From Ground to Grape: How Pinot Noir is Grown and Harvested 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

One of the most rewarding experiences you can have is the understanding and the following amazement of truly discovering where your favorite things come from. These answers are sometimes shocking and, at times, much more complex than you had initially imagined. In a culture evermore concerned with the origins of our consumables, it is only logical to wonder where your wine comes from. How does it progress from the vineyard to your glass?

Pondering these questions led me to spend this last harvest season working with EIEIO & Co., a small, independent,1,500-case production winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, led by winemaker Jay McDonald. In a 3-part series, I’ll explore just how this region’s Pinot Noir comes to be, starting with how the grapes are grown and harvested:

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

What Makes the Willamette Valley Perfect for Pinot Noir

Jay was drawn to the Yamhill-Carlton district in the Willamette Valley because of two things: the community of helpful, local winemakers and the fact that this particular area is naturally suited to growing world-class Pinot Noir. The Willamette Valley is nestled between the Cascade Mountains on the east and the smaller Coast Range on the west, which provides shelter from the Pacific Ocean. Its northerly latitude provides a long growing season, and ancient marine sedimentary soils provide excellent drainage. These aspects, coupled with dry summers and wet winters, are perfect for growing quality Pinot Noir grapes.

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

The winery is motivated by the attainability of the best possible wine not by competitions, ratings, trends, or publicity, but by allowing nature to show her handprint on the wine in the future.

-Jay McDonald

How the Grapes Are Grown and Harvested

The progression from grape to glass begins much earlier in the year, long before the intensity felt at harvest time. As soon as the wine is put into barrels, Jay begins his preparations for the next year’s harvest. In the winter months, while the vines’ roots are developing underground, his vineyard managers carefully prune the vines in an attempt to focus the next year’s growth. Once the flowers of early spring have transformed into tart, green berries, the grapes slowly mature over the course of the long, warm, dry summer, darkening in color, as their sugar levels increase, while their acidity slowly decreases.

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

As mid-September approaches, Jay works frantically together with his vineyard managers to monitor both the weather and the ripeness of the grapes. The most important decision in winemaking is deciding when to harvest. If a storm system is approaching, should Jay harvest the underripe grapes or gamble and wait the rain out, hoping for sunnier days and crossing his fingers that rot does not set in? Oregon is notorious for autumnal rains, which are one of the most challenging hurdles for a winemaker.

The quality of EIEIO & Co.’s wines begin with the choices made in the vineyard. From sourcing sustainably farmed, organic grapes to hand-picking the fruit, Jay ensures that an excellent harvest reaches the winery.

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)
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Jay McDonald inspecting the vines, in the Yates-Conwill Vineyard. (Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

5 Quick Questions for Jay McDonald

How do winemakers justify the prices they attach to their wines?

“For me personally, I justify the pricing according to quality. And it is all about how the grapes were grown. You can have the best equipment and skill in the world, and the wine might not be that good because of the quality of the grapes.”

What wine would you make, if winemaking weren’t a business?

“I would definitely make a sparkling wine. I have been encouraged to use my white Pinot Noir base to make a sparkling wine. Time and production costs prohibit me from making it.”

What is your go-to wine to drink during the week?

“Besides my own wine (laughing?), bubbles, please! I enjoy them about twice a week and have really enjoyed a dry Cava. It’s like club soda, but way better!”

What is the most difficult aspect of your job as a winemaker?

“To understand that everything is a variable. There are no constants in the wine business. You had better be paying attention at all times because everything is moving. I find that the most rewarding part has been learning that luck has a lot to do with it!”

Any advice about winery etiquette?

“Hold your glass still, when receiving barrel or bottle samples. Avoid wearing strong perfume and absolutely no smoking.”

Discover Jay’s Wines → EIEIO & Co. Winery

Thanks, Jay!