Winemaker Interview: Aaron Lieberman

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 04-26-2019

Aaron Lieberman

Aaron Lieberman

As our regular readers know, from time to time, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker to probe their winemaking philosophy and to gain insight into how they became who they are. This week, we are featuring Aaron Lieberman, the winemaker at Iris Vineyards in the Willamette Valley.

Aaron’s interest in the wine industry fittingly started when he was a student at Oregon State University. After some time in Peace Corps, Aaron returned to Oregon and in particular to Willamette Valley to work at Amity Vineyards. After later working at De Ponte Cellars and at Owen Roe, as well as making wine for his own label, in 2008, Aaron became the winemaker at Iris. He has remained in that position for more than 10 years now.

Iris Vineyards is located in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Mountain Range at the south end of the Willamette Valley. Iris Vineyards is owned by Richard Boyles and Pamela Frye, who live on the 800 acre estate. That estate includes Chalice Vineyard, in which Iris Vineyards grows its own grapes.

Check out the interview below the fold!

Where were you born and raised?

Born in Berkeley, CA; raised in Stockton, CA and Central Point, OR.

When and how did you get into wine?

When I started college, I wanted to be a veterinarian focused on large animals. As part of the agricultural curriculum at Oregon State University, I was required to take some soil science classes. I enjoyed those classes so much that I began to take them as electives and eventually changed my major. During that time academic excitement was building at OSU around the Oregon wine industry in both viticulture and enology. Several of my professors were making wine at home and/or had made wine professionally. Dr. Alan Bakalinsky and Barney Watson offered an “Introduction to Winemaking” class, which I took and was thrilled with. My father has long had a strong interest in the wine industry, starting with his time at UC Berkeley from 1968 to 1971 when he and my mother frequently visited the Napa Valley to taste. His influence on my career trajectory has been strong.

What has been your career path to where you are?

In the summer of 1996, upon my return to Oregon from Guatemala where I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the agricultural extension, I applied for and was offered a job to manage the vineyards at Amity Vineyards under the direction of Myron Redford. Subsequently I managed vineyards in the Dundee Hills and for a vineyard management and development company before beginning my wine production career in 2001 at DePonte Cellars as a harvest intern under then and current winemaker Isabelle Dutartre. In 2003 I landed at Owen Roe Winery near Newberg as Assistant Winemaker under David O’Reilly.  Finally, I accepted the job as Iris Vineyards’ first Winemaker in 2008.

In your view, what makes your vineyards special?

The Willamette Valley is known as a cool climate growing region for wine grapes. The Lorane Valley, at the southern tip of the Willamette Valley AVA, is even cooler than most other areas of the Willamette. We tend to have budbreak a week or two later than other parts of the valley and, even then, often battle frost in the first month or so following budbreak. As a consequence of this cool microclimate we harvest later and have a longer ripening period from veraison to picking.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

I want to over-deliver on quality for every wine we produce relative to its price point. To that end, I work hard to purchase the best grapes we can find for each wine we make. In the cellar we are committed to understanding and using techniques that produce high-quality wines, regardless of whether those techniques are brand new or ancient.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

Finding and hiring quality people for harvest cellar work is always a big challenge. There are a lot of moving parts to consistently making high-quality wine. Keeping track of everything can sometimes be a challenge.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

I haven’t honestly studied the history of individual winemakers. Two of my favorite winemakers in Oregon are Isabelle Dutartre and Steve Doerner.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?

It is gratifying to see many of my former interns go on to make wine for themselves or other wineries. Andrew Dawson of Latitude 34, Etienne Mangier of North Wine, Simone Vicenzutti.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?

Burgundy.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

I love Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and have had many excellent examples over the years. The most interesting wine I ever had was a 1929 Chateau d’Yquem, which I tasted in 2008.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?

I have a few bottles of 2002 Pinot Noir I made for my own label. The most expensive wine I have retailed for $60/bottle.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

2015 Argyle Brut.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?

My white wine would be a brut sparkling wine, traditional method. My red would be Pinot Noir.

Is beer ever better than wine?

This question requires context. I will almost always pick wine over beer if the quality is comparable. Sometimes I do pick beer if the food pairing is better or the social circumstances demand it.

How do you spend your days off?

I work a lot so most of my days off are spent doing domestic chores or just relaxing. When I have time I like to travel. I also enjoy home improvement projects and activities with friends.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I think most people would be surprised to find out that I’m gay. Also, I lived in Guatemala for nearly three years, which sometimes surprises people, along with the fact that I speak Spanish fluently.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?

When I started university studies, I wanted to be a large animal veterinarian so that is a possibility. Since I ended up with a degree in Soil Science I could have gone into agronomy or natural resource conservation work.

How do you define success?

Personally, I feel successful if the large majority of people who taste my wine like it.

Comments (1)

  1. Good timing on this interview Albert & David. Most people don’t know that Willamette Valley extends 150 miles, all the way to Eugene, about 2 hours south of Portland. The wineries there are gaining momentum and visibility. Your feature interview of Aaron and Iris Vineyards will certainly help.