Cameron Winery: Oregon's Prince of Pinot

8/12/16 -

Ask any Oregon wine insider about great winemakers and the name John Paul Cameron comes up in hushed and reverent tones. His eponymous Cameron Winery has been around since 1984, but its legendary status often does not resonate outside Oregon because of the very limited distribution of these wines. Moreover, his fanatical attention to the farming and the winemaking leaves little time for marketing and fancy wine dinners among his devoted followers.

John Paul Cameron rarely accepts winery visits, and after driving up, I immediately understood why: he was busy making a compost pile with his tractor, leaving his assistant winemaker Tom Sivilli to show me around the vineyards and the modest winery and cellar. Since 1984, Cameron Winery has produced organically and dry-farmed Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc. (He also makes some fine Nebbiolo - planted in 1994 - inspired by previous visits to Italy’s Piedmont region).

Their estate vineyard, Clos Electrique (cheekily named for the electric fence that encloses the estate to ward off foraging deer), consists of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Nebbiolo, and a smattering of Italian white grapes. Farmed organically, each block of vines is planted to multiple clones; this increases the complexity of the resulting wines and enhances the vineyard's resilience in the face of various of climatic pressures and predatory insects. Cameron also sources fruit from Abbey Ridge (one of the oldest vineyards in the state) and  Arley's Leap in the Dundee Hills AVA; recently it added Pinot Noir from Foster Farms and Armstrong Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA. Production is about 3,000 to 4,000 cases, the majority of which gets immediately absorbed by Portland restaurants and retailers.

Cameron's vineyards are among the healthiest in the Willamette Valley. Clos Electrique literally buzzes with biodiversity: bees fly around to pollinate cover crops; grass grows between rows of vines to reduce vine vigor; chickens eat grubs and nourish the soil with their waste products. Most importantly, Cameron refuses to irrigate. As a founding member of the Deep Roots Coalition, the winery is committed to bringing wines that reflect terroir and geological complexity by having the roots dig deep to extract water and nutrients.   

For someone who keeps a low profile, John Paul is one of the smartest winemakers I’ve encountered (he came to winemaking after receiving his Ph.D. in Marine Biochemistry). He's also one of the most opinionated (check out the “News and Rants” section of his website as well his laughter-inducing video newsletters). Nevertheless, John Paul’s fanatical commitment to organic farming and hands-off winemaking ensures that he’s among the standard bearers for Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, but also for the rest of the United States. Jonas Mendoza

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