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Traditional, Not Traditional

Chad Stock. Photo: Joshua Chang

Chad Stock Strives to Produce Wines That “Drink Differently”

We find the Constant Crush Winery featuring Limited Addition Wines as we drive on a gravel lane overhung with trees just outside wine country-centric Gaston. Several excellent wines are produced here—Limited Addition Wines, Constant Crush, made by Bree and Chad Stock; Grace + Vine, made by Bree Stock; Artist Block, made by Bree Stock and Anna Sweet; Statera, made by Meredith Bell and Lük Allen Wylde, Lares made by Lük Allen Wylde, and EST made by Meredith Bell. The winemakers here work with standard Oregon choices and rarely used varietals to produce wines that are palate-teasing expressions of the vineyards from which the grapes come. The wines are expressions of soil, place and time, with character and dramatic personalities that shine through in each wine. We initially hoped to talk with Bree Stock; however, unforeseen circumstances called her away. We were lucky to have the opportunity to spend an October afternoon with Chad Stock, Bree’s husband. The conversation was lively and variable throughout the afternoon, and we came to know his deep wine experience and authentic desire to do things differently. Outside the box sounds so cliché, but seriously, these wines stand apart from the norm. Among the varietals used are Mencia, St. Laurent, Trousseau, Cabernet Dorsa and Blaufränkisch. It is not uncommon for these winemakers to delve into pre-Prohibition grapes.

“What motivates us to move forward is the combination of farming and wine techniques that allow us to produce unique, thought-provoking and compelling wines. Consumers new to our wines see right away that they are different. A good example is our rosé. We wanted to expand the category, so our rosés have more flavor, are darker and are made with grape varieties that have intensity when the sugars are really low. This year is the first time we worked with the Spanish grape Mencia, a varietal whose flavor develops early. With Mencia, you can immediately taste the intense fruit in the vineyard; the berries are peppery.

For most rosés, the red varietals are left to ripen to the level where they express flavors such as strawberry and watermelon. This tart red fruit similarity is something they all share. But the consumer often does not get to taste that character in rosé just by the nature of how much rosé is made.” He continues, “Rosé in Oregon is really struggling. Orange wines continue to take a fair chunk of the market, and generally, people are losing interest in rosé. The Eola Springs Vineyard has a section of the vineyard planted on an almost pure rock with very little soil. Pinot Noir is very sensitive to this growing condition. If the soil is too shallow, the vines get really stressed and need to develop fruit correctly. They show some unusual flavor that are not particularly nice. The owners needed help to get buyers for the fruit, so they decided to try something else in that spot. They thought Old Vine Cab Franc would work well because it is happy in shallow, rocky soil. So, we worked with them to graft Cab Franc with the vines originally planted in 1953. From there, we worked with the owners to plant vineyards of 12−14 different varieties.”

Chad then shifts to talk about how international wine consumption is going down and has been going down for a generation. “People are drinking less wine than their parents drank. Additionally, there is a rise in the popularity of cider, craft brewing, distillation and cocktails—cocktails are strong now, and the offerings are much broader. When I moved here 20 years ago, the microbrew market was Bridgeport, Widmer and Rogue. There are so many new beers now, and they are making beer in more creative ways such as a blueberry, hot fudge porter,” he jokes. Wine has a lot of pressure from other beverage markets—you can create cocktails endlessly, and the whole mocktails movement is growing. One of the qualities of wine is that it does not recreate itself. So not only can we not recreate wine, but we can’t make wine fast enough to respond. We are getting to a place everyone is after, which is a new experience. Then, they are not going to be brand loyal. Their excitement about wine wanes because they are always tasting new beverages. And it’s new, and it’s new and it’s new. And we can’t do that. Winemaking is too slow to match that. We make one vintage a year. We can’t make wine fast enough to stay on trends like that. But we can offer a large enough set with a large enough diversity at a high-quality level. We try to make fresh, marketable wine and use many different varietals. Our wines are the new product when someone wants to try something different. We try to produce a diverse set to help people stay engaged in our brand and work instead of just having six wines, as most wineries do. There is not a whole lot to explore there. That’s why Bree and I promote our wines on social media with the phrase, ‘Drink differently.’”

Constant Crush Piquette

We mention the competition of low alcohol wines, such as the piquettes that many prefer. Piquettes are made by adding water to leftover pomace, the cakey stuff left after grapes are pressed. The grape varieties used to produce it are all aromatic and fruity and smell very sweet. Still, in fermentation, they go through all the sugar.

“Bree and I refer to it as a meta beverage because it mimics other beverages. It is somewhat cocktail-like and reminds me of some ciders, especially when it is cold. When enjoying it at home, we sometimes put a little splash of gin in it, making a little cocktail.” Piquettes are something with which you can do many things. It is a second use of the grape skins. Jon mentions that it has been going on forever in Europe and produces a lower alcohol wine beverage because it has more water or spritz. Getting more out of the grapes before they hit the compost pile is a financial move. Chad responds, “It’s like whole animal butchery. It makes our business more doable and profitable and significantly changes our business. We take the grapes after the first press, rehydrate them, ferment the rest of the sugar and retain the flavor.

Chad changes the subject to talk about Sauvignon Blanc in the Willamette Valley. He feels it is truly extraordinary. “We have this perfect combination that no one talks about. It is a simple concept that was explained scientifically decades ago. The family of pyrazine organic compounds creates the green herbaceous, green bell pepper aromas that appear in Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Those compounds are ultraviolet photo-degradable. What that means is that if you are farming in a cold climate and are stripping the leaves to get as much airflow and sunlight on the fruit as possible, to get it to ripen but also to create airflow for pressure like from rain, the fruit is just hanging out in the sun. The sunlight, just the ultraviolet light shining on the fruit, makes the compounds disappear, so photo-degradation. It is not about hang time and ripeness. It is actually about sunlight. The problem is that if you grow Sauvignon Blanc in a hot region in Napa or most of Washington, you expose the fruit to the sun, which will burn and be destroyed. In the Willamette Valley, we have a climate suitable for our latitude and angle of sunlight. The hottest time of day here is 5pm in the summer. In California, it is about 1 or 2pm, and what happens is that at 5pm, the sun is at a steeper angle that perfectly matches our geographical position. The warmest time here is also at the angle at which we trellis—45° on the north-south row. Therefore, we get the sun, but the grapes are not being scorched. We farm this way because of the climate. We have to ensure that the fruit is exposed to the sun and gets photo-degradation naturally. We can get this super exotic Sauvignon Blanc without ridiculous alcohol. As a bonus, it doesn’t have the crazy green and cat pee flavors. Instead, it smells like this super exotic wine.”

The conversation about temperature causes me to think about the warming climate in Europe, so I ask about the large, well-established wine houses in France. Chad responds, “The Loire Valley is extremely hot. The big first houses must change what they have been doing for centuries.” I am curious about any changes in how the wine is marketed, as in purchasing it to lay it down to age. Chad reminds me he is no expert but muses that we are slow to respond to change. When winemaking started changing because certain critics said what was good and what was not, the wineries thought we must change our winemaking or farming to make wines for this popular trend. We can respond; it just takes us a few years. But these old established wineries find their climate changing so severely that they can no longer adjust anything about what they are doing. They have less flexibility than they did 10 or 20 years ago to decide based on popularity or what is selling. Chad compares the more expensive wines that you buy to lay down to the housing market. “I wish I had known what this neighborhood would become when I first invested. There is potential for growth and cities and economic prosperity. You want to buy early enough because it is undeveloped before it becomes expensive. That is where the Willamette Valley is right now. It is in the mid-zone, not super expensive, though it is expensive. You have to have a million bucks to make a move here. So it’s not cheap, but it is more affordable compared to established wineries. We agree that the wine world is changing exponentially.

Chad muses that most people who make money in the wine business made a lot of money earlier doing something else. To be the owner of a winery is very challenging. First-time winery owners are always trying to do something on the side to earn extra money. It is expensive and takes a long time to establish, so the first generation builds it, and the second and third generations enjoy ownership and make some money for themselves. This year is Chad’s 21st harvest. He started making his wines 13 years ago with a company that was doing well until he made the typical mistake of someone younger. He accepted investors, and it could have been a better scenario.

“So, I had to walk away from it. I had to reboot, but I knew a lot more in the reboot. I had accomplished a lot more. I had more infrastructure, and I had an actual partner. As you have seen, Bree is brilliant, and we wanted to do something together. We made our first wines five years ago, but it will be another five or 10 years before I will not have to work like this. I will be in my early 50s before I can work for myself.” Looking forward, he feels we need to have conversations so that people know our direction. We want it to turn out differently than Napa. We need to learn from our mistakes and consider history. In that case, we’re just going down the same hole, and the marketers will decide what wine will taste like. “What happens is that when owners successfully establish themselves, they get an offer they can’t refuse and sell to someone who has more money. Then, that owner sells to someone who is more wealthy. When you run out of rich people, a corporation acquires the winery, and people like Robert Parker get involved. You start to see big glossy magazine ads and specifics of how the label looks, what it says and how heavy the glass bottle has to be. Then, we lose the art of winemaking.