What’s Your “Hero” Wine?


In the ad business they think about the hero shot – out of all the footage it’s the one that best carries the message, sells the product, sticks in the mind of the consumer. Wineries, whether intentionally or not, often have a hero wine. Maybe it’s the wine that the winemaker feels is their best; maybe it’s the wine that sells through the quickest; maybe it’s the wine that gets the most high scores. And probably it’s not the same wine for everyone.

For me, in most flights, there is one standout. Possibly a standout based strictly on flavor; maybe the one wine that offers the greatest value. Sometimes it might be a truly unusual or unique effort, or something so off the wall that it tickles my curiosity. It’s a subject that can be looked at from any number of perspectives, but today I’m focused on two particular varietal wines from two outstanding Oregon winemakers:  Matt Berson’s Gamay Noir and Leah Jorgensen’s Cabernet Franc.

I’ve reviewed several vintages of Matt’s Love & Squalor Gamay Noirs, but the current release is by far his best. Riper, better balanced, bigger all around. Oregon winemakers have wrestled with Gamay for decades. Thirty years ago, in my “Northwest Wines” pocket guide paperback, I wrote that “Washington Gamays are made in a blush style with sweet, simple strawberry flavors; Oregon Gamays are deeper, spicier and often vinified using the carbonic maceration methods of Beaujolais”. They were a mixed bunch then, and remain so today.

Gamay never was and may never be a ‘signature’ grape for Oregon, but it’s one you should try. It makes perfect sense that it would do well, as it’s a fine companion, almost a soul mate if you will, to Pinot Noir. I asked Matt to comment on his approach to working with the grape, and his thoughts on its place in the Oregon pantheon.

MB:  “I have been producing Gamay now since 2014, and have learned a few tricks. Also, I added a fulltime Cellar Master before Harvest 2022, and we can’t discount the huge advantage that having another pair of caring hands and eyes can bring to quality.”

PG:  Do you sense any growth for Gamay over the last decade?

MB:  “Yes I think Gamay is actually growing as a sector. Many less savvy drinkers still don’t know what it is – and don’t even know Beaujolais – but are willing to try it and generally enjoy it. I think it straddles the fence between the grace and acidity of Pinot Noir and the fuller juicy wines that seem to dominate the supermarket shelves and top 100 lists. It also appeals to more adventurous ‘looking for something new’ drinkers, who tend to skew younger. They also love the carbonic for some reason. And the ‘chillable red’ which Gamay is great for. I sometimes see it as a zaftig Pinot. It also makes for a lovely rosé which can also act as an intro to the varietal. (Sass makes a very good rose’ as does Division).”

PG:  Can you point to a particular Oregon style?

MB:  “I don’t think there is one yet. I have developed an entirely unique way of fermenting my Gamay. I think that many producers are simply replicating their Pinot protocol and the result is predictably Pinot-like with a blacker fruit profile. Pre-pandemic we had a consumer event called I Love Gamay. The last one we held there were more than 25 different Oregon Gamays being poured. They were of a high quality overall and small case production.”

The hero wine in a flight of Matt’s Portland Wine Company wines:

Love & Squalor 2022 Gamay Noir

This wine seems to have been re-invented from past vintages, with riper fruit – it’s bursting with tangy cranberries and crushed raspberries – higher alcohol and better balance. It’s still leaning into lively acidity, a young, sharp, immediately delicious Gamay that’s only been in bottle for about four months. The funky/leathery characteristics of the past have been cleaned up. This is sassy, strong, with plenty of acid and a pleasing graininess to the tannins. 250 cases; 13.8%; $32 (Willamette Valley) 91/100

Leah Jorgensen’s wines have been on my radar for the past decade also, notable in particular for her dedication to Cabernet Franc. So I was especially curious when she messaged me with the following proposal. “I’m curious – do you have any interest in tasting library wines? Some of these are wines that you reviewed for WE several years ago. I have intentionally made Cabernet Franc to age gracefully. While dealing with family issues I took a sabbatical this vintage to regroup. It feels like a good time to send some special, reflective bottles.”

She went on to further evangelize for the grape’s prospects in Oregon. “We are on the precipice of establishing Southern Oregon as potentially the most suited place for Cab Franc in America. There are some folks (friends of mine) trying to make the claim in the Livermore. The region produces very good wines. But no one seems to be paying attention to the mollusk shells, fossils, shell imprints embedded in rock, and ocean bottom material (over 250 million years old) in parts of the Rogue Valley – and the unique expression that is Oregon Cabernet Franc. I have found an old world sensibility to these wines unlike anywhere else in the country, and yet uniquely Oregon cigar, cedar, birch and Lapsang Souchong black tea (smoked over pine bark and needles). And I’m frustrated. No one has stepped into the spot that Clos Rougeard left when they left their void.”

I believe that it’s true more often than not that true, dedicated artists in any creative field labor in obscurity. That’s just the way of the world. And like the artist she is, Leah both believes that her wines clearly make the case for the superiority of Rogue Valley Cab Franc while blaming herself for “not doing enough to shine the light on all the glory that is Rogue Valley Cabernet Franc.”

Along with her winemaking talent she writes some of the most brilliant tasting notes I’ve ever seen on a winery website. I encourage you to explore it in depth. The hero wine in a lovely library flight from Leah Jorgensen Cellars is this:

Leah Jorgensen 2016 Grand Reserve Cabernet Franc
Sourced from the Crater View vineyard  , just one barrel was produced. It’s rich, thick and juicy all at once, with a smoky filigree putting a wreath around the black fruits. It’s tannic, supple and powerful, with finishing notes of coffee, sandalwood and cinnamon. In short, a magnificent Cabernet Franc that can stand beside the best from California. Despite the limited production this is still listed for sale on the website. 24 cases; 14.5%; $75 (Rogue Valley) 95/100

More from Leah Jorgensen Cellars

Leah Jorgensen 2021 Mae’s Vineyard Blanc de Cabernet Franc – Wine writers can get a bit carried away with descriptors, but winemakers are no slouches. Since Leah Jorgensen makes this unique wine and specializes in Cabernet Franc, I turn the podium over to her. She writes “this is medium-bodied with delicate nuances of ‘early blush’ apricot, golden raspberries, Meyer lemon, blood orange, white tea leaf, tarragon, and hazelnut – making up a pretty, complex white wine from red grapes. This vintage the wine also offers subtle botanical notes of elderflower, jasmine, lime blossom, sweet pea shoot, even a hint of ground cinnamon, with flavors of clementine, lemon meringue, light honey leading into a creamy and nutty mid-palate that finishes with refreshing salinity.” The power of suggestion! If I dig deep I can find much of what Leah notes here. This is such a unique wine I have nothing to add. It’s for those wine tasters with adventurous palates. 103 cases; 13%; $40 (Applegate Valley) N/R

Leah Jorgensen 2021 Cabernet Franc – Earthy with a leathery note underscoring cherry fruit and hints of cinnamon, bourbon barrel and cherry tobacco. Nicely ripened tannins add a touch of black tea as the wine trails out. 147 cases; 13.5%; $35 (Southern Oregon) 91/100

Leah Jorgensen 2015 Reserve Cabernet Franc – This was released in late 2019. It feels medium-bodied despite the high alcohol, with a peppery note dotting the brambly blackberry fruit. It hints at chalky rock, and more interesting details – bell pepper, tobacco, coffee grounds, licorice – pile on as it breathes open. Inquire for current availability. 65 cases; 14.8%; $125 (Rogue Valley) 92/100

Leah Jorgensen 2014 Mae’s Vineyard Grand Reserve Cabernet Franc – Lush aromatics introduce this exceptional wine, which seems to have reached a flavor peak after almost a decade. It deftly brings together brambly berries, black cherry pastry, composted earth, tanned leather and cold coffee flavors. The fruit has lost its primary brightness, but not yet settled into mellow softness; rather it’s poised on a pinpoint fulcrum that neatly expresses the grape, the vineyard and the vintage at a particular age. Inquire for availability. 26 cases; 14.6%; $150 (Applegate Valley) 93/100

More from Matt Berson’s Portland Wine Company

Love & Squalor 2022 ‘Pet Matt’ of Riesling – A pet-nat made sekt style from old vine Riesling, this tongue-tickling sparkling wine is meant for the first day of spring (if you can wait for it). Lightly lemony with a hint of funk, fresh and carbonated, it can be enjoyed straight or as a mixer, but definitely chilled. I wouldn’t overthink it – it’s a real thirst-quencher. 85 cases; 12.5%; $32 (Willamette Valley) 88/100

Love & Squalor 2022 ‘Pet Matt’ Rosé of Cabernet Franc – Matt Berson has put a different spin on Cab Franc with this tasty pet-nat rosé. A pretty pale copper, it has nice touches of blood orange, white peach and strawberry fruit, with a clean, crisp and refreshing mouthfeel. The length is impressive, and the bubbles have genuine finesse. 85 cases; 12.5%; $32 (Southern Oregon) 90/100

Love & Squalor 2021 Pinot Noir – Multiple vineyards and AVAs contribute to this blend, yielding a minty wine with compact fruits and savory highlights. First impressions find this difficult to unpack. Revisited on the second day the wine had opened up significantly, showing black cherry fruit, brambly phenolics and firm tannins. 1000 cases; 14%; $32 (Willamette Valley) 91/100

Love & Squalor 2019 Reserved (sic) Pinot Noir – Extra bottle age has helped this wine to be a little less reserved, a little more open and accessible. A mix of cranberry, pomegranate and red currant fruits, it’s anchored in earth and stem flavors (12% was whole cluster). Three vineyards, three clones and three AVAs are in the mix. 102 cases; 13.5%; $48 (Willamette Valley) 90/100

Featured Wine

Garageland 2022 Pinot Noir

The Garageland Pinot is a multi-vineyard blend, and the sources change significantly from year to year. Winemaker Matt Berson employs a hands-off, natural winemaking aesthetic that aims for energy, vitality, aromatic complexity and, in the Garageland lineup, youthful exuberance. Successful on all counts, this is bursting with bright red fruits supported with punchy acids and underscored with lightly drying mineral notes. Not yet listed online. 800 cases; 13.5%; $22 (Willamette Valley) 91/100

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt has been covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times and authored two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’ (UC Berkeley Press). He served as the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine from 1998 until 2022. Early on he was an original staff member of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM-FM. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg (pop. 1204), a farm community about 20 miles NE of Walla Walla. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5 (davepaul5.com) Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine, paulgregutt.substack.com, and in the Waitsburg Times.


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