5 Dec 2013

Dominio IV, an exemplary small Oregon winery

During the summer of 2012 I was spending a couple of weeks on holiday along the north-western coastal and forest areas of the USA. I had more or less resolved not to visit any wineries, and therefore that I would probably not be talking much about the wines of Northern California and Oregon on this blog, although I did relate some of my travel experiences. And I pretty much kept to this resolve, at least until now, some 15 months later. In a general sense these things just creep up on you and move you to investigate something and get back into what is, after all, as much a passion as it is a job for me. Then, sometimes also, they linger in your mind for quite a while until you finally decide to do something about what you have experienced. Like a dream that you cannot quite decypher the next day but which hangs around in your head like late morning mist in a valley. So here it is...

Sculpture of a horse (life-size), made of driftwood and seen in the Portland Art Museum. It is made with driftwood. I forget to note the artist's name. When travelling up the western coast, I noticed how much driftwood littered most of the beaches and wondered what I could do with it. Now I have some ideas!

I had not visited Oregon before, so was naturally curious at some point to try a few local wines. Production of wine in this state (which is surprisingly only the 4th largest producer amongst the states of the USofA) began quite recently, in the late 1960's or early 1970's. Since then the learning curve has been pretty steep, at least if the winery that I visited during my trip is anything to go by. Some of the wines that I tried during this 2 week journey, by the glass, in restaurants and wine bars here, were indifferent, but the majority were good to very good, and one, tasted one evening, just sung out to me. I was staying in the small town of McMinnville, south of Portland, and which seems to have the making of being the wine capital of the Willamette Valley. This long valley, bordered by hills, is Oregon's principal wine region and is home to the majority of plantings of its star grape variety, Pinot Noir. 

The Oregon Hotel is the old hotel (they say "historic" locally, but then, in the western US, anything over 50 years old is considered to be historical) of this town and is part of the impressive empire of the McMenamin brothers, who are brewers, wine producers, hoteliers and restaurateurs, their empire spreading through the states of Oregon and Washington. Their hotels are fun, volontarily off-beat, and full of mainly 1970's musical nostalgia and loads of historical references to the past lives of their buildings that have been quite creatively restored. But their restaurants make the bad mistake of serving only their beers, which are good enough, and only (at least by the glass) their own wines, which are quite underwhelming. So we ate out that night, and luckily so! There was not a lot of choice in McMinnville, so I was happy to find a decent selection of wines (of Italian and Oregon origin) by the glass in Nick's Italian Café, right by the hotel. Michael, the helpful and knowledgeable wine waiter there, poured me three Oregon Pinot Noirs, and the second one just hit the spot for me. It was soft at first, then firming up on the palate, with lovely fruit and balance. It had that velvety texture of the finest Pinots and tasted better at each sip. I loved it from the start and it kept growing on me as I gradually emptied the glass, checking it against the other two which were very decent wines. The producer was intriguingly called Dominio IV and this particular Pinot, one of a range, was poetically named "Rain on Leaves". As I was later to discover, the wine-maker and co-owner, Patrick Reuter, is also a poet. It was from the 2007 vintage, which, according to waiter, sorted out the men from the boys in terms of local wine production. So I asked about this producer and it turned out that the winery was in town and I was able, then and there, to make an appointement to meet Reuter next morning, to talk with him and taste some more wines.

Reuter, with 3 partners, started his operation some 10 years previously. He had studied with his wife, a viticulturist, at Davies. They have travelled the wine world quite widely, including a harvest stint with the late Denis Mortet and another with Armand Rousseau in Burgundy's Côte de Nuits. Hard to find better pinot credentials, if you are looking for that sort of thing! 

Like viticulture, the word Dominio comes from way back in the past. The Spanish use the word to mean land or territory or dominion, whereas the Romans have a secondary meaning of a feast or banquet. Thus the word takes on a sense of being a feast from the land. Dom is also of the sun as in Domingo (Sunday). The number four represents four people, four seasons, four varieties of the grape and four quadrants of the Dominio symbol, the labyrinth. Four is also the number of the earth (for whom I am unsure). Ok, so perhaps we are getting a little esoteric here, and, as regular readers may be aware, I am not particularly into mumbo-jumbo (1). What is in a name after all? Well maybe quite a lot, especially when you learn that Patrick Reuter also writes poetry.

Patrick Reuter outside his winery in McMinnville

The short story of my visit to the Dominio IV facities, which are installed in a converted industrial barn in the suburbs of this small town, is that I found the wines quite fantastic and Patrick Reuter delightful, open, relaxed and coherent in his approach. Most of their small production is produced from purchased grapes, essentially pinot noirs from single plots and with the clone identified on the labels. But I also tasted one of the best viogniers I have ever had from outside the Rhône Valley. It just sung with freshness and intense fruit flavours and the grapes hailed from vines higher up into the mountains that separate Oregon from California. I don't know whether they ripen there every year, but this one was fantastic. Dominio IV also own their own vineyard in the north-eastern, much hotter part of the state that lies close to the border with Washington, along the Columbia River east of Portland. Here they grow Syrah and Tempranillo and the wines I tasted were intensely good. They are into biodynamics, for those interested in esoteric practices, but Patrick seemed very down to earth and did not bore me with any planetary visions. Reuter is clearly pragmatic and keeps his base wines for a future sparkling cuvée, called Flora, in recycled Coca-Cola aluminium drums (see below).

yes, wine and Coca Cola can mix, under certain circumstances!

I highly recommended the wines of Dominio IV to anyone who is in Oregon, and they are well worth looking for anyone elsewhere in the USA. If any ever find their way into France I will be a customer for sure.

For more information, take a look at their website:

Drink well....
(photos by David Cobbold except for the one of the label)

(1).footnote (thanks to Wikipedia): Mumbo jumbo, or mumbo-jumbo, is an English phrase or expression that denotes a confusing or meaningless subject. It is often used as humorous expression of criticism of middle-management and civil service non-speak, and of belief in practices based on superstition, rituals intending to cause confusion or languages that the speaker does not understand. The phrase probably originated from the Mandingo name Maamajomboo, a masked dancer that took part in religious ceremonies.Mungo Park's travel journal, Travels in the Interior of Africa (1795) describes 'Mumbo Jumbo' as a character, complete with "masquerade habit", that Mandinka males would dress up in order to resolve domestic disputes. In the 18th century mumbo jumbo referred to a West African god.