From Grape to Bottle: How Pinot Noir Wine Is Made In Oregon

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

Who: Jay McDonald of EIEIO & Co. Winery
What: Small production boutique winery
Where: Yamhill-Carlton AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon

As an intern with EIEIO & Co. Winery this past harvest, I experienced the frenetic energy and controlled chaos that is associated with small-production winemaking. Winemaker and owner Jay McDonald, along with only three assistants, amazingly cranks out the 1,500 cases that represent EIEIO’s yearly production. By the end of my week’s worth of work, I had not only shredded my abs, but I had gained a profound and personal appreciation of the work that goes into every bottle of wine.

We now know how EIEIO’s Pinot Noir grapes are grown and harvested, but how do they become the sophisticated wine you enjoy in a glass? Here’s what I learned:

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

If you’ve ever spent time in a winery during the month surrounding harvest, you understand the manic intensity level. For those of you who haven’t, think of it as the runner’s last mile of the marathon, the accountant’s weeks approaching Tax Day, or the holiday season for the retail or restaurant industry.

Even though the actual process of harvest and production only accounts for one month out of the year, a large percentage of the year’s work occurs in this narrow margin. The resulting wine depends upon hard work, weather, the preparations made in the vineyard during the previous 11 months, the educated choices made on the fly, a lot of luck… and maybe a few cases of beer.

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

The Basics of Winemaking

Basically stated, yeast consumes the natural sugar within the grapes, converting it to alcohol. The fermented grape juice is then separated from the solids (stems, skins, seeds) and transferred into aging vessels, where it rests until bottling. The resulting nuances, aromas, and characteristics are imparted by the inherent qualities of the specific grape varietal, the location or “terroir” of the vineyard, the unique hand of the winemaker, and the various choices made during the winemaking process.

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

How Pinot Noir Is Made at EIEIO & Co.

On my first day in Oregon, with barely enough time for a cup of coffee, we were up at six and off to Jay’s wine shop, The Tasting Room, to quickly sell a couple cases and meet a group of potential buyers. Upon arrival at the winery, we were greeted by eight half-ton bins of Pinot Noir grapes and a waiting line to use the necessary equipment (this is where drinking a beer at 10:00 AM is completely acceptable). After using our time wisely to “punch down” two already-fermenting tanks of wine, the destemmer machine became available, and we began the sorting process.

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)
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The winery at Methven Family Vineyards, where Jay and several other winemakers process their grapes and craft their wines. (Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

A slow-moving conveyor belt, or “sorting line,” carried the grapes, as the three of us interns diligently removed compromised grapes, insects, leaves, and any loose stems. The selected grapes were then processed in the destemmer and dropped into a stainless steel tank for an initial pump-over to integrate the pale grape juice with the colored, tannic skins.

For the next few days, we performed daily “punch-downs” for better extraction and integration, and afterwards, employed the gentler “pump-over” method, all the while diligently measuring and documenting sugar levels, temperature, and flavor profiles until the wine was fully fermented and ready to be pressed, aged, and bottled.

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

The vineyard managers and winemakers of the Willamette Valley continue to set an example in areas such as sustainability, organic and biodynamic farming, and a true sense of community.

Thanks, Jay!