Northwest Wine

Winemaker remains dedicated through cancer battle

Winemakers throughout the Northwest struggled with weather during this fall's trying harvest, but the winemaker for Willamette Valley Vineyards had a much bigger battle: cancer.

Forrest Klaffke has been with the Turner, Ore., winery for 18 years and has led the winemaking efforts for the past decade.

"He's an amazing guy," said Jim Bernau, CEO and founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards. "He's a remarkable team member who has incredible dedication. He's the first one here in the morning and the last one to leave."

That didn't change this year during harvest, even though Klaffke has a huge fight on his hands. The aggressive form of cancer he successfully defeated a few years ago came back with a vengeance in September. It started in his throat and has spread to four areas of his body, including his brain. He has been through surgeries, radiation treatments and chemotherapy to try to keep it at bay.

Winemakers are famous for dedication to their craft, but Klaffke took that to an entirely different level this fall. When he knew grapes were going to come in, he would actually cancel his chemo treatments so he could give the finicky pinot noir grapes all the attention they demand.

"He's just has an incredible, passionate dedication to this vineyard and to his work," Bernau said with endearment and awe.

And Klaffke, who grew up in Sacramento and worked in the California wine industry before coming north to Oregon in the 1990s, is making some of the finest wines of his career. We recently tasted through his most recent pinot noirs, and they are uniformly superb.

Willamette Valley Vineyards' wines are broadly available, though the single-vineyard pinot noirs are made in limited quantities. Check with your favorite wine merchant or call the winery directly at 800-344-9463. And let's all raise a glass to salute Klaffke and his dedication to the grape.

Willamette Valley Vineyards 2009 Elton pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $45. This superior pinot noir opens with aromas of raspberries, Rainier cherries, pineapples, violets and strawberries. On the palate, this is a gentle and elegant wine with flavors of white strawberries, raspberries and cherries. It's tempting to drink this wine now, but as delicious as it is, it's likely to develop into something even greater.

Willamette Valley Vineyards 2009 pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $28. This opens with classic aromas of raspberries, strawberries, pie cherries and mushrooms, with just a hint of orange blossoms. On the palate, this is an elegant wine from first sip, with flavors of vanilla, Rainier cherries, cranberries, Marionberries and chocolate. With 18,000 cases produced, this should be easy to find.

Willamette Valley Vineyards 2010 Whole Cluster Fermented pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $20. In the Pacific Northwest, this is about as close as we come to a Beaujolais Nouveau style of wine. Every year, this Oregon giant produces a youthful pinot noir -- the first it releases from each vintage -- that is made using a method called carbonic maceration. This means the juice is fermented primarily while it is still inside the grape, before the fruit is crushed. The resulting wine is lower in tannin and higher in fruit. That's certainly the case with this delicious wine, which shows off aromas of strawberry candy, cinnamon, apricots and black currants. On the palate, this reveals invigorating flavors of strawberries, cherries, cranberries and red raspberries. It's a great introduction to pinot noir because of the flavors and the price.

Willamette Valley Vineyards 2009 Estate pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $40. Of Willamette Valley Vineyards' seven new Pinot Noirs we tasted, this was the biggest and boldest entry. It opens with rich aromas of cedar, strawberries, red currants, cola and baked apples with cinnamon. On the palate, it starts with an easy approach of raspberries, cranberries and chocolate, then is large and in charge on the finish with robust tannins.

*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.