Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stoller Vineyards winemaker turns from naturopathic medicine to Pinot

Melissa Burr tells one of the best stories I've heard about how she became a winemaker.

A third-generation Oregonian to the core, Burr got an AA after high school and then took six years off to travel, meeting her future husband along the way. "We did a lot of extracurricular things not for publication," she said.

Eventually she decided to return to college to study naturopathic medicine, while her husband studied viticulture because his father owns a vineyard; they worked there together in the summer before resuming school at Portland State.

A brief flashback: Bill Stoller, who made his money in the temporary staffing industry, had purchased Oregon's largest turkey farm in 1993. With help from Chehalem co-owner Harry Peterson-Nedry, he planted tightly spaced vines of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. By 2001, when Burr graduated with her B.S. in pre-med, they were up to 80 acres and had no winemaker.

Not sure yet if she preferred wine or medicine, Burr took an internship at Cooper Mountain Vineyards in 2001. "Four days before the fruit came in, the winemaker quit," she says. "It was just me and the vineyard crew. We did 16,000 cases."

Burr was suddenly a winemaker. Meanwhile, Peterson-Nedry was making both Chehalem's wines and Stoller's, and looking to get away from the latter.

In 2003, Burr went to Steamboat, a winemaker's conference, and met Bill and Cathy Stoller. They interviewed her over the course of four months and then offered her the job.

"I was excited, it was a big challenge," Burr said. "Then, two weeks later I found out I was pregnant with my first son. I always wanted to be a mom. But it was all happening at once."

Burr drove to Stoller's main company, Express Professional Employment, and leveled with him. "I told him, I'll be honest with you, I'm not going to be your 60-hour-a-week person," she said. "You still have time to get somebody else. He said, 'Absolutely not. We're going to support you. We're a family business'."

Stoller was good to his word. Burr is still the winemaker, and has two sons now: Austin, age 8, and Wyatt, age 4. The winery is up to 180 planted acres, of which 80% is Pinot Noir. They're in the Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine Program.

And while I found the '09 barrel-fermented Chardonnay a little too big and oaky, Stoller's flagship wine is quite good.

Stoller SV Estate Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2008 ($40) delivers dark cherry fruit with some earthy notes, a hint of raw beef, a soft mouthfeel and good balance. It's a bright, refreshing wine that I enjoyed at RN74 with halibut, so that should give you an idea of its versatility.

By the way, if you're wondering how she could have accomplished all this while looking like she's about 24, I did too. She's 37. "I drink wine every day," she says.

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1 comment:

  1. great post.

    I agree with you as well about their chard.. I'm more of a unoaked chard guy when I drink it.

    Her Pinot is spot on though, and another feather in the cap for our growing list of hot oregon winemakers!