Melissa Burr: Winemaker

Winemaker at Stoller Family Estate

Raised in the Willamette Valley, Melissa Burr originally wanted to study naturopathic medicine. But when Burr and her husband found themselves increasingly interested in wine and her in-laws purchased a vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, Burr realized that  perhaps she should consider a different career path. Following her completion of Chemeketa Community College’s Vineyard and Winery Management program and OSU’s Fermentation Science program, Burr embarked on an internship with Cooper Mountain Vineyards in Beaverton, quickly becoming more involved than she initially planned when the winery’s assistant winemaker quit only four days before the harvest. Burr remained at Cooper Mountain until 2003, when she began working at Stoller Family Estate as the vineyard’s first dedicated winemaker.

Under Burr’s guidance, the small winery has grown to produce over 15,000 cases of its own wine a year (Stoller also provides fruit for other local wineries including Chehalem Wines,  Argyle Winery, and Boedecker Cellars). “The whole focus here is to really just hone in on the estate property,” Burr explains of Stoller. “We work hard all year with our vineyard manager to treat each section of wine grapes individually and fine tune things, and at the end of the day, it’s a real luxury because you control the farming of the product that comes in the door.”

While Burr enjoys the various responsibilities of her position, which range from walking the vineyard and tasting fruit in the  summer to monitoring barreled wine in the winter, it’s clear that blending is one of her favorite parts of being a winemaker. “We have over 85 sections of fruit out there, and so, for instance, I get over 20 sections or more of pinot noir, and they each offer unique flavor profiles,” she explains. “All those different sections come into the winery and get fermented separately as individual pieces, so when I’m blending, I get all these different flavors.” Burr likens the process of blending to painting. “It’s like having a pallet with all these colors, but it’s all pinot. You have to figure out what your painting is going to look like first, and then you start building it  from all the pieces you have to work with.”

In addition to her work with the winery’s various pinot noirs, Burr has also been experimenting with chardonnay as well as riesling, tempranillo, and syrah. “It’s really a special spot for chardonnay, and that’s a wine that’s definitely gaining a lot of momentum right now in Oregon, especially in the Willamette Valley,” she says of the vineyard’s second largest crop. Quick to fend off doubters, she adds that Stoller’s chardonnay is “food-friendly and bright—not heavy, oaky or buttery.”

In addition to expanding the vineyard’s repertoire, Burr says that another one of her main goals as winemaker is to help communicate to the consumer what a special place Oregon is for winemaking. “It’s really unique making wine here in the Willamette Valley because we have such a pendulum of vintages,” she says. “We’re a cooler  growing  region, but we see some pretty big differences. For example, in 2009 we had a really warm summer and a really warm fall so we had high alcohol, big, charming,  fruity wines. Then, 2010 was one of the coldest growing seasons on record for the Willamette Valley. The wine grapes come into the winery with much lower sugar and a whole different ripeness curve. The wines were much more spicy and earthy.”

So does Burr have a favorite vintage? “It’s kind of like having a child every year,” she says. “They’re all really interesting and unique. You can’t just pick one that’s better than the other.”

Stoller Family Estate’s tasting room is open daily with private winery and cellar tours also available.

About The Author: Katie Mitchell