Maybe making wine is rocket science after all

Maybe making wine is rocket science after all

We recently ran across a book whose title asserts “wine is not rocket science.”  After our recent trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, we are not so sure.  One of the wineries we visited as we were scouting wines for our Topochines Vino Wine Store is Vidon Vineyard, located just outside of the town of Newburg in the Chehalem Mountains AVA.  Vidon’s founder and winemaker, Don Hagge, is a rocket scientist.  Referring to Don as a rocket scientist is not a generic way of saying that he is a really smart guy.  Don. Is. A. Rocket. Scientist.   Literally.  Before starting his wine career at the age of 69, Don worked at NASA as Chief of the Physics Branch at the Manned Space Flight Center (now called the Johnson Space Center).

After completing a 2-year Naval aviation tour in Korea, Don returned to the University of California, Berkeley (Go Bears!) to complete his engineering degree.  While at Berkeley, Don had the opportunity to study and work with Ernest Lawrence, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics (for inventing the cyclotron) and founder of the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.  Potentially foreshadowing his future career, Don enjoyed making the relatively short trip from Berkeley to Napa Valley to sip wine and hang out with the wine making pioneers of the day. Remarkably, at that time there were fewer than half a dozen wineries in the entire Napa Valley. Heck, it was so long ago that Don remembers hanging out with the Mondavi brothers – Peter and Robert – before one of them punched out the other and caused a nearly 50-year grudge.

After receiving his PhD, Don did post-graduate work at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and the Centre d’Etudes de Physique Nucléaire in Paris.  He then joined NASA and supported a number of key Apollo space missions including Apollo 11 (Armstrong’s moon landing) and Apollo 13.

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Don produces three wines that honor his rocket science days – Saturn, Apollo and Explorer

Transitioning from government to private work, Don moved to Silicon Valley and had a long, successful career managing high-tech organizations.

When we first heard Don’s story, we wondered how his stellar scientific career would translate to wine making.  After tasting his wines, we can say the translation is perfect.  In everything he does, Don applies scientific knowledge and challenges pre-existing assumptions about the best way to grow grapes and make wine.  His goal is to continue finding ways to do things more efficiently through a test-and-learn approach:  try something new, measure the result, and implement the new solution if it is indeed better.  Although several wine makers told us their preference for screw tops vs. corks, Don made his case the way a scientist would – with data.

These taint levels are pretty high!

Most wine consumers are aware that a certain percentage of wines are ruined each year as a result of “cork taint,” which involves the cork being tainted by the chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA).  While the cork industry claims taint occurs in only 1-2 percent of all bottles, the above data suggests otherwise, with 2007 showing a nearly 10% frequency of taint.  For the Vidon white wines, Don uses a screw top; for the red wines, he uses a glass stopper rather than the traditional cork.  In addition to avoiding cork taint, he points out that the use of cork results in unacceptable variability in aged wine.  As he explains, a case of red wine that has been aged 10-15 years will have 12 different wines because each cork is different and oxygen entry will vary by bottle.  Generally, wine consumers that age wine are looking for consistency not variability.  If there is a theme to Don’s use of science at the winery, it is to eliminate, or at least reduce, variability in all processes.

To strengthen the scientific fire power in the tasting room, Don decided to double the number of PhD’s from one to two by hiring David Bellows to assist with the wine making.  A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Arizona, Dave received his PhD from the John’s Hopkins School of Medicine.  Complementing Don’s physics training, Dave is a molecular biologist and has long had an interest in wine.  Together, these two run Vidon’s cellar like a lab with more emphasis on predictability and little to no worry about following conventional methods simply for the sake of tradition.

During our visit at Vidon, we tasted at least a dozen wines, starting with several 2016 Vidon white whites:  Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Viognier.

This glass got a lot of use

These wines were exquisite examples of their variety – aromatic, crisp and dry – and very nice values at $20.00.  We also tasted the 2015 Chardonnay, a lovely “French-style” Chardonnay with crispness and nice acidity and a lovely yellow/gold color and full-bodied texture.  Before moving on to the red wines, Don poured his 2016 Vidon Rosé of Pinot Noir, easily our favorite rosé from among the many we tasted during this Oregon excursion.  We made room in our car for a few cases of the 2016 Vidon Rosé so that we could add them to the inventory on our web store as soon as we got home.  This wine has a gorgeous light-salmon color and a beautiful aroma of cherry and apricot with a hint of strawberry.  On the palate, the wine is clean and crisp, balancing the fruit flavors with nice acidity to provide a long finish.  While perfect for summer, we think this rosé drinks just fine in Fall and Winter as well.

Moving on to the red wines, we tasted the entire range of Vidon Pinot Noir offerings, three of them named after a different Hagge grandchild – Brigitta, Mirabelle and Hans.  Measured by total case production, the top Pinot Noir is the “3-Clones.”

A fantastic Pinot Noir

This particular Pinot Noir is produced from three different Pinot Noir clones, while the “grandchildren” wines are produced from a single Pinot noir clone (777, 115, Pommard) from grapes grown in different blocks on the 20-acre property, of which 12.5 acres are planted to vines.

Vidon Vineyards: 500 feet above the Willamette Valley floor

We thoroughly enjoyed these wines and they clearly reflect Don’s hands-off approach to wine making.  We could definitely discern between different vintages of the same wine as well as the difference between, for example, the Mirabelle Pinot Noir (clone 115) and the Hans (Pommard clone).  As part of Don’s non-interventionist approach to making wine, he generally avoids new oak in fermentation, resulting in subtler wines rather than the bolder, fruit-forward wines that many Oregon producers favor as they search for high scores from wine reviewers.  Despite this approach, however, the Vidon wines have managed to accumulate an impressive array of scores from the top wine publications.

You don’t have to sacrifice quality for affordability

This is one of Don’s favorite fact sheets in the tasting room as it shows the price difference between his 94-point-rated Pinot Noir and wines from some better-known names in Willamette Valley whose prices are 2.5 times higher per bottle.  For us, this was one of the key takeaways of the visit to Vidon:  the focus on making high quality wine at prices much more approachable than many places we have visited in the past.

As we drove away from the Vidon tasting room, one of us said to the other, “When I grow up, I want to be Don.”  We were mesmerized by his incredible life story, but even more captivated by the courage and passion to try something so different at the age of 69 and to be still fully engaged at 86.  Make no mistake, Don is no figure-head or chairman emeritus at Vidon Vineyard.  He can still be seen riding a tractor in the vineyards or doing punch downs in the cellar.

This is a working farmer and vintner

Irene & John Ingersoll

December 6, 2017

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