Front row: (from left) Dmitrii Frolov, Vasiliy Izraliantc, Eugenia Keegan, Ekaterina
Simonova. Middle row: (from left) Tatyana Kashtanova, David Millman, Rob
Alstrin, Tracy Kendall, Alina Kulibaba. Back row: (from left) Denis Mikhailov, Denis
Orlov, Ekaterina Egorova, Natalia Panova, Ekaterina Dolgaia, David Adelsheim.

Ten Russians Visit the Willamette Valley

Jackson Family Wines organizes sommelier tour

By David Adelsheim

For two days in mid-November, I was briefly able to live in a parallel universe, one in which I made friends with 10 Russians. Actually, people from 27 Willamette Valley wineries made friends with ten Russians. Seven of the Russians were sommeliers from the Ginza Group of 95 restaurants based in St. Petersburg. Two were from Marine Express, an importer of wines, also based there. One was a Russian employee of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, based in the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

They were in Oregon serendipitously. Jackson Family Wines (JFW,) the ninth largest wine-producing company in America, had worked out a deal with the company that imports their wines into Russia, Marine Express. JFW wanted to bring a group of somms from one of the most important restaurant groups in Russia to learn about their wineries in California. I’m not privy to the details, but I presume they paid for much of the air transportation, ground transportation, hotels and meals, certainly for the seven restaurant people and perhaps for the two people from Marine Express —the U.S. government paid for its employee.

As the plans were being put together in Russia, our Agricultural Trade officer (ATO) in the Moscow embassy said he would use U.S. funding to pay to have this group fly up to Oregon to see the Jackson wineries in our state, too.

David Leishman, that ATO, is a critical part of this story. His job is, basically, to promote the purchase of American agricultural goods in Russia. Over the last two years, he has focused more of his attention on bringing American wines into Russia. He has attended ProWein — the largest wine trade show in the world, which takes place in Düsseldorf Germany every March — and has brought several wine importers from Russia and other nearby countries to see the American wineries at that show. After ProWein last year, he invited a group of winery representatives from California to come to Moscow to do a tasting of their wines for importers, restaurants and other wine trade at the U.S. ambassador’s home in Moscow. David had become so intrigued with Oregon wines at ProWein that he came to visit Oregon in July 2019, while in the States for other business. He was entranced by what he saw.

The JFW export staff based in London put together a mock itinerary for the group as was required to obtain the necessary visas. It was mostly a sequence of visits to JFW wineries in the central coast and Sonoma/Napa regions. It also left a little free time for the group to visit non-JFW wineries. By the time this itinerary reached Eugenia Keegan, JFW’s general manager for their Oregon properties, two days in Oregon had been added. Lori Buchanan, who was a JFW vice-president of sales for Europe at the time, asked for help from Eugenia and me — the Ginza Group had apparently done some of their own research and wanted to see The Eyrie Vineyards and Adelsheim Vineyard, as well.

“I know it is different in Oregon,” Lori wrote. “Give me some direction and I will get it done.”

And so we did. We proposed a series of events that enhanced the focus on education about Oregon wines. We still had the visits to the three JFW wineries and one vineyard, but we added a general introduction to the Willamette Valley and four seminars, focusing on the four major nested viticultural areas in the northern Willamette Valley. And dinner in our home. Our plan was to give context to the JFW properties by showing that they were part of a hugely collaborative region, in which a winery’s individual short-term gain is often put to the side in favor of the rising tide that, in the long term, helps the entire region.

Our goal was to introduce this group to as many of our top wineries as possible in the two days. We knew that the somms from the Ginza Group wanted to meet with winemakers, not salespeople, when they were at wineries. So we focused on getting the top winemakers from each of the four viticultural regions to be panelists for their region. What impressed me was that almost everyone we asked was willing to give up part of their Sunday or Monday to do this without any guarantee that they would somehow start selling wine into Russia. They viewed this as an opportunity to perfect the way they describe the uniqueness of their region.

On Sunday, Nov. 10, the group arrived at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars almost on time. It was foggy and cool. They stepped off the bus and each introduced themselves warmly. My first impression was that this was not the group of aliens I expected. The young somms looked like the young somms you see in Portland, New York or London — jeans, a few piercings, a few tattoos and a casual, friendly attitude. They went into the first presentation, which was an introduction to the Willamette Valley and its wine industry, given by Jason Lett, the winemaker and owner of The Eyrie Vineyards. He spoke his first sentence and Vasily Izralyants, category manager from Marine Express and the leader of the group, jumped in with a translation. For Jason and all the Oregonians in the following presentations, this took some getting used to. In our all-English world, we don’t automatically divide our presentations into translatable segments. But, it seemed, we learned quickly. Jason has given a version of this presentation for many years at the beginning of Oregon Pinot Camp, so he was a pro.

The rest of the day was tightly choregraphed: a presentation on JFW Oregon; a tour and tasting at Penner-Ash, then at WillaKenzie Estate, two JFW properties; followed by lunch at WillaKenzie. The first panel presentation was on the Yamhill-Carlton American Viticultural Area (AVA.) The moderator was Shane Moore, the winemaker from JFW’s Gran Moraine. His four winemaker panelists were winemaker Ken Wright, who petitioned for recognition of the AVA, Brian Marcy of Big Table Farm, Tony Rynders of Tendril Wine Cellars and James Cahill of Soter Vineyards. My understanding is that things started out somewhat formally, but the Russians soon realized they were in the presence of the experts that truly were responsible for the wines of the AVA. Getting the group out the door and onto their bus was a bit of a problem. They wanted group photos with the winemakers.

Next stop was The Eyrie Vineyards for a quick tour and tasting with Jason. By then, they were half an hour late and Jason had only 50 minutes with them. But he texted as they left, “Fun group.” They agreed to skip checking into their nearby hotel to get back on schedule and to go directly to Adelsheim Vineyard for the Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge panel.

I moderated the panel. The winemaker panelists were Mike Etzel of Beaux Frères, Rollin Soles of ROCO, Michael Davies of REX HILL, and Scott Shull of Raptor Ridge. I was impressed at how well each connected their wine to the vineyard it came from. At one point, chief sommelier Denis Mikhailov suggested that we need to come up with a way to designate our vineyards as Grands and Premiers Crus. It would be much easier for consumers to understand, he said, rather than forcing them to learn the details about how each region tastes. Before Denis finished, Dmitry Frolov, the somm from Ginza’s Mansarda Restaurant, interrupted with a translation into English for us. As the seminar continued, other somms started to ask questions and make comments about how the wines in this seminar were different from those in the Yamhill-Carlton seminar. They were starting to get it. And they were starting to get tired and hungry.

The final stop of the day was dinner at Eugenia’s and my home. We understood from past experience with somms that you do not take them to restaurants. They work in restaurants every day. In a restaurant, they automatically focus first on service, second on food quality and presentation. Getting them to consider wine and topics about the region is very difficult. But in our home, the vibe is completely different — we are welcoming these guests into our lives. And these guests were both wowed and charmed that we would do this. It didn’t hurt that the salmon was pretty tasty.

Of course, we had a program for them. Rob Alstrin from Argyle presented two sparkling wines and two Pinot Noirs, David Millman from Domaine Drouhin presented a Chardonnay and two Pinot Noirs and Tracy Kendall, winemaker from Domaine Nicolas-Jay, showed a rosé and two Pinots. Eugenia showed the Gran Moraine sparkling rosé, a current Willamette Valley Pinot from the JFW property La Crema and an older Penner-Ash Pinot. I showed the Adelsheim 2014 sparkling rosé and a very old Pinot.

We asked the winery people to change seats between the main course and the cheese course, so we could all have new conversations. I learned from one somm that she had a master’s degree in marketing from the University of Angers in France. I learned from another that St. Petersburg has as many foreign tourists each year as Venice. Ekaterina Simonova, from Marine Express, was amazed that Americans could be so different. To her, Oregonians were not like Californians — they were more like Europeans. Many people told us that our home felt like a place they knew. It was warm and, somehow, Russian.

There were many toasts during the meal. Eugenia knew that we were winning over the Russians, when chief somm Denis admitted he was a little sad that he was away from his family that day. It was his son’s birthday. We all toasted to his son. Denis smiled broadly.

Their bus picked up this exhausted group at about 10:30 and delivered them to their hotel back in McMinnville. I doubt that any one of them got enough sleep that night. Getting them onto their bus the next morning must have been quite the task. They were 24 minutes late to their first stop.

Luckily, it was a vineyard tour at Zena Crown. The bus then brought them to the event space across the street, At The Joy, where they tasted the wines of Zena Crown. That was followed by a winemaker panel on the Eola-Amity AVA. Moderator Ben Casteel from Bethel Heights Vineyard introduced the region. Panelists Ken Pahlow of Walter Scott, Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra, Thomas Savre of Lingua Franca and Tom Gerrie of Cristom took turns describing their vineyards and specifically how their climate and soil influenced the wine they presented. I sat in the back and smiled as they spoke in meters, degrees centigrade and hectoliters per hectare as if they did that every day. And, again, the Russians were able to draw general conclusions about the AVA as compared the two others they had tasted.

Next stop was Gran Moraine, the third JFW winery in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Winemaker Shane Moore presided over a tasting of his wines during lunch.

The final event in their whirlwind tour of the northern Willamette Valley took place at Domaine Drouhin Oregon. It was a bright sunny afternoon and managing director David Millman took them to the top of the vineyard, where you could see much of the Valley laid out in front of you. After many photos and jaunts into the vineyard, all the cats were corralled again and seated for their last tasting. Moderator Nicolas Quillé, MW, and chief winemaking officer for Crimson Wine Group —which owns Archery Summit — introduced the Dundee Hills. His panelists included Gary Horner of Erath Winery, Arron Bell of Domaine Drouhin and Melissa Burr of Stoller Family Estate. For me, the wines divided themselves into two groups by sub-region — northern and southern. There’s still a lot of work to be done to truly understand how much the wines of each AVA are similar and how they differ by sub-region.

The Russians were very relaxed by now. They knew the drill and they easily understood how these wines differed from those they had seen before. When the seminar ended, Arron invited them to have a quick tour of the winery. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead there were group photos, individual photos with winemakers, Eugenia and me — every possible combination. Vasily went into the luggage and brought out thank-you gifts, scarves for the women, vodka for the men. Everyone was happy. And everyone, both Russian and American, was sad that the tour was ending.

David Leishman has proposed a visit by Oregon wine members to Moscow on March 18–20, 2020. He would set up a trade tasting at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow. Importers would be invited to taste the wines of Oregon. Until an Oregon winery secures an importer for Russia, they can’t do any business in the country. Vasily said they would help organize a similar tasting in St. Petersburg on March 23 or 24. We all said we would see each other again in March. And then our new friends got into their bus and left for the airport.

It’s too soon to know what will come of this visit. Will JFW’s Oregon brands show an increase in sales in Russia? Will five or ten Oregon wineries find importers in Russia over the next months? Will Oregon wine become prized in St. Petersburg or will it languish on wine lists and shelves?

But this visit by ten people I did not know was more than about introducing them to our wines. It was about connecting two groups, who have been increasingly divided by politics and the news. Wine has the potential to bring people together in a way that no other beverage, perhaps nothing else, can. Because wine is the ultimate expression of place, you can only understand a wine by visiting the place it comes from.

The ten Russians had never been to Oregon before — most had never been to the States. By their short visit here, they learned about our wines, for sure. But they also learned about us. And we about them.

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