Kelley Fox Winery: Wines of Emotion in the Willamette Valley

11/7/22 -

I remember exactly where I was when I tasted a Kelley Fox wine for the first time. It was more or less exactly ten years ago and I was hunched over my laptop, trying in vain to catch up on administrative duties between lunch and dinner services, when my friend Owen (at the time an excellent wine rep since relocated to Seattle) walked in. He said he had a wine for me to try that he thought was for me and we had worked together long enough to know that I could trust him. From his bag, he pulled a bottle of Kelley Fox's 'Momtazi Vineyard' Pinot Noir, from the unfairly maligned 2007 vintage. It was a revelation, with piercing red fruit, a wild array of spicy and salty notes, and incredible acidity. But beyond the sheer deliciousness, there was an immutable soulfulness in the wine that pulled me into the glass. I bought every bottle they had left in stock and never looked back.

Kelley's path to wine was as roundabout as any. She was bound for a life as an academic, (a B.S. in Psychology from Texas A&M and a Masters in Biochemistry and Biophysics from Oregon State) but found herself diverted into winemaking, with the legendary David Lett of Eyrie as her mentor. The philosophy at Eyrie was always one of total respect for the plant, soil and their surrounding environment and this is something that she has carried with her throughout her career. In the past twenty years, she has made wine at Torii Mor, Hamacher and Scott Paul. Only over the last seven years has she produced only her own wines. But in all that time, she has worked with a who's who of truly great Willamette sites, many of which are benchmarks of quality organic and/or biodynamic farming in the region. She has deep relationships with the farmers and her goal is always to honor the work they do by letting the vineyard speak.

When it comes to winemaking, the protocol is simple. Fermentation is with natural yeasts, punchdowns are all by foot and no additions with the exception of sulfur (though Kelley will occasionally chaptalize in very cold vintages or acidify in very warm ones). Reds are routinely upwards of fifty percent whole cluster and all aged in neutral oak. Depending on the wine, whites are aged in wood or concrete. Every decision is geared towards finding the clearest expression of a vineyard's character.

The 2021 vintage was an unusual one, marked by the infamous 'heat dome.' Despite the extreme heat spike however, the remaining growing season was one of relative balance. Kelley always includes detailed notes on each vintage on her website and she characterized it as follows:

"Towards the end of June, the Willamette Valley experienced a very unusual heat wave and the long hours of the day near the summer solstice exacerbated effect later known as the “heat dome”. It was well over 110F for more than a few days. I’d never seen anything like this before in over thirty years living here. While many trees and plants suffered, most vines I saw showed little if any damage. I don’t know how the vines protected themselves, but I’m extremely thankful that there were no clusters when this happened.

At some point in July, the weather calmed down and the highs were in the 70s and low 80s with cool nights. This perfect weather continued as the clusters formed with a short-lived heat spike towards the end of the month. There was some light rain in August and except for another short-lived heat spike typical for summer, it was lovely ripening weather with little disease pressure from what I observed...

The most remarkable thing for me about 2021 was the incredible perfume and aromas of every fermenting wine, regardless of whether they were white, red, or pink. Stunning across the board. My winery was not alone in this. It seemed to happen with my colleagues, too. The wines are so balanced and delicious, and the highest alcohol was 13.5% for the Grüner veltliner. Most were 13.0% with the Maresh Old Vine Riesling at 12.5% as the low. The white wines are very fresh with plenty of acidity and full of vibrant life, and the Pinots are bringing me so much joy. "

We are excited as she is that these wines are here. On offer today are two single-vineyard Chardonnays, a tiny bit of Gruner Veltliner (the first time she has worked with the variety).and two Pinot Noirs: her signature bottling "Mirabai," and a handful of bottles of Liminal, from own-rooted vines in Maresh Vineyard planted in 1970.

We are thrilled to able to offer Kelley's brilliant Pinot Noirs again after a hiatus in 2020. The fires that devastated the Northwest that year seriously affected the parcels she worked with. Rather than release wines that would compromise her commitment and intention, she turned all her red wine into vermouth under the guidance of her friends Stephanie Sprinkle and Lynsee Sardell. Stephanie sourced all the plants herself, either from local organic farmers or through foraging and Lynsee distilled the brandy from Maresh Pinot Noir. We have a handful of bottles of this brilliant and unique product today as well.

I have worked to keep the hyperbole to a minimum here. Kelley's wines are among my favorites made anywhere in the world and I've had the opportunity to get to know her and even work with her over the past decade. As a result, I worry that perhaps I am something of an unreliable narrator. So let me instead leave you with this: none other than our fearless leader Jamie Wolff, a Piedmont aficionado above all else, will tell you unprompted that these are his favorite American Pinot Noirs by miles.

Sam Ehrlich

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