Monday, January 18, 2010

Brick House Vineyards

When I visited Brick House Winery in Oregon 5 years ago, I was struck by the commitment to the land and their desire to make the best wine they could with the grapes yielded by their unique terroir in the the Northern Willamette Valley.  I haven't visited many wineries, but I can't imagine that many people go to quite the effort that Doug Tunnell does on his rustic plot of land literally in the middle of nowhere.  Though he is only certified at the organic level, I feel his tendency is really toward biodynamic practices.  These types of wine-growers subscribe to the practices set forth by Steiner in the 19th century, the premise of which is to listen to the earth in regards to your treatment of the vine.  Whether you believe in the validity of biodynamics is personal, of course, but it's hard to deny that Brick House produces some great wine once you have tasted it.

Doug Tunnell, winemaker and owner of Brick House Winery, is a retired CBS news correspondent who covered Lebanon's Civil War and was stationed in Beirut for 18 years.  Afterward, he moved to a Western Europe where he gained his appreciation and love of the land and wine-making living in Germany and later in France. He was inspired to plant some vines of his own in Oregon when he saw some of France's best negociants doing the same.  He has been producing wine for about 20 years now, and has been certified organic for that entire time.  He grows Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay and producers stellar wines from all three.

Tasting the wines was an eye-opening experience for me.  I had just begun to study and appreciate the subtlety of Pinot Noir, and I was discovering that a light and delicate wine made from the grape could be just as engaging if not more so than a full-throttle blockbuster style.  That's what I loved about the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay that we tasted that day at Brick House - their elegance.  It was such a stark contrast the heavily oaked and high alcohol California Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that I was so used to drinking and loved so much at the time.

The wines were understated and elegant, made in the French tradition.  The gentleman we tasted with told me that they loaned their new barrels out to wineries in the "neighborhood" to be used for a year or two to get rid of the new oak flavors that the barrels would impart on their delicate wines.  I loved them all for different reasons and I was disappointed that most of the wine had already been sold but not surprised.  We bought several bottles of the Dijonnais Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which we also loved.  They reminded me of some of the tightly-knit young Burgundies I had tasted recently but with a certain purity of fruit that I found unique to Oregon wines.

We still have a few of the bottles we bought on our visit which we open from time to time for special meals.  The Pinot Noir could still age more based on our last tasting a few months ago.  It has lovely spicy cherry fruit and is becoming more and more expressive each time we drink it.  The Chardonnay has turned into a lovely round wine with fresh red apple fruit balanced out by a subtle butterscotch vanilla note on the finish.  I think we just have one bottle left of the Chardonnay and I'm thinking about a feast of king crabs legs with drawn butter once the weather warms up. We were not able to buy any of the Gamay, but we did taste it and I have enjoyed it since.  You'll know from reading my post on Beaujolais how much I love the grape already, so naturally, I feel like this is a great wine too!

Brick House wines are not easy to find in Massachusetts, but I think a few cases of them come in every year.  You're more likely to see them in bigger wine markets like New York and Chicago, and of course you can buy them in Oregon.  If you see it, be advised - snatch up as much as you can.  They are beautiful, elegant, and age-worthy wines with finesse and complexity in spades.  I'll hope to visit the winery again now that I know a little more about wine.  Tunnell's new wines are sure to be stunning.  My wallet might well be emptied, but my palete will thank me for years to come.


  1. I think Doug does have Biodynamic certification now on at least some of his grapes. I'm pretty sure some of the more recent Gamay I bought there had the Biodynamic (R) stamp on it.
    The lovely gentleman you tasted with was Alan (of the handlebar moustache!), and he remembers me every time I go back. He's the one who mentioned opening up a BH Gamay from the mid-nineties that was still going strong! We'll have to open some when you return to the great Pacific Northwest soon!

  2. can't wait to share some of the BH Gamay with you!