You may know him from his work as winemaker with Witness Tree Vineyards in Willamette Valley, Oregon, but Steven Westby also makes great wine under his own label: Elemental Cellars. On a recent visit, he spoke excitedly of a single vineyard 2012 Pinot Noir he was about to release. We knew that the 2012 Oregon growing season was being praised with words like: “storybook,” “near-perfect,” so when sample bottles of Elemental Cellars 2012 Ferrar Vineyard Pinot Noir arrived, we knew we had the inside track on something great. We bought every case of wine that was available, and are excited to offer this wine to you. We talked with Steven about his connection to Minnesota, his wine making style, and this special wine.
What is your connection to Minneapolis? To Surdyk’s?
I grew up in west central Minnesota in the town of Willmar. I graduated from St. Olaf College with a degree in Biology in 1983. Many years ago I was the wine buyer for Surdyk’s!
How did you land in the Willamette Valley?
Witness Tree Vineyard (my day job) is a family owned and operated vineyard and winery here in the Willamette Valley. I am related to the principle owners—the Devines—through marriage. About 20 years ago Dennis Devine and I made several trips out to the Willamette Valley looking at vineyard properties. When we visited the Witness Tree property, we know we had found what we were looking for. The purchase was made in August of 1994, and by the spring of 1995, my family and I had moved out to Oregon, Dennis and Carolyn had moved from the Philadelphia area, and we hired a UC Davis trained winemaker to make our wines. I was Bryce’s cellar master for nine years, and took over the winemaking role in 2004.
Pinot Noir has a reputation for being difficult to grow. Would you agree? How would you describe your relationship with the varietal?
Pinot is definitely a finicky grape to deal with. It is very thin-skinned and as a result is prone to issues that most other varieties are not. It is the “Goldilocks” of grape varieties—it doesn’t like things too hot or too cold, it wants things just right! I see myself as a winegrower not a winemaker. I spend the great majority of my time out in the vineyard. If we do the job right out there, it makes the work in the cellar much easier.
The Elemental Cellars 2012 Ferrar Vineyard Pinot Noir wowed the entire wine staff. Can you give us insight into this wine’s evolution from growing season to bottle? Did you do anything different (experimental) in its creation? How do you feel about this wine?
This was my first experience with the Farrar fruit, and I treated it much like I do the fruit here at Witness Tree. I honestly didn’t know I was going to be making this wine until the day before we received the fruit. On October 21st, the vineyard manager called me up and said the winery that was planning on taking the grapes backed out at the last minute. Their loss is our gain! In the winery I employed minimal handling, native yeast fermentation and eleven months in barrel—four barrels in all. We made a whopping 96 cases!
Can you tell us about Ferrar Vineyard? Is this the first time working with this vineyard fruit? Any future plans to work with this again or was this a one-shot opportunity?Farrar is a small, one acre vineyard nested high in the Eola Hills. It is densely spaced and immaculately farmed. I was able to secure the fruit again in 2013 and can tell you that the wine in barrel is beautiful!
If you were to explain your winemaking style as a tweet – (140 characters or less) – how would it read?
My philosophy of winemaking is like that of a mid-wife. Let the wine become who it is meant to be. Fix problems if needs be, but otherwise just don’t drop the baby!
Photos of Steven Westby courtesy of St. Olaf Magazine and photographer Jared Cruce