Willamette Valley Vineyards head winemaker Joe Ibrahim has a long history in wine, starting with Chateau St. Michelle in Woodinville, Washington and also working for Gallo in California and as part of their Sparkling wine production team. Ibrahim then moved to Edna Valley winery as head winemaker and became familiar with crafting cool climate Pinot Noir. His 2016 releases were seriously good across the board as he has continued a very strong set of new release wines, including a killer new Sparkling Wine. I have closely tracked his progression at Willamette Valley Vineyards, as I was first enamored by the outstanding 2012 Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Noirs. Originally from Vermont, Joe is an awesome, down to earth guy, who has a wealth of industry experience. I think you will very much enjoy my new interview with Joe Ibrahim, Willamette Valley Vineyards winemaker.
WWB: How did you decide to learn about wine when you were growing up in New York? What was your family winery in Vermont like?
JI: Growing up I was a very curious kid who was fascinated with the natural world and science. My parents were very busy physicians, so I was left to my own devices at home. I often found myself playing chemist in the kitchen using anything I could find in the house. For example, mixing vinegar and baking soda, shampoo and rubbing alcohol, or food coloring and laundry detergent. One day, I added yeast to apple juice and was amazed to watch the concoction transform day after day ... it was super cool! My parents supported my fascination by giving me a home winemaking kit and a purple book called "Winemakers recipe handbook," described as containing more than “100 easy-to-use tested recipes and profuse with identification and selection of plants and fruits for winemaking." I used this manual to craft wines from just about anything: tomatoes, turnips, dandelions, blueberries, etc. These were not palatable wines by any means, and I did not understand what consumption of these "wines" meant, but I loved the fermentation process and watching the yeast work its magic. I also enjoyed putting the wine into a bottle, corking it and adding a label to give as gifts to my family members.
Later in life when I attended the University of Vermont, I naturally chose to study Plant and Soil Science as my major. I was really bored with the typical classes in my first semester and I yearned for more hands-on study. My adviser suggested that I do an internship to supplement my classes and handed me a book of available options. One of them was at a small 5-acre family farm — Snow Farm Vineyard and Winery, located on the shores of Lake Champlain in Grand Isle, Vermont. So I went to meet with them and asked if I could intern with them. I remember being in awe of the tanks, barrels and vineyard; I knew I wanted to be a part of it all. I worked there for a full season and learned the nuances of growing grapes in a cold climate. Additionally, I learned the importance of varietal selection and how to manage the vines and canopy so they would survive the harsh winters (e.g. burying the vines with soil followed by the hard work to unearth them in the spring). During harvest season, we would harvest the grapes by hand and take them into the winery for fermentation. In the winter we were stabilizing new wines, blending, filtering and bottling the previous vintage. I loved the four seasons of winemaking.
WWB: What inspired you to move to Washington and train at Chateau Ste. Michelle? What was that experience like?
JI: After college there wasn't many opportunities to make wine professionally and continue to grow in Vermont, so I had a calling to move out west. At the time, my brother was finishing his medical degree at University of Washington and asked if I would like to try to launch my career in the Washington wine industry. Wineries typically don't hire winemakers right out of college, so I knew I needed more experience. Luckily that experience came when I was accepted into Chateau Ste. Michelle's viticulture internship. I was sure that viticulture was where I wanted to be, so I accepted and moved to Eastern Washington. Eastern Washington was a culture shock for me. I moved out there with my dog and I was all alone. I worked with a professional viticulturist to help scout and monitor grower and estate vineyards in the Wahluke Slope AVA. It was quite an experience going from a 5-acre vineyard to working at a winery with vast vineyards in the most amazing settings, then learning to grow premium vinifera grape vines in the arid Washington high desert. When that season ended, so did my internship. I wasn’t sure what to do next. Columbia Crest was looking for winemaking interns, so I applied and was accepted. Once in a huge winery, I was able to really see professional winemaking at its best. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is a quality-focused organization and it really opened my eyes to what professional winemaking is all about and was where I honed my palate. At the conclusion of the internship, they hired me as the Enologist at their Canoe Ridge Winery, which was a great opportunity for me. It launched my career and boosted my confidence as a professional winemaker.
WWB: You craft some outstanding sparkling wines and your 2015 Willamette Valley Vineyards ‘Brut’ Sparkling Wine (WWB, 91) is a sensational value. Can you talk about the winemaking behind this outstanding warm vintage wine?
JI: Thank you for the compliment. One of the main reasons we have outstanding sparkling wines is our Estate plantings of Dijon Clone Chardonnay which was grafted in 1993. These vines are on a gentle West-facing slope, allowing the grapes to retain freshness and acidity, yielding an excellent sparkling wine base. We hand-picked these grapes and swiftly brought them into the winery for gentle pressing. We ferment the juice at cool temperatures to preserve the delicate aromatics and when fermentation is complete, we barrel the wine in neutral French oak barrels. After a period of aging and maturation, we select only the highest quality barrels for the Cuvée. This is a key step; we strive for a Cuvée that is balanced, but has clear focus of flavor, aroma and mouthfeel. If a barrel falls outside the focus line, it doesn't make the cut. We conduct secondary fermentation in the bottle and age the wines for 18 months before disgorging the wines and adding our final dosage.
WWB: Harvest has recently concluded in Oregon. Can you tell us what we can expect from the 2018 vintage? What vintages does 2018 remind you of?
JI: The 2018 vintage will be one for the record books! The growing season had a record number of days at 90 degrees or hotter, record number of days without measurable rain and we had almost no precipitation during harvest. This means winemakers had their choice of picking date and the grapes were able to achieve an ideal level of ripeness. The early wines look to be extremely strong, with excellent structure, color and mouthfeel. I think this vintage will be one of Oregon's best, if not the best. I am very excited about the future of these wines!
WWB: When you are not enjoying your wines, what are some of your favorite wines from the Pacific Northwest and the world?
JI: This is a question I get asked a lot, and to tell you the truth, people don't always like my answer. One of the things I personally love about wine is the endless expanse of options, styles and terroir to explore. One could literally have a different bottle of wine every day and never have the same wine twice. I have never been obsessed with one producer, wine or region. I love to explore wines and food with good company. When I find a stand-out bottle, the one that makes you say "damn, that's good," then I am inspired to deepen my understanding of it.