Ken was exposed to fine wine in Kentucky while waiting tables to put himself through school. He soon left to study enology and viticulture at UC-Davis. Upon graduation he spent eight years at Ventana and Talbott in California’s central coast. In 1986, with his family and 10 barrels in tow, Ken moved to McMinnville and started Panther Creek Cellars. Twelve years later, he founded Ken Wright Cellars in downtown Carlton.
Over thirty years of winemaking have taught Ken a simple truth: source is everything. He must be right because he’s racked up over 130 90+ scores from Wine Spectator, with 30 of those 93 or better. He’s been profiled by every major (and many minor) wine publication and is widely recognized as one of Oregon’s most prominent winemakers.
Q&A with Ken Wright
Describe the “aha” moment when you first fell in love with wine.
When I was a young man I worked in a restaurant in Lexington, KY, a really great restaurant. But the wines weren’t selling and the owner was beside himself. We didn’t know how to sell them; we’d never tasted them. So we instituted a weekly tasting program, region by region, and the wine that did it for me was a Volnay Caillerets from Bouchard. 1971. It was riveting. You could hardly talk after tasting that. I’ve been telling people about this wine ever since. And then last year when I was in New York for the Spectator Experience we were having dinner at Daniel Boulud, and there it was. They had one bottle left; it had come from a private collector. It all came back to me in that moment. This is why we’re in this business.
Do you have a philosophy of winemaking you strive to share with others?
This business is relationship-driven, as all great things are. It’s powerful. We’ve worked with a lot of growers, many of them for 25 years or more, and what gets you through the cycles, the difficult periods, is the quality of the relationships you have. As long as you do exactly what you say you’re going to, as long as you follow through, it works out.
How has the perspective of time changed your approach to wine?
#1 People are not as important as farming. #2 You need to be aware. Every year something happens that you haven’t seen before and you have to react. There is no formula. #3 Don’t “fashion” the wines. Protect them at all costs but let them be what they are. Don’t chase what you think the public likes. Respect the place you’re in. Trust in the ability of the plant to connect us to that place.
What is the most overrated trend in wine today?
Every generation needs something to hang its hat on. Natural wine is such a thing. It’s stupid. There’s no there there. The most basic feature is that you’re not using sulfur. That’s the one thing they can point to. Pffft.
What new winemakers are you most excited about and why?
My son, Cody, is killing it with Purple Hands. The wines are beautiful. Some other folks I know, not new, not young, but younger than me . . . Josh Bergström, Adam Campbell of Elk Cove, Thibaut Morey of Domain Morey-Coffinet, Michael Bindi in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne, Blaire Walter of Felton Road.
If you weren’t a winemaker what would you be doing?
Snowboarding. There’s nothing else I do as well as winemaking so snowboarding is my answer. I’m not reckless but I like speed. I do like speed.
What led you to select Nomacorc PlantCorcs?
I was by far, by miles, the first to use Nomacorc. 2002. We did it to protect the investment we make in farming. Our approach is nutrition-based. It’s a Japanese method that we adopted 20 years ago. It’s WAY more expensive than organic, WAY more expensive than biodynamic. Because it requires real investigation. It’s not just a recipe.
These investments that we make, they’re so long term. You plant a vineyard, you care for it; it’s a huge black hole of labor and money. And then you wait. You wait for that moment in time when the root system is deep enough to engage with mother rock and you start to get all this detail in the wine — you’re getting connected to place in such a specific way. And to let a closure screw that up, that investment, my life, my company, everyone who’s given everything to nurture this vineyard and protect it in our cellar . . . to have a closure screw that up . . . it’s intolerable.
What, if anything, do you leave to chance in the cellar or in life?
Here I am 40 years into it and it’s shocking what I don’t know. It’s amazing what we don’t know. So we’re always experimenting. Every year we see things we haven’t seen before. At a certain point you realize that you’re not going to live long enough to see all the curveballs Mother Nature is going to throw you. Realizing that keeps you in the moment and on your toes so you don’t freak out. It gives you a better frame of reference.