Winemaker/sommelier Jess Pierce. ##Photo by Michael Alberty

A Small Wonder

Earth-conscious wine saves Thanksgiving

By Michael Alberty

The 2019 Pierce Wines Van Horn Vineyard Riesling promotes familial harmony and heals the planet. How’s that for a Thanksgiving wine recommendation?

My family argues over Thanksgiving wine selections with a passion, typically reserved for wars of independence. To make everyone happy, I place an array of red, white and pink half-bottles of wine on the dinner table. This means I’m always on the lookout for great wines in small bottles.  

That’s why I was excited to see Jess Pierce’s newest vintage of Riesling in a refillable 500-ml crown-capped beer bottle. I’ve loved this wine ever since its first vintage in 2016. The new refillable bottle evidently reduces carbon emissions by 90% versus using traditional single-use containers. Hey, it’s not often one gets to drink great Riesling and strike a blow for ecology.

Pierce Wines 2019 Van Horn Vineyard Riesling ##Photo by Marcus Larson

Pierce, a certified sommelier, worked for some of the finest restaurants and wineries in Oregon. She makes her Riesling at Walter Scott Wines in Salem, where she currently works in sales, marketing and wine education. Pierce is also an adjunct professor at Linfield University’s Evenstad Center for Wine Studies.   

Pierce’s refillable bottle journey began with a visit to Coopers Hall Winery & Taproom in the summer of 2019. That’s where she noticed they were selling rosé of Pinot Noir in a refillable 500-ml glass beer bottle. When Coopers Hall partner and wine director Joel

Gunderson explained how Oregon Bottle Drop’s refillable bottle program works; Pierce was in.

The process is simple: You pay a $0.10 deposit when you buy Pierce’s Riesling in a refillable bottle. After drinking the wine, return the bottle to an Oregon Bottle Drop Redemption Center or a participating retailer to get your dime back. Bottle Drop crews then sort and sterilize the bottles before selling them back to producers like Pierce. 

Refillable bottles can be re-used approximately 25 times, and Pierce says the current return rate in Oregon is 85%. Using these bottles not only reduces carbon emissions, but also helps keeps traditional 750-ml glass wine bottles out of landfills and off our roadsides and beaches. “It made such good environmental sense, I couldn’t figure out why more wineries weren’t using them,” Pierce said.

Another part of the sustainability equation is putting a wine in a refillable bottle that compels people to buy more. That is not a problem for Pierce. 

It starts with the high-quality grapes Pierce purchases from the Van Horn Vineyard. Surrounded by a fruit forest of apple and pear trees in the east hills of the Hood River Valley, the vineyard offers 662 feet of elevation and volcanic soils well-suited to Riesling. Its panoramic views of Mount Hood and Mount Adams don’t hurt either. “This part of the Columbia River Gorge has an alpine feel that makes me feel much closer to the Mosel Valley than when I am in the Willamette Valley,” Pierce said.

When vineyard owners around Oregon first heard Pierce was making wine, they rushed to her doorstep. They were eager to sell her some of their Riesling grapes. Pierce took a pass. “I want to learn everything I can about one vineyard. I don’t necessarily want a Riesling empire,” Pierce explained.  

Pierce believes learning the ins and outs of the Van Horn Vineyard will help her make good wines without what she describes as “superfluous intervention.” As she told the Oregon Wine Press in November 2013, “Understanding your soil and vines is key to making wine with minimal intervention, giving the wine a sense of place with an unmistakable character.” To that, I say, job well done.

The fun begins with colors. Never has the physical act of pouring a wine offered such a jarring study in contrast. Watching the pale moonbeam-colored Riesling flow from a brown-tinted beer bottle is like spotting Roger Federer exiting a bowling alley cocktail lounge.

Aromatically, the wine conjures up images of the orchards surrounding Van Horn Vineyard. The first wave showcases a stone fruit combination of white peaches and Bing cherries. The fruit is followed by traces of honeycomb, homemade orange bitters and something akin to the white powder found on a stick of Wrigley’s chewing gum.

Talk about backyard Riesling sip n’ slide fun. This wine positively glides as it struts its off-dry stuff throughout your mouth. The flavors of brioche, honeycomb, citrus, Bosc pear and talc make me feel closer to the Mosel than Mosier. At 11% alcohol, it will be dangerously easy to open two or three of these 500-ml bottles at Thanksgiving dinner. I’m confident no one will complain if you do.

The 2019 Pierce Wines Van Horn Riesling sells for $15, a modest price to pay for family tranquility and environmental sustainability.

The Changeup, a monthly column by Michael Alberty, is a baseball pitch designed to disorient and confuse. It’s the perfect representation of the unknown and its mastery over those who think they know what to expect. This column is devoted to those unorthodox Oregon wines you never saw coming.

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