In May 2006, Oregon pioneer Dick Erath shocked the Northwest wine world by selling his successful operation to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. A half-decade later, Erath Winery is thriving, producing some of the state's greatest and most consistent red and white wines.
Erath moved to Oregon in 1968 after learning to make wine in California, purchased land and began to grow wine grapes. In 1972, he launched his winery, producing fewer than 300 cases of wine. By 1975, he joined forces with Cal Knudsen, and they changed the name of the winery to Knudsen-Erath (some 13 years later, Erath bought out his partner and changed the name back to Erath). Since 2002, Gary Horner has been the winemaker at Erath.
Ste. Michelle's purchase of Erath marked the Washington giant's entry into the Oregon wine industry, and it has provided Horner with the resources to craft great wines while at the same time giving him the space to be creative. One of Horner's most remarkable projects involves Prince Hill, a vineyard Erath planted in 1983. Using grapes from the vaunted 2008 vintage, Horner crafted no fewer than four pinot noirs from Prince Hill, three of which are rare clonal-designated wines. (A fifth wine, the Estate Selection pinot noir, also uses Prince Hill grapes.)
Meanwhile, founder Dick Erath has moved to Arizona -- not to retire but to pioneer grape growing and winemaking again.
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Here are some Erath pinot noirs we've recently tasted:
Erath Winery 2008 Prince Hill pinot noir, Dundee Hills, $45: This is a youthful and spicy wine with aromas of violets and cranberries, followed by flavors of cherries and vanilla, all backed with just-right tannins.
Erath Winery 2008 Prince Hill 777 pinot noir, Dundee Hills, $50: The 777 Dijon clone is not often thought of as a version of pinot noir that can stand alone, but it is beautiful and alluring in this bottling. It opens with aromas of fresh raspberries, strawberries, violets, hazelnuts and Graham crackers, followed by plush, delicious flavors of wild strawberries and bright red cherries, all backed with smooth, elegant and understated tannins.
Erath Winery 2008 Prince Hill 115 pinot noir, Dundee Hills, $50: This is made from the Dijon 115 clone, a version of pinot noir that tends to reveal darker, more powerful fruit. This wine offers elegant aromas of cherries, raspberries and vanilla, followed by beautifully balanced flavors of Rainier cherries and cranberries, all backed up with bright acidity and refined tannins.
Erath Winery 2008 Prince Hill Pommard pinot noir, Dundee Hills, $50: The Pommard clone of Pinot Noir has been a workhorse in Oregon for the better part of four decades. This wine reveals classic aromas of lavender, vanilla and strawberries, followed by long, rich flavors of ripe raspberries, cherries and minerally earth.
Erath Winery 2008 Leland pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $50: Leland Vineyard near Oregon City has been a staple for Erath for more than two decades. This opens with complex aromas of cinnamon, raspberries, cherries and chocolate. On the palate, the flavors include classic notes of high-toned red fruit with hints of oak. It's the velvety, ethereal texture that raises this wine above others.
Erath Winery 2008 Knight's Gambit pinot noir, Dundee Hills, $47: Knight's Gambit, a vineyard in the Dundee Hills, was planted in 1988, with additional vines added in 2001. This reveals aromas of slate, pie cherries, boysenberries and forest floor, followed by pleasurable flavors of silky cherries and blueberries.
Erath Winery 2008 Estate Selection pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $34: Horner uses grapes from four vineyards, with the bulk coming from Knight's Gambit and Prince Hill. The resulting wine reveals aromas of boysenberries, blueberries and delicate oak, followed by flavors of cherries, vanilla and a hint of citrus.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman are the editors of Wine Press Northwest magazine. For more information, go to www.winepressnw.com.