Utopia. It’s a place of ideal perfection. That’s what Dan Warnshuis thought when he first saw the site on Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge in the Willamette Valley. The site was a horse pasture. It wasn’t even for sale. None-the-less, he walked to the door of the house on the property and knocked. The next thing you know, he had the start of his vineyard, of his own Utopia.
Dan had fallen in love with wine while working in Silicon Valley. His original plan in life was to teach math and science and coach swimming, having completed his degree at Michigan State on a swimming scholarship. But the Universe had a different path.
Out of college, and at home with his parents in the Bay area, he ended up with a job in the Tech field due to a connection of his father’s. It definitely paid better than teaching, so he didn’t look back.
Looking forward, however, there was the pull of wine country. His boss introduced him to some beautiful wines and he began collecting. Then he started doing a bit of import and export with wine, then marketed wines in Napa and did some custom crush work. This was all during the time of Napa’s climb into the spotlight.
By now he had visited Oregon and loved Oregon Pinot. While land prices in Napa were not friendly, in Oregon this wine thing was just getting really going, and land was available and a bit more affordable.
He found his Utopia in 2000. Soil tests followed and then the hard work of planting a vineyard. 16.8 acres of south-facing hills on Ribbon Ridge which at that time was not even its own AVA. (The AVA was established in 2005).
It is the petit nesting doll in the Willamette, contained within the Chehalem Mountains AVA, which itself sits inside the Willamette Valley AVA.
Ribbon Ridge AVA
This, the tiniest of Oregon’s AVAs, spans around 3,500 acres, with about 400 acres planted to vine. For a bit of perspective, it’s about 3 ½ miles long and 1¾ miles wide. It’s set out a little from the Chehalem Mountains, like its own island.
Soil & climate geekiness (scroll by if you want, but I love digging into the dirt!)
This AVA is protected by geographical landmasses on 3 sides, north, south, and west, so it’s warmer and drier than the valley floor.
Soils here are younger and finer sedimentary soils than you find in the regions surrounding them. These silty-clay loam soils are part of the Willakenzie series.
This is primarily marine sediment created through a tectonic upheaval 30 to 40 million years ago. The mountains came up and the sea was pushed back and this strip of land was left behind.
When Dan arrived in 2000 there were only about 7 vineyards in the Ribbon Ridge area, now there are over 40.
Planting and planning a vineyard
Luckily this was pasture land, so there were no trees to pull out. After the soil tests were complete, then the process of selecting the vines and getting them in the ground began.
The region was (and is) known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Rather than limit himself, Dan designed the vineyard to incorporate 12 different Pinot Noir clones. He can vinify each clone separately and then blend which gives him both freedom and control over his Pinot.
They farm sustainably here and became L.I.V.E. certified back in 2008.
Dan is the President of the Ribbon Ridge Winegrowers Association. This year all the members will sign a pledge to go herbicide-free. Eventually, the goal is to have everyone farming organic or biodynamic in Ribbon Ridge.
The Ribbon Ridge AVA has a pretty inspiring statement of principles. Small, but mighty.
A family affair
Dan’s first vintage was in 2005 when he made 97 cases of Pinot Noir. Since then they have increased to 2,500 cases annually from the estate with some additional bottlings with contracted fruit.
His wife Kathy and their daughter Erin round out this family business. Kathy is the “quiet inspiration” behind the brand. Erin worked side by side with her dad during the first harvest in 2005. She continues to expand her wine education and gains experience working on the family wine business.
In 2018 they purchase an additional 36 acres in Ribbon Ridge. The property had a building which they have turned into their winery. They are looking to put in another 15 acres of vineyard here on the new property including they say “some non-typical fruit varietals”. I look forward to hearing more about that!
The new property also boasts a cabin where guests can stay, nestled into the forest of the 37-acre property. The perfect getaway in the woods with all the modern amenities.
*These wines were received as media samples. All opinions are our own.
Onto the wines.
Utopia 2017 Estate Chardonnay
The Utopia Estate Chardonnay is made up of 3 Dijon clones: 76, 95 & 96 that are planted in blocks 12, 13 & 14.
This wine is 100% whole cluster press. It spends 11 months in a mix of 20% new French oak, 40% neutral French oak, and 40% stainless steel.
13.2% abv – 337 cases made – $45 SRP
The first thing to hit my nose was lemon pith, then lemon and green apple. There was a hint of salinity and fine notes of chalk.
The wine was soft and light on its feet. We found this opened to more tropical notes. This wine is round with a lovely texture.
Pairings for the 2017 Utopia Estate Chardonnay
Avocado Blood Orange and Kumquat salad with citrus, cardamom and rosewater dressing
With the Chardonnay, we paired a pretty complex, but visually stunning salad of Avocado, roasted blood orange, and kumquats with a dressing with citrus, cardamom, and rosewater.
The salad smelled heavenly, I was transported to my mother’s rose garden. Being new to using rosewater I was worried that it might be overpowering, but it was beautiful.
I found that the wine popped the rosewater note. It was bright but not overpowering and balanced well with the salad, amping up the brighter notes, like the kumquats, and blending beautifully with the rest.
Pork chops with yellow apples, sage, apple butter, and maple
Our main dish was Pork chops with yellow apples, sage, apple butter, and maple.
The pork chops were seared in a rod iron skillet, then cooked for just a few minutes. They came out and the apples, butter, garlic, and sage went into the same pan. The pork chops were slathered with apple butter, put back in the pan with the apples drizzled with maple syrup, and broiled for 2 to 3 minutes.
The yellow apple was still a bit firm and was great with the wine, the aromatics of the apple, cinnamon, and maple were heavenly. We found the dish pulled out tropical notes in the wine.
Utopia 2017 Estate Pinot Noir
Here is where the clonal diversity comes into play. The Pinot Noir clones in this wine include: Wadenswil, Pommard 4 & 5, Dijon 115, 777, 667, Swan, Calera, Arcus 2 & 3, & Shea, Wadenswil.
The grapes are 80% destemmed and 20% whole cluster, aged 11 months in 40% new Burgundian oak and 60% previously-filled Burgundian oak.
14.1% abv – 1203 cases made – $48.00 SRP
Medium ruby in color, this wine had boysenberry, currant, and fruit punch mix on the nose upon opening. It opened to black cherry and black fruit with notes of green peppercorns, rose petals and potting soil.
Pairing for the Utopia 2017 Estate Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge
A cheese plate to begin
We began with a cheese plate of manchego that I happened to have, some Iberico ham, and a Camembert cheese that I macerated with ground clove and five-spice.
Lavender Earl Grey Tea smoked Yellowfin Tuna with roasted golden beets and rosemary
Dinner was Lavender Earl Grey Tea smoked Yellowfin Tuna with roasted golden beets and rosemary.
This dish sounds very fancy (and it is) but it’s not very hard to do. The tuna marinates for 30 minutes in a marinade that includes some brewed tea, ginger, olive oil, garlic, honey, and orange juice.
The smoking takes place on the stove in a wok with a metal vegetable steamer and it steams it for about 10 minutes. Give it a quick sear and then plate it on a bed of the roast golden beets.
We plated this beautiful dish on a bowl of steaming rosemary and star anise, the fragrance enhancing the pairing with the wine. This really set the experience over the top.
We finished with mini pineapple upside-down cakes with a black cherry and rosemary compote. The caramelized pineapple, cherries, and rosemary all paired well with the wine. The tartness of the cherries making this dessert pairing work.
Watch for the Recipes for these dishes coming soon!
More on Oregon and the Willamette Valley
- Willamette Valley, Oregon Wine Country
- Oregon’s Willamette Valley AVAs – a Primer
- Découverte! Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Dundee Hills and Mediterranean Salmon
- Alloro – Stunning Wines from Oregon’s New Laurelwood District AVA
- Youngberg Hill – Reminiscing and Making New Memories with 2 Youngberg Hill Pinot Noirs
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. 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.