Originally from Kentucky, Whitman College Professor, Dr. Kevin Pogue, is one of the foremost experts in Washington terroir. Dr. Pogue moved to the Pacific Northwest following the completion of his bachelor’s degree at the University of Kentucky and has been enchanted by the unique geology of this region ever since. Dr. Pogue has his PhD from Oregon State University and has been teaching at Whitman College since 1990. While I never took classes from Dr. Pogue while at Whitman College, I have several colleagues that raved about him and I did not actually meet him until recently. He is a downright awesome guy to talk wine and terroir with and I think you will very much enjoy his story. Here is my interview with Dr. Kevin Pogue, Whitman College Professor of Geology
WWB: What were your initial inspirations in Geology? How did you decide to pursue your PhD in Geology?
KP: I actually knew that I wanted to be a geologist in fourth grade which is very unusual. Most of my students at Whitman College didn’t know they wanted to major in geology until their sophomore year, which is more typical. I became interested in geology growing up in Kentucky when I found pockets of crystals in the local limestone. I was also fascinated by the different layers of rocks that I saw in the road-cuts on family trips throughout the state. I developed a sizable mineral collection that I would display at local gem and mineral shows. I even had geologic maps on my bedroom walls in high school. That’s how intrigued I was by geology.
I knew that I wanted to major in geology in college. When I was working on my BS at the University of Kentucky, most geologists were being hired by the oil industry. However, the Arab oil embargo ended just before I graduated, and suddenly there were many unemployed geologists. I decided, based on the shortage of job options, that getting a graduate degree was the best plan. I didn’t initially plan to pursue a PhD, but I knew that I wanted to get my graduate degree and that I wanted to live in the western US, since skiing and mountain climbing were my recreational passions. For my MS degree, I attending Idaho State University where my tuition was waved in exchange for teaching laboratory classes in introductory geology. I had a fairly heavy teaching load of about nine contact hours per week. So at age 22 I was already teaching college classes, and I loved it. My students gave me great teaching evaluations and I then realized that perhaps teaching was my true calling, and if I wanted to teach at the college level I needed to get a PhD. I applied to a bunch of PhD programs and Oregon State University’s offer was the most attractive since it provided me with research and teaching assistantships and gave me the opportunity to conduct research in the Himalaya of northern Pakistan. So I moved to Corvallis and lived there for seven years, working mostly in Himalayan geology.
WWB: You began your professorship at my alma mater, Whitman College and have been teaching there for almost 3 decades. Can you talk about how you became an expert in Washington terroir for wineries?
KP: I moved to Walla Walla in 1990 and became familiar with the wineries here. I was initially unfamiliar with the concept of terroir, but I became much more interested in wine as the wine industry was changing in Walla Walla due to the influence of Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and other great wineries. In 1998, geologist James Wilson’s book “Terroir”, which focused on the geology of French wine-growing areas, was published. I think 3 different winemakers gave me copies around this time.
This book made me realize that the French were very far ahead of us in terms of understanding the physical aspects of their vineyard sites and how their growing conditions were affected by variations in geology, soils, and climate. We were like the wild west out here, in that a property owner might choose a site for a new vineyard simply because the land was cheap, or they happened to already own it, and they’d choose the cultivar based on what they liked to drink, not what was best suited to the site. In many cases it seemed that very little consideration was being given to the climate and soils and which (if any) varieties were most suited. Most of this sort of site and varietal selection was worked out in Europe by trial and error over the last 2000 years. I figured we could short-cut that by doing some more detailed research that integrated climate, soil, and topography and use that to figure out where particular varieties would best suited. German immigrants planted Riesling in Washington as early as the mid-1800’s, but not until Walter Clore was there any sort of research-based approach to site selection. Today we much even better tools and access to databases that allow us to determine where and what we should plant. I decided sometime in the early 2000’s that I wanted to make this the focus of my research.
WWB: One of the most exciting emerging regions in Washington state is the region along the North Fork of the Walla Walla River. Can you explain how this unique terroir in this emerging region contributes to novel and complex wines? How does this terroir influence the wine?
KP: The North Fork is steeply sloped and south facing and features shallow soils. The only winery who is currently making wines from there is Tertulia Cellars and they are quite good. Force Majeure recently acquired a stunningly beautiful piece of land up there and I’m beyond anxious to see what winemaker Todd Alexander does with the fruit from this special site. It’s somewhat similar to Ferguson Vineyard [owned by L’Ecole No. 41] because it features thin soils on fractured basalt at relatively higher elevations. At the North Fork I’ve created maps that integrate elevation, slope, and aspect and show were the best attributes overlap. The North Fork just checked all boxes for me for the sort of site characteristics that are shared by vineyards in some of the world’s great wine regions – think Cote Rotie or Priorat. I’m confident it will be a unique new terroir for the Walla Walla Valley.
WWB: Living here in Seattle and noticing the obvious climate change that has impacted this region for more than a decade, many wineries on the west side have been more and more intrigued about potential growing regions for Western Washington. What strikes you in terms of unique geography for this region that would be excellent terroir for grape growing?
KP: Climate change certainly opens up intriguing possibilities for expanding vineyard plantings and experimenting with new cultivars in western Washington. I know that in 2007 there was a large GIS-based study of the viticulture potential of the Olympic peninsula l that was based on the extrapolation and interpolation of climate data. That study showed that there is already some potential in the rain shadow region northeast of the Olympic Mountains. I think that there are some potentially good growing areas in the Puget Sound AVA but you would want to look for areas where the soils are warmer, well-drained, and would dry out sooner. You would also definitely be looking for southern aspects that allows the soils to warm up more quickly in the spring. I think there is great potential right now for the Swiss grape Chasselas. A major problem is that it is difficult to find affordable agricultural land near expanding urban areas, and the Puget Sound area is growing like crazy right now.
WWB: What are some of your favorite terroir-driven wines in the world?
KP: Great terroir only asserts itself if the wines are derived from uniform conditions and they are not overly manipulated, so I prefer single vineyard wines that feature minimalist winemaking. I enjoy Cornas and Hermitage. I also certainly love a lot of the great wines from Burgundy. I enjoy Bordeaux wines and how they taste, but the wines I most appreciate are derived from a single vineyard and single varietal, because that’s when you can really detect differences related to site. There are certain varieties that show terroir better. I think Syrah shows the most terroir. Many sommeliers I’ve met have agreed with me that Syrah shows its terroir better than any other grape. I love Alsatian wines and I love great Rieslings from the Mosel and Rheingau. I really enjoy Tempranillo from Rioja as well. Of course, there are plenty of wines that I enjoy that are just flat out delicious and I appreciate them just because they’re delicious and well-made.