I am intrigued and excited about a particular slice of the Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon known as the Kubli Bench. Thanks to Herb Quady and Brian Gruber at Barrel 42 Custom Winecraft in Medford, along with Craig Camp at Troon, I’ve been able to taste wines from grapes grown in this tiny sub-sub-subregion over the past eight years. I’m convinced that there is something special here.
The Applegate Valley AVA has roughly 700 acres under vine and is home to about 20 wineries. The valley is surrounded by the Siskiyou Mountains and includes a lot of rugged, spectacular scenery. Established in 2000, it’s a subsection of the Rogue Valley AVA (certified in 1991), which itself is a subsection of the Southern Oregon AVA.
The wines of Troon and Layne are of particular interest due to their locations on the Kubli Bench – an elevated plateau above the Applegate River. Five miles long and two miles wide at its widest point, it’s distinguished by its elevation (above the flood plain), soils (various loams based on decomposed granite and ancient river and ocean sediments) and sunlight.
Troon and Layne are its original sites – both dating back to the 1970s. In the past half decade Troon has been completely replanted; Layne still has about a third of the vines put in back in the ’70s, including four acres of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot going back a half century.
Herb Quady migrated north from his family’s California winery and made Troon wines from 2004 to 2013. He began purchasing Cabernet from the nearby Layne vineyard that very first year. He recalls that after the wine was made and in barrel his father came up for a look-see and was particularly intrigued by the Layne Cab. “It reminds me of wines from Old Napa” he said, “before they started making them so damn hot!” Over the succeeding vintages, Herb recalls, the Layne Cab was always his ‘holy grail’ of wine lots. “I was always seeking something within that lot, but it remained elusive,” he noted in a recent email. “The Layne lot was naturally high acid, dense, and broody. No matter what I tried to do, how long I waited, it seemed to stand against the Napa style, old enough and comfortable enough in its own skins to express itself as is.”
Over time Quady and winemaking partner Brian Gruber believe they’ve unlocked the key to getting the Layne wines where they want to be. “I would say that the Kubli Bench is an exceptional place for grape growing,” Quady says. “It’s the place where the Applegate opens up, the widest spot in the valley, so it gets great sunlight, especially in the fall, and it probably has the lowest frost pressure.”
Troon’s Craig Camp notes that his vineyard sits at about 1400 feet elevation with a rolling southwest exposure that faces towards the ocean just 60 miles away. This makes it the warmest part of the AVA, and it also has the widest diurnal swing, which on the hottest summer days can be as much as 50 degrees.
Should Kubli Bench be designated as its own AVA? Quady believes that “anything we put on a label should serve the customer. I can certainly say that there are differences in growing conditions in the Kubli Bench generally as compared to the rest of the Applegate AVA. [But] it’s difficult enough to establish Applegate as a sub-AVA of the Rogue, in terms of customer perception, without having to worry about educating the wine world on the Kubli Bench.”
Camp has postponed his plans to apply for AVA status while completely replanting the Troon estate. But another problem looms. The bench is named for the Kubli Road that loops through the area. Kaspar K. Kubli was an ultra-conservative state legislator from Jacksonville who rose to prominence in the early years of the 20th century. His initials are a clue to some of the darker aspects of his history. (For more see this Wikipedia entry.)
Among the tasks facing any AVA application is the requirement for a historic connection to the name chosen. According to Camp “we are unsure that name is appropriate considering Kaspar’s unpalatable politics. I don’t know what we will decide. The other name for the area was ‘Missouri Flats’ which clearly will not work.”
AVA complexities aside, these are wines that are sure to capture your interest. The spring releases from Troon will be reviewed here next month. This week I profile current releases of Layne wines, a second label from Quady North.
Layne 2019 Sparkling Brut
The blend is 40% Pinot Noir, 38% Pinot Meunier and 22% Chardonnay, fermented in the traditional method. Despite the red grapes it tastes more like a Blanc de Blancs, with citrus, a big bead, rather rough and tumble. Though not as refined as the finest Oregon sparklers, it’s a tasty effort made in the traditional method. 150 cases; 11.2%; $49 (Applegate Valley)
Layne 2020 Chardonnay
This is a bright, steely, high acid wine with a unique flavor signature. It penetrates vertically down and through the palate, weaving a web of citrus rind and wet stone. As it warms a touch of brioche enters the picture. As with so many old vine wines, it rewards your attention and may need decanting to open up fully. I found it much improved when re-tasted after 24 hours. 151 cases; 13.7%; $35 (Applegate Valley)
Layne 2016 Merlot
Still available though it was released over three years ago, this old vine Merlot has benefitted greatly from the extra time in bottle. The aromatics shoot up from the glass, a rich, enveloping sensory fog. Brambly berries, clean barnyard, light compost, graphite and dried herbs can be detected and then open up in the mouth into a complex single vineyard, single variety expression of the grape. You may not associate Merlot with Southern Oregon, but this makes the case for old vines in the right spot. It’s got a hint of tang, with plenty of acid under tart red strawberry fruit. The texture and length tell you it’s a wine worth digging into; the flavors hold up very well over several days. 120 cases; 14.5%; $42 (Applegate Valley)
Layne 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon
Regarding this wine sourced from 45-year-old vines Herb Quady has noted his struggles to get it right. “This is a throwback,” he writes, “a nod to the nostalgic who aren’t opposed to drinking Cabernet Sauvignon that actually tastes like the grape.” I agree – it’s a classic expression of the grape, albeit with an opening burst of sweet fruit not common in Bordeaux. At more than five years of age the flavors are nicely melded, delivering a mix of pomegranate, Italian herbs, tart acids and a hint of anise. The elegance and lightness of the wine reminded me of a Chianti; tart but not simple, and quite delightfully unique. 100 cases; 13.9%; $42 (Applegate Valley)
New releases from Ponzi Vineyards
The Ponzi family began planting their vineyards in 1970, and their wines have always held a place at the front of the Oregon table. Now under new ownership but still guided by winemaker Luisa Ponzi, the 2019s (and one early 2021) have just been released. These are simply outstanding. Luisa Ponzi calls them ” truly some of my favorite wines.” These reviews with scores and further thoughts from Luisa on the sale of the winery and her current responsibilities are posted on my Substack.
Ponzi 2019 Laurelwood Chardonnay
Creamy, silky and seductive, this is a showcase for the new Laurelwood AVA, tucked inside the Chehalem Mountains AVA. Included are grapes from the Aurora, Avellana and Paloma vineyards. It’s buttery soft, with light tropical fruit accented with notes of butterscotch and banana cream pie. Though not especially high in acid, there’s enough to give it adequate support through a long and lip-licking finish. 722 cases: 13.2%; $75 (Laurelwood District)
Ponzi 2019 Aurora Vineyard Chardonnay
The wine opens with bright citrus fruit flavors of Meyer lemon, Mandarin orange and tangerine. The zesty acids lift the palate and bring out seashell highlights underscoring mid-palate and lingering on through the finish. The overall balance is impressive, and suggests a longer than average drinking window ahead. 151 cases; 13.2%; $75 (Laurelwood District)
Ponzi 2019 Avellana Vineyard Chardonnay
This vineyard, planted in 2006, is dedicated to a pair of Dijon clones. This was part of the re-imagining of Oregon Chardonnay that began back in the 1990s. Now reaching full maturity, it’s easily apparent what these French clones bring to the party. This is tight, sculpted, sleek and dense, with sharply defined tree fruits, light spices and a touch of bourbon tea. This wine should develop well over the next 15 years. 165 cases; 13.4%; $75 (Laurelwood District)
Ponzi 2019 Alloro Vineyard Chardonnay
From the new ‘Highlights Collection’ this is a great start-up wine. Under their own label the Alloro wines have a long track record of excellence, and here those grapes are spotlighted by one of Oregon’s premier pioneering producers. This is stylish, almost steely, focused and dense – the type of Chardonnay that has completely reshaped the state’s approach to this universal grape. The fruit flavors (white peach, melon) stay focused on through a long finish, adding details of toasted hazelnuts and white chocolate. 131 cases: 13.3%; $75 (Laurelwood District)
Ponzi 2021 Laurelwood Pinot Noir
Blended from a passel of outstanding vineyards, many with their own vineyard-designated Pinots, this lovely bottle offers mixed red fruits, satiny tannins, boisterous acids and a balanced and clean finish. What’s not to like? Yes, $49 may not seem like a bargain, but put this in the context of top-tier Willamette Valley or French Pinots and it clearly offers a lot of value. If you love Pinot Noir made with taste and elegance, this is a fine choice. 5862 cases; 13.4%; $49 (Laurelwood District)
Ponzi 2019 Reserve Pinot Noir
There are multiple levels of Ponzi Pinots, this being a cut ahead of the Laurelwood bottling. Comparing the two the reserve shows more new oak, more of a buttery mouthfeel, smoother tannins and deeper fruit flavors. In other words, it justifies the price jump. It’s compiled from five different sites, including Avellana, Abetina and Aurora which are used in the single vineyard estate selections. A super-smooth mix of plums, cherries, caramel and chocolate, highlighted with hints of turmeric and cumin, this should drink well through the rest of this decade. 1442 cases; 14%; $75 (Laurelwood District)
Ponzi 2019 Lazy River Vineyard Pinot Noir
Bright red fruits introduce this solid wine. It’s got a firm core of fruit, underscored with lightly savory highlights. The tannins are moderate; it’s the acids that take hold of the palate. 112 cases; 14.3%; $110 (Yamhill-Carlton)
Ponzi 2019 Wahle Vineyard Pinot Noir
The Wahle vineyard, unfamiliar to me, really delivers the goods here. The savory components underlie the purple and black fruits, and the tannins are ripe but smooth. The barrel regimen is undisclosed, but not in any way is the use of new oak intrusive. Light touches of cola, chicory, butterscotch and toasted almonds add depth and detail. Note: the correct name of the AVA is Eola-Amity Hills, not Eola-Amity or Eola Hills, each of which is called out on the front and back labels. 170 cases; 14%; $110 (Eola-Amity Hills)
Ponzi 2019 Avellana Vineyard Pinot Noir
A lovely spicy character hits the palate immediately, followed with blackberry and black cherry fruit. As the wine develops on the palate you’ll find a gentle mix of toast, cinnamon, Indian spices and butter. This is the sort of wine that emphasizes the subtle elegance of Pinot Noir, and blooms open with ample aeration. 184 cases; 14.1%; $110 (Laurelwood District)
Ponzi 2019 Aurora Vineyard Pinot Noir
At almost thirty years of age this vineyard is beginning to express delicate old vine characteristics. More subtlety, length and detail are noted from the beguiling aromatics to the layered finish. Strawberries and cherries, mocha and caramel, chocolate and more make this my favorite of the flight. 185 cases; 14.3%; $110 (Laurelwood District)