Growing up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, being on the move and outside were the hallmarks of Daniel Warnshuis’ childhood. A combination of curiosity, passion, and determination led him into the technology industry in Silicon Valley. Spending quite a bit of time in the Napa Valley, Warnhuis got the proverbial wine bug— to the point where he ended up converting his laundry room into a wine room to hold 3,000 bottles and started a boutique retail business on the side to promote small producers and up-and-comers within the Napa Valley.
While working at Tektronix, his boss at that time, was also an avid wine collector and amateur chef exposed him to Willamette Valley Pinot Noir—it was love at first sight. In 1998, Willamette Pinot Noir was still under the radar both from a value and quality perspective in contrast to the beautiful countryside. Warnshuis knew he struck gold and began a two-year search for his own vineyard property.
Warnshuis initially started off looking at vineyard property in Dundee Hills, but off a hot tip he wound up looking at a 19-acre horse ranch that was not on the market in the Ribbon Ridge Appellation, a more remote hilly area of North Willamette Valley. This property met all of his criteria as it offered a great microclimate and excellent soil composition. The owner agreed to sell Warnshuis the property and Utopia Vineyard was born.
“I knew right away that it was an ideal location from every aspect. Climate and soil, of course, being the big ones, but also uniformity of the land, elevation at 500 feet, orientation [South facing] pasture, [meaning no previous crops had been farmed, hence no residual chemicals in the soil]. I knew it held world-class potential if developed and farmed properly,” said Warnshuis.
Established in 2000, the estate vineyard consists of 16.8 acres of Willakenzie series soils, which consists of two feet of topsoil that contains minerals and fossils. The vineyard has 12 different pinot noir clones and three low yielding Chardonnay clones. The entire vineyard is dry-farmed adding water conservation as well as soil complexity and structural elements to the wines. By living on the land, using proper organic farming techniques, and no chemical inputs, a cycle of regeneration is created for years to come.
“There is a real paucity of aquifers on Ribbon Ridge making dry farming the norm here. Our annual rainfall ordinarily results in enough residual moisture in the soil during the growing season for the mature vines to complete their growth cycle making dry farming not only feasible but desirable,” said Warnshuis. “In recent years, the climate here has become hotter and dryer making it more difficult to dry farm and we have had to resort to hand watering the vines in especially hot years. This will continue to challenge us as we go forward, and the climate continues to warm to the point where we will need to irrigate or switch to more heat-tolerant varieties.”
As a winemaker, Warnshuis views winemaking as a reflection of the growing season. Every year is unique and adjustments need to be made based on the variables that are presented. Estate wines are critical as they allow him to put his stamp on the grapes—paying close attention to every detail from vine to bottle as this offers the complexity and uniqueness that customers are looking for. Oftentimes Willamette Valley is compared to Burgundy, but Warnshuis would dispel that notion.
“Our average year would be one of Burgundy’s warmest years allowing us to fully ripen our fruit even in an average year here where Burgundy struggles to ripen in an average year with more cool temperatures and rainfall than here. Our wines are more fruit-driven at their core and the secondary aromas and flavors emanate from the fruit center whereas Burgundy wines are less fruit-forward, more terroir-driven earthy and leaner with lower alcohol [12.5%] to our 13-14% by volume,” said Warnshuis.
Utopia Vineyard remains a family enterprise as Warnshuis’ wife Kathy handles a lot of the operations and behind the scene affairs while his oldest daughter, Erin, manages the hospitality and marketing side of the business. Personal and business relationships get blurred but at the end of the day, it is about spending high-quality time together while focusing on the singular goal of making world-class wines.
This year’s vintage began a little later in Northern Willamette Valley— dryer than normal conditions in the Winter led to a cooler and wetter June extending into later in the month resulting in a 20-30% lower than average cluster weight resulting in a smaller crop for 2020.
As harvest approached, smoke streamed into the Willamette Valley from wildfires near Portland and the Cascade Mountains. Fortunately, the Ribbon Ridge area did not experience extensive smoke exposure from the ashes on the grapes. “At Utopia we started picking September 29th and finished October 4th. As a result, and despite the unusual nature of this year’s harvest situation—fruit quality is exceptional,” said Warnshuis.
2016 Paradise Estate Reserve Pinot Noir- earthy ruby red in color with flavors of strawberry and cherry. Aged for eleven months in 40% new French oak, this wine offers a silky texture and nice minerality. At 13.8% ABV, this wine offers a tremendous amount of versatility as the holiday feasts approach.
2017 Estate Pinot Noir– flavors of raspberry and cherry with a little bit of spice on a long finish. This wine displays both sophisticated texture and balance. At 14.1% ABV, this wine would go great with a pork roast dish.
2017 Estate Chardonnay– flavors of apples and pear touch down on the mid-palate. This medium-bodied wine consisting of three Dijon clones showcases great acidity. At 13.2% ABV, this wine would go great with sautéed sea scallops.