Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Dan Rinke, the vineyard manager and winemaker at Johan Vineyards in the Willamette Valley.
I first tasted the wines of Johan Vineyards last summer. I was in Portland visiting a good friend who knew of my appreciation for Oregon Pinot Noir, especially the ones that are better described as elegant and nuanced rather than simply powerful. When I tasted the wines from Johan, I was instantly impressed.
Johan Vineyards is located in the Van Duzer Corridor, which is south of the McMinnville AVA and slightly west of the Eola-Amity AVA. In this part of the Willamette Valley, there is a major cooling effect thanks to a gap in the coastal range. Here, wind will shoot down and can create swings of nearly 30 degrees between daytime and nighttime temperatures!
A Wisconsin native, Dan’s first jobs in the wine industry were in Milwaukee, where he worked first in the restaurant industry and then selling wine. In 2002, Dan moved to California as he wanted to dive into the deep end of the industry — so he pursued a degree in viticulture from Fresno State University.
After graduation, Dan landed a position at Domaine Alfred in California’s Central Coast. (Today, that winery is known as Chamisal Vineyards.) Two years later, he joined Rhys Vineyards, which was just getting its start.
Dan moved to Oregon in 2007 to join the team at Johan. Check out our interview with Dan below the fold.
What’s your general winemaking philosophy?
Let the wine dictate how it wants to be made. Do not force the grapes to be something they are not.
You can call this hands-off winemaking or natural winemaking or whatever else you want. But basically, the only manipulations I do are by technique — not by additions. I don’t believe in utilizing any winemaker tricks.
So at Johan Vineyards, there’s no fining and I don’t add any tannin, water, sugar, enzymes, nutrients, commercial yeast, commercial ML bacteria, fish guts, gelatin, copper, vitamin C, DMDC, Velcorin, gum arabic, or any of the many other wine additives the U.S. government allows in a wine without it being labeled.
The reason I want to make wine this way is that I believe in how and where the grapes are grown — and I want to showcase their sense of place. I also want to make a wine that is delicious now but will age for many years to come.
How did you get your start in the business?
In my early 20s, I worked in restaurants, then wine shops, and eventually for wine distributors as a salesperson.
I realized back then that I didn’t enjoy sales, so I decided to go to school for winemaking. Just before I left for school, I attended a winemaker dinner with Michel Chapoutier and he suggested that I change my major to viticulture, so the very next day I did so. I obtained a BS in viticulture from Fresno State University.
I was then hired as an assistant winemaker where I learned wine making by apprenticing at Domaine Alfred in the Edna Valley. I then took a job with Rhys Vineyards as their viticulturist, where I was in charge of the vineyard and their biodynamic program. While at Rhys, I also helped out in the cellar during harvest and whenever I could through the rest of the year.
How did your time at Rhys help shape your winemaking?
I would say that at Domaine Alfred, I learned how to work in a cellar. At Rhys I fell in love with their wines, Kevin’s philosophy, and his methods. His wines were so fresh and delicious and wound up with energy. The main philosophy there is to make a wine that is not overly extracted but yet will still have elegance, tannins, and acid so the wine can age.
How did you end up in Oregon — and specifically at Johan?
The desire to produce wines like the ones being made at Rhys brought me to Oregon. In the Willamette Valley, you can get great results on a more consistent basis. Simply put, our climate is better suited for these types of wines.
I also felt that I needed to find a cooler climate than the typical Willamette Valley vineyard, along with soils that are more conducive to Pinot Noir. Johan Vineyards is located right in front of the Van Duzer Corridor. The corridor is east to west facing, which allows maritime breezes to cool the vineyards.
Johan’s soils are also unique compared to most of the Willamette Valley in they were formed by the Missoula floods. As the flood waters washed over our hills, they scoured off the old existing top soils and deposited a thin top soil of decomposed granite that was washed in from Idaho and Montana. We have one of the highest concentrations of erratic granite boulders in the area.
What is it about Johan’s wine that you think are special?
I believe that the holy grail for Pinot Noir is power with elegance! I think we have and can continue to achieve this. Low alcohol, high acid, with age worthy tannins.
You make some skin-fermented Pinot Gris. How do you decide which Pinot Gris grapes will be left on the skins and which ones won’t be?
Great question. I actually try to evaluate the amount of tannins in the skin by taste prior to picking. This is particularly hard to do with sweet grapes, because the sugar hides the tannins. It takes a lot of grapes to figure it out. The color of the fruit is also a good indicator but I do prefer to taste them.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
A 2004 Jean Bourdy Cotes du Jura Blanc and a bottle of Isastegi cider
Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
Mike Sinor, the former winemaker at Domaine Alfred, is both my mentor and a good friend. Others that inspire me include Paul Draper, David Lett, Russ Raney, Giacomo Conterno, Francois Raveneau, and Josko Gravner
What new winemakers are you most excited about?
How do you spend your days off?
Playing baseball, swimming, and watching cartoons with my two-year-old son, Cash Xavier Rinke.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
This year, the best wine so far was a 1978 Domaine Marquis d’Angerville Volnay 1er Cru Champans. The most interesting, a 2004 Knoll Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Loibner.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
I have a 1976 Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny Cuvée Vieilles. That’s both my oldest and most expensive!
If you had to pick one red and one white wine to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
For the white, a 2008 Skerk Vitovska. For the red, a 1990 Clos De Tart.
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Doing interviews! Actually, it’s knowing when to bottle a wine and how to answer questions about ageability of specific wines.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?
Vosne Romanée. Too bad I can’t afford the wines from there!
Is beer ever better than wine?
Yes! During harvest and after working in a vineyard all day.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
That I discovered wine because of Brett Favre. My “aha moment” came in a staff training just before the Brett Favre Steakhouse opened in Milwaukee back in August 1997.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making wine for a living?
I’d still be selling wine in Milwaukee.
How do you define success?
Being interviewed for Terroirist.com!