Panther Creek Rises
Winemakers, investors revitalizing brand
By Jim Gullo
Quick, and without cheating on your smartphone, name three interesting facts about Panther Creek Cellars, the venerable Willamette Valley brand with the cool black and red labels, and a new tasting room that opened in last year in Dundee.
No. 1: The company was founded by Ken Wright in 1986 as his first independently owned winery. In the early years, he also made wines for Domaine Serene at the Panther Creek facility in McMinnville.
No. 2: The winery’s name was suggested by Nick Peirano of Nick’s Italian Café after Wright mentioned how he had been looking at properties on Panther Creek Road.
No. 3: Tony Rynders of Tendril Wines has been the consulting winemaker since 2013, and Willamette Valley veteran Christie Shertzer, formerly of Alexana Winery, was recently promoted to general manager by the San Francisco-based ownership group.
The above were simply the first of many interesting facts revealed when executives from Bacchus Capital Management — new owners of Panther Creek as of May 2013 — hosted a luncheon in Portland last month to honor the storied brand.
On hand were Wright and Rynders, who spoke warmly of what has been an interesting and influential, if turbulent, winery. Since acquiring the winery two years ago, Bacchus — which also lists high-volume Oregon producer Wine by Joe in its portfolio, as well as Washington-based DeLille Cellars — has retained Rynders to make the wine and moved the brand from its long-standing home in the former McMinnville power station to a leased property on Highway 99W in Dundee.
“It was not an easy road at all,” Wright said with a smile about the founding of Panther Creek. “I waited tables for five years after I first got here [and started the winery]. It was a rocky start for Panther Creek.”
Wright had fallen in love with Oregon as a student at the University of California, Davis, in the mid-‘70s. “I had experiences with Pinot Noir that were riveting,” he recalled. “The fruit from Oregon was spot on.”
After working five years for a California company, a severance check provided the means to move north and start his own winery. Starting out at a warehouse in downtown McMinnville, he began to establish the vineyard contracts and make the wines that placed Panther at the top of the second wave of wineries, following industry pioneers like David Adelsheim and Dick Erath.
Wright paid tribute to Dale West, with whom he worked in the winery’s early days and who still staffs the Panther Creek tasting room in Dundee. The two worked together when Wright bought and refurbished McMinnville’s former power station building in 1990 for $100,000. That space served as Panther Creek headquarters until recently (the building is now owned and operated by Elizabeth Chamber Cellars).
About that time, Wright also brought in an investor, with whom he would eventually clash, forcing him to sell the brand and establish his present winery, Ken Wright Cellars, in Carlton. “He promised to be a silent partner, but was actually really loud,” he joked.
Wisconsin native Rynders would become winemaker at Domaine Serene after production moved in-house, and he and Wright enjoyed a collegial relationship through the years.
To underscore Panther Creek’s history and scope, the winemakers poured samples of Carter Vineyard Pinot Noirs made by Wright for Panther Creek and Domaine Serene, dating back to 1993 and 1994, followed by Rynders’ 2013 Panther Creek Cellars Pinot Noir from the same vineyard. The wines, full and lush, with excellent fruit and structure, had plenty of years left in each of the bottles. Wright pointed out that 1994 was a watershed year for Oregon, when wines began to receive elevated scores by the reviewing press. “It changed everything for Oregon,” he said.
Samples of the winery’s Chardonnay and 2013 single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from the Kalita and Schindler vineyards reinforced Panther’s continuing ability to secure high-quality fruit from top vineyards. Sam Bronfman, Bacchus co-founder and managing partner, was also on hand to affirm his company’s commitment to Panther Creek’s growth and longevity. Presently producing 7,000 cases, the winery plans to limit production to 10,000 cases and maintain that level as a premier boutique producer of fine Oregon wines.
“We have something powerful here, and we should embrace it,” said Rynders, who will continue to craft the winery’s line of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, including several single-vineyard designates.