Ask the Winemaker: Erik Kramer


Single vineyard Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir are the order of the day at Willamette Valley’s acclaimed WillaKenzie Estate. Erik joined the Willakenzie team earlier this year to head up winemaking operations. Enjoy these excerpts from my conversation with Erik.

MA: Tell me a little bit about your winemaking history. How did you become a winemaker?  

EK: Like many people in the wine industry, it’s a second career for me. After college, I worked as a hydrogeologist in the petrochemical industry but became disinterested in the job and wanted to look for something a little more fun and gratifying. So I quit my job, had a premature midlife crisis and fortunately discovered wine as a career while I was doing some soul searching. I didn’t know a lot about wine, but did very much enjoy cooking, drinking wine, etc. I wound up taking a job in a tasting room while I was looking for work and started learning more about wine, how fascinating it was, etc. That led me to work my first harvest in the 2000 vintage. My start in the wine industry was in Washington and I interned at a few wineries up there before deciding to go back to school and study viticulture and enology. My wife and I moved to New Zealand in 2003 where I attended Lincoln University to enroll in a postgraduate program that focused on cool-climate winemaking. We lived in New Zealand, where I both studied and worked for about a year and a half. When we came back to the States, my wife and I settled on Oregon’s Willamette Valley as the place to build our lives. We have been here since 2004. My wife also left the corporate world a while ago and is now a successful photographer specializing on capturing the wine industry and its people. It’s become a lifestyle for us.
MA: Can you talk a little bit about how the terroir and climate varies within the Willamette Valley? Where does WillaKenzie fall on this spectrum?

EK: The Willamette Valley has some pretty ideal conditions for high quality, cool-climate viticulture. Cool and wet winters provide plenty of moisture for our moderate, dry summers which are somewhat Mediterranean in profile. Most of the soil types across the Willamette Valley have fairly high clay contents, so there is plenty of water holding capacity, leading to dry farming for most winegrowers in the area. There are a few major sub-AVAs in the Valley which include the Yamhill-Carlton district, Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge (Chehalem sub AVA), Eola Amity Hills and McMinnville District. Temperature accumulation and growing conditions vary a bit across the AVAs. The Dundee Hills are the warmest AVA and the Eola-Amity Hills are the coolest. WillaKenzie Estate’s largest vineyard is located in the Yamhill Carlton district (not quite as warm as the Dundee Hills) and is situated on well drained, marine sediments called the Willakenzie soil series. We also have another vineyard called Jory Hills that is located in the Dundee Hills AVA and it is situated on volcanically derived soils called the Jory soil series.
MA: Can you talk a little bit about WillaKenzie's current portfolio?

EK: WillaKenzie Estate is focused on making exceptional wines from its vineyards in the Yamhill Carlton district and Dundee Hills. Pinot Noir is our predominant varietal and the winery produces both an approachable style of Pinot Noir (our Gisele), a couple of  Estate focused blends (Estate Cuvee, Pierre Leon) and several single vineyard wines that reflect the terroir of our world-class vineyards in the Yamhill Carlton and Dundee Hills AVAs. We also produce an exceptional Willamette Valley Pinot Gris using grapes from the WillaKenzie Estate and other high quality vineyards as well as an Estate Chardonnay and Estate Pinot Blanc.
What are your general preferences/thoughts when it comes to oak?

Barrels can be used as great tools to help define wine style and I’ve been fortunate to learn a lot about them. Provided they are used in the right manner, they can certainly elevate wine without interfering with a wine’s personality. I’m a strong believer in aligning cooperage with site, plant material, style, etc. I like barrels that help complete palate shape and add longevity and freshness without leaving a wood signature. The best barrels can amplify a wine’s personality and ageability without a taster knowing that wood had a role to play in that wine’s development. Barrels take some time to understand and also time to integrate well into wine, so giving barrels the appropriate amount of time they need to have the best possible impact is pretty important. For me, wood and grain selection as well as seasoning are the most important things when it comes to barrel selection. If you are dealing with great wood from the very beginning, it doesn’t need too much ‘makeup’ in the form of heavy toasting to deliver great results. It’s also pretty important to understand your style goals as a winemaker when thinking about how best to use barrels.
MA: What are you general preferences/thoughts when it comes to yeast strains?

EK: You could ask this question to 20 different winemakers and get 20 different answers. To be honest, I look at yeast as a tool to complete a healthy fermentation and it doesn’t go much beyond that. I pay attention to yeast strain as a function of previous success with fermentation health, cleanliness and nutrient status of fruit, etc. To me, yeast can have a greater influence on aromatics and palate shape with whites such as Chardonnay than Pinot Noir, so I do have some preferences there. In general, I simply spend a lot more time thinking about vineyards, viticulture and winery trials, managing tannins, picking and pressing decisions, etc.
MA: Can you tell us about the most unique wine grape you’ve ever used in a varietal wine or a blend?

EK: I have experimented a little with Malvasia Bianca in aims of producing a Madiera style wine. It was a cool trial that led to some interesting results, but I won’t hang my hat on Madiera any time soon. I’m better off sticking with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
I’m looking forward to tasting what Erik has in store at WillaKenzi. Here are a few of my favorite current releases:

WillaKenzie Estate Pinot Gris Yamhill-Carlton 2015

Bright, creamy and delicate aromas of banana, vanilla bean, light lemon and fresh spice on the nose. Zesty and refreshing on the palate, this shines with leading notes of green apple, lemon and grapefruit notes that soften on the midpalate, leaving behind tropical fruits, sunflower and white blossom notes and a creamy texture that fade slowly. 90 pts.

WillaKenzie Estate Gisele Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton 2014

Aromatic, classic Pinot Noir aromas of ripe black cherry and fresh violet petals are clean and warmly inviting. In the mouth this is full, round and plummy with dark fruit notes of black cherry and black currant, an earthy streak running through to the finish where a tart bit of acidity paired with oak spice trails off into warmth.

WillaKenzie Estate Pierre Leon Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton 2013

Austere and stately aromas of warm spice, rich mineral earth and black cherry fruit of incredible depth. In the mouth this is harmonious and complex, delivering rich mixed berry and ripe cherry fruit, a constant pull of refreshing acidity and delicate yet firm tannins, the entire experience is settled on a bed of fertile earthiness. Approachable yet refined. 91 pts.

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