Michelin-starred chef and roving reporter Roger Jones thinks that Barbara Banke and her Jackson Family Wines are building a true legacy to envy in Oregon and singles out the wines of WillaKenzie Estate as ones we all should keep an eye on. Over dinner he tastes winemaker Erik Kramer’s latest vintages.
It wasn’t an open cheque book that persuaded Erik Kramer to join WillaKenzie Estate but the vision Barbara Banke had of not only making world class Pinot Noir in Oregon, but also developing other varietals as well.
Barbara Banke and her family (Jackson Family Wines) were pretty dominant in taking over the interest of the UK’s top trade and wine media this week with a superb selection of masterclasses, tastings and dinners, including a chance to meet Erik Kramer, winemaker at WillaKenzie Estate.
Jackson Family Wines has a prolific and diverse business building a network of prestige wineries all over the world, guided by Banke – the focused, enterprising lady at the top, with her most recent acquisitions being in Oregon.
In recent years Jackson Family Wines has focused on the Willamette Valley in Oregon, purchasing established boutique wineries and placing high profile winemakers in charge. It is a testament to Barbara Banke and the track record of her company that means she has been welcomed wholeheartedly to the region, and is planning to get Oregon firmly established as a prestige region not just for Pinot Noir, but Chardonnay and sparkling wine; although we must not forget that this region is also pretty special for Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.
Oregon produces Pinot Noir that is unique, certainly in the New World, although it can have Burgundian characteristics. Due to its unique maritime climate, however, with plenty of early season rain followed by a period of long, cool, dry daylight hours Oregon produces wines that are gentle, focused, perfumed and precise in taste.
Having tasted a large selection of these wines I was interested to still see a lovely diversification based on the individuality of the winemaker and clone of Pinot grape used. There is a lot of evolution happening in Oregon, with some wineries producing up to a dozen different Pinots, but that is not a negative.
And so on to dinner with Erik Kramer, winemaker of WillaKenzie Estate
Banke’s children are very much involved and focused in the business and both her son and daughter were in London to highlight the ‘family’ style of care that the global business is encouraging.
They have also been very astute in encouraging some great winemakers to join their crusade.
One of these is Erik Kramer, who recently took over the helm at WillaKenzie Estate, a winery established by Frenchman Bernard Lacroute in 1993. Kramer’s previous post was at the well established Domaine Serene winery, also in Oregon, where his recent goals included wining Decanter’s top Pinot Noir award.
Over a beautiful dinner at Ormer in Mayfair, I questioned Kramer on his vision for WillaKenzie and why he left an established superstar winery for this new challenge. Kramer is not a man to shrink away from a challenge, leaving California in his youth with his wife to study at Lincoln University in New Zealand prior to establishing himself in Oregon.
Kramer is passionate about Oregon, and the opportunity to work with the Jackson Family, with their far-reaching vision for the area, was a much bigger persuasion to jump ship than the open cheque book. He, like Barbara Banke sees a prolific future in Oregon not only with Pinot but with Chardonnay and developing sparkling wine.
Kramer is very much aware of the great work that Lacroute has established at WillaKenzie, and has always admired the vineyard. In time he will firmly put his mark on the winery and wines, no doubt building it into superstar status, and developing the Chardonnay brand, but there is no question that the wines currently are pretty special.
From my understanding he will look at using more seasoned and aged oak, use smaller tanks and concentrate on keeping each terrace separate before blending a perfect wine. He sees this as a work in progress and hopes to firmly put his mark on the wines by the 2019 vintage.
I highlighted the WillaKenzie Pinot Blanc in The Buyer earlier this year in my review of the Oregon State Tasting, but was delighted to try both the 2014 and 2016 vintages of the Pinot Gris, Kramer had a hand in the 2016 and had tried to make it more focused and cleaner and although I liked the ’14 with its fullness the ’16 had a lovely precision to it, beautifully matched to a lobster ravioli.
Onto the Pinot Noirs, and the Estate Pinot Noir WillaKenzie ‘Giselle’ Willamette Valley 2014 was a fresh bright clean Pinot that is drinking so well currently, a gentle soft perfume on the nose, balanced by clean fresh summer berries, both blue and red. This wine is a blend from the property and showcases the winemaker’s skills, is great value and a fine example of modern Pinot Noir.
The WillaKenzie Pinot Noir ‘Pierre Leon’ Yamhill-Carlton 2012 was a heady, deep, voluptuous Pinot of Burgundian status, still evolving but a masterful wine, deep, dark, brooding, a sensual wine uplifted by a perfect matching of duck and foie gras with a touch of pink grapefruit acidity in the dish. I think even Kramer was impressed with this wine and it was a delight to try it.
I will certainly follow Kramer’s path at WillaKenzie with interest, as I will with the rest of Jackson Family’s vineyards in Oregon, this is exciting times for this region.