Willful Wines in Willamette, Oregon

Spring has arrived! In wine making regions, spring means new wine is on the horizon. It may be the most important season of the year when it comes to the vineyard’s life cycles – it is the birth of a new vintage. 

One of the best parts of our job is meeting the people who make the wines we get to sell.  Every week, we taste unique offerings with our partners and choose new bottles for the shelves and for tastings. Sometimes, we are lucky enough to have the actual people who make the wine pour for us.

Recently, Katie met Pam Walden, owner and winemaker of Willful Wines from Willamette, Oregon.  Pam started in the wine business in 2000 and became the sole winemaker in 2009, producing around 5,000 cases annually. She creates wines with the intention of focusing on fruit and terroir using low intervention and minimal oak. While tasting with Pam, it was apparent the care she puts into her bottles, but also her love of the vineyards she sources from. Her belief is “the best wine comes from the best growers.” This connection to the agricultural side sparked a conversation about the importance of this time of year. 

Willful Wines owner Pam Walden

Where the action is

The action in the vineyard in early spring revolves around the proliferation of the vines.  Grapevines inherently want to grow up and out. A good vineyard manager maintains balance.

“Balance and structure are the building blocks of a well-done vineyard,” Pam said. “How the vines look is important.” 

This time of the year is great to assess overall plant health. Extreme weather from the last vintage can affect the growth patterns of the next season. Too much heat, sun or stress can overtax the plants, slowing new growth. The vineyard workers look for well formed, healthy shoots and remove poor, spindly ones to allow the overall vine to use its energy for only producing strong grapes. These are the plant’s seeds and their whole reason for being. 

In a trellised vineyard, the support of the vines comes from the stakes and wires. A first step is tucking the new canes that first begin to grow. Young vines especially need training to keep them contained.

“It is about balancing the growth. The young vines need to be kept contained. Older vines are easy, they know where to go,” Walden said. “It is important to access them for an optimum return. Overgrowth can lead to vegetative characteristics, but if you push them too much, they begin to struggle and not produce.”

Again, it is all in the balance.  

Buds, frost & flowering

Bud break is another important component that occurs from March to April in the Northern Hemisphere. Pam points out that wineries love this phase because “it makes for great pics on social media!” 

This is when small nodes begin to form along the canes, which eventually become leaves.  The vines are emerging from their dormant winter slumber. This is also the most susceptible time for the vines. Hail and frost are the two biggest concerns. 

“Hail can knock off buds and flowers and damage the new shoots leading to a minimal yield. In 2003 we had hail in May that significantly hurt the vintage,” Pam recalled. 

Frost can also be a factor but is not common in Willamette. However, in lower lying valley floors and cooler regions like Napa Valley, California and Bordeaux, France it is an issue.  As we have seen with the peach industry in Georgia, frost can drastically damage output and damage the delicate new buds. There are different techniques to alleviate frost damage including contained fires burned in the rows as well as using a sprinkler system to keep the plants damp enough to not freeze. 

Between 40 and 80 days later, the next process is the flowering which leads to fruit set.  Temperatures need to be consistent and between 59 and 68F for these fickle plants to produce.  This is the time when the vintners pray on the weather… but that is for another article. 

To round out our interview, we discussed with Pam the future of Willamette Valley

“Oregon Chardonnay has come a long way. New clones are being planted that are producing some awesome wines,” Pam mused. 

She also highlighted some unexpected wines that are coming out including Pinot Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Gamay, and Tempranillo. There are some future challenges including the amount of fruit being sent to California to make up for their lower yields. More demand is leading to newer areas being planted in Oregon, leading to a cultivation of both new grapes and new opportunities for us to have more wines to drink.  

Cheers to the spring and all that 2022 has to offer!

Katie’s Wine Pick

2020 Willful Wine Co. Jezebel Pinot Noir from Oregon
Pam Walden’s entry Pinot Noir is made in the challenging 2020 vintage. This wine is classic and with fresh acidity and pressed, dark cherry notes.  The wine is medium bodied with a smooth, lingering finish. It out drinks it’s $20 price point.

Sarah Pierre

Sarah Pierre owns 3 Parks Wine Shop in Atlanta and is a regular contributor to Atlanta Intown.

Katie Rice

Katie Rice owns VinoTeca, a wine shop in Atlanta and is a regular contributor to Atlanta Intown.