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2022 Oregon Winery of the Year: Chris James Cellars
CARLTON, Ore. — It’s a delicious cliché to approach the wines of Christopher James Barnes and Chris James Cellars as an extension of the quintessential line of 18th century British poet William Cowper — “Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.”
Consumers and judges continue to find the wines by Barnes worth remembering. He’s barely a decade into his novel and noble vineyard and estate winery west of Carlton, Ore., a project he tackled without any experience as a winemaker or grape grower prior to clearing his lot of Douglas fir and brush in 2012.
After producing three Platinum Award winners last fall, including the top-scoring Pinot Noir during the three-day judging, Chris James Cellars stands as the 2022 Oregon Winery of the Year for Great Northwest Wine magazine.
“My strategy with the business is to make a wide variety of wines with a small production of each,” Barnes says. “I’m looking to grow my knowledge and experience as fast as possible with a number of varieties.”
The approach to the wine industry at Chris James Cellars goes beyond the grape that made the Willamette Valley famous, even though the results of last year’s Platinum Awards prove he’s been a quick study of Pinot Noir
“My most important motivation is that the wine has to taste good,” Barnes says. “I don’t have a dogmatic approach to it, although it hasn’t always been that way.”
The concept of variety and choice extends to the visitor’s experience developed by his wife, Beth. In the foothills of the Coastal Range, there’s the estate tasting room that’s framed by the family’s ever-growing vineyard, a veritable menagerie of grape varieties.
Yet, for those who don’t want a peaceful drive in the country along Panther Creek Road to the very end of Old Wagon Road, there’s the convenience of the Chris James Cellars satellite tasting room in historic downtown McMinnville.
“We got very lucky in finding that tasting room location in late 2020,” Beth says. “Our estate is beautiful, but a bit out of the way. You need to be specifically interested in visiting it to be in the area. The McMinnville spot has allowed us to get new people interested in our wines.”
Vision for Chris James Cellars takes root in 2010
None of this was a thought back in 2010, but his success in the world of high tech — past and present — put Chris James Cellars into rapid motion. By 2012, they established their vineyard. Four years later, he built his own estate production facility.
Christopher James Barnes grew up in Florida and became a computer and electrical engineer through Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis — IUPUI — while ultimately adding a business degree. Work took him to both sides of the country. Soon, he and Beth began to think about slowing down a bit, planting some vines and raising a family.
“I felt some sort of draw to Oregon even though I’d never even been here before,” he says, “but Oregon had this vineyard potential that was still reasonably priced and something I could achieve.”
Somehow, he saw his destiny as an extension to Old Wagon Road just off Panther Creek, the namesake stream that Ken Wright made famous decades ago for Pinot Noir. Soil analysis revealed what Barnes sensed was under that surface on the edge of the Yamhill-Carlton American Viticultural Area. What was mistakenly classified Peavine series turned out to be Oregon’s acclaimed Jory soil type.
“I had test pits dug, and it was almost all volcanic soil — ideal for a vineyard,” Barnes said. “The guy looked up at me from one of the pits and said, ‘So how much did you get this property for?’ ”
There might have been a bit of bait-and-switch when it came to what Beth envisioned.
“When we met, I told her I’m going to retire on a vineyard,” he says. “I think she had a very different view of what I was talking about. I think she thought I was going to sit on a porch with a view of the vineyard. Now she runs the company, and I make the wine.”
His four barrels from Wädenswil clone berries from Carl Muska’s vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills emerged as the No. 1 Pinot Noir in the 2021 Platinum Awards, a unanimous choice for Platinum — earning a Double Platinum. It qualified for the 22-year-old event and achieved near perfection in the eyes of the judges — 99 points — after a gold medal at the SavorNW Wine Awards on Cannon Beach.
“Carl Muska is a good friend of mine,” Barnes says. “He sells that specific fruit to only one other winery, and there’s some competition for it.”
The Chris James Cellars 2018 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir also achieved a Platinum, earning 95 points after winning gold medals at SavorNW and the Oregon Wine Awards.
“As an engineer, we’re taught to question everything, so I’m a contrarian, which can be annoying to people,” Barnes says, “but I’ve always been interested in trying to do things differently. And I don’t really think that Pinot is holy and the only thing I should focus on.”
His 2020 estate Sauvignon Blanc picked up a Platinum after gaining entry several weeks earlier at the Great Northwest Invitational at the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, Ore., where it won best of class after earning a double gold medal. For Barnes, the big trick with the white Bordeaux grape is preserving the type of thiols he wants — in his case, the type of sulfur compound responsible for tropical tones — and that starts with increased levels of nitrogen in his vineyard.
“Sauvignon Blanc has been my biggest challenge with winemaking because it’s a very delicate wine, and it requires me to be very, very technical,” he says. “And I want to have the best (expletive) Sauvignon Blanc in Oregon.”
In the first quarter of 2022, he’s already produced a growing number of Platinum-qualifying wines. His 2018 estate Dolcetto, which nearly garnered a Platinum last fall, earned a spot in the sweepstakes three months later at the McMinnville Wine Classic. The 2018 Barbera from the Walla Walla Valley and 2018 Chardonnay also claimed gold medals with McMinnville judges.
“In 2018, everything seemed to line up perfectly for the Dolcetto and I’ve been trying to duplicate that, but it’s really tough,” Barnes said. “Dolcetto naturally wants to make a lot of fruit. During one year, prior to thinning, I did the calculations and the estimate was 20 tons to the acre.”
His one acre of Lagrein stems from that desire to be different, but it also was inspired by McMinnville winemaker Remy Drabkin’s work with that obscure Italian red, which is native to the part of Northern Italy where an ancestor of Barnes grew up.
“When I bought the property in 2011, I was very interested from the start in non-Pinot varieties, and I had her Lagrein, so I became very interested in that,” Barnes said. “I’m still learning about it, and it’s challenging doing this kind of thing in a vacuum. One of the things about Lagrein that’s crazy is you can put an oak tree into it and not really tell.”
Chris James Cellars adds McMinnville tasting room
He’s nearly doubled production in the past few years, planning to reach 3,500 cases from the 2022 vintage. Despite the pandemic, consumer interest and critical acclaim for the program prompted Chris James to expand their efforts. That led them to historic downtown McMinnville, just around the corner from Hotel Atticus.
And there are new blocks of estate grapes beyond the 2012 plantings of an acre each of Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. By 2019, there were 10 varieties represented across 17 acres. Among those are aromatic German varieties Gewürztraminer, Scheurebe and Huxelrebe.
The showy 2020 Cuvée Blanc that Beth entered into this year’s McMinnville judging cruised into the sweepstakes — along with the 2018 Dolcetto — and received best-of-show consideration after receiving a double gold medal and winning the award for Best White Blend.
“I think it’s great to have these unconventional wines doing so well,” he says. “That is a fruit-forward, acid-driven Alsatian-style white that I consider a fun wine, easy to drink and enjoyable. The majority of that is the Scheurebe (70%), which is a child of Riesling and Sylvaner, and I feel Gewürztraminer is the most underrated grape in wine history.”
Last fall, they added three varieties and three acres. This year, there are plans to establish other varieties to get them to about 25 acres with other possibilities among their 62-acre holdings. Among the Pinot Noir clones is Pommard and Dijon 777 and 828 — a storied “suitcase clone.”
“I know this is not a very sexy way of describing it, but my story is that I just work very hard at all of it,” Barnes says.
Granted he doesn’t make every SKU each vintage, and he doesn’t grow them all. Beyond his vineyard, there is Zinfandel from the Columbia Gorge and Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot and Syrah from the Walla Walla Valley. In total, there are nine examples of red wine from the Columbia Valley over the course of three vintages.
His most recent Pinot Noir is from Owl’s Lane Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains near Newberg. At last year’s Platinum Awards, the 2018 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir was a collection from Old Wagon Road Vineyard, Muska’s vineyard and Rodriguez Family Farm — an estate planting for Alumbra Cellars and winemaking friend Elena Rodriguez.
“It’s a very fruit-forward, clean Pinot with all neutral oak,” Barnes said.
He produces the Dolcetto both as a red table wine and a sparkling rosé.
“It works out really well as a rosé because of its higher yield and higher acidity and really nice color,” Barnes said. “It’s that way for a lot of the Italian varieties, and I really don’t understand why.”
Club members get first crack at his 2021 Sparkling Chardonnay and 2021 Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, but there are still a few bottles of the 2019 Prost, his bubbly blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Muller-Thurgau.
Chardonnay has been produced from the Columbia Gorge as well as Yamhill-Carlton. He sources Albariño, Roussanne and Sèmillon from Washington’s side of the Columbia Valley. He’s moved around Washington, experiencing the Horse Heaven Hills and the Yakima Valley.
“Now that I have those relationships, I can depend upon those growers to get me the style of fruit I’m looking for, which includes playing with white wines that I would normally get in the Willamette Valley,” he says.
Alumbra is among those connections, and the Barneses recently provided a stage for the Rodriguez family wines at the Chris James Cellars tasting room in McMinnville. Barnes met both Carl Muska and Elena Rodriguez during their winemaking studies at Chemeketa College in 2014 and 2015.
“We had places that let us do pop-ups before we had a tasting room and so it seems only fair to offer the same to others,” Beth says.
There have been partnerships, custom-crush work and clients along the way as part of the Artem Wine Co., operation Chris and Beth launched in 2015. Rodriguez views Barnes as a mentor, and young Shumaker Vineyards in the Tualatin Hills credits Barnes with helping to launch their brand.
“I’m not a rich guy throwing money at a project, and I’m very involved,” he says. “I’m the guy driving the tractor and tilling and doing the sprays to manage a vineyard. I bought an excavator and did a lot of land clearing, so I don’t have too much free time. I might play a video game or two with my son — and I love sleeping.”
Those familiar with his early bottles under the Artem brand can spot the winged bird of Chris James Cellars and the references to Old Wagon Road Vineyard. His talents also played a role in Wine Press Northwest’s 2018 Oregon Winery to Watch, Huett Cellars, and its early efforts with Pinot Noir.
“We have many, many different varieties and a relatively small percentage of that is Pinot — and for that, I’m very proud,” Barnes says.
- Chris James Cellars, estate tasting room, 12000 NW Old Wagon Road, Carlton, OR. 97111 (503) 852-1135; McMinnville tasting room, 645 NE Third St., McMinnville, OR 97128 (503) 474-7670, ChrisJamesCellars.com.