Last week, I wrote about my aversion for the walk-around tasting, which is (well, at least was) a common occurrence in the wine world. I am fairly certain that they will be back when (if?) life recenters around a new normal, and while I will not be the first in line to register for any such events, I will, no doubt, attend my fair share.
That’s a really good question, since I rarely taste much wine during such gatherings. Instead, I search for friends (or at least acquaintances) that I had visited prior, or focus in on a couple of new (at least to me) producers. This was the case at the Chehalem Mountains tasting I attended while I was out in Oregon last month.
As I mentioned last week, at the top of the list of “must visit” was Bells Up Winery, a small producer in Newberg. After chatting with Sara Specter, half of the Bells Up dynamic duo, she pretty much insisted that I stop by the winery the following day (I am sure that Sara would agree that she can be particularly persuasive) and meet with her husband and Bells Up winemaker, Dave Specter.
Before heading to the winery the following day, as I normally do, I did a bit of research on Bells Up and was fairly shocked to discover that they have been producing wine for the better part of the past decade. But I am fairly certain that the rosé they had sent me was the first of their wines that had crossed my lips. While that could be said of many a winery in the Willamette Valley, based on the tasting that followed, where each of the wines were utterly fantastic, I could not believe that I had not even heard of them.
Their story starts out as a bit of a familiar one: Dave is a former corporate tax attorney (the words “former” and “corporate” dominate the owner biographies of just about every wine region today), Sara is a public relations professional, both hailing from the midwest (Cincinnati, OH), and the two fell in love with wine shortly after they fell for one another.
There, the story parts from the increasingly “normal” wine country saga. First, Dave played the French horn for over twenty years—you don’t hear that every day (my eight grade son, Sebastian, has started playing the French horn—I wish I didn’t have to hear that every day). And Dave didn’t just dream of owning a vineyard, he actually started making the stuff on the side. In his basement. In Cincinnati. As he made more wine, he realized he was getting pretty good at it, winning several awards along the way.
Eventually, the couple found a property on Bell Road in Newberg, Oregon, and went all in (after, no doubt, Dave produced countless spreadsheets seeing if it could work economically). As they began to plant their 9-acre vineyard, they sourced fruit from other growers in the area, producing their first vintage in 2013.
[Bells Up is a play on both the location and the instruction given to French horn players as the were about to play. Additionally, all the wines are named after symphonies, to further tie in the theme.]
In another departure from what is perhaps the “norm”, Dave and Sara are committed to growing slowly, really slowly. They plan to produce a mere 500 cases this year, their eighth vintage, and don’t ever envision making more than 800-1,000 cases a year, max.
Finally, in yet another deviation from what has become standard operating procedure in the wine world, the consumer can’t go to the Bells Up website and order wine. Nope. In order to get your hands on some of the best wines I have tasted in the Willamette Valley, one needs to send an email, or, get this, make a phone call. Yup. Sara and Dave are committed to getting to know each of their customers and they feel that starts with direct communication, not simply filling orders. Based on my experience thus far, their approach is certainly working.
One last observation: from the moment I stepped into the winery until I was well on down the road, I was struck by the overwhelming sense of joy that Dave and Sara exude, it is palpable and contagious. And I will definitely be back.
2020 Bells Up Rhapsody Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $32. According to Dave, Pinot Blanc is the most unappreciated white in the Valley. He considers it as complex as Chardonnay without the price tag. Fermented and aged in stainless steel, sur lies. with bâtonnage (a gentle stirring of the lies) every 2-3 days. 100% Plum Hill Vineyards. Dave and Sara are going to plant Pinot Blanc this year since they are tired of trying to source it from elsewhere in the Valley, as most Pinot Blanc is being grafted over to Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Tropical fruit a bit of astringency and considerable salinity. Really nice fruit and off the charts acidity. The complexity on the back end is fantastic. Outstanding. 93 Points.
2020 Bells Up Helios Seyval Blanc, Chehalem Mountains, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $40. Seyval Blanc, a hybrid grape which was developed to ripen early (and therefore do well in cooler climates) is rare, particularly in Oregon (there is a bit of it in the Finger Lakes and Ohio). Dave wanted to do a white that was a bit different than Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, the two prominent white varieties in the Willamette) and he wanted an “every day wine” (Dave does not consider Riesling an every day wine due to its acidity). 100% steel. Spicy on the nose with some pineapple and minerality. Plenty of citrus on the palate. Quite tart and zingy and one of the best hybrid wines I have tried. Excellent. 92 Points.
2018 Bells Up Titan Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $44. Clones: Pommard, 115, and 777. This is the last year that the Pommard was sourced (bought from another vineyard—starting in 2019 it all comes from the Bells Up vineyard, and by 2022 Bells Up will be “Pinot independent” as the 115 and 777 will also come from the estate). Dave and Sara are very conscious to the Pinot fatigue in the Valley and they want to make something a bit different. Dave, when making the wine, sees them more as shapes and “hears something different” from the wines. Plum here more than cherry with plenty of spice on the nose. The black cherry really comes through on the palate, though with great tartness and intensity. Really fantastic. Outstanding. 94 Points.
2019 Bells Up Candide Pinot Noir Reserve, Chehalem Mountains, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $54. Clones: Wadenswil 65.4%, 34.6% Pommard. The Pommard comes from the estate. Luscious and spicy on the nose with lovely, dare I say “harmonious” flavors? That lusciousness carries through on the palate, particularly initially. Quite strong through the mid-palate as well with complexity and depth. The finish shows some soft, but present tannins, suggesting at least 3-5 years of ageability. Outstanding. 93 Points.
2019 Bells Up Villanelle Pinot Noir, Tonnelier Vineyard, Yamhill-Carlton, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $58. Only available through Bells Up’s Fanfare Club. 100% free-run juice (no pressing involved, so this is considered the best juice—think Extra Virgin Olive Oil). Whoa. Quite a nose. Rich, bing cherry, black cherry, a bunch of other cherries. Heck, all of them? Whoa. Add in some spice and earth. This is perhaps even better on the palate with intense fruit, impeccable balance, and just the right amount of acidity. Incredible. Outstanding. 95 Points.
2019 Bells Up Jupiter Pinot Noir, Estate Vineyard, Chehalem Mountains, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $48. Fanfare Club Only. First 100% Estate Pinot. Fairly light in the glass. Another whoa on the nose. Rich, concentrated, but also floral and fruity. A little bit of wet rock. The palate starts off rather shy, but by the mid-palate this really starts to shine. Richness, depth, spice but the finish is really where this wine explodes. The tartness is fantastic but the intensity of the fruit and spice is what sets it apart. Whoa. Outstanding Plus. 96 Points.
2019 Bells Up Firebird Syrah, Summit View Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley OR: Retail $52. 1,150 elevation vineyard in Milton-Freewater. Rich and juicy on the nose with just a hint of spice. Rich red berry fruit. The palate is intense. After a wave of fruit, the spicy intensity takes over and gallops on through the finish. Holy cow. Not your typical heavy-ish Syrah. Not a Walla Walla Syrah either. They call it a Pinot lovers Syrah and they’re right. Whoa. Outstanding. 94 Points.
2020 Bells Up New World Cabernet Sauvignon, Summit View Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley OR: Barrel sample. Retail $68. Fanfare Club Only. Not even on the website yet. Dave wanted to make more of a new world cab. Thus, New World. Dvořák. From the same vineyard as the Syrah and will be bottled this fall. Shy on the nose but lovely fruit eventually coaxed out. Also described as a “Cab for Pinot lovers.” Fantastic. Fruity with depth and complexity. Yowza. Tannins are soft and mostly integrated. Another whoa. Outstanding. 93-96 Points (Barrel sample).