Nashville-based Sommelier Chelsey Johnson shares a mixed case that makes her nostalgic for the Pacific Northwest.
Chelsey Johnson
Credit: © Kayt Mathers

Tennessee native Chelsey Johnson may be the Southeast’s biggest champion of Northwest wines. Now the sommelier for former Catbird Seat chef Josh Habiger’s new restaurant, Bastion, she has compiled a smart, compact list of both classic and unconventional bottles from everywhere from Austria to Lebanon, including a fun vermouth and vintage spirits selection. But in years previous, she had a hyper-focused specialty: Oregon wine.

Between harvest internships at Brooks Winery in Oregon’s Eola-Amity and the Teutonic Wine Company in Portland, Johnson manned the Northwest-only wine cellar at Willow’s Inn on Lummi Island in Washington. “Getting to know the producers and learning just how much work and care goes into producing even a single bottle of wine was an incredible experience,” she says. “It completely altered my perspective.”

Here, Johnson shares 12 wines that showcase the diversity of Oregon viticulture. “My favorites tend to be from producers who work with cooler climate, higher elevation sites,” she adds. “That leads to more elegant wines that have a lot of depth and complexity, but they tend to be lower in alcohol, super food-friendly, and really balanced overall—whether white or red.” To keep abreast of the latest from her former wine country home, she tries to make it out west as often as she can. “And I always check a case of wine to bring back with me,” she says.

1. 2015 Teutonic Wine Company 'Jazz Odyssey' Willamette Valley
“I could talk forever about the wines from Teutonic. Olga and Barnaby Tuttle—the owners—were making some of my favorite wines before I got to know them, and now I can honestly say they’re two of the most incredible, passionate and crazy talented people I’ve met. In addition to their own vineyards, they source fruit from older plantings in cool climate zones. Jazz Odyssey comes from the Wasson Vineyard. It’s co-fermented Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling, using only native yeasts. What I love most about the blend is no single variety stands out, which is really impressive when there’s a very aromatic grape like Gewürztraminer in the mix. It has a little bit of a hoppy green note on the nose, with honeycomb and apple scents. And then on the palate, it unfolds into this rich texture with a delicate touch of sweetness. It’s killer with shellfish or any bright spring greens.”

2. 2015 Boyar Wedding Feast Oregon White Tannat
“Boyar Wedding Feast is a brand new side project from Olga Tuttle of Teutonic—a sort of experimental label using grapes that don’t necessarily fit under the Teutonic umbrella. Tannat is one of the darkest most deeply pigmented red grapes – it can be so dark in the glass it almost looks black. So, of course they were like, ‘let’s try to make a white wine with this’. They pressed two barrels of juice directly off the skins to ferment as a white wine—which I don’t think has ever been done before – and they really pulled it off. It’s super aromatic, floral, and peachy, with a totally different structure than other whites.”

3. 2014 Tripod Project 'Triple Fist' Umpqua Valley Gamay
“The Tripod project is a collaboration between the Tuttles of Teutonic, Jesse Skiles of Fausse Piste, and Tom Monroe of Division Winemaking Company. Basically, Portland-based heavy hitters who each have very different styles making great wine together. Every year they pick a white grape and a red grape, source the fruit, then split it up three ways so that each winemaker can vinify it as he sees fit: three unique expressions of the same grape, same vintage, same site. Then they blend it back together to create this unique small lot wine. This one pushes into the richer side of what Gamay can be: a little bit darker fruited, hints of chocolate and mushroom… It’s layered and complex, but still gulpable and really delicious.”

4. 2014 Walter Scott ‘X Novo Vineyard’ Eola-Amity Hills Chardonnay
“Ken Pahlow and Erica Landon of Walter Scott are making insanely gorgeous Chardonnays—really setting the bar for what the grape can do in Oregon. They’re pretty minimalistic as far as manipulations go, but the end results are also intensely focused, precisely honed, and beautiful. There is some oak aging—even incorporating new oak into the regimen—but it’s a leaner style, acid-driven, and perfectly poised and balanced. It walks that perfect tightrope of chalky minerality, white peach fruit, and citrus.”

5. 2013 Minimus ‘No. 14 Carbonic Maceration’ Rogue Valley
“Chad Stock, the winemaker for Omero Cellars started the Minimus project by doing these experimental bottlings that are very focused, almost academic. Each bottling is a numbered examination of a different winemaking technique or wine property, and they aren’t designed to be repeated, but they happen to be delicious. No. 14 is 100 percent Mourvèdre from the Rogue Valley that underwent a 24-day carbonic maceration. That’s the process used in Beaujolais wherein the berries ferment or kind of self-destruct inside their skins, which gives a very bright, fruity flavor.”

6. 2012 Ovum 'Homage to Z' Columbia Gorge Gewürztraminer
“I think a lot of people have a misconception of Gewürztraminer; it can come across like a chick at a party who’s had too much to drink and is being really obnoxious and loud. This wine demolishes whatever preconceived notions you might have about the grape. It comes from the Celilo Vineyard, which sits at 800 to 1200 feet in elevation, and the Gewürztraminer grows really close to the top there, where it’s windy. That helps to rein in all that aromatic intensity. Instead, it’s elegant and savory with a silky, spicy finish. The floral elements are still there, but they don’t jump out and grab you by the nose. I tried it recently with a dish of charred broccoli with crumbled cheddar, and with the char on the vegetables, it absolutely sang.”

7. 2014 Big Table Farm ‘Pelos Sandberg Vineyard’ Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir
“Big Table Farm is truly a working farm, kind of out in the middle of nowhere in Oregon, where they have this quaint yellow Victorian house up on a hill. Brian Marcy is super talented, with a great resume of mostly California winemaking. Clare Carver is an artist who’s really into in farming and animal husbandry, so she runs all of the other operations of their little homestead outside of winemaking, including hand-illustrating all their labels. This wine is just an extraordinary expression of Oregon Pinot that’s glorious with food. It has a firmly established structure underlying sense of fragility or delicacy at the same time. And the aromatics are fresh and foresty—like underripe, tart blackberries.”

8. 2015 Swick Yamhill-Carlton Melon de Bourgogne
“I think Joe Swick is making wines in a really distinctive way. This Melon sees 21 days on the skins and no sulfur at all. He’s explicitly not trying to emulate wines from Muscadet, but it’s funky and super salty… A little like hay and biscuits on the nose, then peaches and apricots on the palate before going back to savory with an oyster shell finish. All of these disparate qualities come together in a wine that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Served with lighter, summery canapés, small snacks, vegetable-based things or raw shellfish, it’s just fantastic.”

9. 1988 The Eyrie Vineyards Dundee Hills Pinot Gris
“There’s probably nothing I could say about The Eyrie that hasn’t already been said. They’ve been making wines for 40 years, they had one of the first plantings of Pinot Noir in Dundee, and they totally set the standard for Oregon wines in general. I love the current release wines; they’re stellar, benchmark, unimpeachable. But to me one of the most incredible treasures is their really well maintained library. You can buy back vintages all the way back to 1975, and leafing through their catalogue is like a history lesson in Oregon winemaking. It’s incredible to have something like a Pinot Gris with almost 30 years of bottle age. It’s still very much alive; it still has acidity. The fruit is there, but it goes into a sort of honeyed beeswax character, and the texture is just ethereal.”

10. 2014 Golden Cluster 'Coury' Willamette Valley Sémillon
“In the 1880s, a guy named Ernest Reuter planted a mixed vineyard of mostly Pinot Blanc on a hill in the Willamette valley. It went fallow during Prohibition until Charles Coury brought back some Alsatian clones from France in 1965—Pinot Noir, Sémillon, Pinot Gris, and a couple of other whites, and planted them on that same hill. This may well have been some of the actual first fruit planted in Oregon. The few rows of Sémillon that are there are super gnarly vines close to 4 feet tall, and thick as tree trunks. Jeff Vejr saw them in 2013 and just had to make wine from them. He leaves the juice on the skin for 48 hours to get some extra texture. It’s silky and layered with these fine flavors like bee pollen, dried flowers, lemon, and more musky, savory characteristics. It even tastes like a historically important wine. There’s this weight to it that can only come from more mature vines.”

11. 2014 Antica Terra 'Botanica' Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
“This Pinot Noir has all of these fruit and floral aromas, and I tend to default to thinking about: What kinds of berries? What kinds of flowers? Is the minerality more like flint or more like crushed gravel? And you can certainly pick out those sorts of notes in this wine, but the overall impression is so much more important. It’s just symphonic. There’s no one overwhelming characteristic. It pushes my brain into thinking about tasting in a different way; maybe in the way that other people think about great works of art, you know? You’re not meant to dissect it. If you’re looking at a pointillist painting, you’re not meant to look at the dots, you’re meant to look at the thing as a whole. And that’s what makes it so extraordinary.”

12. 2014 Brooks 'Tethys' Willamette Late Harvest Riesling
“Tethys is the wine that brought me out to Oregon in the first place. We were pouring it as a dessert wine in a restaurant where I was working in Charleston in my earlier days learning about wine. When I first tasted it, I thought, ‘What is this glorious nectar?’ It sort of mimics the late harvest Rieslings of Germany, so they take the ripest fruit from their own estate, freeze the berries individually and then slowly press them over a span of days. It comes out as this concentrated juice that still has awesome acidity. It’s incredibly well balanced: honeyed, luscious, and floral without feeling cloying. A perfect wine to have as dessert or with almost anything sweet.”