Talking Out Loud: Leah Jorgensen

Living in Northern California, you can’t avoid wine.  This nectar of the gods is ever-present and normally free-flowing.  It is the social lubrication for most social gatherings and functions in the area.  Wine parties are as ubiquitous  as birthday parties it seems, so knowing your wines is as important as knowing current events it seems.  Fortunately, my time in cooking school and my affinity for the drink has proven valuable over the years.  However, I will say that my love affair with vino actually started over a decade ago when I first moved to Washington, D.C. after college and was introduced to Leah Jorgensen.

Leah and I worked for the same corporate think tank after college.  While the work may have been less than fulfilling (as evidenced that we both left for widely different career paths), what was amazing were the dinners we would plan for our co-workers.  On a monthly basis, Leah, myself and our friend Amy would organize these elaborate meals at local D.C. hot spots.  Up until meeting Leah, I knew that wine either came in a jug, box or could be bought for $1.99.  These dinners with Leah and our friends were key educational sessions for me as Leah always had impeccable taste when it came to wine and always knew the right one to pair with whatever was being served.  So it came as no surprise that she soon left our mutual corporate gig to work in a boutique wine shop and through a series of lucky breaks and hard work ended up in Portland where she is quickly making a name for herself as one of the growing number of female vintners in the Pacific Northwest producing wine.

I am excited to have Leah in this posting of Talking Out Loud and share her thoughts on life, food and of course wine…..

Oregon, in particular Portland, has come to the nation’s attention recently thanks to the show Portlandia.  In particular, there is a skit where a couple go to a restaurant, order a chicken dinner and ask to see it’s “papers”.  It seems that people in the area are really passionate about really understanding where their food comes from.  Do you notice the same intensity when it comes to wine?

Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest in general, has long been a leader in America’s quality food and farming culture, or “revolution”, if you will, advocating for sound, sustainable, humane sourcing of food provisions, including farming, foraging, hunting, fishing, gathering, slaughtering, and so on.  Oregon’s establishment of organizations like Oregon Tilth, Salmon Safe, and L.I.V.E. (Low Input Viticulture & Enology) has positioned its food/beverage movement as a national model for setting the bar in high quality and sustainability.  People here want to know where their food comes from and they want assurance that their food has been raised, farmed, sourced and prepared mindfully.  Oregon is well-known for the quality of its extensive bounty – including orchards, seafood, blackberries, strawberries, cranberry bogs, mushrooms, coffee, tea, cheese, pork, wines, microbreweries, craft spirits, drinking water sources, and so on.  Our farmers markets are world-class.  And, our restaurants reflect that quality, too.  James Beard hails from Oregon – which also explains why so many celebrated chefs relocate to Oregon for their passion for local, sustainable, high quality food sources.  Oregon wines are a significant part of the food culture.  It’s like when you go to France, Italy or any culinary region – you’re going to eat the food of the region, prepared by chefs who use fresh, local  ingredients of the season and serve wines made from neighboring vineyards.  It’s the old world style of gastronomy.  And, it makes sense.  Localvorism is an important value to Oregonians.  Thus, the wines grown in Oregon are reflective of the food of the region, where the most widely planted grape, Pinot Noir, naturally pairs with the local cuisine – like Chanterelle mushrooms, wild salmon, steelhead, pork belly, and so on; and, the cool climate white wines pair up with the Dungeness crab, oysters and vegetarian flavors.  Oregon is the ideal place to eat when you have special diets – vegan, vegetarian, lactose and gluten-free, and so on.  It’s a place that gets diets and food politics.  And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best place to eat and drink in the country.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that “Wine is bottled poetry” which I think is appropriate.  A good poem has a solid beginning that draws you in, a middle that makes you inspired and an end that leaves you wanting more.  So if your wine was a poem, which one would it be and why?

If my wine was a poem, it would have to be Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Wine.”  It’s a sensual, romantic poem.  Neruda is a master of sensual, romantic love.  The poem is feminine, pretty, seductive with lines like “…wine, starry child of earth, wine, smooth as a golden sword, soft, as lascivious velvet, wine, spiral-sea shelled and full of wonder, amorous…”  Doesn’t get more intoxicating than that!

I find that being a male in interior design is a double-edged sword; at times it helps in a field dominated by women and other times it is a hindrance.  Have you found the same being a female wine maker?

As for being a female winemaker, I think it’s interesting to consider the original roles of our most ancient ancestors – men were the hunters, and women were the gatherers.  I have read that women have more taste buds than men for a reason, as well as a heightened sense of smell and taste, because women had to detect poison when gathering and foraging for their young.  I certainly don’t see a need to compare genders, but, I do believe women have an advantage when it comes to tasting.  I think the winemaking business is still very much an old boys club, however, especially in Oregon, women winemakers continue to make their mark.  Some women who have been incredible role models in Oregon include Burgundian Veronique Drouhin (Domaine Drouhin Oregon), Susan Sokol-Blosser (Sokol-Blosser), Lynne Penner-Ash (Penner Ash) and Patricia Green (Patricia Green Cellars), followed by Anna Matzinger (Archery Summit) and Melissa Burr (Stoller Vineyard).  There’s a new cadre of women who are shaping the style of Oregon wines today – like Remy Drabkin (Remy Wines), Isabel Munier (Evening Land) and Maggie Harrison (Antica Terra), to name a few.  In my tasting group of up and coming winemakers, who hold assistant winemaker and cellar master positions, most of the members are women.  I think this is very encouraging.  And, not to suggest a gender divide, it’s important to note the men are super welcoming and extremely supportive of women in the cellar.  My mentor has been Drew Voit (Shea Wine Cellars/Harper Voit Wines), and he makes it a regular practice to hire 50% women in his cellar for harvest internships.  I also have leaned on Thomas Houseman (Anne Amie Vineyards) and Erik Kramer (Domaine Serene) for advice and guidance.  The Oregon wine industry is becoming much less gender-differentiated, but, I think we still have a way to go.

People are often intimidated buying wine, let alone making their own.  Why did you decide to start your wine label?  How is it different from what is on the market today?

I get asked this question a lot – in fact, I just had a conversation about this over drinks with celebrated Northwest wine writer and author Cole Danehower.  He also asked – why start a label? I stumbled with answering this – because I genuinely feel a connection with my mother’s Italian-Austrian heritage and family traditions that are rooted in winemaking (coopers in Austria and centuries old winemaking in the Campania region) as inspiration, along with the dogged work ethic my father gained growing up on a farm outside of Eugene.  It may sound cliché, but it’s an honest feeling that this is what I was born to do.  Aside from that, I’ve worked in the wine industry for about a baker’s dozen in years, in every capacity except for in the vineyard (aside from sampling grapes and thinning crop just before harvest).  I feel ready to take on the challenge of making my own wine.  First, I think my desire to make the wines I’m making comes from a passionate interest in a grape that, in my opinion, has much potential to offer some of the greatest wines in Oregon.   I want to join a very, very small group of winemakers who are producing world-class Cabernet Franc wines and blends.  I’m not interested in the Bordeaux style, but, rather, the elegant, supple Cabernet Franc blends of the Loire Valley, namely Chinon, Saumur, Bourgueil, and Touraine.  I really admire the Cab Franc wines made by Herb Quady of Quady North Wines in Southern Oregon.  His Cabernet Franc is the first one I’ve tried that, I think, can and will position the varietal as one of the most important in our state.  I hope to make some of my Cabernet Franc wines with grapes from his vineyard because he gets it – his canopy management is properly aligned to produce winegrapes far different from the typical American style of huge, intense dark fruits that are super tannic and leave you with the feeling you’ve just taken a big bite into a raw green pepper.  I’m not sure why American vintners think Cabernet Franc is supposed to taste like that.  Sip on a Loire Valley red wine and, whether or not you’re aware that Cabernet Franc is the primary red grape of the region, you’d think you were sipping on something else altogether.  Properly cultivated Cabernet Franc yields grapes with soft, red and black fruits, silky tannins and a subtle white or black pepper finish.  That’s what I’m after!  That’s why I’m doing this.  I want Americans to understand what Cabernet Franc should and could taste like!

So I gotta ask……Two Buck Chuck.  What do you think of it?  Would you drink it?  And do you have an alternative for those of us who want to move past our Trader Joe’s staple?

Two Buck Chuck?  Really??  No.  Life is too short to drink bad wine.  Period.  What’s the point?  If I just want to get drunk, I’ll go straight to a classic cocktail.  Everything to me is about quality and pleasure.  For a value, I like to shop for wines from France’s Loire Valley – you can find beautiful, supple, interesting white, red, rosé and sparkling wines for all budgets.  I always encourage people to try wines from the Pacific Northwest – you can find reasonably priced, delicious Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and rosé  from Oregon,  as well as lovely wines from Washington state.  Top values for Oregon include Wine By Joe, A to Z Wines, Erath and Willamette Valley Vineyards.  Washington usually offers more “value” wine prices, in general.  You can count on wines from larger producers like Chateau Ste. Michele, Columbia Crest, Hogue and Pacific Rim for incredible quality to match the incredible value.

Wine is at the center of entertaining in my home.  I love a dinner party where the wine is flowing freely and people have their hair down.  How do you like to entertain in your own home and what would you be serving if you had a dinner party for 6?

I love to entertain!  I grew up with an Italian mamma who’s an amazing cook.  My father is also pretty accomplished in the kitchen – his world travels as an Army officer opened up doors to exotic and interesting cuisine.  I was very lucky to grow up eating very sophisticated meals and, as a child I loved to help out with the preparation.  The kitchen is the heart of our home.  I have carried that all the way with me from our table in Virginia to my table in Oregon.  What I serve depends on the season.  We have exquisite food sources in Oregon.  An example of what I’d serve?  Depends on the time of year.  If it were September (my favorite culinary month), here’s what I’d make and serve (following a joyful morning at the Portland Farmer’s Market):

Northwest Oysters on the Half Shell (Kumamoto, Netarts Bay, Yaquina Bay)

Wine:  2010 Harper Voit “Surlie” Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley

Note:  This wine is barrel fermented ‘sur lie’, aged on lees, and has an exceptional briny note reminiscent of a Muscadet – great with shell fish!  I helped make the 2010 and 2011 vintages.

Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho with Red Onion and Cucumber topped with the first Dungeness Crab of the season, Fresh Cilantro Garnish, Fresh Ground White Pepper and a Dash of Chili Oil
Wine:  2010 Van Duzer Pinot Noir Rosé, Willamette Valley

Pan-seared Deschutes River Steelhead Trout over Roasted Sweet Corn Ragout
Wine:  1995 Argyle Extended Tirage Brut
Note:  I think the texture of the crispy, pan seared trout tastes amazing with bubbles – this extended tirage has great acid, texture and hints of candied ginger that is exquisite!

Carlton Farms Braised Pork Belly with Cherry Compote over Whipped Turnips and Walla Walla Sweet Onions – or – Lamb Chop with Crushed Mint, Lemon and Olive Oil served on a bed of Sauteed Tuscan Kale, Basmati Rice and a Dallop of Tzatziki

Wine:  2009 Shea Wine Cellars “Homer” Pinot Noir

Note:  Both of these proteins go amazingly well with Oregon Pinot Noir – I helped make the 2010 and 2011 vintages of Shea Wine Cellars Pinot Noirs, but 2009 is the current vintage.

I always end with a variation of this question.  There is a Latin saying “in vino veritas” which loosely translates “in wine there is truth”.  So would you say that wine has allowed you to find your true self and passion? 

To an extent, yes.  I think I could have been successful and happy in a few different vocations – naturopath-pediatrician, nutritionist, chef, writer/poet, filmmaker, artist, fashion designer, musician, literature professor.  It just takes dedication and patience to find your true self and to nurture your passions.  I leapt into the wine industry to escape a career path that was destroying my spirit.  And, I had an awakening.  While managing a quaint wine shop in the Dupont Circle neighborhood in Washington, DC, I realized I never got bored learning about wine – with every vintage wine changes.  It’s always changing and you are always learning.  A wine expert is truly successful (and accomplished) when she realizes she doesn’t know everything!  To be humble, open-minded and curious is everything.  I enrolled in the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s certificate program to learn more.  But, really, for me, the joy in wine was in the experience of and interplay between food and wine – it’s like magic and poetry.  Eventually, I wanted to learn more about production.  Making wine is the consummate relationship of science and art.  I am in awe of the sheer elegance of microbiology and chemistry and, ultimately, fermentation science.  Wine has life – at all stages.  And, like a woman, it’s constantly changing its expressions and mood.  So, going back to “in wine there’s truth” – I think I’ve always been grounded and rooted in my true self, but, working with wine allows me to continue to be creative and to have curiosity.  I like that there are so many challenges with making wine – physically, mentally and even emotionally – and I thrive from challenging work.  It is certainly a passion of mine to do this, and I’m grateful for having discovered this vocation.  I am especially grateful for the mentors who continue to help me learn and grow, and share wisdom and expertise so generously.  Besides, wine is nothing without sharing.

Thank you Leah!  Honestly, I could listen to Leah talk about wine all day.  Her passion and eloquence when it comes to the topic matter is intoxicating!  Meeting and talking with excited and energized people about doing what they love fuels my passion for design.

So tell me, who among your social network or celebrity fuels your soul and recharges your spirit?

Check out my other Talking Out Loud profiles.  Also be sure to visit me on Facebook and Pinterest as well as Twitter.


2 thoughts on “Talking Out Loud: Leah Jorgensen

  1. I’m always offended when people put down other people’s drinks of choice. Who am I to criticize someon’s CHOICE of PBR over my Sam Adams? I am by no means a wine snob but I do like a good wine. I’ve had Two Buck Chuck and enjoyed it – a lot. It isn’t available in my area or I’d buy it more. For her to say ” Two Buck Chuck? Really?? No. Life is too short to drink bad wine. Period. What’s the point?” is demeaning and she must be unaware of the numerous awards that TBC has won. She could have just said “no, I don’t care for it” but instead she makes her snobbery known. Used to read her blog – unsubscribed now.

  2. To Angie, unless I missed something in the article, Leah was not criticizing anyone’s choice in his or her wine preference. She was asked her opinion and therefore offered her point of view regarding the wine. I love to read Leah’s many blogs for her eloquence and the poetry in her articulation. To refer to her opinion as snobbery is, well , snobbish. Superb article, Courtney! And great work, Leah!

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