really positive things going on in Oregon and there is a lot of attention on Oregon nationally. Coppola just bought a winery in the Dundee Hills. In terms of wines of the world my wife and I drink a fair amount of Washington Reds. We like to visit Walla Walla for a few days and I love the Ste. Michelle properties like Northstar and Spring Valley. Dusted Valley and Gramercy are both also really good. In terms of wines of the world Burgundy is so complicated that I don’t claim to understand it. One thing that has turned me away from it was the price being hugely expensive for most of those and maybe the quality isn’t always consistent to the dollar figure. We have been to Burgundy a few times but I don’t typically seek out Burgundy wines. Jadot, I like their wines but in terms of whites we have discovered Chablis fifteen years ago which has become one of my favorite wines of the world. The William Fevre wines from Chablis are really great.