10 Shades of Shea

(Photos by Jai Soots)

Sometimes, opportunity knocks and it is overwhelming. Arguably the most distinctive vineyard in all of Oregon, Shea Vineyard is a fastidiously farmed plot in the Willamette Valley and the fruit is uniformly pristine, making it some of the most coveted fruit in the Valley. Tasting the work of ten different winemakers from this single vineyard promised to be a wine lover’s dream adventure. Such was the case when we were invited to the Ten Shades of Shea tasting, held at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars. To absorb and then relate even half of all the information presented was a writer’s brutal challenge—this, despite copious notes and constant spitting.

First, a few nitty gritty facts:
- Shea Vineyard is a 200 acre property planted with 135 acres of Pinot Noir and 5 acres of Chardonnay.
- The first planting was 1989.
- At the time of this writing, there are 23 wineries buying Shea Vineyard fruit. They’ve been selling to California wineries since 1996. (Dick Shea may be the only Oregonian who talks about that. None of the others did.)
- And, surprisingly, all the vineyard blocks are the same price for every buyer.

Dick Shea smiled wryly when he shared that last bit. “I’ve never had a winemaker tell me, ‘That block doesn’t work for me.’”

Lynn Penner-Ash greeted us at the door of her (spectacular) facility with a glass of (equally spectacular) Rosé of Shea. It had to be the most decadent rosé of all time. From there, I worked my way from table to table, tasting and visiting with the winemakers. It was fascinating from the first sip to the last. If the wines had all been made by the same person, it might have been easier to discern the block by block differences (the winemakers all had maps showing where their fruit came from). There were many, but there was such a diversity and disparity of styles that the terroir moved to the background—almost. There’s often a great, neck-grabbing acidity but also a fascinating nose full of spice and blue and black fruit that is distinctly Shea. What was consistent was the quality of fruit the winemakers could work with, and because of that, the sense of place always seemed to be there.

In the next room was a 2013 barrel tasting from all the winemakers. While it was fascinating to have all the wines pretty much on the same page, at the same stage of development, this was unexpectedly fun because all the winemakers were asked the obvious but overlooked question: “Why do you like to work with Shea fruit?”

“No matter what curve ball the weather gives you, it’s always great wine,” offered Lynn Penner-Ash. “This is Oregon’s Grand Cru.” Adam Campbell of Elk Cove said that even though he doesn’t really need to source fruit anymore, he likes to keep Shea fruit in the interest of collaboration: “Almost every time I go out to check my fruit, I run into another winemaker,” and they compare notes for the vintage. Later, Athena Pappas of Boedecker added, “Just about every wine we tasted that was made from the Shea Vineyards grapes, no matter which winemaker, had a gorgeous, intense earthy, minerally, fruity, blueberry flavored core.”

Everyone’s style was interesting in its way, whether they went for fruit, flowers or spice in the nose, tamed the acid with the choice of a particular barrel, or harvested early or late. But these were barrel samples in their infancy, still changing and some did not show well. The aromatics of Steve Goff’s 2012 had been the talk of the town in the other room, full of floral notes, lavender, spice; it was intriguing, complex, and exquisitely beautiful. The 2013 sample had not yet gone through malolactic fermentation, and he got sympathetic chuckles when he said, “Right now, I’m not super pleased with how it smells.” (My tasting notes mention band-aids and kerosene.) Judging from the previous vintage—and the winemaker’s confident demeanor—the ugly duckling will grow up just fine.

Almost every take on Pinot Noir is expressed with Shea fruit, but the Shea-ness comes forth—even from the California producers, whose style is decidedly different from Oregon. Expecting to find the Shea of all Sheas, I tasted Shea Wine Cellars offering—Dick and Deirdre Shea’s own 2012. The black and blue fruits were there, along with the acidity that makes a wine great with food, and a long, lovely, lingering finish that said, “Wait. Think about this for a minute.” What surprised me was not it’s perfect balance. It was that it was perfectly balanced right now, whereas all the other wines I’d tried throughout the day would benefit from considerably more bottle time. For all the pause given to these wines throughout the day, all the talk of ageability, this one was the most accessible. That somehow seemed appropriate--the last word on Shea Vineyard.

Published: Oct. 20, 2014

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