The Dirt on Yamhill Carlton AVA

We arrived at Ken Wright Cellars at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning and were promptly handed a glass of Chardonnay (hey, it’s grape juice, right?) Then we were invited to take a seat for what would be the coolest geology class ever.

This was the final excursion of the 2021 Wine Media Conference in Oregon and it was a jaw-dropper of a day. Ken Wright opened his “class” with a provocative remark: “Soil has no impact on the grapes.” Wait, what? Doesn’t everyone – wine media, winemakers, winery owners, wine salespeople, wine dorks of every shape and stripe — talk about the impact of clay versus limestone versus silt versus sandy soil and so forth? Yes, they do. But Ken Wright has another perspective and that is this:

Vines gain about one foot of depth per year as they grow. Once they get to 25 or 30 feet, the roots hit rock and that’s when the cool shit starts to happen. (This was from my own notes taken during Wright’s talk.)

“The most influential factor – by far – is mother rock,” said Wright. The “mother rock” to which he refers is the rock way beneath the surface, in which minerals are embedded. These rocks were formed from geologic events millions of years ago and while I geeked out at all the info he shared, I’m going to give you this link here if you want to have your own geekstorm.

The main point he made is that Oregon – and specifically the Willamette Valley and even more specifically the Yamhill-Carlton AVA – lies upon some pretty interesting geologic formations that were created from cataclysmic events waaaaaaaay long ago (like the Missoula Floods, that happened from 25,000 years ago, unleashing glacial waters that ripped through what’s now Washington state, forming the Columbia River, or the Columbia River Basalt Flow from an active volcano in what’s now eastern Oregon, which happened 15 million years ago!) And by farming in a way that feeds the earth with nutrients and by knowing what’s going on below the surface, grapevines can produce fruit with really distinctive characteristics, from savory, earthy notes from vineyards in Marine Sediment locations to more fruit-driven wines from vineyards in volcanic / basalt locations.

Ken Wright makes Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from at least 13 vineyards in Yamhill-Carlton and many of them are widely available at stores across the country – but what we got to taste were single-vineyard wines that each had their own personality – based on their growing locations, the age of the vines, clones and more. It was a fascinating sippy Sunday morning at Ken Wright and I am fan for life.

Tiger Vines Supports Budding Wine Professionals at Yamhill-Carlton High School

Wright also supports a vineyard at the Yamhill Carlton High School, so that students can get a head start in viticulture, learning how to grow fruit and make wine. As Wright explained, a lot of high school students were leaving the area after graduating, because wine is really the sole industry in the area, and there were no resources to learn about it at the high school level. And as an enterprising thinker, Wright had an idea to help cultivate not just grapes – but a new generation of winemakers, farmers, enologists and more.

We took a drive out to the one-acre Tiger Vines vineyard, adjacent to the high-school and met the teachers who help manage the program. The kids work the vineyard year-round, and it’s all-hands-on-deck come harvest time. The harvested fruit is taken to Ken Wright Cellars, where it is crushed, fermented, aged and bottled. Tiger Vine wines can be purchased at local retail shops and restaurants and all the proceeds go right back into the program. How cool is this whole program? We tasted the Tiger Vines Rosé of Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir and both were delicious. Find out more about this program here.

Okay – as much as we all could’ve hung out at Ken Wright all day, we were on the move! Our next stop was Abbey Road Farms for lunch. Abbey Road Farms is a combination farm (80+ acres!) and bed-and-breakfast, with a kick-ass restaurant and tasting room on-site. The property is stunning and Chef Will Preich blew us away with a multi-course lunch that could easily pass for Michelin-starred restaurant fare.

Abbey Road has 45 acres of vineyards and is a wine-collective, helping collective members make wines under their own labels. A number of our servers at lunch were actual winemakers.

Plus they have a tasting room with lots of gorgeous outdoor space where visitors can enjoy flights, glasses, bottles – you name it.

Oof, okay, we’ve been sipping and spitting (but mostly sipping, I’m not gonna lie) since 10 am and now it’s about 3:30 and we’re off to Beacon Hill, where we tasted their wines, plus their neighbors’ wines from Kramer Vineyards. The Beacon Hill property is gorgeous and people were hanging out on the lawn, with live music and plenty of delicious wines.

I was so glad for the opportunity to get to know this AVA more closely. I want to thank Ken Wright Cellars, the Tiger Vines team, Abbey Road Farm, Beacon Hill and Kramer Vineyards for sharing their time and their wines (and food!) with us. I hope you feel inspired to check out some of these wines, and if you’re in the mood for a wine trip – book a stay at Abbey Road Farm and hit some of these wineries. Nothing is more than about 20 minutes apart, and it’s less than an hour’s drive from Portland. Cheers, friends!

One comment

  1. Such an interesting piece of terroir information!!! (I had a HUGE crush on Ken in the late ‘90s when he went out on his own and I got to work the crush with his tiny team—twice! Will share more later. The meal looks delish!)


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