Warnshuis realizes dream of Utopia along Oregon’s tiny Ribbon Ridge

By on April 21, 2021
Dan Warnshuis purchased the property for Utopia Vineyard in 2000 and his now owns 54 acres on Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge after a recent acquisition. (Ellen Landis/EllenOnWine.com)

NEWBERG, Ore. — Dan Warnshuis is no stranger to hard work, focusing on goals and achieving results, which he’s continued at Utopia Vineyard & Winery.

He was an All-American swimmer in high school, which earned him a full scholarship to Michigan State University for swimming. After completing college, Warnshuis returned to his home state of California, and it was there (while working in the high-tech industry, and living in Napa Valley), that his love for fine wine and cuisine developed. 

As time allowed, he enjoyed working with grape growers and making wine at a custom crush facility in Napa. But his palate led him to Oregon Pinot Noir, which he began collecting in 1984. That passion for wine soon spawned a dream to create a winery of his own, and his thirst for Pinot Noir led him out of California once again to make it happen.

Establishment of Utopia begins with 2000 purchase

Utopia Vineyard was established in 2002 and achieved L.I.V.E. certification in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Utopia Wines)

Warnshuis’s earnest search for property began in 1998. In 2000, he discovered and procured an ideal site, where he and wife Kathy founded Utopia Vineyard & Winery. This location, within the Willamette Valley, offered the perfect climate — and excellent finely textured marine sedimentary soil — for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay among other varieties.

Their property spans 19 acres of south-facing hillsides. Carefully manicured vines are perched at an elevation of 500 feet within the tiny Ribbon Ridge American Viticultural Area in the northern Willamette Valley.

Vineyards in this AVA must be situated at an elevation of at 240 feet above sea level. This AVA, which covers 5.25 square miles, is the smallest in Oregon. And the Warnshuis family’s philosophy is to preserve and care for the land for future generations. So the 17 acres under vine are organically and sustainably farmed, and Utopia received L.I.V.E. certification in 2008. 

Their plantings include 12 clones of Pinot Noir — including Dijon clones 115, 667 and 777, Pommard, Wädenswil, Swan and several old-vine heirloom clones from existing vineyards in California and Oregon — and three Dijon clones of Chardonnay. 

Warnshuis recently acquired another 36.5 acres just up the road from the Utopia tasting room, where he and his family will be planting another 15 acres of vines in the fall. Plans include Riesling, Pinot Gris and more Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Warnshuis to expand Ribbon Ridge plantings to 34 acres

Dan Warnshuis relives four recent vintages of Pinot Noir from his Utopia Vineyard in 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

He exemplifies the true meaning of the term “winegrower,” and his passion for his work is palpable. He oversees the management of the vineyard (assisted by one dedicated vineyard employee), monitors the development and maturity of the fruit, and works the harvest (which is always hand-picked and hand-sorted). Then there’s the winemaking and bottling the wines. 

On top of that, Warnshuis also serves as President of the Ribbon Ridge Winegrowers Association. His resourceful wife, Kathy, works behind the scenes contributing her creative ideas, and their eldest daughter Erin, an Oregon State University graduate, manages the tasting room and the winery’s marketing programs.

Utopia’s first commercial vintage was 2006, of which Dan produced 413 cases of estate Pinot Noir. Today’s production has increased 2,500 cases annually. The lineup of estate wine includes  Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir rosé and Pinot Noir Blanc, as well as Willamette Valley Pinot Gris and Late Harvest Riesling. They utilize French oak barrels, primarily crafted by Burgundian coopers.

Here is a preview of five nicely crafted Utopia Vineyard wines I recently tasted:

2020 Pinot Gris ($30): Soon to be released, this silky Pinot Gris displays upbeat citrus and floral aromatics. The inviting entry shines with a burst of lemon-lime. Smooth and well balanced with nice depth as flavors of nectarine, lime peel and a pinch of lemon verbena delightfully unfold and head to a satisfying close.

2018 Estate “Bliss” Pinot Noir Blanc ($45): Here is a smoothly textured white wine, made from Pinot Noir, that shows off a pinkish hint in the pale straw color. Scents and flavors of orange blossom, ripe alpine strawberries, raspberries, and Rainier cherries interlace with brisk acidity. Lively and refreshing with a finish that is persistent.

2015 Estate Chardonnay ($45): Fragrant honeysuckle and tree fruits on the nose lead to Bartlett pear, butter-sautéed red apples, baking spices, oak nuances, and subtle earthiness unfolding across the palate. The plush mouthfeel is balanced by precise acidity, and fresh squeezed orange peeks through on the long finale.

2015 Estate Pinot Noir ($55): Highly aromatic, this zesty Pinot Noir opens with scents of wild cherries and a fresh-picked floral bouquet. Bright acidity frames layers of Bing cherries, blueberries, notes of forest floor, tangerines, hints of oak, and savory spice. The wine’s piquancy extends through the satisfying finish.

2016 Paradise Estate Reserve Pinot Noir ($65): Alluring violets on the nose lead to a rich mouthful of black cherry, boysenberry, and black raspberry fruit, that harmonize beautifully with exotic spice, wild mushrooms, minerality, and skillfully integrated oak. This wine is well-structured and balanced with a satin-like texture, refined tannins, and a finish that never stops!

The vineyard, winery and tasting cottage are at 17445 NE Ribbon Ridge Road in Newberg, Ore. They are open every day throughout the year by appointment. When you visit, you will likely meet the friendly winery mascots — English springer spaniels Duke and Duchess. You can plan a visit by emailing them at info@utopiawine.com or calling the winery at 503 687-1671. Visit their Utopia.com for further details.

About Ellen Landis

Ellen Landis is a certified sommelier, wine writer, wine educator, wine event moderator and sought-after judge at prominent regional, national and international wine competitions. Ellen and her husband, chef Ken Landis, sold Landis Shores Oceanfront Inn, a boutique resort on Miramar Beach, Calif., in 2015. They invested in the Pacific Northwest before moving to St. Petersburg, Fla.

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