Bryn Mawr is a Welsh name that roughly translates to “High Hill.” Ranging from 650-820 feet on the Western crest of the Eola-Amity Hills, elevation is the distinctive characteristic of our site. As one of the steepest, rockiest, windiest sites in the Willamette Valley, just a hundred yards can have a massive impact on sun and wind exposure, soil type and depth. We have four different soil types striating throughout the property and quite the range of aspects, from Southeast to almost true West. Even though our vineyard is small, our block-to-block variation can be greater than that seen in entire regions!
One thing that has become clear to us is just how different our site is than others in the Willamette Valley. Directly to our West lies the Van Duzer corridor, a mountain pass in the Coast Range that acts as a massive wind tunnel for the rest of the state to receive cool ocean winds on hot summer days. We regularly see temperatures 5-7 degrees lower and winds much stronger than areas just 500 feet below us to the East. As a result, our vines are a bit more stressed and slow-growing than those of our neighbors. Cool vintages bring us white knuckles in the fall, as our grapes often need an extra few weeks to achieve full ripeness and winter rains loom on the forecast. The payoff comes in warm vintages, when we are able to maintain acidity and verve despite high above average hang time.
The early days of Bryn Mawr Vineyards were slow-going and exceedingly hands-on. Rachel lived onsite in the restored trailer with her then-fiance Liam and put into practice her training on site selection as she chose what to plant and where. With 4 acres of mostly Pinot Noir to build from, she formed a plan to maximize the potential of our vineyard. Not only did she need to learn how to deal with the extremities of our intense site, but three of her first four vintages also proved very tough years for Oregon Wine. The home on the property had to be gutted to its frame while the basement was an active winery. The little wine she and Jon were able to make in those first vintages was stunning, but with only 500 cases produced per year, survival was far from guaranteed. Rachel admits she had her doubts, but Temperance Hill just across the street was her favorite vineyard in Oregon, and being able to see it every day assured her that great wine was just waiting to be made here.
Jeffrey’s Block is the oldest part of the vineyard, named after the owners’ oldest son. Planted in sections between 1992-1997, these 2.0 acres are primarily composed of Pinot Noir clones 113 and 115, with a dash of Chardonnay and Tempranillo on the Western edge. Jeffrey’s block is the closest we have to a “classic” Oregon Pinot site: It faces southeast, protected from the intense afternoon sun and wind the rest of the vineyard receives. The soil in Jeffrey’s block is a blend of fine Jory and Nekia type volcanic soil that retain more water than the rocky Ritner that makes up the bulk of our vineyard. In general, it represents the low-stress side of things, producing wines of supreme silkiness and purity.
Krista’s block came next, planted between 2000-2001. Kathy and Jon named this section for their 6 foot, red-headed daughter as it is entirely composed of Pinot Noir grapes and reaches the highest point on the vineyard. Ranging from 750-820 feet, Krista’s block starts flat but gets as steep as anywhere onsite, with a distinctive soil change as the slope picks up. The soil loses all clay content and becomes much rockier. This shallow Ritner series soils force the vines to dig deep into the bedrock, coaxing out a mineral edge in the wines. It faces directly South, highly exposed to the full range of sun and wind that we experience. The berries from Krista’s block tend to be the smallest of any on the vineyard, producing intensely structured wines that reflect a higher-stress growing site.
The first batch of vines Jon and Rachel planted in 2010 were all about increasing the diversity of the vineyard. These included a few rows of 777 and Pommard clones west and south of Krista’s block and a new, 2-acre section of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc east of Krista’s block, named David’s block after their youngest, a natural blonde. David’s Block was planted on the site of a former grazing area and walnut orchard, and was the easiest section to clear and plant. Similar in profile to Jeffrey’s block, the vines were able to grow quickly in a more sheltered, thicker-soiled section of the vineyard. The rest of the property needed two years of love before it was ready for vines.
By 2012, with stumps cleared, brambles fought back, and rocks removed, the site was ready for vines. There were three distinct sections; a steep, south-facing ridge, a west-facing slope, and a flat base section where the two grades met to the southwest. The upper ridge was given an extension to the existing 777, two acres of Pommard, two acres of Wädensvil, and, on the steepest section, half an acre of Dolcetto. At the Western edge lies a strip of marine sedimentary soil that contrasts with the rocky volcanic soil on the rest of the ridge. There, Rachel planted a few rows of Chardonnay, emulating the classic limestone-grown wines from Chablis. The upper ridge is, like Krista’s block, very fast-draining and exposed, comprised almost entirely of Ritner soil. It has the steepest slope on the property, over 30% in some areas, and ranges from 675-815 feet.
On the West slope, there was an issue. We couldn’t plant North-South rows like on the rest of the property without terracing, and we weren’t going to terrace, so we would have to plant east-west. This is not ideal for phenolic development in red wine grapes but potentially great for more sun-sensitive white varietals. Rachel thought about steep, rocky German hillsides, and she deliberately chose an acre of riesling to maximize the slope’s potential. The rest was filled out with Chardonnay. The West slope receives the full brunt of afternoon sun and wind, contrasting factors that build wonderful balance without sacrificing intensity.
The base block was planted fully with 2 acres of Pommard in order to round out the more intensely structured wines produced by our high-stress blocks up above. As the flattest part of the vineyard and the base of two slopes, it has far less drainage and much thicker, finer Jory topsoil. The vines here produce wine with a rich, luscious character that balances out the intense spice and structure we see from the upper ridge, providing body and approachability for our Estate Pinot Noir.
2014 was the year things noticeably changed. A warm, dry vintage with almost zero disease pressure, even our youngest grapes gave great yields with surprising dimension. We shot up to 2,700 case winery, with five different pinots, two chardonnays, a pinot blanc, a rose, and a Tempranillo. 2015 saw the addition of estate Dolcetto and Riesling to the lineup, with a peak production of 3,500 cases. The results have been clear to us; press is coming in, the tasting room is getting crowded, and the wine club is growing. Though still harvesting under a 40×40 foot tent and making wine out of the family basement, the Bryn Mawr vineyards of today is hardly recognizable to those rare few who remember the pre-Lauer/Rose days. However, the dream is not done yet; plans for a new winery and tasting room are in the works. The Bryn Mawr Vineyards of today is a thriving boutique winery, but we feel we’ve only scratched the surface of our site’s potential. The coming years will bring even more growth and change as our vines mature and Rachel learns her vineyard. 8 years and two kids later, she no longer lives onsite, but her connection to this vineyard and the Lauer family are unbreakable by this point; this is just as much her baby as it is theirs.