One Winemaker's Answer to the Drought: Stop Watering

Cameron Winery's John Paul, founder of the Deep Roots Coalition and longtime advocate of dry farming, isn't worried about this summer's heat waves.

By Hannah Wallace September 21, 2015 Published in the October 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

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John Paul was finishing his postdoc in chemistry at UC Berkeley when he found himself drawn more to the wineries of Napa than to the lab. By 1984 he and his wife, Teri, had purchased a vineyard site in the Dundee Hills, and Cameron Winery was born. Since then, Paul has become one of the most revered winemakers in Oregon—his complex pinots, chardonnays, and Giuliano (a Friulian blend) enjoy a cult following. Still, Paul produces no more than 5,000 cases a year, 80 percent of which stay in Oregon. (He and his 14-year-old dog, Jackson Pollock, make the Portland deliveries themselves.) An outspoken critic of both irrigated vineyards and herbicides, Paul is also the founder of the Deep Roots Coalition, an organization that advocates for “dry-farmed” wines.

The pivotal moment came when I was assistant winemaker at Carneros Creek in Napa and I was sent to a tasting of Domaine Romanée-Conti wines: 1976 vintage. I still remember sitting down with these big Burgundy glasses, which I’d never experienced before, and just being completely blown away by the wine. And getting up from that tasting and going, “This is the wine I want to make.” I’d never had a wine like that before, because it was too expensive for me!

When we first put in the vineyard, the deer were wiping out the vines, so we installed an electric fence. I had planted the vineyard to be like a grand cru vineyard in Burgundy—I planted 20 different clones of pinot noir in a two-acre parcel. My wife came up with the name: Clos Electrique. It literally means “electric fence.”

To irrigate is to take away a critical component of the terroir. Our established vineyards are doing fine this summer because the vines are old and they have really deep roots—they send their roots deep in search for water and minerals and bring forth each year a wine that says, “This is Oregon fruit. It could be from no other region of the world.”

Russ Raney and I founded the Deep Roots Coalition in 2004. A lot of the talking heads in the industry were extolling the virtues of irrigation. We knew that it was wrong, and if you irrigated in France, for example, you would lose your appellation. So we formed the DRC, and now two dozen wineries are members. I think we’re starting to influence the conversation in a big way. I don’t think people understand: Vineyards use a huge amount of water. But I also don’t think they understand what irrigation physiologically does to the grapes. It’s why California wines have 15–16 percent alcohol. They wouldn’t be [so alcoholic] if they were dry-farmed.

Don Oman, founder of Pastaworks, turned me on to Italian wines. And then he got me to go to Italy with him several times. I fell in love with the wines of Friuli. I started growing Friulano at Clos Electrique when somebody showed up at the winery with a bunch of cuttings in the back of his pickup truck and said, “I bet you would like these.” The new Giuliano is totally amazing. It’s exactly what I want to be making: 40 percent Friulano. It’s got this grapefruit-rind thing in the mouth.

Dijon clones are planted up and down the Willamette Valley for both pinot noir and chardonnay. I think that’s a huge mistake. They just don’t make very good wine! They’re bred for production, not for quality. Obviously people who have Dijon clones would argue all day with me that that’s not true. But in my opinion, Dijon clones make inferior wines in most cases, on the same soil type, than the clones that were here before them: Pommard and Wädenswil.

My kids are now 28 and 33. Julian, at 28, has become a complete wine geek. He designs my labels, and he loves to talk with me about how I’m making the wine. But I don’t think he has any aspirations to make wine—although recently he asked if he could come up and work harvest. You know what? You just never know.

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