Late last summer, when Oregon was in its heatwave, we were in the Willamette Valley and spent a morning at Youngberg Hill with the owner and winemaker Wayne Bailey.
The McMinnville AVA is another sub-appellation within Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Until the Lower Long Tom AVA was approved, this was the most western AVA in the Willamette Valley. The AVA sits just west of the town of McMinnville in a rain shadow of the Coast Range.
This rain shadow means that they get considerably less rainfall than many of the regions around them. As typical, the many vineyards are on the south-facing slopes, and in this case, this allows them to take in the cool winds from the Van Duzer Corridor from the Pacific. Here they get great diurnal shifts, (day to night temperature shifts), which means slower ripening and good acidity.
Established in 2005 the AVA covers over 39,000 acres with just 749 acres planted to vineyards. There are a total of 9 wineries.
Wayne Bailey and how he came to Youngberg Hill
As we sat on the deck surrounding the Inn at Youngberg Hill, I asked Wayne what brought him to this place.
Wayne grew up in Iowa raising corn and pigs, so his background in agriculture. After getting an engineering degree he spent 15 years in Corporate America. He completed his MBA at the University of Chicago and moved into consulting in the food and beverage industry in Chicago. He got to know wine after getting a contract to work with a Domaine in Burgundy.
In working with the Domaine he was pleasantly surprised to find that the vignerons considered themselves farmers. This resonated with the farm boy in him and he found it very different from what he felt he was seeing with celebrity winemakers in CA.
When the consulting gig finished, he stayed on for 2 years working and getting hands-on experience on how to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. At this point, he knew he wanted to get back to his farming roots and wine grapes were what he wanted to farm.
In 1993 he began the process of looking for a place. He knew he wanted to grow cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, so the Willamette Valley was a no-brainer. But where in the Willamette. He believes in the science of global warming and knew he wanted to hedge his bets, so he looked to the McMinnville AVA, which was the closest to the coast in the Willamette Valley and hence the coolest. He was also looking for higher altitude sites.
While looking in the area, he asked winemakers he respected where they would buy fruit. The late Jimi Brooks suggested Youngberg Hill, a vineyard that had been planted in 1989 by Ken Wright.
In 2003 the owners of Youngberg Hill let Wayne know they were interested in selling. The property with 2 blocks of vines planted in 1989 had diversity in altitude and soil.
The vineyard is the 2nd closest vineyard to the coast, which is just 25 miles away as the crow flies.
Due to the altitude, they also get a daily shift in temperature of 45 to 50 degrees from day to night. This is great for maturing grapes and keeping acidity while they ripen.
The Inn and Hospitality
The property also came with the Inn, which was the previous owner’s focus. While Wayne was not really interested in the Inn at the time, his wife Nicolette pointed out that this would be additional income they would need as they grew the vineyard. She has a knack for hospitality and took the reins for that aspect of the business.
There were definite positives here. They found that 90% of their guests had come for wine country, so they had a built-in market for their wines. That part of the business grew into wine events and beyond. On the day we were there, their event center was hosting a retreat for a local helicopter company.
The event center melds into the landscape, a low building that is unobtrusive and visually becomes part of the hill.
More than just a vineyard, the property is an ecosystem
Biodiversity, organics, biodynamics, and no-till
Wayne met us in the tasting room and took us out on a vineyard tour so we could get our bearings. When you talk about the wine here, it helps to be familiar visually with where it comes from. As I mentioned the altitudes and soils are diverse and you can taste the difference in the wines.
As we headed out we passed the resident Scottish Highland cows, one in red and one in white. The red cow was born here, part of a herd of 5. They recently sold their bull and a sister to this red cow to someone who was starting a new herd. They bought the white cow and will start a new herd this year. The cows add to the biodiversity of the property which is organic, biodynamic, and no-till.
They also have riparian areas on the property where native plants grow, as well as plants for their biodynamic preparations. They have goats that are allowed in the vineyard in the off-season as well as chickens, a garden, and a small orchard.
They make and sell honey from beehives on the property. No, the grapevines don’t need the bees, but the other diverse plant life on the property does. Like the blackberry vines that they make blackberry vodka from.
Diverse animals, diverse plant life, and insect diversity, all make the property a better and healthier ecosystem.
“If there is one thing that I want you to remember when you leave this Hill, it’s that wine is an agricultural product… Wine is made in the vineyard, not in the winery. That’s our whole philosophy on everything here… the focus on the attention to the vineyard.
Because of our sustainable practices, it’s really focusing not just on the fruit and not just on the wine, but it’s a focus on the whole environment and more in particular over the last few years, it’s really been focused on the soil. Because that’s the foundation.
If you don’t have healthy soil, you can’t have healthy plants… So we want to make sure that the soil is healthy as can be. So we started out with no synthetics then the biodynamic farming which enriches the soil… and now the no-till farming… is really starting to show the impacts of that.“ Wayne Bailey, August 11, 2021
Wayne had seen firsthand the industrial farming happening in the Midwest and that was not for him. He noticed that the cornfields often sat 2 feet lower than the edges of the fields. All the tilling was eroding the soil. The ground was decimated and the soil dead.
His goal at Youngberg Hill is to leave the vineyard healthier than when he bought it. If you take care of the soil and the environment, the rest will come. They began farming organically in 2003 and biodynamically in 2008.
Wayne has noticed that the plants have become more self-regulating. Farming is by nature impactful on nature. Here they minimize that as much as they can so nature, undisturbed, can take care of itself.
The “no-till” concept helps with this. Grapevines are much larger under the ground in their root system than above. When you till regularly, you are disturbing all the soil and bio-organisms around the roots. The grapes have enough to worry about with weather changes, when you add this disturbance to the root system, you are dividing their focus.
There is also a water conservation element to this. Every time you break up the soil you release both carbon dioxide and water into the air. I have spoken with winemakers who till and plow under their cover crops, saying that they don’t want to have the vines competing with the cover crops for moisture, especially when you are dry farming.
Wayne feels strongly that the grasses are no competition for the vines and the root systems of the cover crops and vines are at completely different levels.
The cover crops also provide shade for the soil. Without this protection, the subsoil moisture is lost much faster than if you had left the cover crop.
His approach to organics and biodynamics is pragmatic. He speaks, as I have heard so many speak of Organic Certification as telling you what you can’t do. They follow biodynamics, but again with a pragmatic approach. Wayne is prepared to use all of the biodynamic preparations, but the vines tell him if they need them. If a preparation is not needed, he doesn’t use it.
Wayne doesn’t shout his certifications; he didn’t get them as a marketing ploy. He incorporates organic, biodynamic, and no-till practices, because it’s what he believes is right for the land and the vineyard. He is raising more than grapes; he is raising a biosphere.
A bonus to this is that like-minded people are drawn here (as we were). People that appreciate this philosophy come here and want to learn more.
Out in the vineyard, Wayne credits these practices to lower yield but higher quality balanced fruit.
The vineyard tour
We pass a block of new vines, planted in 2018 that are being watered as the roots establish themselves. He shares his respect for the vineyard crew who are bundled up against the sun in this heat. They work from early morning to noon to avoid the hottest temperatures of the day.
When we were there in early August and Oregon’s Governor had declared a State of Emergency. This region where less than 50% of the population have Air Conditioning was on a streak of 100+ degree days. (Remember what I said about Wayne hedging his bets…)
We pass “Wayne’s World” a new block of a Pinot Noir field mix of Dijon 115 and 667. Wayne says this will add more colors to his coloring box.
On the right, we pass the Aspen block, named for his youngest daughter. The block was planted in 2006, then in 2014, they grafted over the top half of the block to Chardonnay. The lower section has Pinot Gris planted in Dijon clones 49 and 52.
As you look out into the vineyard you don’t see much in the way of cover crop, it has gone dormant in the extreme heat. Wayne mentions that the fruit set this year was a little spotty with a bit of shatter and some hens and chicks, but compared to neighboring vineyards they had a good fruit set.
We stop as Wayne notices some new starters on the vines that are reaching for the sun and starting to bend over. He jumps off to tuck this into the trellis. It had a bit of fruit on it, that he pinched off. This vine, he says needs to concentrate on growing not on producing fruit yet.
We go back to discussing the heat. 2021 was unusual in that the rain stopped in March. This meant that in April they had depleted subsoil moisture, something they didn’t usually see until June. There is a noticeable difference in the vines. Vines of the same age, in different soils, have different vigor in the canopies. With less soil moisture there is less vigorous canopy growth.
With this heat, the concern is that the vines will shut down and not be able to push the fruit to maturity. To combat this, they will look at dropping fruit.
We head up the hill to the Natasha Block. This 32-year-old block is Pommard and Wädenswil which are own-rooted. They work to keep the soil healthy and the vines strong so that if they ever see phylloxera, the aphid-like insect that feeds off of roots and can kill a grapevine, the vine will be strong enough to fight it off.
As you look into the vineyard you are just starting to see veraison, the point where the grapes start to change color as they ripen. This is August 11th, they typically don’t see veraison until the end of August.
His harvest is currently about 2 weeks ahead of where it normally is. Further inland in the Dundee Hills AVA, they started seeing veraison 2 weeks ago. They are almost on a California cycle which sits so much further to the south. The 2021 harvest was expected to be early and compressed.
(Indeed their harvest began mid-September and wrapped up about a week into October)
We pass one of the riparian areas where the pond has dried up in the heat. The vines here are stressing, the Natasha block is on primarily marine sediment, but as you get to the higher end of the block that sits at 600 feet the soil gets shallower and rockier giving the vines less access to subsoil moisture, so you get variation in the block.
As we get closer to the tree line you can feel the breeze and the drop in temperature. Wayne says that on cooler days you can smell the salt from the ocean in the air.
Wayne uses the top part of the Natasha Block for their rosé, the south section for the Natasha Pinot Noir bottling, and the west section for the Bailey Family label which is their reserve label. All the sections are processed separately to allow him to play with the nuances in each as he blends.
This block meanders between 574 and 625 feet in elevation. The Jordan block, named for his other daughter is higher in elevation and averages 2 degrees cooler than the Natasha block. While the two blocks bud break at the same time, the Natasha will pick a week to 10 days earlier than the Jordan.
The Bailey Block and the Jordan Block both sit on volcanic basalt soils at 700-800 feet.
The Jordan & Natasha Blocks are the same clones, and the wine is made in the same way, but there are significant differences due to the soil and elevation. The Jordan block is higher and has a steeper slope and is on basalt, the Natasha is about 6600 feet in elevation and is on marine sediment soil.
As we drove past the block, Wayne noted that there was less variability in this block this year, with more even canopy growth.
Tasting side by side with Youngberg Hill Natasha & Jordan
We headed down to the tasting room to sit and talk over some wine. Wayne poured the Natasha and the Jordan so we could do a side by side. Tasting & smelling the difference between these two wines, which grow so close together, was fascinating.
These two wines are treated in the same way in the winery, the only difference is the soil and altitude, and what a difference that can make. The Natasha is plush with dark fruits the Jordan has a bit more acidity from the basalt soils and is a bit leaner. Both are expressive and delicious but in different ways.
Bailey Family Wines
We discussed the Bailey Family Wines label. I had been lucky enough to sample the first vintage of the Bailey Family Chardonnay. You can read about two different pairings we did with this wine here and here.
They started the label in 2016 with a Sparkling wine. With the Youngberg Hill wines, Nicolette had been the driving force for expanding the selection, adding Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Rosé, Grenache, and Syrah from purchased grapes. Having an event space, you needed some variety, and having a house sparkling when you are doing Weddings, well that just makes sense!
For the Bailey Family Wines, they wanted to focus on terroir and a sense of place. These were the wines that Wayne had been striving to make. In 2014 they were ready. The Bailey Family Wines label is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the best fruit they grow. These wines are available by allocation only to the Bailey Society. I can promise you that their Chardonnay is one of the finest I have ever tasted.
By the time we left, the cows had headed into the shade, the day was warm, or rather, hot, but the breezes from the Van Duzer Corridor were about to blow in and cool things down a bit.
I picked up a bottle of wine and some marionberry Pinot Noir jam that they make in-house and then strolled the grounds at the Inn, where around every corner there is a photogenic piece of natural beauty.
This is a place to come, relax, soak in the expansive views of the Willamette Valley and treat yourself to some amazing wines. The entire Willamette Valley is at your feet to explore, although quite honestly, you might never want to leave this property.
How to find them
Visit their website at https://youngberghill.com/
They are open currently for walk-in tastings from 10 am to 4 pm Daily. But do check their website for updates. They also have additional tasting experiences that require reservations.
To learn more about the Bailey Family Wines and the Bailey Society visit their website at https://baileyfamilywines.com/
The Scenic Route through the Columbia Gorge
If you are visiting Youngberg Hill, or anywhere really in the Willamette Valley, you have a great opportunity to take in some stunning scenery on your way to another great wine region.
Walla Walla is about a 4-hour drive East of Portland, but the drive there takes you through the spectacular Columbia Gorge. The drive takes you into a lush green landscape with waterfalls, perfect to immerse yourself in nature and reinvigorate your senses.
So catch the waterfalls, do a bit of hiking, then stop for lunch or brunch in Hood River. Then drive east as the landscape changes into eastern Oregon and Washington to Walla Walla.
More of “The Scenic Route”
Catch Episodes 1 & 2!
You can enjoy Episode 1 where we visit the Ribbon Ridge AVA in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and meet Dan Warnshuis of Utopia Winery.
Episode 2 takes us to the Yamhill-Carlton AVA to visit Steve Lutz at Lenné Estate, where his steep vineyard and peavine soils make the vines struggle, causing small grapes and concentrated wines.
And be sure to follow our YouTube Channel so you won’t miss an episode! Crushed Grape Chronicles on YouTube
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine and WSET 3 Certified. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.