Just before Thanksgiving we made a trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine region to scout out unique wines for our Topochines Vino wine store. As our “home base” for our five-day trip, we stayed at Youngberg Hill Inn, easily our favorite place to stay in all of Willamette Valley. This was not our first time staying at Youngberg Hill, but on this occasion we were privileged to be staying as guests of the owner, Wayne Bailey. In addition to views afforded by its perch nearly 700 feet above the Valley floor, the inn has exquisite rooms, ample common areas, and one of the friendliest, most competent staff we have encountered.
But we weren’t at the inn just for rest and relaxation (although we did get some of that as well); we were there to spend some time with Wayne Bailey and taste his wines. Cascading down the hill from the 9-room inn are 20 acres of Youngberg Hill’s vineyards, the majority planted to Pinot Noir with smaller blocks of Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Over the course of our stay at Youngberg Hill Wayne spend considerable time with us, sharing a bit of his upbringing, his many careers, and his philosophy of winemaking. At heart, Wayne Bailey is a farmer, having grown up as an Iowa farm boy helping his father raise a variety of crops. After leaving the farm, Wayne started the first of 5 distinct careers, becoming a mechanical engineer and then a consultant in the beverage industry. His travels took him to France where he fell in love with the Burgundian style of Pinot Noir. He believed that his future was growing Pinot Noir grapes in a cool climate and making beautiful wines from those grapes.
In the early 2000’s, while traveling around with Oregon viticulture legend Jimi Brooks, Wayne found himself looking up at the Youngberg Hill property. “It’s a pretty nice hill,” Brooks said, which we consider quite an understatement. In 2003 Wayne and his wife Nicolette purchased the property and made a commitment that they would farm their 20-acre vineyard organically. This commitment to organic and sustainable farming, he believes, is the right thing to do as a steward of the land. More than that, though, Wayne and Nicolette live on the property with their three young daughters. “Why would I want to expose my family to chemicals?” In the past couple of years, Wayne has pushed his practices beyond organic and has instituted biodynamic farming in his vineyards.
Not surprisingly, Wayne’s non-interventionist farming practices extend into the cellar. Rather than try to manipulate his wines to meet a particular style or flavor profile, he lets his wines reflect the land and conditions where the grapes were grown. In Willamette Valley, this might mean a growing season with a deluge of rain at harvest, or many summer days with less than optimal sun. Wayne believes that his wines should reflect the particular weather and other conditions of the growing season and harvest.
From the top of the hill down towards the road, the Youngberg Hill Vineyards are separated into blocks.
Across the blocks, there are differences in elevation and soil type and Wayne has meticulously selected the right varietal (and clone) for each block. From each of the “daughter” blocks – Aspen, Natasha and Jordan – Wayne makes a separate Pinot Noir and they have distinct aroma and flavor profiles.
Every day at 4 p.m., the Youngberg Hill tasting room – which is inside the inn – closes to the public and guests who have not already tasted during normal hours have access to the tasting room for an additional hour. As we had the unusual luxury of being the only guests on the property that day, we had a personal tasting experience with Wayne, followed by dinner at one of his favorite restaurants in McMinnville. It seems like we tasted every single Youngberg Hill wine in current release, as well as a couple of library wines Wayne was nice enough to share.
Of course, we started our tasting with the white wines – Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. We enjoyed these wines quite a bit as they fit squarely within our preferred flavor profile for white wines: aromatic on the nose and crisp on the palate. We especially enjoyed the Youngberg Hill Chardonnay, a relatively new addition to Wayne’s portfolio – he grafted Chardonnay vines in 2014. During our stay in Willamette we had more Chardonnay than any of our other trips and were enthused by the quality of the wines.
But what would a Willamette Valley tasting be without Pinot Noir! Fortunately for us, Wayne bottles five different selections of Pinot Noir, four of them from estate wines and the fifth a blend of estate Pinot noir grapes and grapes sourced from trusted vineyards in the area. We tried all five of the Youngberg Hill Pinot Noir offerings, in multiple vintages, and had a great deal of difficulty selecting a favorite. One might assume that the estate Pinot Noir would all taste the same, especially from the same vintage. This would be an incorrect assumption, however, as the pinot noir grapes are grown in different soils, at different elevations, and with different sun exposures. All of Wayne’s wines reflect his non-interventionist approach to wine making and we enjoyed all of the Pinot Noir offerings he poured. If we had to choose (and we did have to, as we were buying wine for our Topochines Vino Store), the Bailey Pinot Noir and the Cuvee were our favorites. They are available for sale here: Topochines Wines – U.S.A.
We look forward to a long partnership with the Bailey’s and Youngberg Hill.
Irene & John Ingersoll
December 2, 2017