Bringing Old World craft and New World technology to the art of winemaking.
By Shannon Larson
WillaKenzie Estate sits on over 420 acres in beautiful Yamhill, Oregon. Out of those 420 acres, only 102 are comprised of vines. The rest of the land is dedicated natural pasture and Douglas fir forests, including over 50 fruit trees used in staff meals and a collection of Longhorn cattle that graze in open fields. WillaKenzie Estate is known worldwide for their sustainable agricultural practices, but their reputation stems from their production of Pinot family varietals created using a combination of Old World tradition and New World technology.
After spending fourteen years in California, owners Bernard and Ronni Lacroute followed their love of wine and art to western Oregon’s fertile hills. Bernard Lacroute was born and raised in Burgundy, France where, according to Bernard, he developed an early taste for Pinot Noir instead of milk. The hills of Burgundy are very similar to Oregon’s famous wine-country and both areas produce wines of similar quality and value.
The Lacroutes began their project in January of 1991, building roads and tapping into the natural resources available to them—such as the natural springs and rich, fertile soil from which the winery gets its name. The winery itself is built into a hill, using the natural slant of the land to best produce and refine the crop. After every cluster of grapes is inspected by hand, gravity takes over. The grapes are pushed by gravity and descend down into the building, meanwhile undertaking the necessary steps for fermentation.
After each cluster is inspected by hand, the grapes then descend down a shoot and into large steel barrels where “Big Foot” presses them down to separate the skin and the fruit. “Big Foot” was designed and built by Bernard Lacroute. The machine mimics a human foot with toes which slowly press down the grapes and mixes the barrel. After this process takes place, the grapes are sent further down into the building where the wine is cooled in French Oak barrels. These barrels sit in a room kept at a constant temperature of 55°. This is all done naturally, as the location of the room provides no need for use of unnatural heating or cooling.
The gravity flow concept has been used for over 500 years in Burgundy, but is uncommon here in the United States. The cost and sophistication of this design means that less wine can be produced, but the wine will be of an inherently higher quality. Without the use of mechanical pumps and human hands, the grapes escape unnatural bruising which in turn produces round wines free of bitterness.
The importance of both the New and Old Worlds regarding winemaking means that the Lacroutes are continually looking for ways to improve the taste and quality of their product. WillaKenzie Estate began its wine production using only steel fermentation barrels, but is currently experimenting with traditional French Oak barrels as well.
The slight differences in taste and aroma that these French Oak barrels produce could mean a new world of possibilities for the Lacroutes and their staff. According to Ronni Lacroute, the goal of the staff is to “use what nature gives us and give it its best expression.” Staff on the property consists of about fourteen year-round employees, all of whom receive full benefits. The idea behind this is sustainability. “When the staff has a stake in the business, they care more about the product,” says Ronni Lacroute.
WillaKenzie Estate’s relationship with the land is apparent in every way, from the growing of the grapes to the fermentation process. Rainwater is caught and used only during the establishment of the vines or during drought. No synthetic chemicals are used on the vines. To encourage the health of the rich soil, the staff spreads composts and promotes the habitation of earth worms and fungi near the vines. By reserving over 300 acres to natural habitat, the land provides refuge for natural predators which, in turn, control the rodent population.
WillaKenzie Estate is also paving the road for wineries looking to replace corked bottles with screw cap closures. These new screw cap closures are being used on an increasing number of WillaKenzie wines since they prevent the contamination associated with natural cork. WillaKenzie Estate was the first U.S. winery to bottle premium Pinot Noir with a screw cap closure. In 2008, WillaKenzie Estate was chosen as one of the top 100 wineries by Wine & Spirit magazine. Only 36 U.S. wineries were given this honor.
“Our relationship with the earth gives us the opportunity to produce artistic pleasure from it,” says Ronni Lacroute, whose love of French culture and language led her to her passion for fine wine. “Even during bad years, we are able to produce something beautiful and interesting from our crop.” Wine is an artistic expression for the staff of WillaKenzie Estate, a creative adventure combining the science of the New World and the spirit of the Old one.