1. From savvy risk-takers to wine-world superstars:
The original Domaine Serene vineyard property, Evenstad Estate, was completely socked in by fog when a realtor showed the property to Minnesota pharmaceutical CEO Ken Evenstad and his wife, Grace, in 1989. The couple bought it anyway, sight unseen.
That self-assured attitude has served the Evenstads well over the years. They have always held firm on the question of irrigation, never installing drip lines; and they have left self-rooted vines in the ground, despite the threat of phylloxera. “The front line of Domaine Serene is absolutely Ken and Grace,” says winemaker Erik Kramer. “I think one of the things that has made this winery so successful over the long run is that Ken and Grace have set a straightforward mission and they have not wavered from it.”
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The couples’ fearless leadership style has paid off. Prominent critics at publications such as Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate regularly award scores of 90-plus to Domaine Serene bottlings. The 2008 Grace Vineyard Pinot Noir received a 97 – the highest score ever awarded to an Oregon wine – from Wine Spectator. In 2013, the Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir ranked third in Wine Spectator’s “Top 100” list of the best wines in the world.
2. Straight out of state:
When the first Domaine Serene Pinot Noir hit the market in 1990, the Evenstads were so confident about their new Pinot that they headed straight out of state, selling 95 percent of their wines in the Midwest and on the East Coast instead of focusing on the local market.
“We were knowledgeable enough about wine, and particularly Burgundy, to know that we had made world-class wine with the first vintage,” Grace Evenstad recalls. “We decided New York City and Washington, D.C. would be a good place to start. Because of their European influence, we hoped they would appreciate Burgundy and therefore like Domaine Serene.”
Master Sommelier Larry Stone, who was running the wine list at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago during that era, remembers the buzz around the new Domaine Serene Pinot made by (then-winemaker) Ken Wright: “This winery came on the heels of Domaine Drouhin’s transformative beginning in Oregon, Gary Andrus’s California-oriented Archery Summit, and Panther Creek’s innovative New World approach."
3. Smooth as butter:
The Evenstads were Burgundy lovers when they founded Domaine Serene, but they wrestled with one problem: the wines from their favorite producers changed from vintage to vintage. So they developed a strategy to establish a house style that’s consistent from year to year. Kramer achieves this by blending selections from multiple estate vineyards.
A signature of the Domaine Serene Pinot Noir style is its velvety texture. Kramer achieves this through long barrel- and bottle-aging prior to release (the current vintage is 2011). In addition, he has found that barrels that have been air-dried for three years offer up the smoothest wines.
4. Persnickety standards:
Kramer harvests the east-west-oriented Gold Eagle block of the Evenstad Estate not once but twice, plucking fruit from each side of the trellis wire separately. It’s a trick he learned at Brancott Estate in New Zealand and it’s the sort of micromanagement that drives vineyard managers completely bonkers.
In addition, Domaine Serene fruit hits the fermenter freakishly clean; after traveling down an extra-long sorting line, the clusters are subjected to a “bug sucker,” or giant vacuum, that sucks any wayward leaves or critters off the fruit before it hits the fermentation tank.
5. The DRC smackdown:
In a 2004 publicity stunt during Oregon Pinot Camp, an annual four-day retreat for members of the trade, Domaine Serene invited 37 prominent American wine professionals, including Master Sommelier Kevin Vogt, to blind-taste Domaine Serene Pinot Noir against Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from the 1998, 1999 and 2000 vintages. In each vintage group, Domaine Serene ranked first and second place out of six wines.
“The possibility that Oregon wine could sit on the table with an icon like DRC and be judged as better really did fascinate people,” Larry Stone recalls, a decade after that pivotal tasting. “I believe it drew many to trying Oregon Pinot – and not just Domaine Serene – for the first time.”
6. Posh and philanthropic:
In the Willamette Valley, where the emphasis is on quality table wines in the $20 to $30 price range, Domaine Serene is one of just a few wineries aiming for cult collector status; behold its “Monogram,” priced at $250 per bottle. This Pinot Noir spends 16 months in 100-percent new French oak, and the 2010 vintage is – sorry, folks – sold out.
So, who buys Monogram? When asked to disclose the names of notable Domaine Serene customers, marketing manager Hannah Hasbrook is frustratingly coy: “As far as celebrity collectors go, I will not be at liberty to release any of our customers’ names.”
However, the winery’s extensive support of high-profile charity events over the years has led to well-documented friendships with stars like William Shatner.
7. The French connection:
Domaine Serene’s gravity-flow winery is located on its Winery Hill Estate, just up the road from notable neighbors such as Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Archery Summit, and White Rose Estate. The Evenstads purchased the property in 1998 from a company called Laurent-Perrier; perhaps you’ve heard of them?
The Champagne house apparently decided to sell after scrapping plans to produce an Oregon sparkling wine. “They thought the elevation was too high for Chardonnay,” says Hasbrook. But those who have tasted Domaine Serene’s Clos du Lune Chardonnay ($65) might say otherwise.
8. The battle of the white heart:
In 2008, the Evenstads fired longtime winemaker Tony Rynders*. A year later, the Evenstads sued Rynders, claiming that he had spirited away the secret recipe for Coeur Blanc, a white Pinot Noir that tastes like a rich Chardonnay.
Industry insiders were baffled by the lawsuit. Sparkling wine, from Champagne and other regions, is often made from Pinot Noir vinified as a white wine. Pinot Gris, an Oregon specialty, is a white wine made from a grape that has pinkish skins. So there was nothing novel about the technique of pressing clear juice off colored skins.
In addition, the Oregon winemaking community prides itself on its spirit of openness. At the annual Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference, winemakers pour their worst mistakes for one another and crowd-source the solutions to winemaking quandaries.
The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court.
In the original article, it was stated that Rynders was fired “after discovering that he was preparing to launch his own label, Tendril Wine Cellars.” This was incorrect. Rynders approached the Evenstads about resigning and working together in the future and, only then, was fired. He was not making wine and did not have concrete plans to make wine in violation of any obligation to Domaine Serene.
9. Tough enough:
Winemaker Erik Kramer’s unusual résumé was the ideal training for his current job. Kramer’s first career as was in hydrogeology – basically, cleaning up after oil companies. Disillusioned by his work, he was contemplating a change when he was mugged and pistol-whipped while on a business trip to Chicago. Kramer took this as a sign that it was time to move on.
He quit, then went to work in the Washington State wine industry before obtaining a master's degree in viticulture and enology at New Zealand’s Lincoln University. If anyone has the technical know-how to make a “perfect” wine and the business and life experience to run Oregon’s most demanding cellar, it’s Kramer.
10. And about that mammoth…:
At the gracious Tuscan villa-style Domaine Serene winery, visitors can’t help but notice a woolly mammoth sculpture, 14 feet tall and 27 feet long, made from 7200 pounds of weathered steel, plus bronze tusks.
With a wink, tasting-room staffers inform curious visitors that “Wooly” was washed up by the Missoula Floods, a series of cataclysmic Ice Age events that formed the Columbia River Gorge and the Willamette Valley.
Or something like that.
Prices worldwide on Wine-Searcher (US$, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):